Medical Mythbusters : How many of these myths did you think were true?

Dunning kruger effect

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

Myth 1: Vaccines cause autism.

The mass anti-vaccine hysteria is not endemic to the 90s era. In fact, this phobia has grappled the minds of hundreds of self-professed vaccine experts since the Victorian era. Every vaccine that has been introduced by the scientific community has met with innumerable controversies, fear, and unreasonable rejections.

But instead of listing out every event in the history where these protestors have been proved wrong again and again, let us fast forward to the year 1998. Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his troupe of 12 other medical experts published a paper in The Lancet which linked the administration of MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) to the occurrence of autism in children

Little did he know that this controversial search would not only spawn a biased frenzy of “anti-vaxxers” but also would lead to his medical title being rebuked forever. His paper strongly opposed the MMR vaccine. It posited that this vaccine was a direct cause of increasing number of children being diagnosed as autistics along with other bowel dysfunctions.

However, a closer observation into his studies revealed two shocking results.Myths-VaccinesFirstly, there is absolutely no connection between the vaccine and autism. Several studies conducted by research groups in the subsequent yielded this result unanimously. And unlike the limited sample group that was taken by Wakefield & Co, these samples were composed of more than 14 million children.

Secondly, the medical procedures conducted on the autistic children by Wakefield did not meet the ethical requirements of any research board. These were largely and unnecessarily invasive (including colonoscopies and lumbar punctures) – all of which were performed without seeking proper permission.

Now, coming down to the devastating consequence of such anti-vaccine notion. Be it herd mentality or the Dunning-Kruger effect at play here (more about this phenomenon at the end of the article), false news spreads faster than wildfire (and often ends up creating as much damage). When this spurious claim got the attention of media and common population, it led to millions into believing the myth that the MMR vaccine did, in fact, cause autism.

The result?

Over a million children remained unvaccinated during 2008-2009. And during the same time the USA, UK, and Canada witnessed a severe measles outbreak among kids. For those who are unaware of the death toll caused by measles, this disease led to almost 122,000 deaths in the following years.

A similar fear over the TDAP (Tetanus Diphtheria Acellular Pertussis) resulted in an increased number of cases of Pertussis or whooping cough – more than 50,000 cases every year. Hence, it can be inferred that there is a great deal of truth in the 2011 research paper submitted by D.K Flaherty that Wakefield’s conjecture was “one of the most damaging medical hoaxes of the last 100 years”.

Myth 2: Vitamin supplements are healthy and necessary.

How often have you looked at the seemingly unending health foods and supplements section at supermarkets (or pharmacies) and wondered, “About time I started popping these pills.” It is only natural to be manipulated to think that way. The ads look lucrative, the claims sound authentic, and, since you don’t need a doctor’s prescription, they appear relatively safe. And the biggest reason of all, they help you stay healthy and disease-free.

So why not give it a try?

Well, that could prove to be a wrong idea since this $37 billion massive diet and vitamin supplement industry is largely unregulated!

myths_vitaminsHowever, there are still substantial gaps and loopholes in the studies conducted on the efficacy and utility of these supplement pills.

But before refuting the claims of these so-called health pills, let us first understand what vitamins are really and how much do our bodies need to sustain a healthy life. Vitamins (and minerals) are what nutritionists called micronutrients. Unlike the macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins), our bodies require much lesser quantities of these micronutrients.

Vitamins are at the crux of countless cellular activities – ranging from healthy metabolism to considerable immunity. Naturally occurring foods such as green leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits are abundant in these indispensable elements of our diet.

However, owing to our “quick-fix” approach towards everything in life (least of all health and diet), most of us would rather take the short-cut path of popping pills instead of indulging in hearty and healthy meals every day. And putting our blind faith on this unregulated and profit-seeking supplement industry, we have all reached to a cognitive bias (Dunning–Kruger, we meet again) that taking vitamin supplements is unequivocally a healthy choice.

This very health myth is based on three flimsy assumptions

  • ALL vitamins and other related supplements are healthy choices for ALL
  • There is NO harm in taking these pills.
  • The MORE the dosage the BETTER for your body.

Now let us see the truth behind each of these hypotheses.

First of all, a quick search over the internet (or a peek into middle school science textbook) will reveal that different people have different nutritional requirements.

