Pseudoscience and Medicine: The Spread of False Information via Public Forums

When I first enrolled in a class called Literature, Medicine, and Racism, I fully expected to be shocked by the material and situations we would encounter. I quickly found that I was not wrong in this assumption, and upon reading the introduction of Medical Apartheid, I was already taken aback at the nature of the novel. When reading about scenes of experimental, non consensual surgeries being performed it is very easy to get caught up in graphic imagery of the situation and fail to notice the forces that caused it in the first place. Therefore, it should be noted that the epigraph for this class is: “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” – Dionne Brand. I began to remind myself of this statement prior to reading passages in order to challenge myself to examine them more closely. Upon doing this, I have been able to note many subtleties in the readings that could easily be overlooked.  I hope to use this newfound insight in the rest of the readings and discussions that we will encounter this semester.

In these first class periods, I have began to notice the subtle and persuasive techniques that influential figures have used in order to project their own racist ideologies onto the public. Many of which, unfortunately, still prevail to this day. In the duration of the semester, I hope to gain a broader understanding of how pseudoscience is so easily adopted and used to sway the public’s opinion, so that we can better prevent misinformation and similar atrocities in the future.

Pseudoscience is defined as “a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific”. In Chapter 3 of Medical Apartheid, we are introduced to the long series of events in which scientists, physicians, and prominent public figures would stage “studies” and provide false information to the public– all in the name of preserving and spreading racist ideologies. An example that resonated with me this chapter, was that of human exhibits in carnivals, fairs, and even zoos. At the time, many people were interested in the notion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and people in powerful positions were already using distorted interpretations of this theory to serve their own agendas. One goal of many at the time was to warp Darwin’s theory in a way that proved different races were subhuman, and that there were “missing links” along the path of evolution.

In order to prove their point to the public, in the 1904 World’s Fair, an “exhaustively scientific” exhibit displayed an array of “strange persons”. Here, different groups of people were shown with the intent of showcasing the “highest” and “lowest” forms of man. The exhibits were open to the public and had claims that were made to seem grounded in science. While this was one early example of many “quasi-scientific” displays, to the public it was made to appear credible. It was easy to observe with their eyes the visual differences between themselves and these people that were put on display before them. As mentioned in the video, Race: The Power of an Illusion/The Difference Between Us, it is common for people to see a visual difference, like skin color, and assume that it means that people are different on the inside as well. This, clearly, is not the case. However, with people different from themselves on display, and information suggesting that they were inferior, it was very easy for the public to begin to believe the illusion of racism… or to solidify their preexisting beliefs. This serves as an early example of how false claims combined with simple, unfounded observations served to keep an idea, in this case racism, alive.   

Today, if there was an exhibit that even resembled the ones in 1904 World’s Fair, the public would be outraged at the lack of humanity– let alone the falsity of the claims. You may wonder how people accepted these claims as scientific fact, but to this day the presence of pseudoscience in mass media is still responsible for spread of misinformation in a very similar fashion.

If you are in need of a modern day example, I’m sure upon typing the word “vaccines” into your search bar on Facebook or Pinterest, you will find some sort of claim, group, or movement that mentions the harmful consequences of vaccines. You may recognize these as part of the anti-vax movement. According to this source that documents the history of anti-vaccination movements, this notion became widespread via the media after a 1998 study by doctor Andrew Wakefield was published. This study suggested that there was “a possible relationship between bowel disease, autism, and the MMR vaccine”. It turns out that his paper was not accurate in its claims and sponsored by a law firm in order to support a case. The paper was retracted in 2010 and Wakefield had his ability to practice in Great Britain revoked, but this all came too late. By 2010, panic had already spread and trust in vaccines was lost by many. Now, even over 20 years later from his publication, the influence of his false and unsupported claims prevails. Still, social media sites serve as outlets to spread anti-vax claims to the public, and many people have stopped vaccinating their children, and previously eradicated diseases are making a comeback.

Today’s Facebook movement is equivalent to 1904’s World’s Fair exhibit. They serve as venues for pseudo scientific claims to be indoctrinated into the public.  As in the past, when information is put out in a simplified and scientific-seeming fashion, it is easy for somebody with little education or background on the topic to believe it. Platforms of media are easier to digest for many than a weighty scientific paper. It is easier now than in the past for the public to obtain access to scientific journals, but that does not make it easier to understand. As future journalists, scientists, doctors, and engaged citizens, we should make it our job to spread valid, well-founded claims via the media in digestible formats. Let’s take advantage of these outlets so that we can have a more informed public and make stereotypes and misinformation obsolete.

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