Conspiracy Theories and Medicine: Why Such Bedfellows?
A new study has found that half of Americans endorse at least one medicine-based conspiracy theory.
June 28, 2012 --
Today the Supreme Court upheld the 2010 health care law in a dramatic victory for President Barack Obama. The lead up to today's decision has prompted debate between opponents and supporters of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act two years ago. Take a look at how we got to the health care system we have in place today.
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Prior to the 20th century, nothing even close to what could be called a health care system existed in the United States. Although the Civil War had led to some medical breakthroughs in terms of surgical techniques and pain management, medical knowledge, techniques and treatment availability at the time left little hope that patients would actually recover from severe ailments. As NPR's Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson point out, medical treatments may have been downright medieval at the time, consisting of potions. But at least it was cheap. "In 1900, the average American spent $5 a year on health care ($100 in today's money)," they note in their report.
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In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was the first presidential candidate to get behind the idea of a national health insurance plan. Roosevelt ultimately didn't win election that year. Proponents of government-provided health care tried to press the issue through state initiatives, only to see their efforts fail in 16 states. Roosevelt's plan may have certainly been ahead of its time, particularly since there weren't that many services that doctors could actually provide patients during that era.
At the same time, however, developments within the medical community changed the face of the industry. The horrors of World War I led to advances in the areas of wound care, sanitation, pain management and more, according to an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Hospitals in the United States began to widely adopt the practice of using antiseptics to sanitize their facilities, preventing the possibility of medical personnel or patients becoming exposed to infection. That decade also saw the introduction of the first employer group insurance contracts (though not specifically for health insurance) as well as the first physician service and industrial health plans.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming made one of the most important discoveries in the history of medicine: penicillin, a life-saving drug used to treat countless millions. It would be decades, however, before penicillin would be mass-produced. Fleming's discovery was the signature achievement in an era that saw medical treatment become more effective, and, as a result, expensive. The Great Depression also fueled concerns about affordability of medical treatment as millions of Americans suddenly found themselves out of work. In 1929, Baylor Hospital provided the first group health insurance plan in the United States through an agreement with Dallas-area teachers. The plan was the forerunner of Blue Cross. The effort wasn't just meant to be in the best interests of patients, but also the hospitals. Patient facilities saw more empty beds as fewer patients during the Great Depression could afford treatment without participating in these collective prepaid health insurance plans.
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As part of his push to create a social safety net for Americans during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated the passage of national health insurance. Roosevelt pushed ahead with efforts to pass Social Security first, a bill which intentionally omitted any mention of medical care to ensure its passage. Harry Truman attempted to carry on Roosevelt's legacy in 1945 by calling on Congress to create such a program. His efforts failed, partly due to criticism by the American Medical Association (AMA), who called the plan "socialized medicine." In this photo taken in 1937, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt examines a chart of enrollment of health care insurance plans.
Like its predecessor, World War II would lead to new medical advancements, including the widespread adoption of antibiotics and the use of ultrasound. The war would also have a similar effect in terms of the spread of employer-sponsored health plans. Because the nation was in a state of emergency and had a legally mandated wage freeze as a result, employers had to attract workers to assist the war effort by providing them with benefits, including health insurance. Tax laws passed between 1943 and 1945 also gave breaks to employers who provided insurance to their employees, which gave businesses all the more incentive to offer coverage. Following the war, employer-sponsored health insurance became common. In 1951, around 77 million Americans had some kind of coverage, according to an insurance industry trade group. That era also saw one of the most celebrated medical achievements in history: Jonas Salk's polio vaccine.
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Although health insurance was widely available to employed Americans in the mid-20th century, the unemployed and the elderly were often excluded from these plans. President John F. Kennedy campaigned on the issue of insuring these groups. President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded where Kennedy left off, securing the passage of a bill through Congress creating Medicare and Medicaid. At the bill-signing ceremony, shown here, Johnson presented former president Truman with the nation's first Medicare card. Within the medical industry itself, an increasing number of doctors began specializing in certain fields of medicine rather than acting as general physicians. By 1960, more than two-thirds of doctors reported themselves as full-time specialists, rather than general practitioners.
Starting with Richard Nixon in 1970, presidents have offered successive plans for covering the nation's uninsured, but they have have stalled for different reasons. In 1974, Nixon put forward a plan to cover all Americans through private insurance, only to have the Watergate scandal force him out of office. An economic crisis prevented Jimmy Carter from pushing forward with a national health plan. Congress late in Reagan's second term attempted to expand Medicare, only to have the law repealed the following year. Bill Clinton had a 1,300-page health care reform bill that was never even taken up for a vote in Congress. Since Nixon's presidency, health care costs have continued to rise, often outpacing inflation. This increase is due to a number of factors, including the increased use of new medical technologies for diagnosis and treatment. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed by President Barack Obama was intended to cover the 30 million Americans who live without health insurance, according to the bill's authors. It has been the most far-reaching piece of health care legislation since Johnson's signed the legislation creating the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs.
