Why Are Medical Conspiracy Theories So Popular?

With the latest measles outbreak in New York City, more attention is being paid, finally, to the problem of anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists, who often have a prominent platform to spread their paranoid nonsense. But anti-vaccination paranoia is not the only medical conspiracy theory out there that might lead to people making bad decisions about their health. As NPR reports, a nearly half of American subscribe to some kind of medical conspiracy theory, of various sorts:

So he asked people what they thought about six common medical conspiracy theories, including the ones about vaccines, cellphones and natural cancer cures. They were the theories most widely supported.

Three other theories were each supported by 12 percent of people surveyed. They were that the CIA deliberately infected African-Americans with HIV, that genetically modified foods are a conspiracy to reduce population worldwide and that companies use water fluoridation to cover up pollution.

I found it frustrating that two of the most prominent medical conspiracy theories---and the ones by far most likely to be endorsed by elected officials---were excluded: 1) That abortion is an "industry" out to exploit hapless women who don't know that they secretly want the baby and 2) That female-controlled hormonal contraception is an "abortifacient" that works by killing fertilized eggs. (It works by suppressing ovulation. Yes, even emergency contraception.) Considering that both these conspiracy theories strongly influence legislation, overlooking them seems like a bad idea. Considering that one of these conspiracy theories, regarding hormonal contraception, is about to be presented as "evidence" before the Supreme Court, we should really be up in arms. But this is common enough of a problem, where women's health issues have become so politicized that they aren't often even considered health issues at all, even though, you know, that's exactly what they are.

What strikes me as interesting about medical conspiracy theories is that, while they are definitely diverse, their emotional resonance is generally easy enough to understand. You see a lot of legitimate anxieties displaced onto conspiracy theories. Anti-vaccination is generally an upper class and upper middle class phenomenon and it stems directly from the competitive parenting culture that's emerged in those classes. Basically, it functions as a way for a parent to feel superior to other parents, that they don't need those dirty vaccines because their special snowflakes are protected by organic food and mother love. The unfortunate conspiracy theory around HIV is understandable enough, because it helps make sense of what seems nonsensical on its surface, which is the significantly higher rates of HIV transmission amongst African-Americans. (The real reason is that one of the symptoms of systemic racism is that disease spreads faster in oppressed communities, because of lack of health care and higher levels of stress and, probably, higher rates of incarceration.)  These two impulses couldn't be more different. One is an impulse towards elitism and the other is an attempt to make sense of widespread injustice, but the end result is the same: People become suspicious of doctors and less likely to seek basic health care. Which, in turn, helps spread disease. The way that works with vaccines is obvious, but with HIV, reluctance to see a doctor can mean you go for months or even years without being diagnosed, and might be spreading the virus during that time.

This is the major reason that it's so damn hard, and in fact seemingly impossible, to pry a medical conspiracy theorist away from their pet bullshit. Giving people facts doesn't work, because it doesn't address the emotional needs that the conspiracy theory fills. You can tell an anti-vaxxer all day that there's no link between vaccines and autism and vaccines are safe and that measles is dangerous, but you haven't addressed their need to feel that they're doing something to set their children apart from the herd and show off how special and important their children are compared to others, nor have you given them a way to demonstrate their desire to show they are more invested parents than the other kinds. I mean, those folks are clearly assholes, but you can't make an asshole not be an asshole with facts.

Or consider the GMO question. Being anti-GMO strikes me as a simple, direct way for people to express fears about our unhealthy food systems. The larger issues---fast food, high levels of sugar in our food, agricultural systems that reduce nutritional diversity, the emphasis on eating meat and dairy over fruits and vegetables---are often too complex and terrifying to wrap your head around. So you can get mad about GMOs instead, even though they are one of the few aspects of modern agriculture that is not a problem.* (And may, in fact, help solve many of our problems.)  You can explain the facts all day, but since you can't give them a simple, symbolic issue to fixate on instead, good luck prying them out of their irrational fears.

Beyond just the inherent dangers of believing conspiracy theories, I worry that all these people obsessing over problems that aren't real are distracted from problems that are, specifically regarding the way that Big Pharma's interest in profits over service has created widespread corruption and made medicine more expensive, often at the expense of making it more effective. But that's a complex problem, and, unfortunately, conspiracy theories have the advantage of being simple and emotionally appealing in the way that real problems do not.

*Yes, I get that Monsanto is an evil corporation and it's terrible that they copyright their seeds. But that's a simple fix: Ban that. But let's not pretend that's why people are up in arms about GMOs. The real reason is unfounded fears that they are dangerous, and that is simply not true. So put your keyboards down. We've heard it, but it's a derail from the real issue here.