Are companies dumping large quantities of dangerous chemicals into our water supply under the guise of fluoridation? Did a U.S. spy agency infect African Americans with HIV? Does the government tell parents to give vaccines to their children even though that could increase their risk of developing autism? Are U.S. health officials withholding information about natural cures for cancer so that pharmaceutical companies can continue to profit, or pretending they don’t know that cell phones can cause cancer? Are genetically modified foods a plot to shrink the global population?
About half of the American public believes at least one of those medical conspiracy theories, according to a study conducted by University of Chicago researchers. The greatest proportion of respondents, 37 percent, believes that the FDA is deliberately suppressing information about natural treatments for cancer. On top of that, less than a third of participants were willing to say they actively disagreed with this theory, leaving everyone else somewhere in the middle.
Study participants were also asked if they’ve ever heard about the conspiracies, even if they don’t personally believe them. Researchers found that the most well-known medical conspiracy is the myth that vaccines are linked to autism. Although a large body of scientific research has thoroughly debunked that claim, it’s been given a wide platform thanks to several prominent celebrities. Nearly 70 percent of people said they’ve heard heard of that theory, and 20 percent reported they believe it’s true.
“When it comes to a lot of issues of health, there are a lot of issues of uncertainty,” the study’s lead researcher, Eric Oliver, explained in an interview with HuffPost Live this week. For instance, people may be worried about whether they’ll get cancer or be able to conceive a child, and there’s often no way for them to know for sure. “We don’t deal with uncertainty very well as a species. It makes us nervous. When we’re looking for resolution for our anxiety, we try to find what might be the most intuitively plausible explanation for something. For a lot of people, these conspiratorial narratives really do have a strong intuitive resonance.”
But conspiracy theories aren’t just a coping mechanism on a theoretical level; Oliver found they ultimately correlate to behavior, and could even contribute to some people’s decisions about how to manage their health. For instance, the people who believe in conspiracies are more likely to take herbal supplements and seek out alternative medicine, and less likely to use sunscreen or get flu shots.
“Although it is common to disparage adherents of conspiracy theories as a delusional fringe of paranoid cranks, our data suggest that medical conspiracy theories are widely known, broadly endorsed, and highly predictive of many common health behaviors,” the study concludes.
So what’s the source of these widespread beliefs in conspiracies? Oliver told HuffPost Live his research has found the people who are more likely to agree with medical conspiracies often rely on “very unconventional sources of information to inform themselves about health.” For instance, there are very high levels of conspiracy among people who listen to Dr. Oz, the celebrity figure who has comeunder fire for promoting deceptive weight loss products. Oliver suggests that it’s easier for Americans to trust people like celebrities and friends, who evoke an emotional connection, than it is for them to listen to scientists or read dry medical journals.
The issue can be complicated by the fact that government agencies and powerful corporations certainly don’t always make the right decisions. The fact that the government sterilized thousands of people against their will is still fresh in many Americans’ minds. Genetically modified foods do have some serious implications for food policy. And drug makers are repeatedly accused of prioritizing their profits over public health. It can be hard to maintain the right balance between having some healthy skepticism and sticking to the scientific facts.
Plus, bad science is often enshrined into law, something that recently prompted the Center for Inquiry to launch a new campaign to get junk science out of our health care system. The campaign hopes to persuade the U.S. government to stop spending billions of dollars on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which hasn’t yet found any persuasive evidence to support the types of alternative treatments being studied there.