Monday, July 25, 2022

Book Report on "Viral BS" by Dr. Seema Yasmin


    The book Viral BS by Dr. Seema Yasmin was an interesting read in which medical myths and the public’s attraction to them are analyzed and discussed. Throughout Viral BS, Yasmin evaluates 46 medical myths that are still widely believed today. For each of the medical myths, Yasmin discusses the studies, biases, and heuristics that contribute to the acceptance of misinformation. Additionally, any faults or misleading factors involved in the research design are exposed by Yasmin. Therefore, revealing any influencing assumptions that led to the acceptance of the myth, while also teaching the reader how to analyze their own thinking. Throughout the book's discussion of the biases, heuristics, and fallacies that result in accurate beliefs, Yasmin encourages readers to be aware of their “fast thinking” tendencies when receiving and processing information. Additionally, Yasmin encourages readers to beware of claims and practices that are incompatible with the scientific method.

  As the integrity of the studies are discussed, Yasmin evaluates how accurately the researchers followed the scientific method. In many instances, Yasmin found that no control groups, or a poor selection of a control group, was used. Additionally, many of the studies supporting medical myths did not study comparisons to rule out other explanations. Therefore, despite having scientific-sounding language and cited ‘authorities,’ the extraordinary claims are not supported by evidence that is verifiable. Through questioning the validity of research, Yasmin illustrates to readers how to take caution against beliefs rooted in pseudoscience. Additionally, Yasmin provides readers with a concluding chapter entitled “Dr. Yasmin’s Bullshit Detection Kit,” in which 12 guidelines describing how to avoid scientific lies are given. Within this detection kit, Yasmin reminds readers to avoid fast thinking biases and heuristics through guidelines such as “don’t get overly attached to one hypothesis” and “are personal beliefs driving the claim” (Yasmin, 248). Additionally, guidelines questioning “can the findings be duplicated” and “has the claim been verified by people who are not affiliated with the source” remind readers to beware of pseudoscience and unscientific claims (Yasmin, 248). As pseudoscience relies on fast thinking tendencies, “Dr. Yasmin’s Bullshit Detection Kit” supplies readers with useful tips in avoiding medical myths and scientific lies. 

Favorite Part

    My favorite medical myth discussed in Viral BS is “can your cat’s poop make you better at business” because of how shocking I found the chapter’s title. Toxoplasma gondii, a brain parasite, can reproduce inside a cat’s gut (Yasmin, 194). An infected cat’s excreta sheds millions of parasites for up to three weeks. Usually from cleaning the cat’s litter box, many Americans are infected with Toxoplasma gondii every day. While some may be asymptomatic, others may experience flu-like symptoms, brain damage, or eye complications (Yasmin, 195). Additionally, “A growing number of studies are linking Toxoplasma gondii to mental disorders in humans”(Yasmin, 195). “In 2006, researchers found that people infected with the parasite were more likely to be neurotic”(Yasmin, 195). Additionally, it was found that people with psychiatric disorders who experience explosive anger are twice as likely to have been exposed to the pariste (Yasmin, 195). Researchers also found a link to exposure to the parasite and suicide, even in individuals with no history of mental illness (Yasmin, 196). In 2018, biologists at the University of Colorado studied if Toxoplasma gondii exposure could benefit people starting businesses due to the riskier behavior the pariste causes. “They found that students with antibodies to Toxoplasma gondii in their bodies were 1.4 times more likely to major in business studies and 1.7 times more likely to specialize in entrepreneurship” (Yasmin, 196). While it’s still poorly understood how the pariste impacts behavior, this hypothesis has become a medical myth with a surprisingly large following. 

Favorite Part Related

    Chapter 35’s discussion was my favorite part of Viral BS because of how unexpected the biologist’s business hypothesis is within this topic’s growing body of research. Despite little research being available on the impact of Toxoplasma gondii on behavior, this specific study has gained attention and favor. Due to this, I was reminded of the confirmation bias when reading this chapter. The confirmation bias describes how people tend to search and favor information that confirms one’s beliefs (Cherry, 2021). Due to this single study gaining so much attention and support despite the little research on how the pariste impacts behavior in general, the confirmation bias is at work within this medical myth. 

Additional Related Content

    Over the span of two decades, more than 300 studies have looked into the “July effect,” the belief that one’s chance of dying in a hospital increases in July due to the new incoming doctors and staff fresh out of their schooling (Yasmin, 216). The results of these studies are mixed, some supporting this claim, some finding no supporting evidence, and some claiming other factors contribute to the increase. Despite the research on this medical myth only offering conflicting results, the repetition of this myth has caused many people to regard the July effect as fact. The July effect is a factoid; an assumed statement presented as a fact despite not being statistically proven (Memmott, 2016). Despite the July effect not being supported by statistical evidence consistently, the medical myth is still widely believed. Fast thinking tendencies such as biases and heuristics contribute to an individual’s susceptibility to factoids and misinformation, such as the July effect. The availability heuristic describes the tendency to overestimate or underestimate the occurrence of something due to the ease in which information is retrieved, rather than statistical calculation (Gleason, 2021). The influence of emotional personal experiences and frequent exposure to information supporting a bias claim can contribute to one’s subconscious use of the availability heuristic (Gleason, 2021). For example, if an individual’s loved one died in a hospital in July, the availability heuristic may lead them to believe in the July effect. Additionally, news stories covering the July effect are more likely to address the number of July hospital deaths rather than the number of successfully treated patients in July. 

