Half Of Americans Believe In Medical Conspiracy Theories

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Misinformation about health remains widespread and popular.

Half of Americans subscribe to medical conspiracy theories, with more than one-third of people thinking that the Food and Drug Administration is deliberately keeping natural cures for cancer off the market because of pressure from drug companies, a survey finds.

Twenty percent of people said that cellphones cause cancer — and that large corporations are keeping health officials from doing anything about it. And another 20 percent think doctors and the government want to vaccinate children despite knowing that vaccines cause autism.

"One of the things that struck us is that people who embrace these beliefs are not less health conscious," says Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who led the study. "They're just less likely to embrace traditional medicine."

Oliver was studying political conspiracy theories when he realized that quite a few of them involved medical care, including vaccine avoidance and a vote rejecting water fluoridation in Portland, Ore.

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.

And though the people who said they believed the conspiracy theories tended to be less educated, poorer and members of minority groups, they aren't conspiracy nuts, Oliver says. And they aren't ignoring their health. Instead, they are normal people trying to make sense of complex issues.

Corporations and government institutions are complicated organizations with a lot of different motivations. "Public mistrust is understandable," he says.

Written By: Nancy Shute
continue to source article at npr.org

33 COMMENTS

  1. And the other half believe in God, Dr Phil and Oprah.

    Many of these people do not accept that climate change is happening.Nor do they believe in evolution despite overwhelming evidence.

    Eeeek!!

  2. Half of Americans subscribe to medical conspiracy theories, with more than one-third of people thinking that the Food and Drug Administration is deliberately keeping natural cures for cancer off the market because of pressure from drug companies

    You get the feeling people who think that don’t realise “cancer” is an umbrella term for hundreds of different diseases. The idea that a single molecule, discovered as of 2014, would destroy any over-replicating malignant cell is ridiculous. But if in addition the cure has to be “natural”, which these days is legal code for “can claim to work without proving it”, you could already purchase it from your local homeopaths-R-us.

    Twenty percent of people said that cellphones cause cancer

    Environmental factors cannot cause cancers unless they mutate DNA. Radiation can only do this if it is high enough in frequency to be ionising. The frequencies of cell phones haven’t a chance.

    And another 20 percent think doctors and the government want to vaccinate children despite knowing that vaccines cause autism.

    Considering that the entire empirical basis offered for such a link is a single super-duper discredited study of only 12 people, while other studies looking at hundreds of thousands of people have found no such link, the closest this idea could come to being true is the government thinking the link is real but not knowing it.

    people who embrace these beliefs are not less health conscious… They’re just less likely to embrace traditional medicine.

    That’s like saying your idiot friend “isn’t unconcerned about dirigible safety; he just doesn’t embrace basic helium-is-inert,-hydrogen-is-reactive chemistry”.

    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.

    The original version of the first idea is “the CIA infected Africans to reduce world population”; however it mutated into an American-centred version, it won’t have been based on evidence. GM foods have increased food supplies enough to feed another 2 billion people; hardly a way to cut the numbers. And why would anyone think adding fluorine to water would reduce awareness of pollution? Sometimes I think the “X did Y to achieve Z” details could be generated by spinning a wheel.

    they aren’t conspiracy nuts

    How does one define the term “conspiracy nuts” narrowly enough to provably exclude people advocating these conspiracy theories? Maybe there’s a way, but it should be stated.

  3. This is why critical thinking and logic should be taught beginning in elementary school. There is a lot of good information out there, but there is also an overwhelming assload of bullshit. Being able to apply the principles of critical thinking to what you hear, read, or see is crucial to differentiating between the two, and you don’t have to have a PhD in science to be able to use these principles, either.

  4. I think it’s a mistake to just dismiss things because they are “conspiracy theories”. Saying “that’s a conspiracy theory” isn’t an argument or a rebuttal, it’s about as meaningful as saying “that’s a stupid theory”. The devil is in the details. I’m reading a great book right now called The Burglary, about a bunch of incredibly brave (and all Christians btw) people who risked their freedom to break into an FBI office and to expose how the FBI was illegally spying on and harrassing people for political reasons. Before this information came to light these theories about the FBI were dismissed as “conspiracy theories”.

