Study Reveals Half of Americans Buy Into Medical Conspiracy Theories

Keith Syvinski

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you are probably familiar with the Crackpot Theory Du Jour: “Don’t ever eat these foods!” “Dr. Oz says to eat this berry!” “Top 10 reasons your cell phone is trying to kill you (and why your doctor won’t help you!)” The list goes on and on. According to a new study, about half of all Americans believe in conspiracy theories related to health and medicine. The study was conducted by J. Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood from the University of Chicago and the results were published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

A total of 1,351 people completed the survey online. They were asked about some of the most commonly heard conspiracy theories surrounding health and medicine and had to answer whether or not they had heard of it before and whether they agreed, disagreed, or neither agreed nor disagreed. The answers were compared to their health habits in order to determine if there was a connection to believing in unsubstantiated claims and how the individual’s healthcare was managed.

Here are some of the results and some reasons why the conspiracy theory is bunk:

37% responded that they believe the FDA conceals effective herbal remedies for diseases because vitamins and supplements aren’t big money-makers. Many medical treatments are based on natural sources, though the active properties have been isolated or improved upon. Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) came about from extract of willow bark that was used to treat pain and fevers. It was extremely bitter and caused gastric irritation. Aspirin was synthesized to have all of the benefits of the willow bark extract, while minimizing the side effects. Vitamins and supplements are actually a billion-dollar industry and since they aren't regulated, they contain questionable amounts of the active ingredient and there's often no evidence they do thing they claim to do.

20% responded that they believe doctors know vaccines cause autism and other disorders, yet administer them to children anyway due to pressure from the government. There’s no nice way to say this anymore, so I’m just going to go for it: Vaccines do not fucking cause autism. They just don’t. There is not a shred of credible scientific evidence to support any claims to the contrary. Without a connection with autism, then it must just be that the government and doctors—gasp—don’t want children to die of infectious disease if there is a way to prevent it. Those bastards.

20% responded that they believe cell phones cause cancer, but big business owns all health officials and won’t let them report on it. This one actually seems the most valid out of all of them, given that cell phones emit non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, but so far there have been no studies that indicate cell phone use carries and increased risk of cancer. This is not a “one and done” type of study; these studies are ongoing due to rapid developments in the technology, but there has not been anything to indicate that cell phones are a valid concern for causing cancer.

12% responded that they believe adding fluoride to water allows large corporations to dump other chemicals into the water completely undetected. Fluoride, like many other substances that some people think sound scary, is perfectly safe in the right amounts. However, this particular conspiracy doesn’t even address the safety or efficacy of fluoride and seems to just operate on the assumption that the EPA doesn’t regulate the quality of our drinking water… which it does.

12% responded that they believe that the CIA infected large numbers of African Americans with HIV and covered it up by saying it was a hepatitis vaccine. This one almost partially makes sense, given the horrifying lack of ethics surrounding the participants of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and the fact that HIV infection rates are about eight times higher among blacks than whites. The CIA is not behind HIV creation/infection. The CDC has outlined why blacks have higher infection rates and what is being done to reduce that number.

12% responded that they believe genetically modified foods are part of a global conspiracy designed to cull the human population. Actually, GMO crops were meant to increase yield and curb global hunger in the face of an ever-increasing human population. While there have been some studies that show a correlation between GMOs and some maladies, that is a far cry from being a causative agent. The studies have been done, and there is no evidence that eating GMO crops are harmful.

They determined that 49% of survey respondents believed in at least one of these theories, while 18% believed in at least three of them (this group was dubbed “high conspiracists”)

They were also able to determine that those with high belief in pseudoscience ideals were more likely to reject the advice of medical professionals and instead turn to alternative medicine and celebrities such as Dr. Oz and—ugh—Jenny McCarthy when seeking treatments for themselves and their families. The high conspiracists were more likely to reject the use of sunscreen and refuse seasonal flu shots. Around 80% of those who were more willing to trust an alternative source than a medical professional stated they believed at least one of the theories. This group is also more likely to purchase organic produce at a local farmer’s market (not that buying local is bad at all).

While some of these conspiracy theories might have originated in a place of valid concern, they have been thoroughly debunked. It is hard to tell exactly why some people choose to buy into theories that aren’t accepted by the scientific community, but it is likely connected to an ignorance of the scientific method and distrust of large corporations, for whatever reason.

For the most part, everyone wants to do right by their health and that of their children, but rejecting advances in medicine due to being scared of something they don’t understand is a bad advice. It always strikes me as a bit funny that those who reject mainstream medicine because they have “done their research” have typically just read a bunch of crap on the internet and haven’t, you know, taken a class in organic or biochemistry. 

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