It is often difficult to tell the difference between “science” perpetuated in pop culture versus true scientific breakthroughs. Insert a celebrity or dramatic symptoms and news stories about dubious science are even more likely to go viral, no pun intended.
Media coverage and limited personal experience have a dramatic effect on our ability to perceive true risks. One logical fallacy this can result in is known as the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut where we rely on an immediate example that comes to mind. Availability heuristics might apply when a person has seen a celebrity correlate vaccinations to autism, and they have a friend with a child who has autism but knows no one whose children have had measles, leading them to conclude that the risks of vaccination exceed the benefits. In reality, measles and many other diseases for which we developed vaccinations are very serious and even fatal in countries where vaccination is not widespread.
As another example of availability heuristics resulting in judgments that may not have been in the best interest of the population, when a 21-day quarantine was mandated for those returning from Ebola-stricken countries, those who violated the quarantine may have felt justified if they violated it to, for example, sneak out to a restaurant – because they felt fine.
Similarly, another logical fallacy called hindsight bias can color our perception. While statistics prove that many deaths every day are caused by healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs) like C. diff spores and MRSA, the media provided far more coverage to the few Ebola cases in the United States than to these deaths.
Thus, when we look back on what’s dangerous in hospitals, we remember hearing recent news stories about the nurses that caught Ebola, but have no framework for assessing the far more pervasive HAIs. In reality, Americans have a 1 in approximately 4 million chance of dying from Ebola but a 1 in 25 chance of contracting an HAI after a medical procedure.
When we listen to people who are not doctors or are not experts in a given field, we risk putting people in danger. We hope as you follow our #HealthFacts series on Twitter, you learn about some of the real risks to our health and how to practice evidence-based medicine when making decisions for yourself, your family or your hospital. For all of us, our health is too precious to make decisions based on an untrusted source.