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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Why Myths Need Busting

Every now and again a friend shares something on Facebook that sets alarm bells ringing. There’s the thankfully rare ‘Britain First’ post that sneaks through. Much more common are myths.

It happened this week. A friend shared the 100-year-old plus myth about onions absorbing bacteria and preventing flu — but becoming poisonous in the process.

I’m afraid I didn’t react well.*

Why such a problem with an apparently harmless old tale? There’s the issue of wasted onions, which as a foodie I find objectionable. But seriously, I think tales like this begin to undermine our rationality.

We live in a world built on science. For good or ill, many aspects of our modern lives are dependent on our understanding of how the world works, and the application of this knowledge. It’s the reason we live longer, travel further, experience more and suffer less than ever before.

Is the world we’ve built on science perfect? Not by a very, very long shot.

But is it better? By empirical measure you have to say yes. We live longer, healthier, and in the absence of cold, hunger and pain, happier lives.

So why are we so keen on questioning the science that has brought us to this point? Because that for me is what many of the myths circulating are about.

Sometimes myths are about undermining good science for financial gain. There’s plenty of snake oil out there. If you’ve ever wondered where those ‘one weird trick’ ads lead, it’s to fake remedies of various kinds.

Alternative remedies? Whatever you think of them (and my view is fairly clear) it’s hard to deny that much of their marketing is based on knocking the established remedies. Hence the ‘alternative’.

Much of the work of the climate change denial lobby is funded by large organisations and private individuals who stand to lose out from moves to limit the scale of the impending global disaster.

In each of these cases the person or organisation propagating the myth has something clear to gain. But the value of spreading myths like the onion story is less obvious. Who benefits from making onions scary?

In the absence of any links from the post or suggestions that the reader buy this or that, my only conclusion is that people like to share ‘secrets’, especially if they seem a little subversive. The sort of thing ‘they’, the shadowy figures at the heart of every conspiracy, don’t want you to know. Who doesn’t like letting someone into a secret? Or sharing something that surprises, or genuinely helps? Especially if doing so feels a little naughty.

That would all be fine, but these ideas are not harmless.

For a start, they contribute to the idea that there is a real alternative to tested medicine when it comes to preventing and treating serious diseases. Flu can kill. If you’re particularly susceptible to it, like I am, then you should get a flu jab each winter, not rely on sliced onions around the house.

More generally these myths diminish people’s trust in science. They suggest that folksy knowledge and common sense is a good enough challenge to rigorous testing and amassed evidence. That somehow the scientific establishment either missed these things or doesn’t want you to know them. And hence you shouldn’t trust them.

This mistrust leads to tragedies like the dramatic drop in immunisation (and subsequent serious illness of many) caused by (completely unjustified) rejections of vaccination. It helps the snake-oil salesmen to rake in millions, whether they’re attracting desperate cancer sufferers to quack clinics in the US, or selling them supplements online. It supports the growth of the electro-sensitivity industry, preying on people with real symptoms to sell them overpriced tin foil hats and wire mesh window liners. It helps the climate change deniers to keep us comfortable in our carbon-fuelled bubble while the world warms.

There are problems with the scientific establishment. Serious problems. Some of those problems are about the way science is conducted. But most of them are about situations where financial motivations drive bad behaviour.

Any positive vision for the future cannot be based on the rejection of science. Particularly not a pick and mix rejection that accepts cars, planes and the internet but rejects the pieces we find personally, or commercially, uncomfortable.

*You know who you are. Sorry!

Tom Cheesewright