Conspiracy theories


It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. – Josh Billings

Some patients believe COVID-19 is a hoax. Many think there’s truth to the rumor that Bill Gates is behind it all and intends to use COVID vaccinations as a devious way to implant microchips in us. He will then, of course, use the new 5G towers to track us all (although what Gates will do with the information that I was shopping at a Trader Joe’s yesterday is yet unknown).

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

It’s easy to dismiss patients with these beliefs as nuts or dumb or both. They’re neither, they’re just human. Conspiracy theories have been shared from the first time two humans met. They are, after all, simply hypotheses to explain an experience that’s difficult to understand. Making up a story to explain things feels safer than living with the unknown, and so we do. Our natural tendency to be suspicious makes conspiracy hypotheses more salient and more likely to spread. The pandemic itself is exacerbating this problem: People are alone and afraid, and dependent on social media for connection. Add a compelling story about a nefarious robber baron plotting to exploit us and you’ve got the conditions for conspiracy theories to explode like wind-driven wildfires. Astonishingly, a Pew Research poll showed 36% of Americans surveyed who have heard something about it say the Bill Gates cabal theory is “probably” or “definitely” true.

That many patients fervently believe conspiracy theories poses several problems for us. First, when a vaccine does become available, some patients will refuse to be vaccinated. The consequences to their health and the health of the community are grave. Secondly, whenever patients have cause to distrust doctors, it makes our jobs more challenging. If they don’t trust us on vaccines, it can spread to not trusting us about wearing masks or sunscreens or taking statins. Lastly, it’s near impossible to have a friendly conversation with a patient carrying forth on why Bill Gates is not in jail or how I’m part of the medical-industrial complex enabling him. Sheesh.

It isn’t their fault. The underpinning of these beliefs can be understood as a cognitive bias. In this case, an idea that is easy to imagine or recall is believed to be true more than an idea that is complex and difficult. Understanding viral replication and R0 numbers or viral vectors and protein subunit vaccines is hard. Imagining a chip being injected into your arm is easy. And, as behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman opined, we humans possess an almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. We physicians can help in a way that friends and family members can’t. Here are ways you can help patients who believe in conspiracy theories:

Approach this problem like any other infirmity, with compassion. No one wants to drink too much and knock out their teeth falling off a bike. It was a mistake. Similarly, when people are steeped in self-delusion, it’s not a misdeed, it’s a lapse. Be kind and respectful.

Meet them where they are. It might be helpful to state with sincerity: So you feel that there is a government plot to use COVID to track us? Have you considered that might not be true?

Have the conversation in private. Harder even than being wrong is being publicly wrong.

Try the Socratic method. (We’re pretty good at this from teaching students and residents.) Conspiracy-believing patients have the illusion of knowledge, yet, like students, it’s often easy to show them their gaps. Do so gently by leading them to discover for themselves.

Stop when you stall. You cannot change someone’s mind by dint of force. However, you surely can damage your relationship if you keep pushing them.

Don’t worry if you fail to break through; you might yet have moved them a bit. This might make it possible for them to discover the truth later. Or, you could simply switch to explain what holds up the ground we walk upon. There’s rumor we’re supported on the backs of turtles, all the way down. Maybe Bill Gates is feeding them.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at [email protected].

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