Friday, February 24, 2006

Why are smart people so stupid about health claims?

Maybe it’s a failure of our educational system, suggests this writer. There’s too much effort to teach us what to think rather than how to think. Even college education seems to have a minimal impact on people’s beliefs in ESP, astrology and alternative medicine according to one survey.


Moof said...

Dr. Donnell, I'm not sure that it's our educational system which is to blame.

Many people are drawn to anything mysterious seeming, anything out of the ordinary, and seem to suffer a suspension of logic while pursuing those subjects.

Alternative medicine, in my mind, is one of the most dangerous. I know people who are trying to convince others to stop seeing their doctors, and instead put their faith in some naturopath ... with the mess our medical system is in today, it's only too tempting for anyone who doesn't realize the risk.

I think that the part of a person that believes in astrology, alternative medicine, etc., is more closely connected to that person's inborn superstitions and unreasoned fears than it is to the center of his logic - and so, an education might not help.

Clark Bartram said...

But it certainly won't hurt. Our schools spend little time on teaching critical thinking skills to children. If started early I think it would make an appreciable difference. And as a former hardcore Christian and current atheist I think unreasoned fears and superstitions can be overcome.

diora said...

I'd agree with moof that it is more closely connected to inborn/cultural superstitions.

I am from Russia originally, and I visit it again occasionally. The beliefs in alternative medicine is very high, even among educated. And the secondary and high school education there has always been very good, in math/sciences more so than in any other subject. Everyone had chemistry, biology, physics as separate subjects starting from the age of 12. As well as lot more math than kids in the US learn. we learned the concept of proof, theorem vs axiom in 5th grade; when I worked in the US in graduate school as a TA for the university computer science department I was amazed how many US students don't understand this concept.

Yet, during my last visit to Russia, I met a doctor there (we went to the same grade/secondary school) who believed in some supplement she read about.

I argued with my mother's cousin (a PhD in EE) about her belief in supplements and refusal to see doctors in spite of her high blood pressure and the fact that her face looked like she might've had a mini-stroke. She also believed that some guy found a cure for AIDS and medical establishement prevents it from being distributed. Because she read it in some paper. (After so many years of communism she still believed in what she read in papers...) At some point I just smiled and gave up - because it was really useless. Most of her mistrust of doctors came from her daughter's rare condition (when her daughter was in her teens she had an unexplained very high fever with no other symptoms and doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with her; they tried steroids that didn't help but made her fat; when she got to college her symptoms misteriously abated - she no longer averaged 38.5C, only 37C - which is where she is now, at 50). I think somehow this woman lost the difference between "the doctors don't know everything" and "the doctors don't know anything"...

Superstitions are cultural in many respects and often have very little to do with one's education. IMHO.