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Think conspiracy theorists live on the fringes? Think again!

Monday, March 24, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

not-a-conspiracy-theorist

Amazingly, a study published in a highly respected medical journal (as opposed to, say, a Bigfoot site) found that 49% of those living in the United States believe at least one medical conspiracy theory. That’s only where it starts–18% believe in three or more. Wow. 

The researchers wondered if US residents believe the public health conspiracies that have flourished over the past 50 years (over issues such as “water fluoridation, vaccines, cell phones and alternative medicine”). A “nationally representative, online survey sample of 1,351 adults” was gathered in 2013 by a market research company (YouGov). Here are the conspiracies about which they surveyed:

The Food and Drug Administration is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies. [63% had heard of this theory and 37% believe it.]

Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them. [57% had heard it and 20% believe it.]

The CIA deliberately infected large numbers of African Americans with HIV under the guise of a hepatitis inoculation program. [32% had heard it and 12% believe it.]

The global dissemination of genetically modified foods by Monsanto Inc is part of a secret program, called Agenda 21, launched by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to shrink the world’s population. [19% had heard it and 12% believe it.]

Doctors and the government still want to vaccinate children even though they know these vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders. [69% had heard it and 20% believe it.]

Public water fluoridation is really just a secret way for chemical companies to dump the dangerous byproducts of phosphate mines into the environment. [25% had heard it and 12% believe it.]

Overall, 49% of the nationally representative sample endorsed 1 conspiracy theory and 18% endorsed a belief in at least 3 of the proffered theories. The authors say if you believe in either 0, 1 or 2 of these conspiracies you would be considered a “low conspiracist” and if you believe in 3 or more of these conspiracies they would consider you a “high conspiracist”. Okay. We might categorize them a little differently but certainly agree that the more conspiracy theories you agree with, the more extreme your behaviors. Right?

But these skeptical citizens don’t display extreme conspiracy-nut behaviors when you consider their beliefs about public health conspiracies. “High conspiracists”, according to this research, are simply more likely to buy farm stand or organic foods and use herbal supplements, and are less likely to use sunscreen, get flu shots or have annual checkups with a medical doctor. The authors conclude we should look at people who believe in conspiracy theories as “otherwise normal”.

“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. Rather than viewing medical conspiracism as indicative of a psychopathological condition, we can recognize that most individuals who endorse these narratives are otherwise ‘normal’ and that conspiracism arises from common attribution processes.”

Recently we published information on how much Americans (and Europeans for that matter) really do know about science and technology. Viewed through that lens, this report about broad-based beliefs in public health conspiracies is not surprising. But knowing that in a venire of 50 prospective jurors there are, on average, 9 (18%) who are reluctant to believe government reports or studies related to life-and-death issues needs to be considered by anyone relying on government data. Your experts may be starting out in a very deep credibility hole with a lot of your finders of facts.

Oliver JE, & Wood T (2014). Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States. JAMA internal medicine PMID: 24638266

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