We live in the age of information – a time where everything we know as a species, is available with a few clicks on the internet. We are able to not only share photos of our cats, but we can Google our symptoms when we get sick, research new medical techniques, and communicate with people from all over the world.
This sharing of information has wildly advanced developments in science and technology, but has had a rather unfortunate side effect.
The internet is providing an incubator for mass hysteria. What was once a few isolated individuals with delusions is now a massive network of people who distrust science and governments, who share personal anecdotes, and provide support for one another.
The majority of people in the network are scared. They are parents trying to do the best for their children, and they or their children may have physical or mental health problems. They often have a very limited understanding of the scientific method, and basic knowledge of science. With a few clicks on their phone, they can take a photo of their symptom (whether this is a rash, a faecal sample, etc) and immediately have it evaluated by non-professionals guessing at what they think it looks like, often discouraging people to go to a doctor.
It is common to see the people behind these networks pedalling a miracle cure or a book or a treatment. They are benefiting financially by preying on the vulnerable, the sick and the gullible, who feel betrayed by slow healthcare systems and apathetic doctors.
There are also well meaning people, often driven by their own or by a loved ones illness, who give non-professional advice which is taken as gospel by the people reading their words.
The networks vary in their focus, and vary in their degrees of absurdity. Since vaccinations were first developed there have always been people who oppose them, but new trends of paranoia include communities of people trying to self-treat parasites with coffee and bleach enemas, people who attempt to ‘cure’ their children’s autism by forcing them to drink bleach or take an enema, and there are those who go as far as to purposely expose their child to disease to ‘build a natural immunity’.
Then there is the dairy-free, gluten-free, raw vegan and paleo dieters, people who treat illnesses with crystals, herbs, and tea. This latest fashion to be ‘natural’ is something quite boggling – water with swarms of cholera is natural, but I’d much rather my tap water, thanks.
Sometimes this starts out great. Yes! Avoid adding sugar or salt to your food! That’s great. Giving your kid carrot sticks for a snack rather than a packet of sweets, that’s brilliant! But giving your children raw milk that hasn’t been treated to prevent the spread of disease, fasting for 12 hours a day to help ‘detox’ or treating pain with an amber necklace is just insane, and shows to what extremes these networks become.
For the people who follow these fads, it is out with the trained medical professionals, and in with the Mommy bloggers and the Google PhD. Once caught in ‘The Echo Chamber’ it is difficult to get out.
A new Mother worrying about her unborn baby not moving much in the womb, for example, may post in one of these communities after feeling ignored by her doctor. Her post is met with hundreds of replies, rarely from anyone with medical training, and mostly condemning the doctor for not listening to her concerns, perhaps sharing their own horror stories of a traumatic birth, and often recommending some herbal tea, or homeopathy, or chiropractic method to keep her unborn baby safe.
The Mother, now comforted by the support of the community, is likely to come back when she has fears about vaccines and is convinced she can’t talk to her doctor anymore, and she’ll then be exposed to all of the other anti-scientific nonsense that circulates the network. The community becomes her main source of health information, and however scientifically literate these people think they are, asking one type of person to link them information is not giving a well rounded understanding of the issue they are ‘researching’.
Worryingly, many of these people seem to be suffering from a form of hysterical contagion (an issue I will write about over the next few weeks). Often people who believe they can see parasites in their faeces are seeing normal samples, but genuinely believe that they are infected. Sometimes there are visible pieces of food like mushroom or sweetcorn and these are seen to be ‘parasite eggs’ or ‘liver flukes’. Other’s see ‘vaccine injury’ in a perfectly healthy child. Hysterical contagion is not new – cases seem to occur throughout human history. Google the French Meowing nuns that meowed for days in an ‘outbreak’, or the Pokemon Panic of 1997!
It has grown into a dangerous situation, and there are now many cases of people rejecting modern day treatments for things they have read on the internet. So, what’s the solution? Do we continue to ridicule these people because it’s not our duty to educate, or is it time we made ourselves approachable to questions and offer understanding and support for those who are questioning modern science?