Many US Adults Believe Medical Conspiracies
March 20, 2014

Many US Adults Believe Medical Conspiracies

The University of Chicago decided to look into the prevalence of belief in medical conspiracy theories among adults in the US, and found that a surprisingly high number of people believed in some of them, although the figures varied a lot between different theories.

According to Reuters, one of the most commonly believed conspiracy theories was that natural cures, particularly for cancer, are being held back and hidden because of the potential cost to drug companies who sell more expensive, manufactured treatments. There was far less widespread belief in the idea that the CIA infected the African-American population with HIV, although 12 percent did give this some credibility.

Reuters said, “in addition to the 37 percent of respondents who fully agreed that U.S. regulators are suppressing access to natural cures, less than a third were willing to say they actively disagreed with the theory.” In other words, two thirds of people think it is a distinct possibility.

The lead author of the study, Dr J. Eric Oliver, suggested that one explanation for the high numbers of people who give conspiracy theories some consideration could be that medicine is complicated whereas conspiracy theories are simple. “It’s important to increase information about health and science to the public,” he said. “I think scientific thinking is not a very intuitive way to see the world. For people who don’t have a lot of education, it’s relatively easy to reject the scientific way of thinking about things,” he said.

This appears to be looking at things from a health professional’s point of view, though. It doesn’t take into account the public’s wider view of how the world operates. It is possible that the population is more skeptical when it comes to medicine than other conspiracy theories, either because it is very important to them or because, as the doctor says, they don’t understand it fully. But is also entirely plausible that they would feel the same on other subjects: believing that the powers that be don’t always put the public’s wellbeing first, having seen, for example, endless years of broken election promises and the power of lobbyists in Washington.

Rather than argue, as the doctor slightly condescendingly does, that it takes a lack of awareness to endorse conspiracy theories, one may say that it would take a lack of awareness of politics to not first of all realize that governments and large organizations act self-interestedly sometimes, often at the expense of the population at large, and then take the natural step to believing that such selfishness might apply to the medical industry.

It is quite a simple formula: discovering something cheap and natural that cures cancer would quite simply cost those who make expensive cancer drugs a shit load of money, which they may not be that delighted about, as a business. This is not to say that I fully or even largely support the conspiracy theory, but it is to say that I can see why “less than a third were willing to say they actively disagreed with the theory” and not simply because they don’t understand medicine.

Some other theories asked about were:

Childhood vaccines cause disorders such as autism and the government is secretly aware of this (20 percent agreed with it and 44 percent disagreed).

Health officials know cell phones cause cancer but large corporations have the power and influence to stop them from taking action (20 percent believed).

Putting fluoride in the water is a way for chemical companies to dump dangerous by products from phosphate mines covertly.

Rockefeller and Ford foundations are behind the plan to spread genetically modified foods across the world through Monsanto in order to reduce global population.

Having said I don’t think it is unreasonable for people to consider these things, on the flip side I would say that taking a step back and viewing from a more international rather than US focussed point of view may give a more balanced approach. For example, in some countries the power of pharmaceutical companies is less, and the savings from natural cures for cancer to governments with nationalized health care may be far more important than anything that profit-making lobbyists may throw at them. Equally, as regards controlling population, in Japan the problem is the opposite: population is too low.

A difficult issue and one which I am not prepared to make any conclusions on, other than that I think it is reasonable for people to consider all possibilities, and that open-mindedness can’t be put down purely to them being too stupid to understand medicine!

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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