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 Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.