Doctor and author Seema Yasmin fights misinformation with a dose of stories
Can Vitamin D Help Fight Pneumonia? A new book addresses these and other medical myths.
How is false information spread? What causes medical myths and pseudoscience to quickly infect and settle in society? Seema Yasmin, an epidemiologist and author of a new book, Viral BS, has a diagnosis:
the ubiquitous, compelling 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 as a deadly outbreak in 2014 rages a continent away in Africa.
When the pediatrician tells her that there is no Ebola vaccine and that her daughter is at great risk of the flu, for which he can give her a vaccine, the mother bursts out: “Flu vaccine ?! I don’t believe in those things! Stories – as this Texas woman may have heard, or may have said to herself – help us find order in a world of uncertainty.
But when these stories don’t reflect reality, there can be a public ills of persistent and absurd medical myths. Yasmin explains Her book aims to treat this disease with a dose of the virus itself: stories and anecdotes that go beyond dry facts and figures to reveal the adhesive power of pseudoscience. opener of the book – physician, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, former epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to build trust among readers.
upbringing that lingered in. Her Indian-born grandmother told her the moon landing was fake, as a child, Yasmin prayed to the eden on the moon “for clarity and vision. Yasmin and her cousins once secretly listened to Michael Jackson songs for signs of Satan worship – which an older cousin claimed were there. “Growing up on conspiracy theories,” she writes, “I understand why a patient might refuse drugs, say chemtrails are poisons, or shun vaccines, even if I avoid the public health implications of these beliefs and behaviors. go. “
Each chapter answers a question in a few pages of no-nonsense basics. The book addresses a slew of questions that have spread from the Internet to dining tables in recent years. These include: Is there lead in your lipstick? Do Vaccines Cause Autism? Has the US government banned investigations into gun violence (SN: 5/14/16, p. 16)? She analyzes the pseudoscientific answers that are hard to shake and assesses 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 three light-hearted pages of Chapter 2, Yasmin refers to celebrities like Kim Kardashian who say that eating their placenta helped them recover after childbirth. Then Yasmin quickly moves on to studies that have found no medical benefits.
In fact, studies point to potential harm from practice, as the organ can carry feces, inflammatory cells and bacteria (SN Online: 7/28/17). She doesn’t pull fists, referring to doctors who claim to be able to cure autism as “charlatans” who offer expensive, unproven and sometimes dangerous practices. Children have died, Yasmin writes, after receiving Miracle Mineral Solution as a remedy for autism. The solution is actually industrial bleach.
She dismisses over-enthusiastic prescription of vitamin D supplements for everything from obesity to cancer (SN: 2/2/19, p. 16), showing that the evidence of a benefit isn’t there, at least not yet. Some of the issues she addresses seem ridiculous at first glance, such as “Could a pill make racists less racist?” Actress Roseanne Barr claimed the drug Ambien caused her to post a racist tweet in 2018.
Yasmin looks at the opposite idea, fueled by a 2012 study linking heart disease medications to a reduction in racial prejudice. She explains how the drugs affect the body and how researchers test for racial bias. Then she turns to the dangers of trying to medicalize racism, which is not a medical phenomenon.
The book ends with a tear-out “bullshit detection kit,” a list of 12 helpful tips to keep in mind when weighing the credibility of a headline, research, or tweet. Questions to ask include: Who is funding the person or organization making the claim? Has a claim been verified by those not affiliated with the source? She explains how to perform a reverse online search on an image to determine if it has been manipulated and identify the original source.
This list will be particularly relevant to those navigating all of the disinformation swirling around COVID-19. Readers will leave this book with a deeper understanding of what research studies can and cannot say, and the effects storytelling and celebrity stories have on whether someone internalizes a health claim.
Some readers may prefer more background science to each question – for a book looking to destroy pseudoscience, a bibliography or at least footnotes would have been helpful. But perhaps this omission is part of Yasmin’s broader point. For casual readers, references and statistics miss the mark. Instead, anecdotes in easy-to-swallow doses can be just the right amount of information and stories needed to stop the spread of viral BS.