Medical Conspiracy Theories: How Do They Affect Health Behaviors?

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There are many different medical conspiracy theories circulating in the United States, but the question is: do you know all of them? If so, do you believe them? Those are the two questions the University of Chicago’s J. Eric Oliver, PhD, Department of Political Science, hoped to answer in his study published Monday, and he also went on to ascertain whether a belief of certain conspiracy theories correlated with actual health behaviors. Oliver’s report was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, and there, readers could see that Oliver carried out his study by conducting a nationally representative, online survey sample of 1351 adults who were collected in August and September of 2013 via an Internet market research company. Oliver’s research results were later approved by the institutional review board of the University of Chicago, and published Monday.

In his research, Oliver first wanted to test the spread of knowledge surrounding six different medical conspiracies. According JAMA Internal Medicine, he found that the conspiracy theories about cancer cures, vaccines, and cell phones were familiar to at least half of the respondents, while those about water fluoridation, genetically modified foods, and the link between the human immunodeficiency virus and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency were less well known. For example, 63 percent of those sampled responded that they had heard of the narrative that the FDA is deliberately suppressing natural cures for cancer because of drug company pressure, while only 19 percent answered that they had knowledge of the theory regarding the idea that the global dissemination of GMOs by Monsanto Inc. is part of a secret program that was launched by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations to shrink the world’s population.

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After he rounded up that data, as highlighted in his report in JAMA Internal Medicine, Oliver dug deeper to discern whether respondents agreed with the conspiracy theories in question, and whether they had previously heard of them or not. Some results were surprising, while some were not. The theory that won the highest degree of support was the narrative already mentioned that the FDA is preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases. The theory that the least amount of respondents agreed with was a tie between three: the idea that health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but aren’t releasing data thanks to corporate pressure; the narrative that physicians still want to vaccinate children even though they know vaccines are dangerous; and the aforementioned theory regarding GMO foods and the Rockefeller and Ford foundations. All three narratives earned a support percentage of 12 percent. Overall, Oliver found that 49 percent of Americans agreed with at least 1 medical conspiracy theory while 18 percent agreed with 3 or more. Those are the same percentages that can be found by surveys that research how U.S. cities feel about political conspiracy theories.

Next, according to his report published in JAMA Internal Medicine, Oliver went one step further to discern whether there was any correlation between the respondents who supported the conspiracy theories, and the health behaviors practiced by them. He found that conspiracism correlated with greater use of alternative medicine and the avoidance of traditional medicine. High conspiracists, or those who believed in the majority of the highlighted theories, were more likely to buy farm stand or organic foods and use herbal supplements, and in addition, they were less likely to sue sunscreen or get influenza shorts or annual checkups, according to Oliver’s paper highlighted in JAMA Internal Medicine. 

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Oliver explained that only 20 percent of all those surveyed reported using herbal supplements, but 35 percent of high conspiracists did. In the same vein, while 45 percent of the total sample responded that they get annual physical examinations, only 37 percent of the high conspiracists do. See the correlation?

Thus, Oliver’s study that was published Monday wasn’t interested in supporting or debunking the medical conspiracy theories in question. Rather, the University of Chicago professor was looking to ascertain whether there was a correlation between those who believe in the theories, and those who practice certain health behaviors. Oliver was able to highlight a significant association, and that was clear in his report Monday.

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