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Joseph Hill: Medical misinformation

Joseph Hill

In many instances, celebrities, activists, and politicians convey false information evoking harm to individuals and society.

Recent decades have witnessed dramatic successes in taming the acutely lethal manifestations of cardiovascular diseases. Thankfully, more people are surviving their heart attacks, strokes, and episodes of dangerous arrhythmias. Nevertheless, despite these robust successes, cardiovascular diseases remain the #1 killer of men and women around the world. This is so because these diseases are evolving before our eyes, driven by multiple factors including the global explosion of obesity and hypertension. The challenge of cardiovascular diseases continues as it transforms globally.

Another significant reason for the persistence of grievous cardiovascular diseases is suboptimal utilization of our prodigious tool chest of therapies and interventions owing to medical misinformation hyped through the internet, television, chat rooms, and social media. In many instances, celebrities, activists, and politicians convey false information evoking harm to individuals and society.

And the misinformation challenge extends well beyond cardiovascular diseases. The long-since debunked notion that MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination causes autism was based on a single, poorly controlled study, the publication of which was retracted. Recent memory points to the multiple instances of misinformation (incorrect information, getting the facts wrong) and disinformation (deliberate deception) that emerged during COVID-19, including falsehoods regarding the enormously safe and effective modified mRNA vaccines, unproven medications, and disputing the importance of social distancing and masking.

Joseph Hill

The nuanced voices of scientists do not resonate with the public as much as strident alarms sounded by people of fame, speaking in absolute terms.

Sadly, we can easily point to examples outside the medical domain, as well, such as climate change, evolution, neutraceuticals, and GMO foods where false equivalents are frequently posited. Once again, celebrities, actors, politicians, and activists with no specific knowledge or training promote messages that cause serious harm. Individuals who are neither physicians nor scientists, but often with a specific agenda, can have outsized influence over our lives. The nuanced voices of scientists do not resonate with the public as much as strident alarms sounded by people of fame, speaking in absolute terms. They dispute scientific evidence without ever having studied it.

Scientists are appropriately skeptical, as any individual scientist or study can be wrong. Yet, science ultimately self-corrects. When scientists get it wrong, as happens, people sometimes fault science itself. As I noted in my piece “Medical Misinformation: Vet the Message!” (PMID: 30689419) we trust aeronautical science when we board an airplane; we trust the science hidden within our cell phones; we trust mechanical engineering science when we cross a bridge; yet, many are uniquely skeptical of biological science.

And the stakes are high. People who decline to use a statin when recommended by their doctor may put their own lives in danger. Parents who withhold vaccines from their children put the lives of the vulnerable in harm’s way.

Without exaggeration, significant injury to society and individuals derives from the wanton spread of medical misinformation. What to do? It is no longer acceptable for purveyors of social media to hide behind the cloak of “platform.” It is high time to shine a bright light on the dangers to individuals and society that derive from medical misinformation, and I lay at the feet of individuals with distorted motives, including sources of internet and social media content, the responsibility to fix this.

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