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According to a study by two social scientists from the University of Chicago, about half of Americans endorse a medical conspiracy.
An article in the Los Angeles Times noted, "Fully 37 percent of those surveyed endorsed the belief that the FDA, under pressure from pharmaceutical companies, is suppressing natural cures for cancer and other diseases, and 31 percent said they 'neither agree nor disagree' with that idea, the researchers found.... One in five of those surveyed said they agreed that physicians and the government 'still want to vaccinate children even though they know these vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders.'"
Many claim that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Another widely-held conspiracy claims that AIDS was created by the CIA as a way to kill African Americans through vaccination programs. In this study, 12 percent endorsed that belief, while 37 percent neither agreed nor disagreed; only 51 percent of respondents rejected that conspiracy theory.
Filmmaker Spike Lee told Rolling Stone magazine in 1992, "I'm convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease… they never realized it couldn't just be contained to the groups it was intended to wipe out." Actor Will Smith, in a 1998 interview in the same magazine, shared Lee's belief: "AIDS was created as a result of biological warfare testing. … Someone was messing around in a laboratory, trying to find biological weapons, and created AIDS." (More information on these and other medical conspiracy theories can be found in folklorist Patricia Turner's book "I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture.")
Though conspiracy theories come in many varieties, those involving medicine and health are among the most prevalent. In his "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends," folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand notes that "Unwarranted fears about poisonous or infectious materials are reflected in a number of legends.
For example the claim that aluminum in cookware or in some antiperspirants can cause Alzheimer's disease or another major consequence has been rejected by scientists as a 'case of neuromythology.'... Serious diseases like AIDS and SARS, but especially the Ebola virus, have been the subject of rumors and legends."
Why such widespread belief in medicine-based conspiracy theories?
For one thing, peddling medical conspiracy theories can be enormously profitable. The highest-profile example is probably Kevin Trudeau, a pitchman best known for appearing in infomercials selling conspiracy-laden best-sellers like "Natural Cures 'They' Don’t Want You to Know About."
Trudeau made millions claiming to reveal important medical and dietary information kept secret by a conspiracy between the medical establishment and big drug companies. Earlier this week Trudeau was sentenced to 10 years in prison; upon sentencing, the judge called Trudeau, who had a previous conviction for fraud, "deceitful to the very core."
With so much money to be made promoting these medical conspiracies by Trudeau and other authors and talk show hosts, it's not surprising that they're so widespread. As conspiracy theory promoters are fond of saying, "Follow the money."
The Internet has also been instrumental in spreading conspiracies. Seth Kalichman, a professor at the University of Connecticut Center for HIV, writes in his book "Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy," that "AIDS denialists share much in common with 9/11 Truth groups and those who doubt that man ever landed on the moon. All conspiracy theories link a corrupt government with big business to hoax the American public."
Kalichman blames the Internet for the spread of the medical conspiracies: "The Internet has made pseudoscience as accessible, or perhaps even more accessible, than quality medical science. The most easily accessed pseudoscience is delivered by AIDS denialist journalists who often write commentaries for various online magazines, as well as maintain their own websites. Even South African president Thabo Mbeki is said to have solidified his HIV/AIDS denialist views by accessing and ultimately buying into denialist websites."
A new study has found that half of Americans endorse at least one medicine-based conspiracy theory. iStockPhoto
Another reason that many accept medical conspiracies is that they're plausible and seem to have a grain of truth to them. Suspicions about motives of governments and big business are legitimate and healthy.
The government does not always work in the best interest of its citizens, and huge industries ("Big Oil," "Big Pharma," etc.) are indeed motivated by making a profit (as was conspiracy peddler and convicted felon Kevin Trudeau). The U.S. government has done unethical and illegal things ranging from biomedical research to unwarranted surveillance.
It is undeniable that some doctors and some medical corporations have in the past acted unethically. Examples include shameful events like the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which hundreds of poor, illiterate black men were denied treatment for syphilis by government agencies in a medical study that spanned decades, and recently-revealed American syphilis experiments conducted in Guatemala in the late 1940s.
Thus, for many people it seems like a small leap from genuine wrongs committed by those acting on behalf of governments and powerful corporations to endorsing conspiracy theories. But it's actually a big leap, and that leap requires evidence, not just speculation and theories.
Some may laugh off these beliefs as silly or harmless, but in some cases conspiracy theories have done very real damage to innocent people: For example in the past few years dozens of polio vaccination workers in Pakistan were attacked and murdered because of conspiracy rumors that they were intentionally spreading disease or even trying to abduct children for their organs.