A friend of mine recently did a “colon cleanse.”  She took some homeopathic pills she’d purchased for some amount of money — money that I would have considered wasted on pseudoscientific nonsense until she told me it caused her to “pass” (to put it delicately) an intestinal parasite called a rope worm. I was impressed that the treatment worked, but I had never heard of a rope worm before and of course Googled it.  (Note that if you do this you will see lots of images of people’s feces, always with the question, “Are these rope worms?”)

I thought it was strange that my Google search results did not include the websites that typically come up when Googling scary medical things: WebMD, Mayo Clinic, government medical websites like Medline or the CDC. Wikipedia did not even have a page for rope worms.  Yet there were plenty of results.

I followed a link to a website called “Science-Based Medicine,” assuming that this would be a valid website to verify the existence of these frightening parasites. The first sentence of this 2014 article informed me that there was indeed a scientific basis for believing in rope worms, despite their absence on typical medical websites. The article linked to a research-based article by authors with Ph.D.’s who had studied rope worms. Not satisfied by the existence of an article alone, I dug a bit deeper. I looked up the journal the article was published in, only to find that it was not a peer-reviewed publication of research, but rather an online archive that allowed people to publish research that had not gone through peer review (more on peer review later). Then I Googled the authors and found that the two primary authors of the paper were not physicians, clinical researchers or even biologists. The first was a mechanical engineer (who has several patents associated with cleansing methods designed to get rid of said parasites), and the other worked in industrial safety. The remaining authors, as far as I could tell, were untraceable online.

In the end, I decided my friend’s colon cleanse was a waste of money and probably did not cause her to pass any intestinal parasites. The only evidence demonstrating the existence of these parasites at all was based on flawed research that was unverified within the scientific community and was completed by scientists who did not study biology or medicine and who stood to benefit financially from the existence of the parasites they claim to have discovered. Yet, there are an amazing number of websites that claim rope worms are real, based on this “study.” And the more websites there are that spread this misinformation, the more people will believe it to be based in fact.

The internet can make it hard to tell if the information you’re getting is legitimate. It seems as though finding the information from numerous, different sources should be evidence that the information is valid, but this is not always the case. I think this helps fuel the anti-science movements that are now widespread — people feel they have enough information to make their own decisions on scientific issues without having to blindly rely on scientific experts. People who doubt scientific consensus have a broad platform from which to champion their own point of view, unchecked by things like empirical evidence and statistical analyses.

The peer-review process is designed to prevent “bad science” from being published, and ensures that the methods, data analyses and interpretations of data are correct, or at least correctly executed and reasonable, as judged by other experts in the field.  Typically, research studies must pass through peer review prior to widespread dissemination and publication within peer-reviewed journals.  In today’s world of quick information propagation via the internet and social media, some research results are making it to the public before undergoing peer review, and some study authors opt to bypass peer review altogether.  While it’s tempting to think anyone who has a Ph.D. is an expert in anything they want to write about, the rope worm article discussed here demonstrates that this may not the case.  While the peer-review system is imperfect, I would feel more comfortable with the idea that this string of mucus containing human DNA is in fact a previously undiscovered and pervasive parasite if a clinical researcher, knowledgeable in this field, agreed with this assessment.

The presidential election brought the issue of “fake news” to light. This is an issue that has been plaguing science and is especially rampant in areas that are most relevant to the lives of nonscientists, like medicine and environmental issues such as climate change. I urge you to be vigilant in your digestion of science (and non-science) news, and to find the original source of the data. Is the author an expert in the field? If not, where did he/she get their information? How much of the data was interpreted by the expert, and how much by the author?  Is there a link to the actual research article? Was it published in a peer-reviewed journal? In the end, you may find that all 700,000 hits from your Google search of “rope worms” points to the same bogus article.