    Another example would be the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. For those of you kiddies out there Gulf of Tonkin was the precursor (if only we had paid attention) to Iraq’s WMDs. A made up excuse to initiate a war that US planners wanted for their own reasons. For years people in the anti-war movement claimed that the “attacks” by North Vietnam on a US warship that was the inspiration for the resolution that led LBJ send combat troops to Vietnam were mostly manufactured and didn’t happen the way the Navy and LBJ claimed. When the Pentagon papers were released by Daniel Ellsberg they showed that the conspiracy theorists were right. I still actually remember the first time I read the Pentagon papers and came across the section about using the Navy to violate Vietnamese waters in a hope that the Vietnamese would fight back and then could be called the aggressors. There it was in black and white and very explicit, the conspiracy that people had been telling me about but I hadn’t believed.

    So yes, a lot of conspiracies are bullshit and easily shown to be bullshit but use rational arguments to show they are bullshit don’t just dismiss them with a label.

    • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

      I think it’s a mistake to just dismiss things because they are “conspiracy theories”. Saying “that’s a conspiracy theory” isn’t an argument or a rebuttal, it’s about as meaningful as saying “that’s a stupid theory”. The devil is in the details. I’m reading a great book right now called The Burglary…

      The time to accept anything is when it has credible evidence to support it – not before. If somebody puts forward a conspiracy theory my first question is what is your evidence to support that statement? I understand that conspiracies are possible but I want to know the basis you believe this conspiracy exists.
      If you don’t establish that I don’t see how you can stop yourself from being gullible.

      My experience is that people often put forward conspiracy theories to cover up the fact they are trying to pass off some bull shit without the burden of proof. And its a tactic being used again and again by people that want to deny established scientific work where decades of research is available.
      Creationists, anti-vaccers,anti pharma / alternative medicine and many other regularly use this tactic.

      So I am happy dismissing any conspiracy theory that has no evidence to support it- even if it later turns out to be true. After all a broken clock tells the time right twice a day.

      So I understand that those cases you mention now have evidence to back them up; what I am wondering is what was the state of the evidence when the events were unfolding? That’s the heart of the dilemma – its often difficult to amass enough evidence to prove a conspiracy exists and when it does happen it can be years later.
      We have a very public example in the UK from the Hillsborough Football disaster were we we now know police manufactured their records and witness statements about what happened to excuse themselves of blame and this went to the very highest level. Its taken 25 years for the truth to get out.

    • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

      incredibly brave (and all Christians btw) people who risked their freedom to break into an FBI office and to expose how the FBI was illegally spying on and harrassing people for political reasons.

      I think you make a good point, but for me the distinction comes down to the “why”. it’s understandable that an intelligence agency would spy on people and deny it, and dismissing anyone questioning them as a CT is a typical bit of lazy politics. If someone told me a political spy organisation was spying for political reasons, I wouldn’t dismiss them in the same way as I’d dismiss someone telling me airline companies are flying planes about to sprinkle drugs to make me believe things.

      Too often the “why” in CTs is so specific. It means they’re making 2 claims at once, e.g. AIDS was released on purpose, and the purpose was to reduce the population. in all these cases it seems organisaitons seem to be utterly useless at acheiving their goals while incredibly proficient at making sure no one (outside the few hundred million who would have to be complicit, and a dedicated community of school drop-outs who found out about the internet) ever finds out. You want to reduce populaiton, you release condoms, not a disease that can incubate for 10 years.

      conspiracies exist, and dismissing someone as a conspiracy theorist is no doubt the first thing you’d do if your conspiracy was being investigated. We’re all conspiracy theorists of some sort, even if it’s just by wondering what the meeting we weren’t invited to was all about or what some friends was thinking by that look they gave you but maybe there needs to be a term especially for those who make specific, unfalsifiable claims that can be countered with a rational argument.

  5. They don’t know how to make distinctions between truth and fiction – just look at the faith percentage – 2/3 Americans are religious so are completely controllable ‘ if god or the pastar said it’….and the small amount of non believers who also believe in conspiracy theories….some are right and some are wrong….but all show a lack of awareness of the truth, but also show that they sense that not all the facts are being presented….some facts are subdued deliberately – do you believe product adverts on TV ?

    Personally I roll my eyes and mute the TV invaders…the government and military and any corporate interests are part of the propaganda machine….

  6. All this does say something about the Human species and its ability to cooperate. Not everyone has to be smart for the smart people to help the others survive. Of course you can be smart and believe silly things. The trick I suppose is to have enough smart/rational people to get by on.

    The other point here is that many of the nutbags don’t have 100% faith in their fringe cures. I knew a couple who where naturopaths who use to constantly bang on about western medicine being poison etc. Then the wife got cancer. While she was on Chemotherapy they continued on about it but claimed the remission she got was due to the natural medicines she was taking to boost her immune system. She got the cancer back however (inspite of all the natural goodness she was taking) went back onto chemo but sadly lost her life. Her husband has hence forth blamed the chemo on killing his wife. Funny then that they didn’t choose to forgo the chemo altogether. If she had survived I have no doubt the the chemo and highly trained medical staff that did extend her life by years would have received none of the credit.

  7. Well JosG- here is a medical conspiracy- maybe a couple- in which I believe.

    Medicine in the US is an unconscionable money grab. Without getting into full details or the total bill, my grandson had his appendix out. He was getting twitchy and jerky coming out of the anesthetic. He was still on the IV. A male nurse asked me if I would like to give him a mild sedative to ease his come down. I said yes because he seemed in distress. He gave him a couple cc’s of something into the IV that was already in place. Cost on the bill- $1,800.

    I also watched a friend die from a head injury. He was uninsured. Nothing was done to help him. He was fully conscious for a couple of hours, lapsed into a coma and then his treatment came in the form of life support while they found relatives to allow them to harvest his valuable organs for transplant.

    A third example- there was an anti-depression drug called Wellbutrin that had gone generic- meaning it had used up its ability to overcharge. It was later found it suppressed the urge to smoke. So we have a cheap no-smoking drug? Nope, they renamed it and got a new lease on gouging. And that “health care” would charge anything over cost to help people quit smoking is evil. It would be like charging heroin addicts heroin prices for methadone.

    Health care for profit is unhuman, inhumane and despicably callous.

    • In reply to #8 by rjohn19:

      Well JosG- here is a medical conspiracy- maybe a couple- in which I believe.

      Notably these do not include the much dumber idea I addressed in my post, namely that a cancer cure is being kept secret. I must admit that it’s not impossible at least one medical conspiracy exists in at least one country.

      Medicine in the US is an unconscionable money grab… Cost on the bill- $1,800.

      “They didn’t reveal the price up front” might not quite be a big enough deal to count as a “conspiracy”, nor would I accuse you of being a “conspiracy theorist” for suspecting that they did it on purpose. But is that just a case of me saying “only really dumb examples count”? Red Dog already warned against thinking like that.

      his treatment came in the form of life support while they found relatives to allow them to harvest his valuable organs for transplant.

      Again, is this a conspiracy or just an unhappy practice? Having said that, if someone is beyond being saved, finding where their organs can go quickly can be justified, at least if the right donation authorisation is already in place.

      A third example- there was an anti-depression drug called Wellbutrin that had gone generic- meaning it had used up its ability to overcharge. It was later found it suppressed the urge to smoke. So we have a cheap no-smoking drug? Nope, they renamed it and got a new lease on gouging.

      What’s your source for that? When I research bupropion what I find is that in 1996 and 2003 two “sustained-release formulations” were approved. But that doesn’t mean “this is how long you can charge highly for it”; a sustained-release formulation is a slow-release mechanism to allow the drug to perform a particular function after it enters the body. I can find no indication bupropion ever lost a generic status. It certainly has that status today.

  8. If one (not unreasonably) considers that the very powerful lobbies/interests in the medical sector (not only pharmaceutical companies) constitute a conspiracy, then I am surprised that only 50 per cent believe in conspiracy theories.

    Such conspiracies of course influence decision making in almost all areas

  9. This is what you get when the vast majority of Americans are scientifically illiterate. So many Americans don’t understand even the basics of biology, medicine, the research process, or who are legitimate sources of information regarding these issues (or any others for that matter). One more argument for a fact-based, rigorous public education curriculum… please!

    • In reply to #13 by Indygrl76:

      One more argument for a fact-based, rigorous public education curriculum… please!

      You might find that the curriculum is rigorous enough, and generally fact based. If the curriculum was so bad how are any American scientists educated? I think you will find there are many reasons why many students don’t learn, many start at home, many are driven by societal pressures, etc. I can only speak with experience about Australian Curriculum, I do have criticisms but they are minor, there are many very complicated reasons for failure of education pressure to keep changing the curriculum and governments constantly making changes that amount to little actual difference just result in stealing time away from teachers doing their jobs to re-write work programs and assessment, this takes away from time doing what we need to. Meeting the needs of our students.

