The scientific magazine The British Medical Journal has published in a special Christmas edition a compilation of scientific studies with a satirical component but maintaining rigor. Among them, the results of a survey carried out by a team from IDIBELL and the Catalan Institute of Oncology have been presented, which shows that anti-vaccine groups, flat earthers, or reptilians are less aware of the agents that can really cause cancer and of those that they are just myths.
To collect the data, the researchers circulated a survey among various Internet discussion forums such as ForoCoches, Reddit, 4Chan, or HispaChan. The survey included validated questions about the perception of cancer and the substances that could cause it, there were also more general questions such as if they had been vaccinated against COVID-19, if they thought the earth was flat, or if they believed in the existence of reptilians. In total, almost 1,500 responses were obtained, of which 284 came from people who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19, who preferred alternative medicine, or who believed in some conspiracy theory.
The results show that the followers of some conspiracy theories, particularly flat earthers and defenders of the existence of reptilians, ignore the real causes of cancer and, on the contrary, believe in myths about false carcinogenic factors such as microwaves, mobile phones, or transgenics. The same pattern was observed in those who had not received any dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, or who preferred alternative medicine to conventional medicine.
Among all the answers, 673 participants, almost half, maintained that “everything can cause cancer“, which highlights the difficulty of society in differentiating the real causes and the myths.
This is especially relevant since misinformation can have real consequences on health. “These results, although they come from humor, are important since knowing the causes of cancer is the first step to prevent it -says Dr. Laura Costas, principal investigator at IDIBELL and the Catalan Institute of Oncology, and last author of the work-. Being misinformed can lead to adopting preventive measures that are not effective, following risky lifestyles, or rejecting effective prevention actions such as the HPV vaccine or screening, even in the most extreme cases, misinformation can lead to rejecting effective cancer treatments with fatal consequences”.
Even so, the existence of this type of pseudoscientific belief is partly the result of the increasing bombardment of information in the media and social networks, and not being effective in combating misinformation. This case, despite being a preliminary study, is a call to continue investigating how this can affect health and find the best strategies to end false myths.
How to distinguish the real causes from the myths of cancer
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has created a classification of all agents suspected of being carcinogenic based on the available scientific evidence.
Established causes of cancer are agents included in group 1, for which the scientific evidence in humans is clear and their causality can be defined. Examples are tobacco, processed meat, or exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
There are agents that are not in group 1 but are still popularly considered to be carcinogenic, such as magnetic fields or deodorants, among others. This is a heterogeneous group where there are factors with non-biological sense or that have been widely demonstrated not to be carcinogenic, and others that could be, but now we do not have enough data to establish a relationship with them. Although in the future some of these factors may be reclassified as established causes of cancer.
To establish a cancer cause, it must meet different causality criteria and multiple studies of different types must consistently demonstrate this. Thus, the results underline that the general population has difficulties in identifying the causes of cancer that are already widely demonstrated by hundreds of studies.