New research published in The Lancet has uncovered an antidote to a widespread, expensive, and devastating illness –health bullshit disease. Sufferers are susceptible to painless easy weight loss promises, herbal cures for cancer, and many employee wellness programs. Unlike any other recent new technology in health, this one actually has potential to improve health and reduce costs. What is this miracle antidote?
Critical thinking! Researchers developed a series of cartoons and lessons for fifth graders in Uganda, and demonstrated that students who had the class did better on tests for critical thinking about health issues than students who had not had the class. (See terrific article in Vox.) Literally, it can be taught.
One of the principles taught in the class was,
“Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.”
In Uganda, one relevant example actually involves bull shit – locals tend to use cow dung as relief for skin burns. Strangely enough, this doesn’t work. Still, if we had more critical thinkers applying this principle, we might have a lot fewer employee wellness programs. There are many examples of programs that are popular and that also cause harm to people – screening entire groups for cancers, promoting short-term weight loss, using financial incentives to promote healthy behaviors, and more are created every day.
Age and popularity are no substitute for solid evidence, yet few purchasers go the extra step to think critically. Questions like, “What happens after the incentive for 10,000-steps-a-day ends?” Or “Who is the most likely to show up for the ‘Preventing Diabetes Lunch ‘n’ Learn’?” Or “What does finding a lot of ‘pre-cancer’ do for everyone’s health?”
The good news is that 7,000 fifth graders in Uganda are trained and will eventually be available for hire. Until then, we’ll have to administer our own antidote whenever bullshit strikes.