Critical thinking can be taught
These findings come from two research articles published in The Lancet.
In a randomised trial of 120 schools and over 10,000 children in Uganda, researchers evaluated the effects of a programme aimed to teach 10-12-year-old pupils how to critically assess health effect claims. In a parallel study, the effect of a podcast intended to teach over 500 parents was also evaluated.
Educational programme gave significant results
This study was the first of its kind to evaluate whether teaching primary school pupils how to critically assess health claims had any effect.
“The educational programme led to nearly 50 per cent more children passing a test where they were asked to assess treatment claims. This is a significant effect. We did not register any negative consequences of the programme but the time spent (13 hours over a 3 month period) was necessarily at the expense of other school activities," explains Atle Fretheim, head of the Centre for Informed Health Choices at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
Podcast for parents
This was also the first attempt to evaluate how podcasts can help adults who are not healthcare personnel to critically assess health claims.
"Among those who listened to the podcast, 34 per cent more people passed the test that measured their ability to critically assess health claims. This group was compared with those who were asked to listen to a series of public health information announcements about similar topics,” continues Fretheim.
May stop the spread of "fake news" and alternative facts
"In a time of rapidly spreading fake news, it is more important than ever that people are able to distinguish the truth from "alternative facts." In addition, we need to be able to assess what is a sensible interpretation of facts, particularly when facts are used to argue for or against implementing measures. This applies to claims about what causes better or worse health, says Fretheim.
"Based on this and the results of our research, this type of education programme should be considered in other countries, including Norway,” he believes.
It is uncertain how applicable the results are to other countries but the programme was pilot tested at a school in Norway. The school chose to continue using the programme after the testing ended.
In poor countries it is paramount that decisions and measures are knowledge-based, so that valuable resources are not wasted on ineffective measures, or even those with a negative effect.
"Even though Norway has more resources than Uganda, resources are also wasted here. Studies have shown that children and adults in Norway struggle to assess health claims," concludes Fretheim.
The studies were funded by the Research Council of Norway's GLOBVAC-programme.