MD, PhD, MAE, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

We have repeatedly discussed the fact that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is related to magical health and pseudoscientific assumptions. Now new evidence has emerged on this subject. This study (Alternative Medicine, COVID-19 Conspiracies, and Other Health-Related Unfounded Beliefs: The Role of Scientific Literacy, Analytical Thinking, and Importance of Epistemic Rationality | Studia Psychologica (savba.sk)) examined how scientific literacy (scientific reasoning, scientific knowledge, and trust in science), analytical thinking and the importance of epistemic rationality relate to the belief in the efficacy of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and other health-related unfounded beliefs (COVID-19 conspiracies, pseudoscientific and magical beliefs, and cancer myths).

A representative sample of 1038 Slovaks (age = 42.08, SD = 13.99) participated in the study. While SCAM belief correlated with COVID-19 conspiracy theories, pseudoscientific beliefs, magical health-related beliefs, and cancer myths, it appeared that belief in SCAM was primarily driven by lower trust in science, lower analytical thinking, and, interestingly, a higher need to be epistemically rational. Other components of scientific literacy did not significantly predict SCAM belief but they did predict other health-related unfounded beliefs, which may suggest that a more fine-tuned approach to studying SCAM beliefs is needed.

The authors commented that SCAM is moderately related to magical health beliefs and pseudoscientific beliefs and only weakly related to COVID-19 conspiracy theories. However, the weak association between SCAM and conspiracy beliefs is in line with previous findings (Mijatović et al., 2022; Vujić et al., 2022). Similar to previous studies (Fasce & Picó, 2019; Lobato et al., 2014), we found that different unfounded beliefs tend to correlate with each other. However, it appears that COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs are distinct from magical and pseudoscientific beliefs (as evidenced by weaker correlations), whereas SCAM beliefs overlap more with magical health and pseudoscientific beliefs. SCAM beliefs correlated positively with all types of unfounded beliefs, from low to moderate levels (r values between -.16 and -.50) but did not have the same predictors. Contrary to previous findings about the stronger predictive power of scientific reasoning compared to analytical thinking in unfounded beliefs (Čavojová et al., 2020; 2022), our results point to more balanced strengths, except for belief in SCAM, which was not predicted by scientific reasoning. One of the possible explanations lies in the very low reliability of the Scientific Reasoning Scale in this study. On the other hand, other studies using the same scale showed only slightly higher reliability (e.g., Bašnáková et al., 2021, Čavojová et al., 2020; 2023; Čavojová & Ersoy, 2020) and it predicted both COVID-19 conspiracy theories, as well as pseudoscientific/magical component, similarly to the results of previous studies.

10 Responses to Belief in so-called alternative medicine is linked to magical health and other pseudoscientific assumptions

  • I see no mention of religious beliefs being taken into consideration, although I have read a study which correlated higher levels of gambling problems and belief in luck with religosity.

    Here’s one for reference.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6174594/

    I’m aware we are not supposed to say religion is just magical beliefs, but if it is not considered here, then it is a potentially huge confounding variable.

  • Very interesting. The report seems to not address the matter of religious belief as part of the magical thinking.

    It would be interesting to delve into that question. There are plenty of religious people who partake of SCAM, but on the other hand many hospitals, at least here in the United States, founded by various religious groups and still affiliated, are thoroughly science based operations.

    Does religious belief soften one to the peddlers of SCAM? I do not know the answer but my gut feeling on that matter is Yes despite many contrary examples.

    • Looking at the current wave of religious fundamentalism going hand in hand with the embrace of all kinds of SCAM and conspiracy theory it would be hard to deny a connection.

      What I find more interesting, and for me harder to understand, is that there are undeniably intelligent people, including scientists, who still have a religious belief. These are people who understand logic and the importance of evidence and yet believe something which lacks either. It’s as if their mind splits into two unconnected realms.

      I don’t question their intelligence or their faith. I just don’t understand it.

