• Douglas MacFarlane

Coronavirus & health fraud — The allure and dangers of unverified medical advice

Updated: May 17

A researcher at The University of Western Australia has cautioned people against relying on unverified medical advice and natural remedies in lieu of real science as the COVID-19 virus situation continues to unfold.


For most of us, viruses are invisible, and their effect on our bodies is difficult to understand. Despite lacking specialist knowledge, we often feel compelled to share remedies and cures based on intuitive ideas about how our biology works.  


Unfortunately, our intuitive understandings are almost always oversimplified and do not reflect reality.


In the absence of a vaccine or cure for COVID-19, we can feel desperate to link our health outcomes to whatever actions we may have previously taken. This creates an illusion of causality, which is the same reasoning that led medieval doctors to champion such ineffective and toxic remedies as mercury, arsenic and the antimony pill.


Doug Macfarlane, a PhD student from UWA’s School of Psychology, is examining what makes this faux-medical advice, particularly regarding natural remedies, so appealing.


Mr Macfarlane said such advice often falsely claimed to come from an authoritative source and unless we did our homework this could be enough to let our guard down. He said people made the advice more convincing by mixing snippets of real science and complex scientific terms with false pseudoscientific claims.


“Faux-medicine often uses oversimplified diagrams and explanations of complex biological phenomenon,” he said. “The claims are made so confidently that we mistake them for being based on real knowledge.


“Often such claims confirm things we already believe or want to be true, such as natural is better or risk-free. Years of misleading marketing means we often confuse the term natural for harmless, which makes us more willing to try it.”


This makes people who already firmly believe in natural remedies particularly susceptible to health scams.


“Our prior beliefs can blind us to the harms of the alternative remedy industry including the under-reporting of side effects, serious reactions to conventional medications and high-rates of substitution with unlabelled ingredients, including toxic metals or powerful pharmaceuticals,” Mr Macfarlane said.


Mr Macfarlane said as humans we hated feeling like we were not in control, so miracle cures and natural remedies offered us false assurances that we were masters of our own health.


“Perhaps the biggest harm of all, is that sharing such simplified advice makes others less vigilant about the urgent actions needed to keep our community safe,” he said.


“The thing about this coronavirus is that we are all in control. We can protect our friends and family by isolating ourselves and our families from unnecessary exposure, and dutifully using soap and alcohol wash.”


The full press release was published via the University of Western Australia,

Click here for a link to the press release.

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