First international summit to counter quackery, pseudoscience and fake news in healthcare

The dangers of pseudoscience and quackery in healthcare will come under scrutiny at a ground-breaking international summit in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Numerous high-profile health and science communication experts will gather at the International Summit on Quackery and Pseudoscience to explore how science communication efforts by the media, scientists, health regulators and governments can counter the impact of pseudoscience and advance the use of evidence-based healthcare practices.

The summit will be held from 20-21 November at Stellenbosch University (SU). It will be jointly hosted by the Centre for Evidence-based Health Care (CEBHC) of the SU Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), and the Centre for Science and Technology Mass Communication (CENSCOM) of the postgraduate Department of Journalism at SU.

“Snake oil salesmen, charlatans and con-artists have long been known to prey on vulnerable people with health problems. People desperate for cure or relief from a dreaded disease, weight problem or the effects of ageing are easy targets, often willing to fork out large sums of money on any remedy offering some hope. The sad reality is that these treatments frequently turn out to be useless or even harmful,” says Prof Jimmy Volmink, Dean of the FMHS.

“The summit is an effort to push back against these exploitative practices whose pernicious impact is being amplified through the internet and social media.  It will not only highlight the threat of pseudoscience to the well-being of society, but will also offer effective tools to help people assess healthcare claims and make sound choices,” he adds.

“This summit will bring researchers and journalists together to emphasise the joint responsibility for ethical and evidence-informed health reporting to better serve the interests of the public,” says CEBHC director, Prof Taryn Young.

“The media play a crucial role in communicating health research and other messages to the public. They can influence people’s perceptions about the safety and efficacy of health practices, and when the media relay pseudoscientific and unreliable messages, it can be harmful to people’s health,” Young emphasises.

“Our vulnerability to step in the trap prepared by reckless and unscrupulous marketers of quasi-scientific health products knows no bounds,” says CENSCOM director, Prof George Claassen. “This is enhanced by celebrities in the spread of disinformation of fake science, which often has a devastating influence on the wellbeing of the public.” He points out that newspapers, the internet, social media and broadcast channels bristle with dubious statements by so-called quacks who make money because their victims are often ignorant or simply too naïve to distinguish truth from lies.

“We hope that the summit will lead to a much-needed change, enlightening the public and all the role players in the science communication process about the dangers of quackery. To quote the eminent South African born UK developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert: ‘Science provides by far the most reliable method for determining whether one’s beliefs are valid’; the summit aims to re-emphasise the value of sound science communication and evidence-based healthcare,” says Claassen.

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