For example, the amount of iron required by a growing teen is not the same as what a pregnant woman requires for herself and the growing fetus. Also, that as people age they require more vitamin B12 since they are unable to absorb it from their diet. Not to mention, folate tablets are a very specific requirement for pregnant women and not for men.

Bottom line is that your nutritional requirement is very specific to your age, gender, presence or absence of chronic ailments, and dietary practices. Thus, what must be suiting your neighbor or co-worker might not suit you.

Second of all, we have been conditioned to believe that if something is being OTC (Over-The-Counter), there is no such thing as safe or unsafe limits for its consumption. This brings us to the phenomenon known as “hypervitaminosis”, or the state of consuming an excess of vitamins.

Yes, such a phenomenon exists and it is equally harmful to the body as is the deficiency of vitamins.

Unregulated and unchecked self-administration of vitamin pills can lead to digestive distress (read vomiting, nausea, and abdominal pain), unexplained fatigue and mental confusion, and even mild- nerve damage. And most of these adverse effects are related to one of the most commonly consumed supplements – vitamin D and calcium.

Last of all, there are several dietary guidelines given out by the FDA that clearly establish the fallacy and myth perpetuated by the supplement industry. Some of these are:

  • Consume at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day and opt for whole grains instead of refined ones. Unless you have an inherent medical condition, these are enough to provide you with your DRD (daily recommended dosage) of micronutrients.
  • Pregnant and lactating women require an additional dosage of iron and folate.
  • Elderly people require vitamin B12 supplements.

Moral of the story?

Vitamin supplements are in fact just supplements. These cannot substitute a healthy diet.They can act as that extra source of micronutrients which your body very specific needs. Most of the nutrients are waiting for you, in foods right there in your pantry.

 

Myth 3: We use only 10% of our brain’s potential.

Well, this myth remains as one of the most widely circulated myths about the human mind. Myths-BrainSome folks try to pin it on the words of Albert Einstein, who allegedly used this 10% principle to explain his own prodigious cognitive capacities.

While others attribute it to the American psychologist William James who was perhaps one of the pioneers in putting this thought into pen and paper that we, as humans, utilize a very limited part of the brain. Regardless of the origins of this now-discredited fact, a substantial percentage of people still buy into this myth – partly because it has been popularized immensely by the mainstream media and partly because it gives a very scientific explanation of our own cognitive shortcomings.

These assumptions, however, couldn’t be further from the truth; the truth being we use 100% of our brains.

Not convinced?

Then let us try to address these science-backed and proven facts.

  • If we, did in fact use 10% of our brain, then any damage or dysfunction in the rest 90% of the gray matter wouldn’t bring in any complications. However, even the slightest of injuries to the skull or brain, or aberrations in nutrient/blood supply to it for that matter, can have catastrophic consequences. For example – concussions lead to severe brain damage in many patients and a brief disturbance of blood supply to the brain leads to the potentially fatal cerebral stroke.
  • Factually speaking, the brain uses 20% of our entire body’s energy reserve. And constitutes only 2% of the body mass. If we were indeed a 10% brain using species, then our inefficient bulk gray cells: useful brain matter would have rendered us weak and on the brink of extinction in the face of other smaller-brained species. But newsflash, human beings sit comfortably on top of the food chain, with our brains having an evolutionary advantage over every other species.
  • While the above two points can still be debatable to a point, how can one negate the presence of a 100% active brain as seen through innumerable PET and fMRI scans?

Not only have these very fundamental contradictions to the 10% brain theory, but also the multitude of research and experiments on brain-functioning mapping revealed one and one truth only.

That unless one has suffered an injury, is disabled, or is diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, we all a human being utilizes 100% of its brain.

Myth 4: Hyperactivity in kids is triggered by sugar

Kids can be hard to control, that is a fact.

That being said the myth that unruliness in children is a result of eating a lot of cotton candy, a sugar-laden bar of their favorite chocolate, or any other kind of sugary treat is by modern science a myth.

According to Dr. Mark Wolraich, chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center, who researched sugar’s effect on children in the 1990s, “Sugar does not appear to affect behavior in children.”

