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Belief in Medical Conspiracies Is Widespread, Researcher Finds

Mulder&ScullyDo you believe the drug companies are covering up a cure for cancer? That vaccines cause autism? That cell phone radiation causes brain tumors?

If so, you’re not alone. Half of all Americans believe at least one medical conspiracy theory, according to a recent study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine.* The scientific survey of 1,351 people was conducted in August-September, 2013, led by Eric Oliver, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Although Oliver began by looking into political conspiracy beliefs of all types, he was surprised by the number of people who believed that the health care industry was out to get them.

Not that people who believe in medical conspiracies are unconcerned about their health. In fact, quite the opposite is true, according to Oliver.

“One of the things that struck us is that people who embrace these beliefs are not less health conscious,” Oliver stated. “They’re just less likely to embrace traditional medicine.”

Here are some of the most popular medical conspiracy theories and the percentage of American’s who believe them, according to Oliver’s study:

  • Drug companies are pressuring the FDA to suppress natural cures for cancer — 34 percent
  • Communications companies know that cell phones cause cancer, but won’t let the government do anything about it — 20 percent
  • Vaccines cause autism — 20 percent
  • The CIA deliberately infected African-Americans with the AIDS virus in the 1980s — 12 percent
  • Genetically modified foods (GMFs) are part of a deliberate plot to reduce the world’s population — 12 percent
  • Companies use fluoridation to cover up water pollution — 12 percent

Distrust of Big Medicine runs the full political spectrum, with 35 percent of respondents describing themselves as liberal and 41 percent describing themselves as conservative.

One’s belief in medical conspiracies is likely to translate into behaviors that can impact health, well-being and personal finances. For example, medical conspiracy buffs are:

  • Less likely to get regular physical examinations.
  • Less likely to get flu shots.
  • Less likely to have their children vaccinated.
  • Less likely to use sunscreen.
  • More likely to buy vitamins and herbal supplements, many of which are of dubious value.
  • More likely to buy organic and farm stand produce despite their often higher prices and unproven nutritional claims.

Why do so many people believe medical conspiracy theories?

“The world is a complicated place,” Oliver says. “It’s difficult to make sense of it. A lot of these conspiracy theories are intuitively compelling.”

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