A new study of 1,300 adults is out in this month’s JAMA Internal Medicine that explores the degree to which Americans believe in medical conspiracy theories. Perhaps unsurprisingly, about half of the people surveyed believe in at least one.
A third of the participants, for example, believe that the government (specifically the Food and Drug Administration) is actively involved in preventing access to natural or alternative treatments for cancer and other serious illnesses because Big Pharma doesn’t want those things to hurt their bottom line. Well over half of the study’s participants have heard this theory, and about half of them believe that it’s true.
Vaccines cause autism. Cell phones cause cancer. Monsanto is trying to decrease the global population through genetically modified food. Fluoridated water is a way to get rid of industrial chemicals. People believe that these things are true, sometimes despite concrete evidence to the contrary. The vaccine/autism causal connection, for example, has been refuted numerous times since 1998, when the initial fraudulent study was published. The journal that originally published this study has removed the paper from its public record and the researcher responsible has been found guilty of numerous ethical violations. Additionally, celebrity champion and former Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy, whose son has been found to have a disorder after all, has walked back considerably her vocal support of the “vaccines cause autism” theory.
I am not a conspiracy theorist on any level. I find the intellectual exercise interesting, but at the end of the day, I do not believe that the CIA (or the Mafia) killed John F. Kennedy, I do believe that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and I’m pretty sure that President Obama was in fact born in Hawaii and is a citizen of the United States and not Kenya. Fun stuff to ponder, up to a point. The medical conspiracies, however, have public health implications that are scary to me.
Fluoridated water is associated with better dental health—fewer cavities in children and adults and less tooth decay. In poor areas, it makes a big difference, while in wealthier areas that have better dental health overall and multiple sources of fluoride, the impact is lessened. Vaccination programs have eliminated smallpox globally as of the late 1970s. Polio is has been eradicated in the Americas, Europe and India. These are all good things, as far as I can tell.
I do not understand subscribing to conspiracy theories like “_____ is proven to be harmful, but the government/Big Pharma keep _____ around because it’s more profitable.” Possibly, my incredulity is the result of a belief (based on observation while living in DC these past seven years as well as other things) that such plotting is beyond the ken of the bureaucracies in question. These entities are certainly concerned with profits (Big Pharma) and elections (government), but I do not think that they are concerned with those things to the extent that they are buying off scientists and falsifying data en masse.
What I do understand, however, is that many of these things are frightening, high stakes and sometimes difficult to understand. The medical profession is not well known for eschewing jargon, and I’m sure everyone you know has a story of some snooty doctor she spoke to who treated her like the village idiot because she didn’t have multiple years of medical training to understand what was being discussed.
It is compelling to hear a parent parent tell a personal story about how their baby was developing “normally,” until receiving the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella), after which the child began exhibiting signs of an autism spectrum disorder. Certainly more compelling than a researcher spouting numbers without explanation or context (or over-explaining them, which might be more confusing). The medical community routinely fails to translate many public health issues into layman’s terms, and the result of that failure is that confused people assume things are being hidden from them. Climate change science is similarly burdened.
Doctors and medical authorities must find better ways to communicate to people who don’t speak doctor. I speak doctor pretty well, but I am still occasionally bewildered when entering an arena that is unfamiliar to me. I know many, many people who dislike going to the doctor because those visits make them feel stupid. Many people think that their doctors think they’re stupid. Most of them genuinely want to understand their health issues (or their children’s) but do not feel that doctors are interested in a dialogue, because that dialog is frustrated by a lack of medical literacy on the patient side. I would agree that it’s possible that doctors are simply not interested in patient education, but I don’t think it’s because they’re arrogant assholes trying to conceal things from the proles so much as that they are not trained or in any way encouraged by the medical system to make this a priority.
You know how long your doctor has to see you for a routine office visit? 15 minutes. That’s 15 minutes to hear what you have to say, make a diagnosis, explain it, and come up with a treatment plan. This assumes that you only have one thing that you’re concerned about. If you have multiple concerns, they still have 15 minutes. This is how things are billed and reimbursed by insurance companies. It’s not a conspiracy so much as a business plan. This is why you find yourself waiting for 15, 20, 45 minutes for your doctor to even show up—the person before you did not have one simple problem so much as 5 relatively complicated problems, and the doctor spent 45 minutes instead of 15.
As for whether the government is suppressing information about alternative therapies, I do not have anything to say about that one way or another. But think of it this way: it’s unlikely that the government (by which I mean the NIH and the FDA and HHS and the various other agencies responsible for health-related issues) is going to come out broadly in support of treatment regimes whose main support is anecdotal. If there has not been a large scale study (ideally that encompasses an extended period of time) of a particular treatment, it would be unwise to officially promote that treatment over others with demonstrated clinical successes. An even simpler explanation would again refer back to training. Medical doctors are trained in medical treatments. By and large, they are not massage therapists, herbalists or spiritual healers. If you have cancer, your oncologist is going to be educated in the standard Western medical ways to treat cancer—chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery being the primary methods. They’re not going to have useful information about reiki or craniosacral therapy or Chinese herbal medicine.
Ultimately, the human mind is not naturally inclined to be comfortable with uncertainties. We crave knowledge and control, and in a way, conspiracy theorizing gives us both of those things. People spend hours, if not years, of their lives going through evidence with a fine-toothed comb to find an explanation for something that we don’t understand. Sometimes those snippets will come together to form a convincing but inaccurate explanation for the thing that makes us uncomfortable. The unfortunate truth is that sometimes, there is no explanation. We do not yet know what causes autism or how to cure cancer. The role of medical research is to find those answers, not conceal them.