Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Medical Conspiracism

conspiracy-theory-caution_0Do you believe any of the following*?

  • The FDA prevents the public from getting natural cures for cancer because of pressure from drug companies.
  • Cell phones cause cancer, but due to corporate pressure, the government won’t disseminate the information.
  • Global distribution of GMO (genetically-modified) foods by Monsanto is part of a plan to help shrink the world’s population.
  • Doctors and the government still want to vaccinate children though we know these vaccines cause autism.
  • Putting flouride in our water is a mechanism for allowing industries to rid their factories of phosphate waste.

I don’t believe any of them. A lot of Americans do. Eighteen percent of respondents to a recent survey believe in three or more of these canards. Almost half of the respondents believed at least one. None of them are true. But people believe what they want to.

The survey was done by a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who previously has studied the prevalence of belief in political conspiracy therapies. I like that he was willing to cross over into Medicine to continue the exploration.

One conclusion from this work will likely not surprise you: conspiracy believers were more likely to use herbal supplements, seek alternative medicine, and eat organic food; and less likely to receive flu shots, use sunscreen, or have regular physicals.

That said, there’s no evidence that physicals “do” anything, other than perhaps let you establish a stronger relationship with your ‘provider’ or ‘medical home.’ Many medical authorities counsel against them in people without symptoms of illness.

So maybe the conspiracists are right in at least one regard…


*The statements I listed here are my paraphrasings of the actual statements used in the survey.


  1. ggilbert

    No, I don’t believe any of the above, and I’m guilty of derisive snicker or two at the expense of conspiracy-minded sorts. Every now and then, however, I am reminded of some very good reasons that conspiracy theories might seem plausible to a sizeable chunk of society. Consider all of the following examples, many of which sound just as ludicrous (some of which I first heard of through Deborah Blum’s fabulous writing):

    1) Radium girls
    2) Cover up of factory deaths due to tetraethyl lead
    3) Tuskegee
    4) Government sponsored radiation research conducted on poor pregnant women and terminal cancer patients (under the guise of beneficial treatment, I believe in the 50s)
    5) Atypical antipsychotics being marketed to children under rather dubious diagnostic criteria (Jimmy has permanent twitches and “moobies,” but thank goodness he doesn’t fidget during social studies anymore…)
    6) The good old lobotomy days
    7) The government adulterating alcohol during Prohibition, with the intent to kill off the noncompliant.

    Several of those examples sound pretty far-fetched, yet they are well-documented events in our not-so-distant history. Most of the popular conspiracy theories are bunk, but I believe the culture of paranoia is somewhat understandable in light of past events. By the way, I really enjoy this blog. It’s refreshing to read posts by a medical professional that has retained both intellectual curiosity and a sense of individuality.

    • glasshospital

      Your point is well-taken regarding the listed examples–all of which remind us how much truth can be stranger (and worse) than fiction.
      Regarding lobotomies, should you be interested, the WSJ ran a fabulous multi-media piece on the history of lobotomies in U.S. veterans (though it looks like they put it behind a paywall at the moment). I interviewed the author, Michael Phillips for Public Radio Tulsa–and you can stream it:

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. ggilbert

    Great link & I like your December post along those lines. I’m fascinated by the lobotomy. It is widely known that the procedure was risky & poorly researched, but few people are aware that it wasn’t a complete failure. To be clear, I don’t feel any positive outcomes from lobotomy could make up for risk of sudden death or persistent vegetative state, but I was surprised to discover that both were uncommon. Lack of response or temporary nature of improvement were the most frequent complaints. Weirdly, the less extreme negative side effects tended to be identical to those experienced on antipsychotics. There is some debate whether antipsychotics decrease frontal cortex volume, but the fact that an ice pick to the frontal lobe resulted in metabolic syndrome, twitching (i.e., extra pyramidal side effects), and serene apathy might be fuel for thought. I sound like such a pharmaphobe, but I respect the value of antipsychotics when used appropriately. The afore-mentioned side effects may be a reasonable price when the alternative is terrifying hallucinations & life in a homeless shelter. I’m just sick of seeing these drugs being used for “bad marriage/career choice syndrome” or “grumpy teenageritis.” I’ve observed these drugs tend to cause dramatic weight gain, diabetes, and a level of calm that is incompatible with higher cognitive functioning. According to the literature, I’m an outlier witnessing rare side effects. Psychiatrists I’ve interviewed do not dispute the effects, though one did present a lively argument in favor of massive weight gain, acquired autoimmune disease, & double digit IQ loss as life-affirming health benefits. As much as I wish she was a figment of Samuel Shem’s post House of God trauma … Sorry for long comment. C. Diff. EQ begins in 1.5 weeks, thus my nerdly fixations will be redirected in the near future.

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