Who to Heed for Medical Advice?

By guest blogger: N. T. Feles

I am new to this whole blogging gig, but excited for the opportunity. You see, I come from a long line of writers. Though many members in my family choose to pen their thoughts using clay as a medium, my distant cousin — who wrote an influential physics paper (Hetherington & Willard, 1975) — and I have chosen a different media: keyboards.

What does one blog about? I guess I could just say what is on my mind. Lately, I have been fascinated by how pseudoscience dictates courses of action that can have a profound impact on health. I would really love to know why people are turning away from science and embracing the absurd.

Pawing through the internet, I see products, services and news stories that leave me speechless. For instance, people listening to Hollywood types and forgoing lifesaving vaccinations for fear of developing neurological problems, an urban myth that has been disproven by science. Promotion (and presumed purchases) of gemstone eggs that can promote health. Crystal cleanses that can remove toxins from your body. (I thought this was the job of your kidneys and liver?) Supplements made from plant extracts touted as being able to restore hormone balance, etc.

Know what these situations remind me of? The era before government regulation, when people could hawk bogus treatments and make outlandish claims about their curative effects. Thank goodness for regulations. Now, we have a set of standards to ensure that approved medications are safe and can do what the manufacturers’ say. If only we had this with vitamin and supplement markets, which are still not regulated and where untested claims are still being made and believed.

I know humans can be smart and make good decisions. So, why do they fall for these hokey claims? I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist, but I can guess. As I clawed through the literature, I happened upon an article that explains the power that celebrities hold. Some of the reasons are obvious, such as celebrities being the leaders of our cultural herd and many people wanting to emulate them (Not I. I am not a herd animal.) (Hoffman & Tan, 2013). But the authors also dive into rationale that made my furry chin drop. Why? Apparently, people think if a “trustworthy” celebrity is successful (i.e., paid millions or received a tiny golden statue in the film industry awards ceremony), then it means that person will automatically be successful in other ventures such as medicine, a phenomenon known as the halo effect (Hoffman & Tan, 2013).

Somehow, I do not see someone who got a tiny golden statue for playing some famous person’s love interest getting anywhere near me with a scalpel and anesthesia! Unless, of course, that person received years of practical training from a credited medical school. Which I doubt they did. Anyway, the article is eye opening and worth reading and sending to others.

So, what can be done to get people to listen more to competent professional experts instead of celebrities who deem the next unfortunate animal to be the “it” pet or preach bad medical advice? This is a hard one. The easiest thing to do would be to tell them that they are wrong for following a celebrity’s advice on a medical thing. Surprisingly, this is likely to backfire and make the person further believe the fallible medical advice (Shermer, 2017).

In an altruistic universe, celebrities would be very mindful that with their great powers of influence, comes great responsibility. They would be sure to promote sound medical advice that helps their fans and not just someone’s pocket books. It is reassuring that some celebrities do realize this and do promote the correct medical information (Hoffman & Tan, 2013). We just need more celebrities to do it.

In that same universe, perhaps celebrities would be selected for their wisdom, education or humanitarian endeavors. I do not know if someone overheard me, but a recent commercial provided a glimpse into this alternative reality. The commercial featured Mildred Dresselhaus, a notable scientist, as an A-list celebrity. People clamored to hear her talks, named their children after her, asked for her autograph, etc. How neat would it be it were not fictional? I wonder if Dr. Dresselhaus would have promoted better medical advice?

Well, I am tired of standing on my soap box and about to miss out on my 20 hours of sleep. This blogging thing was fun, but are you going to take my word about what was said? I am not a puppy wielding celebrity, but a cat named Noodle. Then again, I do know how to persuade humans to heed what I say: the science backs me up (McComb, Taylor, Wilson, & Charlton, 2009).

 

References 

Hetherington, J.H. & Willard, F. D. C. (1975). Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc 3He. Phys. Rev. Lett. 35, 1442.

Hoffman, S.J. & Tan, C. (2013). Following celebrities’ medical advice: meta-narrative analysis. BMJ. 347:f7151 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f7151

McComb, K., Taylor, A. M., Wilson, C., & Charlton, B. D. (2009). The cry embedded within the purr. Curr Biol, 19(13), R507-508. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.033

Shermer, M. (2017, January). How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-convince-someone-when-facts-fail/