Myths_sugarThe expectations of parents of the so-called “sugar highs” appear to color the way they view their children’s behavior. “Their ideas are reinforced by seeing it in those circumstances,” Wolraich told Live Science. The misconception comes from the idea that increased blood sugar levels translate into hyperactive behavior. It’s true that someone with low blood-sugar levels (known as having hypoglycemia) can get an energy boost from drinking a sugar-filled drink.

But it’s a different story if someone has a sugary treat when he or she doesn’t have low blood sugar. The biggest reason why this myth has been widely propagated as the truth is nothing but an observer’s bias. In simple words, people see what they expect to see. There are multiple studies which prove the existence of this psychological bias occurring in sample sets to test the verity of this theory.

Parents who knew (or thought) that their child was fed extra sugar/sugary treats were more likely to judge their kids as being abnormally hyperactive that who didn’t. However, in truth, the hyperactivity level of children is based more or less on these factors:

  • Overall temperament – Some kids are naturally more active than the others.
  • Emotional response – Some kids have a higher note of response to emotions than others.
  • Sleeping issues – It is common knowledge that under-slept kids are more irate, aggressive, moody, and noisy.
  • ADHD or similar conditions – The presence of such conditions influences the level of hyperactivity.

Myth 5: Stay awake if you have a concussion

Well, to establish the fallacy of this statement, we need to first understand what actually happens inside your skull in the event of a concussion.

The origin of the word concussion is the Latin word ‘concutere’ which translates to “violent shaking”. This aptly named condition (also known as MTBI or Mild Traumatic Brain Injury) refers to the situation where your brain is literally jolted or shaken within the skull owing to a sudden impact.

What does a traumatic brain injury do?

This could damage the blood vessels within the brain causing temporary symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and vision loss.

Myth_concussionHowever, the brain itself isn’t injured in very strict definitions. This is mostly treated as a functional injury, aka, the brain’s functions alter.

And the most effective treatment for this injury is rest and performing minimum activities. If the injured person is able to hold a conversation and shows no other abnormal signs such as trouble walking or dilated pupil, s/he can safely resort to shut-eye.

The reason why this myth grew could be the fact that most people associate brain injury or trauma with more serious afflictions such as complete loss of consciousness and coma. And when such a person falls asleep, there is always this lingering fear that he/she may slip into one of these states.

However, thanks to a number of research conducted over a substantial mperiod of time, it can be safely said that not every concussion case should be forced to stay awake. It is completely up to the informed decision of the doctor to judge whether the patient needs to sleep or stay awake.

myth 6: A swallowed piece of gum stays in your system for 7 years

Remember being young and you were chewing gum and your parent or one of the grown-ups warned you not to swallow gum as it would stay in your stomach for the better half of a decade. Well, you will be happy to know that if you did have such a misfortune of accidentally swallowing a piece of that bubbly goodness you are fine and always have been.

While it is true that your stomach may be unable to swallow the piece of gum it is merely an urban myth that it would remain in your digestive tract for 7 years (just like it’s a myth that swallowed gum can wrap around our heart, I mean how does that even work?).

What is chewing gum made up of?

Chewing gum is a mixture of elastomers, resins, fats, emulsifiers, and waxes. These are pretty ingestible, but the thing is you usually do swallow a lot of stuff that is indigestible a lot of times. And your gut is equipped to deal with it. The gut just keeps moving them along until they make it all the way through the intestines and get expelled from the exit gates.

So even though gum is sticky, it usually ends up in your lavatory one to two days later. That being said there is still a risk for the intestines to get gummed up. Too much of anything is bad and swallowing too much gum can end up causing a blockage within the digestive system – most often in children, who have a smaller-diameter digestive tract than adults (although this is extremely rare).

Myth 7: You must drink 8 glasses of water every day to remain healthy

Just like how we say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, another common advice is that we should be drinking about 8 glasses which are 8 ounces every day. Or the 8*8 rule.

While it is generally accepted that drinking water is almost always good for you, there is no scientific evidence that suggests that you should drink half a gallon of water every day to stay healthy.

In an article from 2002, that reviewed dozens of studies, surveys and articles, found absolutely no scientific evidence suggesting that you need to drink eight 8-oz glasses of water per day for adequate water intake.

