The book ‘Viral BS’ offers a cure for medical myths and fake health news

Physician and author Seema Yasmin fights misinformation with a dose of storytelling

Woman looks at fake health news on her phone

Can vitamin D help fight off pneumonia? A new book tackles this and other medical myths.

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Viral BS
Seema Yasmin
Johns Hopkins Univ., $24.95

How does misinformation spread? What causes medical myths and pseudoscience to rapidly infect and fester in society? Seema Yasmin, an epidemiologist and author of a new book, Viral BS, has a diagnosis: the pervasive, persuasive power of storytelling. And, as Yasmin notes, “The more fantastical, the better.”

Take the anecdote that opens the book: A woman in Texas demands an Ebola vaccine for her daughter as a deadly outbreak rages a continent away in Africa in 2014. When the pediatrician tells her there is no Ebola vaccine and that her daughter faces a much greater risk from the flu, for which he can give her a vaccine, the mother storms out: “Flu vaccine?! I don’t believe in those things!”

Stories — like those this Texas woman may have heard, or maybe told herself — help us find order in a world bursting with uncertainty. But when these stories don’t reflect reality, a public malady of tenacious and preposterous medical myths can take hold, Yasmin explains. Her book sets out to treat this malady with a dose of the virus itself: Storytelling and anecdotes that move beyond dry facts and figures to reveal pseudoscience’s sticking power.

Yasmin sets up her credentials in the book’s opener — physician, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, former epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to build trust among readers. But, true to form, it’s her anecdotes of pseudoscience in her own upbringing that linger. Her India-born grandmother told her that the moon landing was a fake; as a child Yasmin would pray to the “unwalked upon moon” for clarity and vision. Yasmin and her cousins once secretly listened to Michael Jackson songs for signs of Satan worship — which an older cousin claimed were there. “Raised on conspiracy theories,” she writes, “I understand why a patient might refuse medications, say chemtrails are poison, or shun vaccines, even as I bristle at the public health implications of these beliefs and behaviors.”

Each chapter answers a question in a few pages of no-nonsense basics. The book tackles a slew of questions that have spread from the internet to dinner tables in recent years. These include: Is there lead in your lipstick? Do vaccines cause autism? Has the U.S. government banned research about gun violence (SN: 5/14/16, p. 16)? She analyzes the pseudoscientific answers that become hard to shake and reviews related research that presents the truth. The antidote is easy to swallow, thanks to Yasmin’s approach.

For instance: Should you eat your baby’s placenta? In chapter 2’s breezy three pages, Yasmin points to celebrities such as Kim Kardashian who say eating their placentas helped them with postpartum recovery. Then Yasmin quickly moves to studies that have found no medical benefits. In fact, studies point to potential harm from the practice, since the organ can carry feces, inflammatory cells and bacteria (SN Online: 7/28/17).

She pulls no punches, referring to doctors who claim to be able to cure autism as “charlatans” who offer expensive, unproven and sometimes dangerous practices. Children have died, Yasmin writes, after being given Miracle Mineral Solution as an autism cure. The solution is actually industrial bleach. She rejects the overenthusiastic prescribing of vitamin D supplements for everything from obesity to cancer (SN: 2/2/19, p. 16), showing that the evidence of a benefit isn’t there, at least not yet.

Some of the issues she addresses seem ludicrous on first glance, like “Can a pill make racists less racist?” Actress Roseanne Barr claimed that the drug Ambien made her post a racist tweet in 2018. Yasmin looks at the opposite notion, sparked by a 2012 study that linked heart disease medications to a reduction in racial bias. She explains how the drugs affect the body and how researchers tested for racial bias. Then she shifts to the dangers of trying to medicalize racism, which is not a medical phenomenon.

The book ends with a tear-out “bullshit detection kit,” a list of 12 useful tips to keep in mind when weighing the credibility of a headline, research study or tweet. Questions to consider include: Who is funding the person or organization making the claim? Has a claim been verified by those not affiliated with the source? She explains how to run a reverse online search on an image to determine whether it was doctored and to learn its original source. This list will be particularly relevant to those navigating through all the misinformation swirling around COVID-19.

Readers will come away from this book with a deeper understanding of what research studies can and cannot say, and the effects that storytelling and celebrity have on whether someone internalizes a health claim. Some readers might prefer more background science for each question — for a book that aims to crush pseudoscience, a bibliography or at least footnotes would have been useful. But perhaps this omission is part of Yasmin’s broader point. For casual readers, references and statistics miss the mark. Instead, anecdotes in easy-to-swallow doses may be just the right amount of information and storytelling needed to stop the spread of viral BS.

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Cori Vanchieri was the features editor from 2014 to 2022.

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