Sunday, August 8, 2021

Book Report on Viral BS, by Dr. Seema Yasmin

Dr. Seema Yasmin, pictured above

    In Viral BS, Dr. Seema Yasmin explains how conspiracy theories and pseudoscience come to be so easily accepted in the world and how they can affect us. She explains that we like to hear the sensational, dramatic, and scary 'news' much more than the boring old truth. This, combined with how humans react more to stories than facts, leads to people clearly remembering conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, while the actual science is forgotten or ignored. With her focus on being on medicine, she discusses how 'boring' illnesses like the flu are often ignored, while 'novel' illnesses like ebola capture our attention and scare us. As we know, the flu is much more of an issue in America than ebola, yet people were much more scared of ebola than they would ever be of the flu. Humans aren't very good at calculating risk, and a lot of the time our emotions will overtake our logical reasoning. This leads to unnecessary panic and the spread of misinformation, which in the field of medicine can be very harmful. She notes how stories and (mis)information can spread faster than any disease, and determined that in order to help solve this issue she would need to fight fire with fire, or rather stories with stories. She then begins to tell the stories of dozens of (in)famous health myths, both how they came to be and how true they are. These range from how Instagram fitness teas are myths and potentially dangerous scams, to how a morning sickness pill prescribed to pregnant women really did cause thousands of babies to be born with birth defects. She does a very good job analyzing and breaking down these many myths, allowing you to see where misinformation can originate and how the truth can sometimes be stretched quite far.

While there are many interesting myths to learn about, one of my favorite aspects of this book is not a specific myth but instead a specific theme. This theme is how history greatly affects belief, and some of the myths she discusses correlate directly to this. She explains how nobody wants to talk about the dark, horrible things that have been done in the past. This breeds conspiracy theories and pseudoscience more than anything else, and due to these ideas being 'based' on history they have more foundation than most other pseudoscience. For example, there are two myths in the book that address this theme. The first one is regarding the maker of aspirin, Bayer, and the possibility that they did human testing in Nazi concentration camps. The second is regarding the United States government and military, and the possibility that they injected people with syphilis and gonorrhea. Both of these myths have to do with horrible events in history, and both have directly affected the beliefs of people who are connected to them in some way. For the first myth, there is evidence to suggest that aspirin was created by a Jewish scientist in a German company (now known as Bayer), however, because this was when Hitler was in control of Germany, the credit for the first synthesis of aspirin was given to a lab technician instead. There are also reports from concentration camp survivors that Bayer scientists were giving them unknown pills and injections. We won't know what really happened, because nobody wants to go back and reexamine dark times in history. We tend to prefer forgetting the bad instead of examining it to find the truth. The second myth, however, is undoubtedly true. The US military and the US National Institute of Health were involved in studies where people were injected with these diseases. There were three experiments done: one on consenting American prisoners, one on nonconsenting Guatemalans, and one on nonconsenting black American citizens. Some of the people in these studies didn't even know they had a disease, instead, they were told that they were being treated for "bad blood". Others knew they had a disease and thought they were being treated for it when they were instead just monitored so the effects of the disease could be recorded. Many died because of the disease given to them by the US government's scientists. With both of these horrible situations, people's beliefs are affected. People who survived the holocaust aren't going to trust Bayer or their products, knowing they may have been experimenting on prisoners. People who grow up where the US government conducted unethical human testing aren't going to trust scientists and doctors the way people who live elsewhere would. These beliefs are much stronger than your typical political conspiracy theory because they are based on events that occurred, instead of just pure speculation. After reading that the US government infected people with diseases and let them die, it isn't very surprising that people in Liberia thought ebola was caused by the United States, as mentioned by the author.

Overall, it seems like Dr. Seema Yasmin has the right idea of fighting stories with stories. This concept can and should be applied to all myths, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories. Instead of insulting people who have flawed beliefs, it would be much more beneficial if you tell them the story of the truth. As the author mentioned, a story is much more memorable than a fact, so use the facts with the story instead of just listing facts and telling them that they are wrong. While nobody will ever agree on everything, at least with this method everyone can learn from each other instead of just disagreeing and debating. As a last note, the author describes a process she calls the "Bullshit Detection Kit" to prevent the spread of scientific lies. Below is a video regarding Carl Sagan's "Fine Art of Baloney Detection", off of which her system is based.

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