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Many Americans believe in medical conspiracy theories

Half of people in the U.S. believe in medical conspiracy theories
Half of people in the U.S. believe in medical conspiracy theories
Cartera Media

If you believe in medical conspiracy theories, you’re not alone. In a study published Tuesday in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from the University of Chicago report that nearly half of all adults in America believe in at least one medical conspiracy.

J. Eric Oliver, the lead study author from the University of Chicago, says that the reason why so many people believe in conspiracy theories has to do with such theories being easier to comprehend than complex scientific and medical information.

"Science in general - medicine in particular - is complicated and cognitively challenging because you have to carry around a lot of uncertainty," Oliver said.

Oliver, along with a colleague, collected data from 1,351 adults who completed an online survey about six popular medical conspiracy theories.

For example, one of the six theories presented was that the government has long known that cell phones cause cancer, but won’t do anything about it. Another is that getting vaccinated causes psychological disorders, including autism. And still another was that water fluoridation is a way for companies to dump toxic chemicals into the environment.

With each of the six medical conspiracy theories, the participants were asked to answer whether they heard of the theory before – and whether they agreed that the theory was true or not.

All of the six theories involved government mistrust and a suspicion of other large organizations, and some were better known theories that the majority of the participants had heard about before.

For example, 69 percent of the adults in the survey responded that they had heard about the theory that vaccinations can cause disorders like autism, which the research team explained has received a lot of media attention due, in part, to controversial Twitter comments posted by actress Jenny McCarthy.

Another popular medical conspiracy theory presented to the survey participants was that regulators in the US were preventing people from obtaining natural cures – a theory that 37 percent of the participants believed was true (another third did not believe it was true).

Interestingly, the researchers also found that those who believed in three or more of the conspiracy theories were also more likely to take herbal supplements. They were also more likely to embrace alternative therapies, as opposed to traditional medicine.

“For people who don't have a lot of education, it's relatively easy to reject the scientific way of thinking about things,” Oliver said, adding that it would likely be difficult to change their minds.

"People are attaching themselves to these narratives for psychological reasons, these narratives are providing them with feelings of certainty," Oliver explained.

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