My doctor is out to get me!

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:

  1. Doctors and the government still want to vaccinate children even though they know these vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders,
  2. The FDA is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies, and
  3. 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:

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:

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7 Responses to My doctor is out to get me!

  1. Pingback: Week in Review: March 23-30 | Disability Fieldnotes

  2. Otto Hunt says:

    Joe25: Tuna has more mercury than vaccines:

    • Joe25 says:

      Otto, if you want to compare these two exposures, you would have to extract the mercury out of the tuna and inject it into newborns and infants. How do you think that would work out?

      • Otto Hunt says:

        Joe25, mercury is a known neurotoxin. Most neurotoxins are especially dangerous to children. Despite the mercury content of vaccines preserved with thimerosal, such as been proven, over and over again, to not be causative of autism:

        See the three lines devoted to vaccination here:

        It is my blogging style that embedded hyperlinks go to the most authoritative sites I could find.

        If there were any other deleterious effects of mercury in vaccines, I do trust that the smart people doing those studies would have taken note.

  3. Joe25 says:

    The science vindicating vaccines as the cause of autism isn’t science at all. It’s nothing but statistical manipulation. Tobacco science. Here are some scientific facts;

    0.5 parts per billion (ppb) mercury = Kills human neuroblastoma cells (Parran et al., Toxicol Sci 2005; 86: 132-140).

    2 ppb mercury = U.S. EPA limit for drinking water (http://www.epa. gov/safewater/ contaminants/ index.html# mcls).

    20 ppb mercury = Neurite membrane structure destroyed (Leong et al., Neuroreport 2001; 12: 733-37). Think Alzheimer’s!

    200 ppb mercury = level in liquid the EPA classifies as hazardous waste based on toxicity characteristics.

    25,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose, Hepatitis B vaccine vials, administered at birth from 1991-2001 in the U.S.

    50,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose DTaP and Haemophilus B vaccine vials, administered 8 times in the 1990’s to children at 2, 4, 6, 12 and 18 months of age and currently “preservative” level mercury in multi-dose flu, meningococcal and tetanus vaccines. This can be confirmed by simply analyzing a multi-dose vial.

  4. Russell Uman says:

    Given how many medical conspiracies have been unmasked recently (Vioxx anyone? Hormone replacements?) is it any wonder that people can’t believe their doctors?

    Money, not science, is what determines the advice doctors give. Drug companies push treatments that make them money, without regard to evidence, by every means available – from working at grassroot level (by sending out reps to coerce doctors, who all think they are immune from coercion, but just look at their prescription records), to subverting the scientific process (by refusing to publish studies that show negative results just for a start).

    This isn’t a problem with #scicomm. It’s a problem with #sci. You’re doing it wrong, and that’s why the public doesn’t trust you.

    Adequate regulation that sets clear standards and holds violators accountable is required if you want to be trusted.

  5. Otto Hunt says:

    This above is certainly true on all counts. I do wish to point out here that conspiracy nuts may have a point when they complain about the suppression of cannabis use and is efficacy in preventing cancer: