Johns Hopkins Univ., $ 24.95
How does misinformation spread? What causes medical myths and pseudosciences to become infected and infest quickly in society? Seema Yasmin, epidemiologist and author of a new book, Viral BS, has a diagnosis: the persuasive, persuasive power of storytelling. And, as Yasmin points out, "the more fantastic, the better."
Take the anecdote that opens the book: A woman in Texas demands an Ebola vaccine for her daughter since a deadly outbreak ravaged a continent in Africa in 2014. When the pediatrician tells her that there is no Ebola vaccine and that the her daughter is facing a much greater illness. flu risk, for which you can give him a vaccine, the mother assaults, "Flu vaccine ?! I don't believe in those things!"
Stories – like the ones this Texas woman may have heard, or perhaps told herself – help us find order in a world full of uncertainty. But when these stories don’t reflect reality, one can take a public illness of tenacious and absurd medical myths, Yasmin explains. His book aims to treat this disease with a dose of the virus itself: to tell stories and anecdotes that go beyond dry facts and figures to reveal the footprint power of pseudoscience.
Yasmin sets up her credentials in the book’s opener: Doctor, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, a former epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to build trust among readers. But really, it is his pseudoscience anecdotes in his own education that linger. His Indian-born grandmother told him that the landing on the moon was false; as a child, Yasmin prayed to the “moon without walking” to have clarity and vision. Once Yasmin and his cousins secretly listened to Michael Jackson’s songs for signs of worship to Satan, an older cousin claimed they were there. “Raised on conspiracy theories,” he writes, “I understand why a patient may refuse medication, say chemtrails are poisons, or avoid vaccines, even though I mean the public health implications of these beliefs and behaviors.”
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Each chapter answers a question in a few pages of meaningless basics. The book addresses a number of questions that have spread from the internet to dinner tables in recent years. Include: Is there lead in lipstick? Do vaccines cause autism? Has the U.S. government banned research on armed violence (SN: 14/05/16, p. 16)? Analyze pseudoscientific responses that become difficult to shake and review related research that presents the truth. The antidote is easy to swallow, thanks to Yasmin’s approach.
For example: Should you eat your baby's placenta? In the sucker three pages of Chapter 2, Yasmin points to celebrities like Kim Kardashian who say eating placentas helped us postpartum recovery. Then Yasmin quickly moves on to studies that have found no medical benefits. In fact, studies point to potential damage from practice, as the organ can carry feces, inflammatory cells, and bacteria (SN Online: 28/07/17).
He doesn’t punch, referring to doctors who claim to be able to cure autism as “charlatans” who offer expensive, unproven, and sometimes dangerous practices. The children died, Yasmin writes, after receiving the Miracle Mineral Solution as a cure for autism. The solution is actually industrial bleach. He rejects the over-prescription of vitamin D supplements for everything from obesity to cancer (SN: 2/2/19, p. 16), showing that there is no evidence of a benefit, at least not yet.
Some of the issues he addresses seem ridiculous at first glance, such as "Can a pill make racists less racist?" Actress Roseanne Barr claimed that the drug Ambien made her post a racist tweet in 2018. Yasmin analyzes the opposite notion, sparked by a 2012 study that linked heart disease medications to a reduction in racial bias. She explains how drugs affect the body and how researchers have tested racial bias. So it shifts to the dangers of trying to medicalize racism, which is not a medical phenomenon.
The book ends with a “shit detection kit,” a list of 12 helpful tips to keep in mind when weighing the credibility of a title, research study, or tweet. Some of the questions to consider are: Who is funding the person or organization making the claim? Have non-source affiliates verified a claim? She explains how to perform a reverse online search on an image to determine if it has been examined and know its original source. This list will be especially relevant for those who browse all the misinformation that revolves around COVID-19.
Readers will come out of this book with a deeper understanding of what research studies can and cannot say and the effects that stories and celebrities have on whether someone internalizes a health claim. Some readers may prefer more background science to each question: for a book that seeks to crush pseudoscience, a bibliography, or at least footnotes, would have been helpful. But perhaps this omission is part of Yasmin’s broadest point. For informal readers, references and statistics lose their mark. Instead, anecdotes in easy-to-swallow doses may be just the right amount of information and stories needed to stop the spread of viral BS.
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