Science, global health, and irrational health behaviors

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Sara Gorman, PhD, MPH is a public health specialist at a major multinational healthcare company, where she works on global mental health, increasing the quality of evidence in the global health field, and alternative funding models for global health. Her book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us, will be released by Oxford University Press in August 2016. The book examines the psychology behind healthcare decision-making and theorizes about public perception of risk. It includes tips for the general public about how to discriminate between valid and invalid science and pointers for public health professionals and doctors on how to communicate with people who do not believe what science has taught us about health. Sara earned an MPH in Health Policy and Management from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a PhD in English literature from Harvard University.

A vaccination campaign in India.

Ed. Note: Sara Gorman will be joining us once a month to highlight different aspects of her forthcoming book on science denialism. 

Have you ever met someone who questioned the safety of vaccines? Have you ever heard the refrain that smoking must not be unsafe because Aunt Ellen smoked her whole life and never developed cancer? If so, then you are certainly not alone. “Irrational” health behaviors and beliefs, primarily those that are not in line with overwhelming scientific evidence, are abundant. From seemingly simple, everyday behaviors such as eating candy to extreme beliefs such as the idea that the HIV virus is not the cause of AIDS, irrational responses to scientific evidence pervade our lives and may in some cases affect our decisions about our own health and the health of those about whom we care most.

Unsatisfied by the traditional public health and media response to these “irrational” beliefs, which tends to be to simply throw more complex data at those who “don’t understand,” we set out to discover what psychological and social forces contribute to these stubborn beliefs. Our findings are the subject of a new book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us, co-authored with Jack M. Gorman, M.D. and set to be released by Oxford University Press in August. The book presents a new idea about why we are all so prone to stubborn, non-scientific beliefs and behaviors that can have dire consequences for our health and the health of those around us. Drawing from decades of fascinating research in social psychology and neuroscience, the book explores the effects of phenomena such as charismatic leadership and conspiracy theories that stimulate irrational beliefs about science and health. We also discuss how the idiosyncratic human method of perceiving risk can work against us and how some fundamental human brain functions clash with the way scientific research and discovery is structured. At the most basic level, scientific inquiry forces us to abandon the quest for absolute certainty and causality and requires an ability to constantly reverse old ideas. On the other hand, the human brain is wired to search for certain signs of causality and to be utterly resistant to changing beliefs once they are formed. This fundamental mismatch, we argue, is at the root of many of the “irrational” scientific beliefs we see today.

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The book proposes a series of practical solutions to these issues based on a better understanding of the psychology that drives these irrational beliefs. We hope the book will generate a new kind of conversation around the issue of “false” scientific beliefs, one that exhibits greater empathy toward and understanding of the impulses that cause people to persist in these beliefs despite the evidence. We also hope that the book can be of use to everyone who struggles with the overwhelming psychological and social forces that often cause us to disregard science and endanger ourselves and our loved ones.