An excellent antidote to 'Viral BS'
Viral BS: Medical Myths And Why We Fall For Them, by Dr Seema Yasmin, is a very appropriate tome for 2020. Nearly prescient in its having been published at the beginning of a year rife with pseudoscience, this is a collection of articles, rather than a book. Each one explains how medical research has been misused, taken out of context to perpetuate behaviours, or maintain wrong beliefs, about different medical issues: the uses of certain medications; how illnesses are generated/transferred; why the nutritional supplement industry is suspect; and so forth. The outcomes have, invariably, damaged thousands of humans who have lost their health, even their lives.
This is a cautionary tale which should be widely circulated, turned into a teaching tool. It demonstrates how easily people accept information without either curating its sources, nor questioning it beyond the surface. To that end, Dr Yasmin includes a 12-item checklist to help train the habit of critical thought. Added to the sheer number of chapters, the repetition of circumstances, it is clear that humans are too intellectually lazy for our own good.
Who would enjoy this
Viral BS: Medical Myths And Why We Fall For Them is an obvious choice for people who are concerned about the abundance of conflicting information and self-made gurus. It is full of data and easy to understand analysis.
It is also a good option for those looking for a less academic entry into medical research, social impact, quality journalism.
Who should give this a pass
This is not a volume for people who would rather follow media hypes or internet trends. It may be a good choice in itself, but they would probably neither enjoy nor appreciate it.
Similarly, people who have issues with health-related or social anxiety should be aware it may trigger them.
Conclusions and suggestions
Dr Seema Yasmin uses her experience as a doctor, researcher, and medical journalist to her advantage. The chapters, i.e. the articles, are tightly built units. Each one covers the current problematic situation, the misreporting that originated it, the research at the offset. She also added an upbeat prologue to frame the work, as well as the closing “Dr Yasmin’s Bullshit Detection Kit” to give a sense of cohesion. It works well, although often you can feel the separate origins of each chapter. Moreover, most sections forget to explain why a specific misrepresentation of information is persuasive enough to be perpetuated.
The tome is, as a whole, a good piece of solid medical reporting. It is also relevant, well written, engaging, useful. Sadly, it is very much the type of work that will mostly be picked up by readers already interested in this sort of material. Such readers will enjoy it, probably find some new materials. On the other hand, those who would most benefit from it (learn to be critical readers of media) will probably never choose it, let alone read it.
Viral BS: Medical Myths And Why We Fall For Them is a good book, despite its shortfalls. As any good book, it has several aspects to learn from:
· Know thy matter. Have such excellent knowledge of your subject, you can present it clearly and simply.
· Structure each section as a strong unit. Even if they are to be connected, inner structure is essential to keep the whole work balanced.
· Trust in the readers’ intelligence. Be unafraid to present complex ideas and practices with a basic yet detailed explanation.
· Have a clear outcome of what product you want to have in the end. Use humour, certainly, but don’t let it turn your information into something dismissible.