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Health scares and scaremongering

A look at the dynamics of bogus health scares.

by John Jackson © 2005

Does aspartame cause cancer? Is Fluoride in drinking water poisoning our children? Are vaccines causing childhood illnesses?

propaganda warning imageThe answer to those questions, of course, is that there’s no evidence to suggest that any of them are true; yet such claims persist, and although completely discredited, show no signs of abating.

It’s disconcerting to see just how willing people are to accept such claims, but we need to understand that there’s a psychological factor involved: we are particularly sensitive to threats of danger, especially when we don't know who or what to believe.

Of course, we are open to being hoodwinked, misled, and falling for lies when we don’t recognise that propaganda is being used against us. The best way to counteract this situation is to find out how the scaremongers operate.

How scaremongering works:

The big lie.

The "big lie" was first named and described by Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf. He claimed that Jews used the big lie technique to convince the German people that the war (WWI) had been lost on the battlefield rather than through negotiation.

The great mass of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.

--Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), Mein Kampf, vol. 1, ch. 10 (1925)

The way that it works is that most people tell small lies and they have no difficulty in accepting the fact that other people tell small lies also. Most people however, do not tell colossal lies; therefore they do not believe that others tell colossal lies either. This results in colossal lies being accepted, as it seems too incredible that such lies be told.

Scaremongers rely heavily on the big lie technique: Aspartame causes tumours; Fluoride causes cancer; vaccines cause autism; etcetera. The idea is to use scare words like: cancer; birth defects; blindness; heart failure; seizures; multiple sclerosis; and such like to instil fear into the reader.

All that is required is to make the claim: no evidence need be provided to back it up. Keep repeating the claim so that it becomes “common knowledge” or people accept that “there must be something in it”, and the message will propagate. The big lie is a tried and tested technique: it works.

The scattergun approach

This technique involves associating a wide range of symptoms and conditions that relate to the scaremongers' claim so that almost anyone can find a match. Aspartame, for example, has been cited as the cause of ninety plus different illnesses and conditions from (the seemingly obligatory) cancer to restless leg syndrome.

The technique works because for people to believe the lie, they only need to accept one of the claims. This is an example of this trick: Aspartame side effects (opens in a new window). In reality, one substance is unlikely to cause dozens of debilitating or life threatening conditions; claiming this, however, undoubtedly helps when you're selling an "Aspartame Detoxification Program".

The scattergun approach is a double-edged sword, however. To those who are aware of it, its overt exaggeration is a telltale sign of scaremongering propaganda.

They claim a conspiracy

This helps make the claims unfalsifiable. Official, scientific reports are dismissed as part of the conspiracy being waged by big business or “big pharma”.

Any evidence that opposes their claim is part of the conspiracy. Any evidence, including anything that can be selectively (mis)quoted from a scientist, however, unquestionably supports their claim.

Bad science

One thing that is not seen with scaremongering tactics is reference to quality clinical trials or studies. Claims have to be substantiated with evidence to have any value. "Experts" are often quoted from their books, but where are the published papers showing their work? When "Expert X Ph.D." is claiming that fluoridation of water causes cancer, his research paper should have been published and peer-reviewed in a prestigious medical journal. If his claims are not backed up with evidence then there's probably a good reason for it; and it's not a conspiracy.

Scaremongers tend to use new-age style "Eco words": we're being poisoned by "chemicals"; our bodies are full of "toxins"; the compound is an "additive" and therefore not "natural". By using these words out of context as they do, the scaremongers are leaving another telltale sign of their propaganda.

Generate a bandwagon effect

This is where the scaremongers create a false impression that their belief is more widely accepted than it really is. Their intention is to make people think that they are members of a group. Group mentality encourages people to conform to the group’s way of thinking and their behaviour will be modified to match the group’s expectations.

This group mentality is what causes those who have fallen for the propaganda to spread it further even though they may have little or no understanding of the real issue at stake.

Unquestioning belief and obstinance

One major factor in the spread of scaremongering propaganda is the fact that so many people will believe what they see and hear without question. They only have to see one report that X causes Y and they simply believe it. Then, possibly thinking that they've found some knowledge that few people know about, they go around informing others about the dangers of X.

People tend to believe information they come across first rather than information that is of better quality. Changing their mind with evidence can be hard as you are now challenging their opinion: not the source of their opinion.

Somatizers

One group of people who are especially prone to health scares are somatizers (previously known as hypochondriacs). They have psychological problems but absolutely reject the fact; as a result their psychological conflicts manifest themselves as physical symptoms. They often want help, sympathy and attention.

When something is demonised by a scaremonger who's claiming 90+ side effects, it is bound to match up with many of the symptoms somatizers experience. Having found a "cause" and an authority figure or guru (the scaremonger claiming to be an expert), they can get attention and sympathy in their self-help groups. Once they have this support, their symptoms and ailments clear up.

These people often enthusiastically spread the scaremongering hoax with personal stories of miraculous transformations in their health. Fortunately, their exaggerated claims are easy to spot.

Don't be misled

People or organisations with ulterior motives often make these hoaxes and wild claims. Our natural tendency - to err on the side of caution and avoid danger - can lead us to accept claims that have no foundation in reality or that are intentionally made to deceive us.

People are strongly influenced by anecdotes and are much more likely to accept an idea if they believe it was heard inadvertently or informally. When someone comes out with something like, "I will always try to avoid artificial sugar. Aspartame has been banned in the States as it has a link to cancer", it is because they've read the same thing somewhere else and believed it. They've jumped straight on the scaremongers' bandwagon without a thought of checking out the facts.

The antidote to falling for scaremongering tactics is to realise that the people spreading the bogus information may well be sincere, but they may not be right. Propaganda works on many levels; however, checking out claims before believing them will weed out most that are not true very quickly. Understanding the telltale signs of propaganda and basic fact checking, can help us to avoid being duped by a misinformation campaign.