Why do we believe medical myths?

Despite incredible scientific advancements and years of research, not everyone trusts vaccines. We went to the experts to find out why

Why do we believe medical myths?

Source: Images: Thinkstock

In past weeks, hundreds of measles cases have been cropping up in several Canadian provinces. We’re talking about a disease that’s highly contagious, can cause permanent disabilities and carries a risk of death. It’s also preventable with a vaccine.

But a vaccine isn’t much help if people don’t trust it and won’t use it. Despite strong scientific evidence that the measles shot is effective and safe, 15 percent of Canadian parents today aren’t confident it actually works, according to a survey conducted on behalf of the Public Health Agency of Canada. Worse, some believe it causes autism or devastating health problems. Ten percent of parents have skipped at least one routine immunization for their kids.

Enter a measles outbreak, something unheard of in Canada just a couple of decades ago. So how do we get to the point where we’re rejecting scientific facts, and accepting fabricated theories with no solid proof that they’re right?

This isn’t just about a few folks on the fringe. A new survey published in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that fully half of Americans believe in at least one health-related conspiracy theory ‘ that vaccines cause autism (and that doctors and governments know it, but push immunizations anyway), or that the government is hiding evidence that cell phones cause cancer, or that the public water supply is fluoridated in order for companies to dump dangerous chemicals, for instance.

Why do these theories catch on so powerfully, even when they’re unfounded? Here are seven reasons why we believe.

When in doubt, we assume the worst

It’s instinctive to believe something uncertain is bad for us. ‘That would be evolutionarily useful,’ points out Eric Oliver, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and co-author of the JAMA paper. If prehistoric humans assumed a sound in the bushes was a dangerous animal, they could escape. So we may be naturally inclined to distrust new medical breakthroughs. ‘Science at its core involves embracing a lot of uncertainty,’ says Oliver.

Science isn’t simple

It’s challenging for the average, non-Ph.D.-holding person to decipher scientific evidence, especially when it uses language we don’t easily warm up to, like ‘probability measure’ and ‘variance results.’ ‘There are all sorts of complex ways we understand scientific data, and they are not necessarily very intuitive concepts,’ says Oliver.

A conspiracy makes a better story

Unlike science, a conspiracy theory is black and white. It has elements of good and evil, along with a very compelling plot. ‘It has more of a narrative arc to it,’ says Oliver. Just as we’d rather read a good book than a phone directory, we tend to be attracted to a conspiracy theory. ‘We’d much rather hear a story than a bunch of facts.’

We’re put off by progress

Many of us, perhaps rightly so, are worried about our society’s increasing reliance on manufactured and processed goods over natural products. Plus, Oliver adds, ‘There’s a very justifiable concern that producers of medicines are primarily interested in profit, and not necessarily health and well-being.’ According to Oliver, people who buy organic food and natural supplements are more likely to embrace conspiracy theories.

A celebrity said so

‘People hear so much in the mainstream media,’ says Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association. ‘There are people out there who have the cloak of respectability and prominence, and who are purporting views that, under closer examination, simply don’t hold up. But they do an excellent sales pitch.’

It’s out of our hands

We’re uncomfortable with ‘ and even afraid of ‘ what we can’t control. That can include injections of foreign substances, or additives in our water supply, or agents that could cause cancer. So we may be quick to believe claims that cast these things in a negative light.

It’s online, everywhere

The Canadian Paediatric Society points to the ease with which people can access misinformation on the Internet. ‘Despite anti-vaccine websites being filled with cognitive errors in reasoning, wishful thinking and distortion of reality, the powerful stories of children alleged to have been damaged by vaccines linger in the subconscious and influence parental decision,’ it reported in a statement last year. And whereas individuals might once have felt alone in their beliefs, it’s not hard now to find like-minded groups online. ‘So even if you have niggling doubts, well, if everyone else is doing this, everyone can’t be wrong, can they?’ Culbert says.

How to test the truth

When we’re unsure, how can we sort science from science fiction? On a website, check the ‘About Us’ or ‘Contact Us’ sections for clues about the information source. If there’s no physical address, no board of directors and no mention of a membership, those are red flags. And consult an expert ‘ a real one, says Culbert. ‘The most important thing you can do is talk to your healthcare provider about it, someone you trust who has the education and training.’

Don’t miss out! Sign up for our free weekly newsletters and get nutritious recipes, healthy weight-loss tips, easy ways to stay in shape and all the health news you need, delivered straight to your inbox.