Viperine Water Snake

Using Conspiracy Theories and Fear for Public Health

Apparently big food is not scary enough. The Washington Post wants you to know that it’s really big tobacco that is selling you those noxious and addictive Teddy Grahams to destroy the health of your children. For this report, they rely on a paper by Tera Fazzino and colleagues. This continues a tradition of using conspiracy theories and fear to educate the public about health and nutrition. It follows nicely from headlines about “sneaky” artificial sweeteners that will disrupt your metabolism and duplicitous dietitians dealing in candy and ice cream.

Yes, research shows that evoking fear with a conspiracy theory can be an effective way to motivate behavior change. But it’s not at all clear that public health is better off because of the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

Fear of the Devil

Last year in PLOS ONE, Marta Marchlewska and colleagues proposed that conspiracy theories might be useful for prompting consumers to alter their choices about food. They presented data to suggest that it is indeed possible to scare people about food industry conspiracies to prompt behavior changes:

“Overall, the current results allowed us to understand the role of food industry conspiracy beliefs in shaping conscious consumer choices. We showed that by increasing the level of this particular conspiracy belief through context-specific, food-related threat, individuals may become more susceptible to cues of danger and show greater readiness to reconsider their food purchasing decisions.”

Do We Really Need More Conspiracy Theories?

However, none of this tells us that conspiracy theories can lead us to a place of better public health. Marchlewska et al acknowledge the dark side of promoting conspiracy theories when they reference the potential to fuel disinformation, antisemitic beliefs, and distrust in public health. Priming people to embrace conspiracy theories certainly did not help us to cope with the COVID pandemic.

When it comes to obesity and public health, fear mongering and conspiracy theories have certainly not been helpful. So, to the Post’s conspiracy theories about Big Food and Big Tobacco, we will say no thank you. We’ll stick with facts and reason to promote good health.

Click here for the latest fear mongering from the Post and here for Marchlewska’s paper in PLOS ONE. For more on conspiracy theories, click here.

Viperine Water Snake, photograph by Charles J. Sharp, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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September 20, 2023

One Response to “Using Conspiracy Theories and Fear for Public Health”

  1. September 22, 2023 at 12:35 am, David Brown said:

    Quote from “Stover at Yale” “All the science of Foolology is: first, find something all the fools love and enjoy, tell them it’s wrong, hammer it into them, give them a substitute and sit back, chuckle, and shovel away the ducats…in the next twenty years all the fools will be feeding on substitutes for everything they want; no salt—denatured sugar—anti-tea—oiloline—peanut butter—whale’s milk—et cetera, et cetera, and blessing the name of the fool-master who fooled them.”