Exploring Medical Conspiracy Theories

Sep 18, 2013, 11:00 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

It’s easy to laugh off conspiracy theories. But what if studying them could tell us something new and important about what drives people’s health behavior?

Eric Oliver hopes to do just that. A professor of political science at the University of Chicago, Oliver has studied the origins and impact of political conspiracy theories. Now, with Pioneer’s support, he’s turning his attention to the realm of health, investigating medical conspiracy theories and how they influence people’s habits and decisions.

The Pioneer web team recently interviewed Oliver about his research; here’s an edited transcript of that exchange. You can also learn more about the grant here.

Pioneer: You've heard the old expression, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn't mean they aren’t out to get you.” Are conspiracy theories by definition always wrong?

Eric Oliver: They are not wrong per se. Conspiracies do sometimes occur (think of Nixon and Watergate). But as a researcher, I try to remain decidedly agnostic about the truth claims of conspiracy theories. Lily Tomlin once quipped, “What is reality but a collective hunch?”, and I generally agree that knowledge is socially constructed.

Pioneer: What do you hope to learn as a result of this research?

Oliver: I’m interested in how much of the population believes these narratives, why they believe them, and how these beliefs relate to their health behaviors. In particular, I’m fascinated why people adopt “transgressive” health beliefs, that is, ideas about medicine and health that are contrary to the predominant narratives coming from doctors and public health officials.

Pioneer: What are some of the conspiracy theories you will be exploring and how did you choose them?

Oliver: I’m generally interested in comparing conspiracy theories about health issues with those surrounding politics.  Some of the health conspiracy theories concern issues like vaccinations, suppression of natural cures for cancer, water fluoridation, genetically modified foods, and cell phones causing cancer. I got these from looking at various websites and news articles devoted to conspiracy theories.

Pioneer: When it comes to deciding what health information to trust, so much of it has to do with the messenger – whether you hear something from a friend, for example, or a doctor, or a celebrity. Will your research get at that? 

Oliver: Yes, we have a battery of items asking people where they get their health information from, including celebrities like Dr. Oz. Just as people who embrace political conspiracy theories tend to avoid mainstream news outlets, I’m also expecting people who embrace medical conspiracy theories to look to “alternative” sources of health information.

Pioneer: What’s the best way to combat a conspiracy theory that is wrong or even harmful?

First off, I don’t think most conspiracy theories are “harmful” in any direct way. They are really no different than believing in any other intentional, unseen force (such as God or the Devil).  Trying to convince someone that the conspiracy theory they believe in is “wrong” is another matter entirely…People who believe in conspiracy theories do so because conspiracy theories are more compelling explanations for many events and because they mistrust “experts” or other social institutions… If we think a conspiracy theory is generating harm (as in the case of vaccines), then we need to provide more clear and reasonable explanations of why.  Changing people’s minds is very difficult but the best way to do it is with clear and understandable information.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.