A study by Spanish researchers found a link between online misinformation and believing in myths about the causes of cancer. However, the research was met with criticism by some in the medical community.
The goal of the study was to find “patterns of beliefs about cancer among people who believed in conspiracies, rejected the covid-19 vaccine, or preferred alternative medicine."
People who consider themselves anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, or reptile conspiracists were study participants.
The researchers said their results show a clear link between digital misinformation and poor health decisions.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), is called "Everything Causes Cancer? Beliefs and Attitudes Towards Cancer Prevention Among Anti-Vaxxers, Flat Earthers, and Reptilian Conspiracists." Spanish researchers found people on social media who identified closely with one or more labels in the study’s title.
According to the researchers, the goal of this study was to find “patterns of beliefs about cancer among people who believed in conspiracies, rejected the COVID-19 vaccine, or preferred alternative medicine. "All the participants knew more about real cancer causes than mythical ones, according to the study. However, vaccinated people knew more about the real causes of cancer than non-vaccinated people and conspiracy theorists.
The authors found that the study’s results show a direct link between digital misinformation and incorrect health assumptions, which may lead to preventable cancer cases.
The study and the journal it was featured in have received backlash. Dr. Clare Craig, a British pathologist specializing in cancer diagnoses, called it a “horrible article.”
Norman Fenton, professor of risk information management at the Queen Mary University of London, spoke out against the study process.
In response to the criticism, Costas said this study is meant to be more lighthearted than other studies because it is a part of the BMJ Christmas issue.
Previous BMJ Christmas issues have included studies on the dangers of holly and ivy, how long chocolates can last on hospital wards, and the answer to the question, "Were James Bond's drinks shaken because he was drunk?"
The data collected for the study was found in ForoCoches and HispaChan, popular Spanish online forums. Of 1,494 participants, 209 were unvaccinated against COVID-19, and 112 preferred alternatives to conventional medicine. Also, 62 said they believed in a "flat earth" or that a reptilian species ruled the earth.
Senior author Laura Costas, a medical epidemiologist with the Catalan Institute of Oncology, along with her team, had the participants answer questions about what they believe causes cancer. To do this, the researchers used two scales: the Cancer Awareness Measure (CAM) and the CAM–Mythical Causes Scale (CAM-MYCS). People could say "strongly disagree" or "strongly agree" to any questions within either of the scales.
Most participants believed that eating food with additives or sweeteners (63.9%), being stressed (59.7%), or eating genetically modified foods (38.4%) caused cancer. Most notably, almost half of the participants agreed with the statement, "It seems like everything causes cancer."
“People who believed in conspiracies, rejected the covid-19 vaccine, or preferred alternative medicine were more likely to endorse the mythical causes of cancer than their counterparts but were less likely to endorse the actual causes of cancer,” said the researchers in the study.
Costas and the study's co-authors said that their findings speak to the many problems with misinformation in media, “These results suggest a direct connection between digital misinformation and consequent erroneous health decisions, which may represent a further preventable fraction of cancer.”