Debunking Medical Myth and “Viral BS”

Dr. Seema Yasmin is an MD, epidemiologist, and former disease detective with the Centers for Disease Control (cool job alert) who works in health journalism, doing what NHS doctor Ben Goldacre has implored other doctors and scientists to do: “translating” dense medical studies and scientific data so that the general public can more easily understand them.

This serves such an important purpose, since Instagram wellness influencers and woo peddlers have a much easier time of distilling information and making it easily palatable, whereas most people don’t have the ability or training to sift through medical data and studies to extract what’s important.

In Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall for Them, Dr. Yasmin analyzes 46 myths, stories, conspiracy theories, bits of misinformation or misinterpreted data, pseudoscience beliefs, wellness woo, and outright falsehoods to explain what’s actually relevant for health, patient empowerment, and what important areas accurate data can elucidate. I’m always in support of this topic, and I liked that Yasmin focuses on popular, highly visible topics that grab a lot of headlines or attention in social media posts. Her reasoning was interesting as well: during her work as a disease detective tracking epidemics, she “was confronted with strange pathogens and stranger human behaviors and beliefs.” We’ve seen this strange behavior more than ever this past year, but it’s hardly new.

Among the topics covered are ebola, the fascinating-but-horrifying history behind the dangerous anti-vaxxer movement and its origins, chemtrails, placenta eating, magical-seeming supplements, the misguided concept of detoxing, and flat tummy teas. The most interesting to me were questions around social phenomena such as whether suicide is contagious (actually a lot of interesting if alarming information about suicide here) and differences in treatment and patient outcomes by female and male doctors.

I did have a couple of issues, namely that the author sometimes seems to cherry-pick studies, or else doesn’t flesh out why the information she’s selecting from the relevant studies is more broadly applicable. I say “seems to” because each chapter is fairly short, meaning that most of this isn’t explored in-depth. Rather, she follows the format of laying out the myth and its origins, debunking it, and explaining something around the dangers of the misinformation or cultural context in which it proliferated. Sadly, too often this has to do with an understandable mistrust that’s arisen from long-seated racism and historical mistreatment of people of color and economically weakened communities.

I also think a large part, though not all, of this spread of misinformation is due to the lack of access many Americans have to affordable healthcare, and I would’ve liked to see that addressed in some capacity. It’s part of why I’m so interested in the topic — for many years my best access to health information was the free kind, and it’s easy to feel like you’re doing “research” but not always easy to distinguish if you’re using reputable sources or how those sources came to their conclusions. She includes a “bullshit detection kit” — a list of ways to determine the truthfulness of what you’re reading or hearing, that everyone can benefit from consulting.

And I think each myth was explored briefly in order to include more of them, which is commendable. There’s so much bullshit so readily available that we should take any opportunity to tackle as much of it as possible. But it suffers from a feeling of brushing too quickly past some of these, since the lie is often more memorable or deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness than the truth. I didn’t need convincing as I’m already in agreement with her, but I could see the more stubborn purveyors of said viral BS finding weak spots.

I also found some of the explanations a bit drily written, which again, I think can be attributed to brevity. Or that these were actually originally written as a newspaper column, which I suppose could explain the space constraints and straightforward tone. When she does include personal anecdotes, like from her work or childhood with Indian and Muslim family members holding cultural beliefs that show how certain influences are rooted, it was more memorable.

Because I’ll read anything I can find on the debunking topics and have been trying to educate myself better about medical myth, I’ve already encountered most of these in one form or text or another so I can’t be wildly enthusiastic about it for that alone. If you’re well versed in this information already you might feel like you’re reading too many of the same explanations as well. One chapter about the history of MSG and its demonization was something I was glad to have learned in Eight Flavors, for example, but that I hope others could benefit from learning about. So I still think this is a very important book, especially if you need a good starting point for accessible debunking, or as a reference to return to. If only books like this got as much attention as the social media posts that make debunking necessary in the first place.

Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall for Them
by Seema Yasmin
published January 12, 2021 by Johns Hopkins University Pres
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I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

15 thoughts on “Debunking Medical Myth and “Viral BS”

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  1. This sounds really good…and timely! We all can use a good BS medical meter these days.