Extension & Creative Link 

    One of the discussions within Viral BS that I found interesting was chapter 16, in which Yasmin addresses a study claiming that hormonal contraceptives cause depression. In chapter 16 of Viral BS, Yasmin discussed a study published in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Psychiatry  which caused panic among women that oral contraceptives cause depression. The study stated that each year, 2.2% of women using hormonal birth control were likely to begin using antidepressants, compared to 1.7% of women not using hormonal contraceptives (Yasmin, 2021). Additionally, the study found that 0.3% of women using hormonal contraceptives were diagnosed with depression, compared to 0.28% of women not using hormonal birth control (Yasmin, 2021). Yasmin states that the methodology of comparing women who use hormonal contraceptives to those who don’t introduces issues such as differences in the group’s willingness to take medication and medical care access: “What epidemiologists worry about is that any variation in the rate of depression between the two groups could be explained by differences like these as opposed to hormonal contraceptives”(Yasmin, 88). Yasmin described this issue as a poor choice for a control group, stating that it would be more accurate and useful to compare hormonal contraceptive users to non-hormonal contraceptive users. Yasmin also mentioned that “about half of all people taking antidepressants are taking it for something other than depression”(Yasmin, 89). Therefore, assuming a subject’s use of antidepressants is for depression could skew results. Additionally, Yasmin found that women were excluded from the study during pregnancy and for six months after having a baby with the intent of avoiding the influence of postpartum depression. However, as women who are not using hormonal contraceptives are more likely to become pregnant and experience postpartum depression, this exclusion could skew the study’s results (Yasmin, 90).

    Despite the specific study addressed in the reading being deemed inaccurate, the notion that hormonal contraceptives cause depression isn’t entirely debunked. The mixed findings of existing contraceptive research, which results in widespread panic and confusion, are a result of sexism in the medical field (Pattillo, 2019). Yasmin’s discussion of the American Medical Association’s contraceptive study addresses the ongoing issue of medical sexism in contraceptive research. Medical sexism refers to the discriminatory treatment of women in the medical field (Rogen, 2019). In the area of contraceptives, medical sexism exists in the lack of responsible and reliable clinical research; making women’s reproductive health a guessing game full of misinformation. “The missing research makes it difficult for women to make confident health decisions- especially around their sexual and reproductive health”(Pattillo, 2019). Despite millions of women using birth control medications every day in America,  little is known about how and why birth control causes such side effects, and the psychological long-term effects it may cause. “The ‘pill’ is one of the most rigorously studied drugs women take for birth control, but still, the subtle ways hormonal contraception influences individual women’s quality of life are poorly understood”(Pattillo, 2019). Existing research on hormonal contraceptives' mental health effects is scarce and only offers mixed results (Pattillo, 2019). Additionally, the unknowns increase in certain populations such as women taking both hormonal contraceptives and antidepressants, pregnant women, and the elderly (Pattillo, 2019). For example, women were excluded during pregnancy and for six months after giving labor in the study discussed by Yasmin in chapter 16 (Yasmin, 89). After breaking down the faults in the study’s structure, Yasmin was not shy in expressing her disappointment in the lack of reliable research in this area; calling it a “disservice to the public”(Yasmin, 91). Additionally, as Yasmin provided improvements that should be made in future contraceptive research, she advocated for more inclusive and reliable research. Yasmin closed chapter 16’s discussion with the advocacy statement: “We all deserve accurate reporting on scientific studies so we can make fact-based decisions about our bodies and the pills we take”(Yasmin, 91). 

Below, please find a link to Dr. Natasha Bhuyan discussing common questions regarding birth control and addressing birth control myths.


    Viral BS was an interesting read that opened my eyes to how easy it is to fall for pseudoscience claims and factoids if you don’t slow down to critically evaluate the information you’re receiving and why you feel inclined to agree or disagree with it. Throughout the book, I was able to connect Yasmin's explanations to the biases and heuristics covered within class content. Learning about fast thinking and slow thinking through the course and this book provided me with understanding of the importance of critically thinking using the elements of thought. 


Cherry, K. (2021). How confirmation bias works. Very Well Mind.  

Gleason, C. (2021). Availability heuristic and decision making. Simply Psychology.  

Memmott, M. (2016). ‘Factoid’ doesn’t mean what you think it does. NPR.

Pattillo, A. (2019). Sexist science makes women’s reproductive health a guessing game. Inverse.  

Rogen, J. (2019). Ask an expert: Jill Delston examines sexism in contraceptive access, medicine.

 UMSL Daily.  

Yasmin, S. (2021). Viral BS: Medical myths and why we fall for them. John Hopkins University


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