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How medical conspiracy theories could be affecting your health

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 10/18/2017 Stacey Colino
Intelligent suspicious woman looking at the medicine: One study found that people who believe in medical or political conspiracy theories tend to have low self-esteem and low conscientiousness. © (Getty Images) One study found that people who believe in medical or political conspiracy theories tend to have low self-esteem and low conscientiousness.

In our chaotic, often unpredictable world, there’s no shortage of conspiracy theories about climate change and technology or about political and historical subjects, ranging from who was really behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy to whether the moon landings were faked. In the last half-century, conspiracy theories also have emerged about various health-related issues. In a survey of 1,351 adults, published in the May 2014 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that 49 percent of adults in the U.S. believe in at least one medical conspiracy theory.

Here are some examples of the more common ones:

  • Doctors and the government insist on vaccinating kids even though they know these vaccines cause autism.
  • Health officials know that cellphones cause cancer but won’t acknowledge this because large corporations won’t let them.
  • The fluoridation of tap water is a sneaky way for chemical companies to dump dangerous chemicals into the environment.
  • The government created HIV as a form of genocide against African-Americans and gay men.
  • The government is preventing people from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from pharmaceutical companies.

Where do these conspiracy theories come from? It’s a simple question without an easy answer. Medical conspiracy theories “often support false statements that are backed by groups with a hidden or self-serving agenda,” says Dr. Morton Tavel, a clinical professor emeritus of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine and author of "Snake Oil Is Alive and Well: The Clash Between Myths and Reality." “They’re often an attempt to attack or debunk accepted science.”

Sometimes there’s a dose of arrogance or skepticism behind these beliefs. “The person who promotes a conspiracy theory tends to think that people who don’t subscribe to it are naïve – it makes them feel smarter than the average bear,” says Stuart Vyse, a psychologist in Stonington, Connecticut, whose work has specialized in mythical beliefs and irrational behavior. “It gives them a sense of autonomy if they believe they have the right answer but other people don’t.”

In other instances, conspiracy theories can emerge “when people feel alienated or powerless – [they] may offer a simple explanation of complex phenomenon that helps to give some people a sense of agency, a feeling that they can do something to change things in the world,” explains Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. who has studied medical conspiracy theories. In a study published in the September 2016 issue of Personality and Individual Differences, Swami and his colleagues examined the relationships between stress, anxiety and belief in conspiracy theories in a sample of 420 U.S. adults.They found that the more stressful life events and greater perceived stress people had, the more likely they were to believe in conspiracy theories.

By contrast, a study in the October 2017 issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology found that people who believe in medical or political conspiracy theories tend to have low self-esteem and low conscientiousness. Meanwhile, a study in a 2014 issue of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that faulty thinking patterns may be a factor: The researchers found that people who endorse a range of popular conspiracy theories more strongly tend to make more conjunction errors, inferring underlying causal relationships between ostensibly unrelated events.

To come to these conclusions about causal relationships, researchers provided participants with vignettes describing various situations, followed by two statements describing details of the situation and a third linking the two. (For example, one scenario described Patrick, who works for a pharmaceutical company testing the efficacy and side effects of various drugs the company manufactures and discovering that one of the company's widely available over-the-counter drugs is linked with an increased risk of heart disease. Participants in the study were asked to rate the likelihood that a) Patrick's data was lost after an IT failure that affected his computer; b) That Patrick is removed from the project; and c) That Patrick's data was lost after an IT failure and he is taken off the project. The third response could imply a causative effect and a cover-up by Patrick's superiors to conceal the damaging evidence.)

But sometimes there’s a legitimate basis for medical conspiracy theories. For example, African-Americans have a long history of being subjected to medical experimentation and abuses in the U.S., which has fostered feelings of vulnerability and mistrust toward the government and the institution of medicine. “In general, people who feel that they are disenfranchised in some way – that they are not being fairly treated in society or that they are members of groups that have not been treated fairly – are probably more likely to believe in conspiracy theories,” notes Laura M. Bogart, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation. “Among black Americans, this deep mistrust comes from experiences with discrimination by the U.S. government [and] knowledge about discrimination throughout history such as the historical trauma of slavery, as well as medical experimentation on black Americans such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Belief in conspiracies can be thought of as a learned survival mechanism that arises in the face of mistreatment.”

The Ripple Effect of Medical Conspiracy Theories

Wherever they come from, these aren’t necessarily benign beliefs. Research has found that people who subscribe to medical conspiracy theories are more likely to forego traditional medicine in favor of alternative medicine even when the evidence suggests that’s unwise – in particular, they’re less likely to get flu shots, use sunscreen or have annual checkups, Swami notes.

In a study in a 2014 issue of PLoS One, researchers measured anti-vaccine conspiracy theories among 89 British parents, then examined their intention to vaccinate a fictitious child; adults who endorsed anti-vaccine conspiracy theories to a greater extent were far less likely to be willing to vaccinate. Meanwhile, a study by Bogart and her colleagues published in a 2011 issue of the journal AIDS and Behavior found that 54 percent of HIV-positive African-American men who endorsed HIV conspiracy theories – such as "AIDS is a form of genocide, or planned destruction, against blacks" and "People who take the new medications for HIV are human guinea pigs for the government" – reported having unprotected sex over a six-month period, far more than those who didn’t believe in conspiracy theories.

In other words, medical conspiracy theories could end up harming your health, which is why it’s important to be aware of such beliefs and if or when you’re subscribing to them. It also helps to question the causal factors behind a particular belief you have. “Every link in the chain has to work” so it’s smart to consider how did X do this and how did Y do that when trying to make sense of a medical conspiracy theory, says Vyse, author of "Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition." You might also consider: Which interest group could be propagating this theory? And what evidence is there that this is true? For example, “If cellphones were causing brain cancer, there would be an enormous outbreak, an epidemic, in our culture,” Tavel points out. “We’re just not seeing that.”

Ultimately, it’s in your best interest to consider that a particular medical belief could be erroneous or that you could be missing a critical piece of the puzzle. Talking to a doctor you trust can help you sort through these issues and separate bogus theories from bona fide ones; so can reading up on the subject on reliable websites operated by the National Institutes of Health or reputable medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic. In other words, having a healthy skepticism toward common medical conspiracy theories could end up protecting your health.

Slideshow: Cold and flu season is coming! Here are the myths you need to know (Provided by Mom.me) 

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