    I am so blessed to be married to a microbiologist and don’t take it for granted that I can turn to him with a question about the efficacy of certain practices and treatments and get an immediate response. Sometimes he’ll just smile at a particularly loony one and say, “If it makes you feel good, do it. But if you’re asking me if it has any biological effectiveness, don’t waste your time or money.” He’ll then give me the science, which after 15 seconds loses me. But, I’m so lazy now I don’t even Google things anymore😏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s perfect timing, isn’t it! You are so very lucky to have him to explain those kind of things, and I bet it’s also made you able to spot the loonier ones quicker. Once you start learning about the science behind things skepticism becomes your go-to and I think that’s how it should be in approaching any of these kind of claims. Gullibility has gotten us in so much trouble with this kind of stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ugh they are!! I don’t even know how they get away with some of their claims. And I think lots of people have the idea that if it’s allowed in ads or on TV or on a website (of all things!) that it’s totally credible. This is why we are where we are, of course, but it’s so frustrating and disappointing.

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  2. This sounds like an excellent primer and introduction, so maybe not the ideal book for someone who knows more about the issues, but great for dispelling myths in general. I am glad I had a solid education as a librarian which taught me about sources and their relative values, but it’s scary what people will read and believe in dodgy sources.

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    1. Absolutely, it would make a perfect primer, especially since these are topics that nearly everyone has definitely heard of at some point. Having that kind of solid research background is such an asset! But even without it, it disturbs me what people will believe, as if the internet publishes nothing but truth…

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  3. My husband’s coworker once told him if he got the flu shot that it would make him sterile. Being that we don’t want kids, my husband’s response was, “Give me two!” 😛
    But seriously, I’m constantly have to dispel vaccination myths to patients as a pharmacy technician.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha seriously, I’ll take one too!! Where do they come up with this shit? I can’t even imagine what you have to deal with in your work. It amazes me how willing people are to believe any rando yet doctors and scientists are immediately suspect. The anti-vaccine one is particularly galling because vaccines are a major reason why we’ve had so many years of the “normal” people are currently clamoring for. But sure, believe all this bs from this Wakefield idiot.

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      1. Or, they’ll believe one obscure doctor that is saying something different from all the other doctors, as the hidden truth that the government doesn’t want you to know.
        It has never made me more thankful to not fall into the gullible/dumb category in life.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds really interesting – I’m fascinated and horrified by how easily healthcare misinformation spreads. I do think that you might be right about affordable healthcare – my experience talking about health issues with American vs British people has led me to feel that even very bright and well-educated Americans can often believe stuff about the human body/medicine that your average Brit would just roll their eyes at. That’s probably because we are a nation of cynics, but also because of socialised healthcare and easy access to free information from healthcare professionals. (Not to say that we never have woo-peddlers here, but I don’t think it’s such a big problem).

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    1. I really think it’s a significant factor, and interesting that you’ve noticed something in relation to it as well (I did have to laugh at nation of cynics!). It’s also the case that many with health insurance in the US still can’t afford to see a doctor every time they really should, since co-pays and co-insurance costs can make that prohibitive if you think it’s something you can heal or fix on your own. I think that all makes it a widespread factor in causing people to research their own methods or turn to alternative sources and then misinformation gets out of control thanks to placebo effect, etc. Like you said, of course it’s elsewhere too, I saw it in Europe as well. But just nowhere near the scale here! And the majority of what she covers in the book is very US-centric. It’s a topic I would love to see explored further.

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  5. But it’s true that the Covid vaccine allows Bill Gates to gather all your personal data and make you buy stuff, I learnt this from Instagram and Facebook and Amazon which gather all our personal data and…oh wait! Duh!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The one I keep hearing is how they’ll be able to track you if you get the vaccine and I suppose (as this “logic” goes) that was the whole purpose of whatever shadowy nefarious force unleashed coronavirus on us. Nevermind that we’re already plenty trackable with our phones, which no one would dream of giving up, but sure sure sure sure sure.

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  6. Haha, I have to admit, I find it a bit demoralizing that even a book about debunking bad science myths was poorly cited. I love reading nonfiction so much in large part because I like to learn new things and it’s depressing to me that most of it isn’t even fact checked, much less well cited. I guess I’ll go ahead and file this under ‘things I would change if I were in charge’ :p

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