You know those "articles" that your barista and your old coworker's boyfriend and your weird Kansas cousin are always posting all over their Facebook feeds, revealing shocking and outlandish "secrets" that such-and-such establishment doesn't want you to know about? And they're always from "news" websites you've never heard of, with names like ViralSandwich.net and Sprkkd.tv and Yahoo.com? Because yes. Right. I'm sure the fine journalists over at NewsFrog.biz are the only ones brave and clear-eyed enough to BRING THE TRUTH TO THE PEOPLE. Well, turns out that the reason you see so many of those articles popping up in your feeds is that HALF OF THE COUNTRY BELIEVES IN THEM.
A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that 49% of Americans believe in at least one medical conspiracy theory—from the systematic suppression of naturopathic "cures" to the supposed vaccine/autism connection to the idea that the government is controlling our brainz via fluoridated water.
The theories all had a mistrust of government and large organizations as central themes.
...Some of the theories were more well known than others. For instance, 69% of participants had heard of the idea that childhood vaccines cause psychological disorders, such as autism.
This is a theory that has received a lot of media attention and is in the news again at the moment due to controversial Twitter comments from TV presenter Jenny McCarthy. Of the study participants, 20% agreed with this theory and 44% disagreed.
More popular was the theory that US regulators are stopping people from accessing natural cures - 37% of people agreed with this idea, with less than a third disagreeing.
The least popular conspiracy theory - which more than half of the participants disagreed with - was the suggestion that a US spy agency had infected a large number of black Americans with HIV.
Now, medical science and the mainstream medical establishment are certainly not infallible (like any other field, medicine is constantly evolving and improving), and it's important for people to stay informed and police their experiences to a reasonable degree. After all, sometimes this shit turns out to be real.
But disseminating patently damaging falsehoods—such as the belief that your own superstitions about vaccination trump the safety of the immunocompromised, and, concomitantly, that a dead child is somehow "better" than an autistic one—crosses the line from healthy skepticism into dangerous paranoia.
And it's an unnecessary overreach to leap from skepticism of certain aspects of modern medicine (or, the flipside, openness to alternative medicine) to the complete disavowal of all modern medicine. From the study again:
One example of this is that 35% of people who believed in three or more conspiracy theories took herbal supplements, whereas only 13% of people who did not believe in any conspiracy theories took supplements. People who believed in conspiracy theories were also more likely to use alternative medicine and avoid traditional medicine.
Yes to herbal supplements, if they help you! Yes to finding the treatment that works for your body! Yes to being critical of massive corporations that market pharmaceuticals directly to patients for profit! Yes to acknowledging that doctors are flawed human beings just like anyone else! But this is a spectrum. It doesn't have to be either/or. I know tons of people whose lives have been vastly improved by a combination of traditional and alternative medicine. I know alternative practitioners who tell their patients to go to the doctor for some ailments, and my doctor has certainly suggested I explore alternative treatments from time to time.
If something is revealed, time and time again, to have no merit, let it go. If something involves the word "Illuminati," let it go. And don't let conspiracy theories be a distraction that you use to not feel better. Life's too short to not feel better.
Image via Africa Studio/Shutterstock.