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A new study suggests almost half of American adults might believe in medical conspiracy theories. How does this affect their healthcare decisions — and WHY do we fall for these things so easily?

Do you think that the government is deliberately causing autism in children through vaccines? Do you think US intelligence infected African Americans with HIV? Or do you think the government knows cellphones cause cancer but don't do anything about it, that water fluoridation is really a scheme to bring dangerous chemicals into the environment, or that US regulators actively prevent people from accessing natural cures?

Conspiracy theories are all around us, and even those who don't buy any of these theories are likely to be familiar with some of them. If you were wondering just how widespread medical conspiracy theories are, and if they actually affect the healthcare decisions individuals make, you are not alone.

A research team just published a study on the topic, and they show that you have plenty of company if you do believe in medical conspiracies. 

Almost Half Of American Adults Believe In Medical Conspiracy Theories?

In the study, 1,351 adult Americans were asked if they had heard of and agreed with any of the following six medical conspiracy theories:

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is deliberately preventing people from accessing natural cures for cancer and other diseases due to pressure from "Big Pharma".
  • Health officials know that cellphones cause cancer but do nothing about that because the telecom companies aren't letting them. 
  • The CIA infected African Americans with HIV under the guise of a hepatitis immunization program. 
  • Genetically modified foods are part of a secret program to reduce the world population. 
  • Doctors and the government know that vaccinations cause autism and other disorders, but push vaccines anyway. 
  • Water fluorization is a way to introduce dangerous chemicals into the environment. 

Almost half — 49 percent — of the those participating in the study believed at least one of these theories to be true.

Does that mean we can safely say that the United States is a nation of conspiracy theorists? Though nearly 1,500 people hardly constitutes a tiny sample, it might not be possible to conclude that a larger sample would show the same results. Nonetheless, we have some interesting things to learn from this study.

Sixty-nine percent of the participants had heard of the theory that vaccines cause autism but that doctors and the government continue immunization programs anyway. This particular theory has been in the news quite a bit. Twenty percent of the respondents agreed with the theory, while 44 percent disagreed.

Though the theory that the government doesn't want people to access natural cures due to pressure from the pharmaceutical industry didn't receive as much media coverage, more people (37 percent) agreed with this one. That means being exposed to a theory through media outlets doesn't necessarily make us more likely to believe in it. 

Why We Buy Conspiracy Theories, And How That Affects Decisions

Another fascinating finding is that people who believed in three or more conspiracy theories were more likely to take herbal supplements than those who didn't believe in any — at 35 percent vs 13 percent.

All these medical conspiracy theories are based on a distrust of government and authority in general. Perhaps that is why the study also found people who tend to believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to choose alternative medicine over modern medicine?

Here's what I would like to know: does the American love of minimal government make them more likely to buy conspiracy theories? How different would the responses be in, let's say, Sweden or Japan? 

The study's authors can't tell us that. They do say that: "Although it is common to disparage adherents of conspiracy theories as a delusional fringe of paranoid cranks, our data suggest that medical conspiracy theories are widely known, broadly endorsed, and highly predictive of many common health behaviors."

Study co-author Prof J Eric Oliver also thinks he knows why medical conspiracy theories are so popular. He says: "Science in general — medicine in particular — is complicated and cognitively challenging because you have to carry around a lot of uncertainty. 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 other words, conspiracy theories are an awful lot easier to understand that the advanced medicine of today. 

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