Ross University Blog

DEAN'S VIEWPOINT: Public's Growing Anti-Science Attitude Could Have Consequences for Public Health

March 13, 2015

Dean Joseph A. Flaherty, MD
Dean Joseph A. Flaherty, MD

By Joseph A. Flaherty, MD
Dean and Chancellor, Ross University School of Medicine

There is a growing anti-science attitude by the public that could have dire consequences for public health. Some of these issues have captured today’s headlines. For example, the recent measles outbreak was caused by some people’s refusal to vaccinate against the disease, despite irrefutable medical and historical evidence proving their efficacy and safety. (To read about my take on vaccines, check out my recent blog post on the topic.)

The public’s desire to believe in pseudoscience and panaceas can also be seen by the volume in which they rely on dubious dietary supplements that claim to do everything from improving memory to promoting weight loss. This was exposed last month when New York State’s attorney general ordered four major retailers to cease and desist from selling store-brand herbal supplements.

An investigation had found that most of the products did not contain the ingredients listed on the labels, yet did contain other ingredients that weren’t listed, some of which could prove harmful to people with allergies, or when taken in combination with certain medications. Supplements are not regulated as strictly as prescription medications. Whether or not the supplements had the effects they advertised was not even part of the discussion.

Defining the Physician's Role in Educating Patients

What is the physician’s role and responsibility to his or her patient when it comes to these issues? As a doctor, and as the dean and chancellor of a medical school, I feel that there is an urgent need for us to answer these questions. When I was beginning my medical career, hospitals would educate doctors on how to educate their patients. If you were in pediatrics, you had a well-baby clinic once-a-week for a scheduled visit. You asked, how’s the baby doing? You listened to the parents’ concerns and advised them. Gradually, you educated them about things like vaccination.

Over the years, public sentiment has shifted, and the anti-science attitude, dating back centuries (Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for daring to suggest the sun may not rotate around the earth but vice versa) has spawned all kinds of “deniers.” There have been AIDS deniers, climate-change deniers, and now we have vaccination deniers. The search for panaceas has been ubiquitous across time and space; we have always had snake-oil salespeople, and gullible men and women who clamor to purchase their potions and pills.

"An Epidemic of Misinformation"

I think that what we’re seeing now is a lag between real patient education and the public’s desire to be partners with their physicians. The information explosion on the Internet seems to be resulting in an epidemic of misinformation. Add to this the American tradition of independence, of feeling that we can do what we want and no one can tell us otherwise, and the result is that people may go online and only read sites that reinforce their own views. They may fall prey to fear-mongering, in the case of vaccines, and magical, wishful thinking in the case of some supplements.

There is a complexity to science that is not only difficult to present but another cause of concern from the public. Forty years ago, doctors told patients a high-fat diet was the cause of the growing incidence of heart disease in the United States. This has been modified so many times with the introduction of terms such as good and bad fatty acids and by identifying carbohydrates as the main factor common to a metabolic syndrome central to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. However to scientists, this evolution is consistent with good hypotheses-testing and theory-building that advances the field. To the lay person wanting concrete answers, it causes lack of confidence in the medical profession.

Doctors have to educate their patients and to routinely inquire about any dietary supplements that they’re taking. In the current climate of anti-science and pseudo-science, we need to raise our voices in educating patients from the perspective of medical science and its ever-changing findings.

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