Half of Americans believe in medical conspiracies

Doctors should use the info to improve care, not call out patients

About half of the grown U.S. population believes in at least one medical conspiracy theory, according to a study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Why some choose to believe obviously wrong information

For the study, University of Chicago researchers analyzed answers from 1,351 adults who responded to a survey on six popular medical conspiracy theories. The participants were asked if they had heard of and if they agreed or disagreed with theories such as:

  • Childhood vaccinations cause psychological conditions like autism;
  • Federal regulators are suppressing Americans' access to natural cures;
  • The CIA infected a number of African Americans with the HIV virus; and
  • Federal regulators know cell phones cause cancer, but have done nothing about it.

About 49% said they agreed with at least one of the theories. Three times as many people said they believed the theory that federal regulators are preventing people from gaining access to natural cures than the theory that the CIA infected people with HIV.

According to lead author Eric Oliver, many people may believe in medical conspiracy theories because they are easier to believe than science in many situations.

"Science in general—medicine in particular—is complicated and cognitively challenging because you have to carry around a lot of uncertainty," Oliver says, adding, "To talk about epidemiology and probability theories is difficult to understand as opposed to 'if you put this substance in your body, it's going to be bad.'"

In addition, researchers found that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to use alternative medicines, such as herbal supplements. Oliver added that physicians should use the statistics to identify patients that may be less likely to follow traditional medicine regimens, such as taking prescription drugs.

Why Cleveland Clinic is now offering herbal therapy

"I think scientific thinking is not a very intuitive way to see the world… it's relatively easy to reject the scientific way of thinking about things," Oliver says, adding, "It's important to increase information about health and science to the public" (Seaman, Reuters, 3/19; Arrous, TIME, 3/19; Rettner, Live Science, 3/17).  

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