Conspiracy Theorists More Likely to Support Mythical Causes of Cancer

People who endorse conspiracy theories, reject the COVID-19 vaccine, or prefer alterative medicines are more likely to support mythical causes of cancer that non-conspiracy theories are less likely to endorse, according to a new study published in The BMJ.

In this study, researchers assessed questionnaire answers among 1,494 people who were asked questions on health habits and behaviors, included a preference for conventional or alternative medicines, attitudes towards covid-19 vaccination, smoking status, alcohol consumption, weight and height, and personal history of cancer. Furthermore, the population of interest were analyzed based on conspiracy beliefs (flat earth or reptilian theories) and beliefs about both actual and mythical (non-established) causes of cancer based on the validated Cancer Awareness Measure (CAM) and CAM-Mythical Causes Scale (CAM-MYCS). Responses were subsequently recorded on a five point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

Actual causes of cancer included smoking, alcohol consumption, low levels of physical activity, childhood sunburn, family history of cancer, HPV infection, and being overweight. Mythical causes included eating food containing artificial sweeteners or additives and genetically modified food; using microwave ovens, aerosol containers, mobile phones, and cleaning products; living near power lines and feeling stressed.

The results showed that among all participants, awareness of causes of cancer was poor, though interestingly awareness of the actual causes of cancer was greater than that of mythical causes (42%). The researchers found that the most accepted actual causes of cancer were active and passive smoking, family history of cancer, and being overweight. The most endorsed mythical causes of cancer were eating food containing additives or sweeteners, feeling stressed, and eating genetically modified food.

Notably, the analysis found that awareness of the actual and mythical causes of cancer among the unvaccinated, alternative medicine, and conspiracy groups was lower (55% and 19% for actual and mythical causes, respectively) than among their counterparts (average 64% actual and 42% mythical). Most of the participants, regardless if they conspiracists or not, agreed with the statement “It seems like everything causes cancer.”

“These results suggest a direct connection between digital misinformation and consequent erroneous health decisions, which may represent a further preventable fraction of cancer,” the investigators concluded.