Andy Oxman is obsessed with the study of bullshit health claims and how to prevent them from spreading.
For decades, he’s been trying to find ways to get adults to think critically about the latest diet fads, vaccine rumors, or “miracle cures.” But he realized these efforts are often in vain: Adults can be stubborn old dogs — resistant to learning new things and changing their minds.
So Oxman, now the research director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, started to wonder whether the best hope for bullshit prevention lay with children. To put this idea to the test, back in 2000 he visited his then-10-year-old son’s class.
But the study did come with limitations — for example, it’s well known that when an outcome measure (like the multiple-choice tests the kids took in the randomized trial) aligns with the intervention, it can bias the results.
It’s also possible that kids would know how to answer the questions in the test, but not how to apply those concepts in real life. As Hilda Bastian, a health researcher at the National Institutes of Health, said, “It doesn’t matter what we know, if we don’t apply it in real life. Knowledge has to kick in when it’s needed. It has to over-ride other influences and impulses.”
Still, independent researchers who read the study were impressed by its rigor and size. “I’m pleasantly surprised with their results,” said Stanford University professor John Ioannidis. “It’s an interesting observation, and it’s at a minimum reassuring. Yes, these kids can learn [critical thinking].”
Ioannidis has also become convinced that the best hope for bullshit prevention lies in early childhood education, since waiting to teach people the standards of evidence-based thinking late in life doesn’t always work. “We need to start early on, to make people understand that basing decisions on fair tests, on science, on evidence is important,” he says.
But whether you believe the results of the Lancet trial is sort of beside the point. The trial brings us closer to understanding how to prevent bullshit from taking off and how to arm children with the skills needed to protect themselves from misinformation in the future. That’s something schools everywhere should pay attention to.
“My hope,” Oxman said, “is that these resources get used in curricula in schools around the world, and that we end up with the children … who become science-literate citizens and who can participate in sensible discussion about policy and our health. … I’m looking to the future. I think it’s too late for my generation.”
With Oxman’s help, maybe we’ll see fewer patients harmed by unhelpful treatments and fewer quacks profiteering off bogus medical advice — and a world with a little less bullshit in circulation.