So maddening I must tweet again: Nearly half of Americans subscribe to a medical conspiracy theory http://t.co/drVFCA2cj7 Grrrrr…
— Timothy Caulfield (@CaulfieldTim) March 22, 2014
An article from JAMA Internal Medicine came across my desk last week titled “Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States.” Growing up with a cousin obsessed with the X-Files, being a huge fan of 24, and having read every Tom Clancy novel, I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person. So I was curious to see what would be published in a reputable peer review journal with that title.
Public health, like most fields, has detractors. And those detractors use a combination of methods for discrediting public health – Fluoride in drinking water is poisonous! Vaccines cause autism! The FDA is deliberately suppressing natural cures for cancer! We’ve all heard these campaigns, which tend to be based on nothing more than fear mongering and faulty information, often provided by individuals who offer “the cure.” The paper in JAMA Internal Medicine sought to investigate the prevalence of these opinions, as well as then to look at how belief in these views predicted other health behaviours. They asked about six theories, the three most popular of which are presented below:
- Doctors and the government still want to vaccinate children even though they know these vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders,
- The FDA is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies, and
- Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them.
In terms of prevalence of opinions, 69%, 63% and 57% of respondents respectively had heard of the theories above. That’s not entirely surprising, especially when you consider that Jenny McCarthy, who needs no introduction, has an estimated audience of 3 million people from her position on The View (for more, check out Seth Mnookin’s excellent articles on the issue). When you have someone who has built an industry, reputation and livelihood on the first falsehood, and who has a national platform to raise her profile, it’s not surprising many people have heard of it.
What is interesting is how the respondents then felt about these theories. First, they were asked if they had heard about the conspiracy theory. Then, they were also asked if they agreed with the theory. This is what fascinated me. A shocking 37% believe that there is a natural cure for cancer, and that it is being suppressed, and a further 31% neither agree or disagree. That’s around 68% of the population who are either unsure of, or believe that, there is a cure for cancer out there. This is a large segment of the population that not only believes something exists, but that it is being actively suppressed for the sake of profit.
Now, you’ll notice many of the theories have a common theme. To quote the site TVTropes (which outlines many common literacy devices/cliches in popular culture):
A Conspiracy Theorist attributes the ultimate cause of an event or chain of events (usually political, social or historical events), or the concealment of such causes from public knowledge, to a secret and often deceptive plot by a group of powerful or influential people or organizations (emphasis mine).
So the shadowy organization there is either the government, Big Pharma, or a combination of the two.
The tweet above by Timothy Caulfield led to a discussion on Twitter and this tweet below by Jason Tetro:
— Jason Anthony Tetro (@JATetro) March 22, 2014
We’ve discussed this on the blog before (link 1, link 2, link 3, link 4), and I agree with Jason’s point. There is a need for outreach and education, although I’m not sure how effective it can and will be. As outlined in my piece over at Sci-Ed, the people with extreme opinions are very difficult to sway, and will often double-down on these extreme opinions when pushed. So we focus on the bulk of people in the middle and get them to see the light, which is the most efficient and effective way to spend limited public health dollars. Hopefully, this is enough to prevent diseases and other avoidable public health problems from arising.
Some of these theories are blatantly untrue, and no amount of convincing those who hold these dear will be able to sway them. Indeed, the worst case scenario is that it might actually make things worse by validating and legitimizing their opinion. So we focus on the people in the middle who are able to listen to reason and evidence that shows these theories are nothing more than fairy tales and the stuff of fiction.
But then again, if I was in on the conspiracy, that is exactly what you’d expect me to say, isn’t it?
Oliver, J. Eric, and Thomas Wood. “Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States.” JAMA Internal Medicine. Available online here: https://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1835348