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Your Irrational Thoughts Could Kill You

September 30, 2016 | Comments

The Zika virus has been around for at least 30 years but has only been at the forefront of public concern in America for the last 9 months.

Among the most interesting aspects of this new health issue is that many pregnant and would-be pregnant women are now worrying about the possibility of giving birth to a child with microcephaly, while ignoring far more common pregnancy health risks, like obesity and excessive weight gain.

The same strange contradiction arose in the context of the Ebola scare last year. Like Zika, Ebola wasn’t new, but our exposure to it in the U.S. was, and once again, alarmed parents demanded that teachers who had made overseas trips be removed from their children’s classrooms, but ignored significantly more common health risks — like the flu. The children they refused to vaccinate clearly had a greater risk of getting flu than Ebola, so why the astounding disproportionate concern?

As it turns out, focusing on big, remote risks while ignoring more common ones, is just one of the ways people make health and security decisions that fly in the face of scientific evidence — and that’s the dangerous phenomenon explored by Drs. Sara and Jack Gorman in their new book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us.

Denying to the Grave focuses on some of the highest profile, public health controversies, including the safety of vaccinations, GMOs, nuclear energy, the safety of gun ownership and electroconvulsive therapy (shock therapy); controversies that hang on as the subject of continuous and rancorous debate, despite the existence of conclusive scientific evidence that should settle things.

You may be congratulating yourself for knowing the facts about many of these issues, but it’s possible that you also fall prey to non-scientific beliefs. As Sara and Jack point out in a recent article about the book in Time Magazine, “Many intelligent people fall into a wide variety of non-scientific beliefs,” including theories like “starve a fever” or the idea that eating sugar makes kids hyper. Neither of these common beliefs has any basis in scientific evidence. While avoiding food when you’re sick may not put the health of others at risk, many other scientific misconceptions do.

Are we all just idiots? Is that why we insist on taking antibiotics to cure viruses and believe that HIV does not cause AIDS and vaccines cause autism?

The answer to that is a resounding no. Ignorance doesn’t cause unscientific beliefs, psychology does. Nature ensures that no matter how smart you are, you‘re likely to ignore or deny the truth on a regular basis.

Sara and Jack go on to explain the psychological reasons for science denialism. For example, humans are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We’re hardwired to want to know the cause of something, and absent a cause we’ll cling to whatever looks like a cause or just make one up. We also don’t assess risk in a logical way. People are much more likely to think of an activity as “risky” when they can clearly imagine the risk. What’s more, because people are empathetic, we’re more likely to respond to a scary story than to a collection of numbers. This fear-based thinking leaves ordinary people vulnerable to several influences including conspiracy theories, charismatic leaders, confirmation bias, misunderstanding causality, avoidance of complexity, and misperception of risk.

Decades of collective public health and psychology research led to the publication of Denying to the Grave. In an attempt to continue the important work started by the book, Sara and Jack have applied their passion for rigorous scientific thinking to founding Critica, a community of people grounded in scientific reasoning and thoughtful discourse eager to make intelligent decisions about issues related to health and security.

There will always be another Ebola or Zika, a disease that suddenly rises to the fore and immediately causes headlines and panic, even when there isn’t enough information to understand the true risk. How you perceive these unknown risks and weigh them against other more common but seemingly trivial risks may determine the health of your family. With the launch of Critica, we welcome you into the difficult task of making complex health decisions using all the tools that science and critical thinking have to offer.

We welcome people from both scientific and non-scientific backgrounds to join the conversation. We believe that by establishing this community, people from around the world will be able to collaborate and communicate on thinking deeply and scientifically about the health and security issues that matter most.

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