      • @Socrates

        What I find more interesting, and for me harder to understand, is that there are undeniably intelligent people, including scientists, who still have a religious belief.

        That is indeed a puzzling and quite interesting question. I think you already give part of the answer yourself:

        It’s as if their mind splits into two unconnected realms.

        People can be very good at compartimentalizing things, especially when emotions are involved. From what I understand (being nonreligious myself), religious beliefs can engender some pretty strong emotions, especially when someone has been raised in a religion from early childhood onward. These emotions are indeed kept mostly separate from the more mechanistic, unemotional workings of science – mostly, because even the staunchest atheist scientists can experience a feeling of awe when realizing what an amazing place the universe is while investigating it, and religious scientists often link this realization to the presence of the god they believe in.

        Also, intelligent people and certainly scientists are very good at rationalizing things, coming up with possible evidence for what they believe is true. This means that they also come up with sometimes pretty clever ways to interpret certain scientific knowledge as evidence for the existence of a god. Irish mathematician John Lennox is a good example, even though many of his favourite arguments for the existence of a god (e.g. the fine-tuning argument) have been long debunked.

        But I admit that just like you, I still can’t really understand it, most likely because we simply don’t have any emotions that are linked to any particular belief. I noticed this for the first time when I went to a christian high school – a grammar school full of very smart teachers and quite smart kids, who nevertheless insisted on starting every day with prayer, and asking for divine blessing whenever some challenge came up (tests, someone fell ill, sports tournaments etcetera). I tried joining in their rituals in the beginning, but that didn’t do anything for me except make me feel awkward and a bit of a hypocrite, not being a sincere believer. So I spent quite a few years seeing religion ‘work’ for smart people close-up, but without ever understanding it.

      • Socrates wrote “I don’t question their intelligence or their faith. I just don’t understand it.”

        Richard Rasker wrote “So I spent quite a few years seeing religion ‘work’ for smart people close-up, but without ever understanding it.”

        I’ve reached the (perhaps unsettling) conclusion that neither of you understand it simply because there’s either nothing to understand, or if there is, there’s nothing worth understanding.

        Imagine that I have built a public library, filled with wonderful books. You start browsing the non-fiction area and find the most delightful books on logic, mathematics, and science. Then you notice this same area includes the category religion. Some people will notice this fundamental category mistake; many will be oblivious to it.

        The one thing that I think is really dangerous in many religions is that it gives people a gold‑plated excuse to stop thinking.
        — Daniel Dennett

        • @Pete Attkins

          Some people will notice this fundamental category mistake; many will be oblivious to it.

          The real problem is a third category of people who become angry when you place religious books in the fiction category. Their religious books, mind you, not books from other religions.

        • I can’t agree about there being nothing to understand. Not because I think there is anything in religion worth understanding but because the mental disconnect between being a scientist and believing in a god is puzzling. After all isn’t one of the characteristics of being a scientist being able to make connections?

          It’s a bit like finding alchemy interesting, which I do. You can rationalise some of it as emerging science, a lot is neo-platonic philosophy and a great deal is self delusion, greed and downright fraud. But again much of the interest is in trying to understand the thinking of people who’s ideas are very different from my own.

          • Socrates wrote “But again much of the interest is in trying to understand the thinking of people who’s ideas are very different from my own.”

            That’s what interested me for a very long time, perhaps especially because I was brought up to be religious. However, it’s become obvious to me that I cannot possibly begin to determine whether or not I’m making progress in trying to understand the thinking of people whose ideas are very different from my own — because, in order to make such a determination, I would need to already be in possession of (most of) their ideas and ways of thinking, to serve as a “progress yardstick”.

            I first gave up my need to believe, which led to me finally giving up my need to understand those who Christopher Hitchens, for example, wrote about.

            Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.

            — Christopher Hitchens, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new blog posts by email.

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted but you must tick the box: “Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.”

The most recent comments from all posts can be seen here.

Archives
Categories