  10. I think the scientific community only has itself to blame for this given the fact claims are published in supposedly peer reviewed journals that simply cannot be reproduced or independently substantiated.

    Here is an example regarding oncology and cancer treatment published in Nature:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v483/n7391/full/483531a.html

    There are too numerous examples in other disciplines as well. ( I have several links in German confirming this disturbing trend that unfortunately won’t help most people here). It is a sad state of affairs and really undermines the credibility of the scientific method when 75-85% of published claims cannot be independently verified.

    The obvious result from the public at large is scepticism and “conspiracy theories”. Sad but true. It is up to the scientific community to raise its standards to grain credibility and make sure claims made ARE in fact independently reproducible before they are published. jcw

    • In reply to #17 by kaiserkriss:

      the scientific community only has itself to blame for this given the fact claims are published in supposedly peer reviewed journals that simply cannot be reproduced or independently substantiated… The obvious result from the public at large is scepticism and “conspiracy theories”. Sad but true. It is up to the scientific community to raise its standards to grain credibility and make sure claims made ARE in fact independently reproducible before they are published.

      A scientist of team thereof, having done research, claims X on the basis of it. Either X gets replicated later or it doesn’t. Every single medical conspiracy theory you wish to blame on unreplicated publications is a rejection of “orthodox” medicine, which only includes what is replicated. So the issue you point to isn’t a valid justification for disagreeing with the consensus.

      I appreciate your concern that anything which is (i) published somewhere prestigious only to (ii) go unreplicated is bad because of (ii) but lent undue credence by (i). However, the only way X can get replicated is if it’s the finding of multiple in-journal publications. Suppose that happens. Whether or not the first such publication inspires this subsequent research, it has to be a publication of something that is at least then unreplicated, by definition. The only way your concern, however reasonable it seemed to you before you typed it, can actually be met in some policy is if some less prestigious publication level is used for first-time claims.

      We could do that; we could have journals that only allow publications which bolster or undermine some earlier finding, so that new claims have to go somewhere else, which over time is considered less prestigious. Maybe scientists should do that. But it’s ridiculous to claim the entire reason many Americans have heterodox, unempirical beliefs, accusing science of conspiracy is because no such two-tier system has been produced. Especially when you consider that some popular misconceptions, such as vaccines causing autism, are based on a single study that not only went unreplicated but was eventually thoroughly debunked – indeed, exposed as fraud.

      • If I understand you correctly, and correct me if I’m wrong, you are basically saying the system we have now is the best we have and we shouldn’t try and improve on it. In other words, accept a less than perfect system rather than try and improve upon it along the lines, or even other ways, than you suggested. You seem to be well familiar with the system and can thus appreciate its complexities, pitfalls and all. Are you suggesting “just because team X says so and it’s work is published in a journal, it should be taken at face value without proof of being repeatable and accurate”? That sounds very much like a different type of religion and not the Scientific Method.

        What’s wrong with not publishing until the research and associated claims can be independently verified?

        The average Schmo is unaware of these intricacies you describe. Given the complexities and pitfalls, it is surprising not more of the population become sceptics. That being said, not all sceptics fall even close to believing in a conspiracy.

        I’m NOT rejecting orthodox medical research per se, I’m rejecting the fact that unsubstantiated scientific claims are being made that cannot be independently duplicated and verified before they are published. Literally BILLIONS of $ are spent each year pursuing further research, based possibly on initial false premises, gleaned from previously published research and added to a growing false information data base. That’s just not good enough!

        What an inefficient methodology and absolute waste of resources and effort. For your edification I’m not only picking on medical research and publication, but on all endeavours, be they engineering, or any of the other sciences. jcw
        In reply to #18 by Jos Gibbons:

        In reply to #17 by kaiserkriss:

        the scientific community only has itself to blame for this given the fact claims are published in supposedly peer reviewed journals that simply cannot be reproduced or independently substantiated… The obvious result from the public at large is scepticism and “consp…

        • In reply to #20 by kaiserkriss:

          If I understand you correctly, and correct me if I’m wrong, you are basically saying the system we have now is the best we have and we shouldn’t try and improve on it.

          That inference is unwarranted, given my comment, “We could do that… Maybe scientists should do that.” My point was that (a) we still need to “publish” as-yet-unreplicated findings in some fashion and (b) you can’t blame these medical conspiracy theories on the fact that the same journals are used for both research types. It’s worth bearing in mind some studies are a mixture of the two types, which would be a technicality such a new system would have to deal with.

          Are you suggesting “just because team X says so and it’s work is published in a journal, it should be taken at face value without proof of being repeatable and accurate”? That sounds very much like a different type of religion and not the Scientific Method.

          You seem keen to gloss over certain important distinctions. In what sense are 1-off findings “taken at face value”? Not by the doctors who recommend or administer “orthodox medicine”, or those who fund or define it. In other words, the very problems that worry you don’t tarnish orthodox medicine at all. And what does “taken at face value” mean? “Trusted enough to publish so that others can then respond, in practice with a mixture of assent, doubt and further study”, which is what actually happens,. isn’t too much trust; it’s how you get things done. The publication standards of peer review are the beginning of the scientific analysis of X-or-not questions.

          What’s wrong with not publishing until the research and associated claims can be independently verified?

          Let’s say your research leads you to claim X, I independently research the matter and find I agree with you, and the finding is therefore now reproducible. Now, at least, you’re happy to see this research published. (Maybe you want more independent verification, but whatever.) But how did I know you’d claimed X in the first place? I have to read that somewhere. The reason first-time claims are published in the same journals as others is that this maximises the number of readers who could subsequently research the issue. Whether or not we decide to change this system, the first-time claims will still be “published” in some sense.

          The average Schmo is unaware of these intricacies you describe. Given the complexities and pitfalls, it is surprising not more of the population become sceptics. That being said, not all sceptics fall even close to believing in a conspiracy.

          But let’s look at what’s going on here. On the one hand, some studies published in journals have findings we do not ultimately establish to the extent needed to base medicine on it, and you suggested it’s scientists’ fault that these are too prestigiously published, and that this is why these conspiracies are so widely believed in. (Given the number of cognitive biases to which humans are susceptible, I think you give normal people too much credit if you expect, were the publication standards different, these conspiracy theories would barely have any support at all.) In particular, people would have to get so fed up with eventually overturned findings that they disbelieve certain other findings. But on the other hand, some of these heterodox views are themselves an example of putting too much trust in one unreplicated study (consider the example of MMR). So which is it: do people trust bad science too much, or good science not enough due to tiring of bad science they do not trust too much?

          I’m rejecting the fact that unsubstantiated scientific claims are being made that cannot be independently duplicated and verified before they are published. Literally BILLIONS of $ are spent each year pursuing further research, based possibly on initial false premises, gleaned from previously published research and added to a growing false information data base. That’s just not good enough!

          So on the one hand you don’t like first-time findings being published only to end up unreplicated, but on the other hand you don’t like money to be spent on such research. I hate to break it to you, but finding out whether previous findings are or are not replicated with further research will cost a lot of money. It seems the only way you would be happy is if we either psychically predict which findings not to bother re-testing because they will fail, or we publish first-time findings in a reduced way that as a rule doesn’t lead to their being subsequently investigated. The former is impossible; the latter means nothing gets replicated.

          By definition, if you want to see the percentage of unreplicated findings fall (which is presumably the case if you complain about said percentage being too high), you need to support research that might achieve such replication. This will cost money, to be sure; but the only findings which turn into medicine that we can use are those which are tested at least twice. Ever when it’s OK to be angry with a situation, one’s “Why can’t we just do this?” intuitions may not lead to sensible or feasible policies. This discussion reminds me of an effort a few years ago by the Brown ministry in the UK to restrict research funding to what would be “useful”. This, the scientists explained, would require impossible precognition. The scheme was therefore abandoned.

          I’m not only picking on medical research and publication, but on all endeavours, be they engineering, or any of the other sciences

          You feel all sciences should restrict where a finding can be published based on whether or not it’s a response to earlier research? OK, then; let me ask you something. Where specifically do you want scientists to communicate their first-time findings to those who stand a chance of confirming or refuting them? Should they send out a mass email, post on a blog, vanity-publish their own journal? My earlier suggestion of a lower-tier “journal” sounds less fatuous, of course, and you may support that instead.

          In fact, physics and mathematics has something along those lines already. Every paper in those fields over the last 20 years or so is published first on arxiv.org, to a wide readership, alongside the effort (if any) to publish in a true journal. One consequence is an increase in “accessibility”; literally any Internet user can view any ArXiV paper. (Of course, this makes it even easier for online journalism to find studies whose importance they risk overestimating. You should bear that in mind before you answer the next question?) Do you think physicists’ use of the ArXiV is a good enough idea medicine should try something similar?

          If it’s broke, think carefully about the pros and cons of how to fix it and, indeed, what “fixing it” or “it’s broken” means in this context.

          • You make some compelling arguments that are quite valid. However you seemed to be missing the simple point I was trying to make that the current system, not only relating to medical research, needs to be updated since too much unverifiable information is slipping through the cracks.

            Whereas in the old days “peer reviewed journals” held sway and sorted out the chaff from the wheat, now the situation is such that too much chaff is making its way into the wheat. To repeat myself, you make a couple of excellent suggestions. However I’d go one step farther by suggesting using current technology – sharing of information within a close circle of colleagues working in similar research to verify new claims and processes made BEFORE they even get submitted to any kind of journal for publication.

            I’m advocating for a change in the WAY we do things to remain true to Scientific Principles of postulating a hypothesis, repeatedly testing thereof, and having the findings independently verified before the claims make it into the main stream. Maybe there even has to be less of the “publish or perish” pressure put on researches- be they academic or in business to ensure quality rather than quantity.

            There also has to be on outlet- albeit a different tier for the “this is what we postulated, this was our research, here are the results showing our proposition was faulty for the following reason” researchers. It avoids unnecessary duplication of work by other teams. As you well know, negative information can be just a valuable as a positive result.

            It should be standard practise to have claims made to be independently duplicated and verified before publication. The communication tools are available nowadays and should be used. The filters currently in place are too course to sort out the verifiable claims from unverified claims.

            There are currently also no real filters currently in place stopping unscrupulous researchers making a career of publishing unsubstantiated claims and living comfortably from those (false) claims. They continue to sell their rubbish onto a gullible, but hungry for new technology public or business interested in commercialization, by continuously falling through the cracks.

            OF course the downside with the current system is that the work of reputable researchers and true innovators gets besmirched by the bad apples leading the public at large to become very sceptical regarding anything scientific as an undesired side effect. jcw
            . . In reply to #23 by Jos Gibbons:

            In reply to #20 by kaiserkriss:

            If I understand you correctly, and correct me if I’m wrong, you are basically saying the system we have now is the best we have and we shouldn’t try and improve on it.

            That inference is unwarranted, given my comment, “We could do that… Maybe scientists should do t…

          • In reply to #27 by kaiserkriss:

            We may agree on more things than either of us initially thought concerning what needs to be improved in science or how it could be done, although I’ll continue to point out “the problem with that is…” However, I also think two separate issues risk being mixed up here with your style of thinking, so I’ll miss no opportunities to highlight the gap between them.

            You make some compelling arguments that are quite valid. However you seemed to be missing the simple point I was trying to make that the current system, not only relating to medical research, needs to be updated since too much unverifiable information is slipping through the cracks.

            But your definition of “slipping through the cracks” is “getting published in a journal”, which is standard practice, and my compelling, valid arguments were in response to your “it’s scientists’ fault that people maintain so many medical conspiracy theories”, which isn’t what you’re now claiming to be your point.

            Whereas in the old days “peer reviewed journals” held sway and sorted out the chaff from the wheat, now the situation is such that too much chaff is making its way into the wheat.

            Could you back that up?

            I’d go one step farther by suggesting using current technology – sharing of information within a close circle of colleagues working in similar research to verify new claims and processes made BEFORE they even get submitted to any kind of journal for publication.

            The trouble is (a) when that kind of collaboration occurs before publication it lacks the independence needed to establish replicability and (b) it causes difficulty in establishing attribution. And again, that’s not to say such changes shouldn’t be implemented; but we’ll need to be careful how it’s done.

            Maybe there even has to be less of the “publish or perish” pressure put on researches- be they academic or in business to ensure quality rather than quantity.

            Or we could just have the definition of “publish” in the ultimatum be as broad as it currently is, while unreplicated results are not “published” in your sense. For example, academia could continue to honour as yet unreplicated findings, even if they are no longer published in the usual places.

            There also has to be on outlet- albeit a different tier for the “this is what we postulated, this was our research, here are the results showing our proposition was faulty for the following reason” researchers. It avoids unnecessary duplication of work by other teams. As you well know, negative information can be just a valuable as a positive result.

            On the one hand, work can be retracted; on the other, it can be independently refuted. It’s not clear the former leads to less harm being done among non-scientists’ opinions in the long run, even if it does save money. But as in your previous post, you deplore the low levels of replication while also suggesting policies that would cut further the occurrence of those studies which have a chance of achieving replication.

            It should be standard practise to have claims made to be independently duplicated and verified before publication. The communication tools are available nowadays and should be used. The filters currently in place are too course to sort out the verifiable claims from unverified claims.

            I don’t buy into your “publish this, communicate but as yet don’t publish that” idea, or its distinction between publication and mere communication. It’s important medical policies not be based on unreplicated findings, and in fact they are not. But given that they’re not, why is it so important that the early stages of a question’s investigation be hushed up? While modern technology might allow only a carefully selected small readership for early studies, it probably won’t encourage research in response. That’s not a plausible outcome, given the sociology of science. Part of the reason publishing all studies in the same journals helps is because it makes the early studies famous enough for responses to them to be good for one’s career.

            There are currently also no real filters currently in place stopping unscrupulous researchers making a career of publishing unsubstantiated claims and living comfortably from those (false) claims. They continue to sell their rubbish onto a gullible, but hungry for new technology public or business interested in commercialization, by continuously falling through the cracks.

            So what you’re saying is that the as yet uncaught Andrew Wakefields of the world dishonestly accrue salaries because modern humans use the World Wide Web? You might be right, but it’s a leap to suppose this so undermines not only the practice of science but specifically its public perception as to be as chief reason so many people trust… well, literally the Andrew Wakefields of this world, funnily enough. I can understand why famously bad science would reduce trust in good science, but not why it leads to greater trust in bad science.

            the downside with the current system is that the work of reputable researchers and true innovators gets besmirched by the bad apples leading the public at large to become very sceptical regarding anything scientific as an undesired side effect.

            Except that’s not what’s happening at all? Why are so many wrong things believed? Not because they were refuted in science that was late to the trust-eroding party, but because certain journalists exaggerated the scientific credentials of their origins. To avoid repeating the MMR example, look at the myriad of things the Daily Mail correlates (positively or negatively) with cancer. People dimly remember a minority of the articles, then trust what they said. They don’t tire of their inconsistencies to the point where they assume future stories are baseless.

          • As you wrote Jos, we probably do agree on more things we disagree upon. I’m not privy to your background, so can’t really properly appreciate your perspective.

            My perspective is from a business and commercialization of technology side. I would like to see the fruits of genuine verifiable research brought forth into the public realm to improve the lot not only of humanity, but also to sustain the planet. We are very wasteful and could always do better and its R&D is the key.

            Access to the WWW by the semi educated and amateur dabblers in the sciences allows charlatans to flourish. Humans seem to be wired to accept the preposterous and outrages more so than the simple solution that doesn’t make waves. Similarly to the Mega Churches finding more resonance with the masses than atheist gatherings..

            Whereas in the old days “peer reviewed journals” held sway and sorted out the chaff from the wheat, now the situation is such that too much chaff is making its way into the wheat.

            Could you back that up?

            I though I did in my first post citing the article in Nature and used as an example. “Drug Development: Raise Standards for preclinical cancer research” where the quality of PUBLISHED preclinical drug trials is questioned.

            Whereas the devil lies in the details, exactly how to optimize an ideal system taking all the various nuances into account, from a practical perspective just recognizing we could probably do better and start implementing some form of change recognizing that we live in a dynamic world is better than the status quo. I’d look forward to sharing a favourite beverage with you to discuss this fascinating and important subject. jcw

            In reply to #28 by Jos Gibbons:*

            In reply to #27 by kaiserkriss:

            We may agree on more things than either of us initially thought concerning what needs to be improved in science or how it could be done, although I’ll continue to point out “the problem with that is…” However, I also think two separate issues risk being mixed up he…

          • In reply to #29 by kaiserkriss:

            I would like to see the fruits of genuine verifiable research brought forth into the public realm to improve the lot not only of humanity, but also to sustain the planet. We are very wasteful and could always do better and its R&D is the key. Access to the WWW by the semi educated and amateur dabblers in the sciences allows charlatans to flourish.

