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Combating medical science denial

Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us

Sara E. Gorman, Jack M. Gorman
Oxford University Press
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When Thomas Duncan died from Ebola in a Dallas hospital on 8 October 2014, Americans panicked: calling off work, avoiding public transit, closing businesses and schools. In their new book, Denying to the Grave, authors Sara Gorman and Jack Gorman introduce the concept of medical science denial by demonstrating how the actual risk of contracting and dying from Ebola in America was negligible compared with the risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, automobile accidents, and gunshot wounds. Citing an estimate calculated by NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff, they write that “the risk of contracting Ebola in the United States was one in 13.3 million, far less than the risk of dying in a plane crash, from a bee sting, by being struck by lightning, or being attacked by a shark.” And yet, the panic persisted.

In Denying to the Grave, Gorman and Gorman outline the reasons for this disconnect. In six chapters, the authors describe how conspiracy theories, charismatic leaders, confirmation bias, ignorance, complexity, and risk perception contribute to the problem and how our emotions, neurobiology, and psychology make us susceptible to misguided health decisions.

Gorman and Gorman illustrate how our psychology has influenced our perception of everything from HIV and human papilloma virus to childhood vaccinations, gun violence, nuclear power, antibiotic treatment, and electroconvulsive therapy. They show that, in the face of irrefutable evidence, the public reaction to these issues is largely fear-based and outline both the underlying emotions and the anatomical locations in the brain that are associated with these responses.

The book suggests that scientists and medical professionals must change how they communicate health risks to address the factors that influence how people make decisions. The authors argue that those of us in these professions need to challenge people to think for themselves by asking them to imagine a range of scenarios in which the issue at hand could play out, including those with which they disagree.

One way to do this might be to ask skeptics how they would handle a given situation if the scientific evidence were indeed correct. The authors suggest encouraging these individuals to write down what they think would happen, how they would feel, and what the consequences would be. The next step is to help them recognize when their emotions are guiding their decisions.

The authors correctly assert that, without a change in how we communicate health-related science, the public will remain vulnerable to influences that could negatively influence life-and-death decisions.

About the author

The reviewer is at the UCLA School of Medicine, Department of Neurology, Los Angeles, CA 90045, USA.