            Well, this is the thing; how do we make science more accessible but insulate normal people from less well-attested findings? We’ve discussed a two-tier publication option that only helps if the lower tier is less publicly accessible, at least until a specific study is replicated.

            I though I did in my first post citing the article in Nature

            I was asking for something to back up your contention there has been a historical decline in the quality of wheat-from-chaff separation on the part of the journals, not the observation that, in a time period of your choice, a field of your choice has published a lot that went unreplicated.

  11. Jos Gibbons 18 above :

    Especially when you consider that some popular misconceptions, such as vaccines causing autism, are based on a single study that not only went unreplicated but was eventually thoroughly debunked – indeed, exposed as fraud.

    I assume that Jos is referring to Andrew Wakefield and quite rightly so ! That man caused a lot of unnecessary harm, and is quite unapologetic about it.

    • Indeed I agree: If the work had stood the test of duplication before publication, the whole fiasco could have been avoided! jcw

      In reply to #19 by Mr DArcy:

      Jos Gibbons 18 above :

      Especially when you consider that some popular misconceptions, such as vaccines causing autism, are based on a single study that not only went unreplicated but was eventually thoroughly debunked – indeed, exposed as fraud.

      I assume that Jos is referring to Andrew Wakefield a…

  12. ISN’T IT IRONIC that among all the absolutely provable, non-debatable medical achievements that have prolonged life, quality of living and avoidance of disease – vaccinations – should be a target of a segment of those labeled “conspiracy theorists”?
    I can understand, to some degree, when the situation is murky… when the data are sparse… studies flawed… conflicting expert opinion in the field… and the side the government is taking is supported by ex-legislator lobbyists… and all the other proverbial red-flags, but of course, such is not the case.

    No the bulk o’ conspiracy theories clearly stem from a deep routed suspicion, bordering on paranoia among those who believe or promote them. It is very easy to see similarities in the hyper-religious… the fundamentalists… who see this world as flawed, evil and completely disposable, ruled by unseen demons from the depths (whatever that means)… always plotting to siphon their eternal souls.

    It also may be an overcompensation and simplification to the torrent of stimuli of modern life… to all the factoids that the media spews, with too little context. A way for the less educated or very biased to gain some control and put the “authorities” in their place… and obtain some anxiety reducing certainty, in the midst of their untethered angst.

    Oh well… Americans are a bizarre lot… believe in all sorts o’ nonsense: ghosts, psychics, mediums, hauntings… prophesy… creation myths… alien visitations and abductions… supernatural beings, prayer and faith-healing… and just about every huckster, ranting televangelist has a willing patronage. Conspiracy theory is just another facet of fear-mongering. At it’s core are the gullible, with their inability to assess the evidence in a reasoned manner, due to either indoctrination, ignorance, lack of education… or just to be part of their particular herd.

    SOMETIMES there is a tiny grain o’ truth in it… but usually not a lot of harm, unless it reaches the public policy level; e.g. involves the rock-solid public heath policy of vaccination.
    GOT SMALLPOX ? (Jenner, 1798)

  13. A study was actually done on tinfoil hats (I remember reading a few years ago – citation needed) to see if they repel RF waves, and it was found they tend to CONCENTRATE the radio waves. Which spawned a new conspiracy theory that the tinfoil hat idea was PLANTED by the government so they could control the thoughts of those who ‘were on to them’…!

  14. If replicated and confirmed, this should nail some anti-vax nonsense!

    Autism ‘begins long before birth’ – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26750786

    Scientists say they have new evidence that autism begins in the womb.

    Patchy changes in the developing brain long before birth may cause symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), research suggests.

    The study, in the New England Journal of Medicine, raises hopes that better understanding of the brain may improve the lives of children with autism.

    It reinforces the need for early identification and treatment, says a University of California team.

    US scientists analysed post-mortem brain tissue of 22 children with and without autism, all between two and 15 years of age.

    They used genetic markers to look at how the outermost part of the brain, the cortex, wired up and formed layers.

    Abnormalities were found in 90% of the children with autism compared with only about 10% of children without.

    The changes were dotted about in brain regions involved in social and emotional communication, and language, long before birth, they say.

    The researchers, from the University of California, San Diego and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, say their patchy nature may explain why some toddlers with autism show signs of improvement if treated early enough.

    They think the plastic infant brain may have a chance of rewiring itself to compensate.

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