However, it must be noted that this finding is limited to healthy adults living in a mild climate. Moreover, your body’s water need can be sated by more than just plain water. Beverages such as milk and fruit juice would do just as well. And contrary to popular belief, caffeinated beverages and mild alcoholic drinks such as beer may also contribute to water intake, at least when they’re consumed in moderation.

Foods can also do this. Water-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and even eggs, can help contribute to fulfilling the fluid requirement of your body.

 Myth 8: Cracking your knuckles can give you arthritis

What is arthritis?

A condition of inflammation of joints present in our bodies, mainly arising as a result of aging and wear-and –tear of the cartilage.

What makes the knuckles go “a pop”?

Your joints are able to move smoothly because of a lubricating liquid present within them called as synovial fluid. When your bones are pulled apart they create a negative pressure in this fluid. This causes bubbles in the synovial fluid to burst. And that is what leads to the popping sound.

Researchers (some of whom were probably fellow knuckle cracking enthusiasts themselves) have studied whether crepitus (popping or grinding) of the knuckle joints can raise the risk for hand osteoarthritis.

While the first condition is a result of natural bone degeneration, the second phenomenon is basically the law of fluid dynamics at play within your joints. Popping sound of knuckles or crepitus is a very natural response of the joints on the account of stretching or movement.

In fact, it doesn’t cause any sort of cartilage or bone-degeneration.

The results conclude that regardless of the frequency or duration of cracking, knuckle crackers’ risk for arthritis is no higher than that was for non-crackers. There’s no known connection between knuckle cracking and hand arthritis. And the same holds true for any other joint that pops, like the hip or knee.

(However, it must be noted that the cracking of knuckles mentioned here is of the painless kind.  If there is any kind of pain accompanying the cracking, a doctor must be referred to immediately).

Myth 9: ADHD is a result of bad parenting

Myths _ adhdEven though listed in the manual of psychiatric disorders as a validated mental health condition, there’s a lingering sense that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), especially among children, is in part due to poor parenting or parents who aren’t disciplining their children enough.

For example in an article published by Alyson Schafer, she suggested that ADHD was not a biological condition recognized by science. Articles like these can only risk making things worse for children with ADHD in the future. In contrast, other research done into the matter says otherwise. Researchers led by a group in the Netherlands provide the strongest data yet on brain changes that may be contributing to ADHD.

In their report published in Lancet Psychiatry, the scientists studied the largest group to date of people of all ages with ADHD—1,713—and compared their brain scans to those without the disorder. While previous studies have also documented some brain differences in those affected, this represents the largest population of people studied.

And according to this study, people with ADHD showed a slower development of five brain regions. Some were previously identified and made intuitive sense; they involved parts of the brain responsible for controlling impulse, attention and other cognitive functions.

But the researchers also found two new regions that were smaller in people with ADHD than in controls: the amygdala and the hippocampus. These areas are primarily involved in processing emotions and shed new light on some of the non-thinking aspects of ADHD.

The fact that the amygdala was a particular region where they saw the biggest difference between patients and non-patients, speaks to the importance of emotional symptoms in ADHD. Children with ADHD often have emotional reactivity and poor frustration tolerance. These symptoms aren’t given as much focus as they should be given.

Dunning – Kruger Effect

This interesting (and quite frankly, paradoxical) psychological phenomenon reveals a highly contradictory aspect of human nature.  As per the definition of this effect, people who have zero to negligible knowledge about a certain area of knowledge or expertise tend to remain under the misconception that they have exceeding skills/knowledge in that area.

Simply put, people who are bad at something are the ones who think they are good.

Also known by other amusing names such as Mount Stupid or Smug Snake,  the Dunning-Kruger effect is at the heart of every corporation, organization, community, and society. Here, the incompetents display exaggerated levels of confidence in their own contribution.

And this very phenomenon might be at the heart of the myths discussed in this article. Take for example, the anti-vacciners. Popular survey polls conducted during the times of MMR vaccine and autism controversies revealed that a 36% of them believed that they knew more than the concerned scientists and doctors.

Also, these results were highest among those who had the least knowledge about autism and its alleged relation to vaccines. Overconfidence – as scientists call it, marks the presence of Dunning Kruger Effect. It has some level of influence in the widespread of propaganda of baseless science fiction masquerading as facts. All in all, there is a lot of pseudoscience and opinionated facts circulating the internet.

And when it comes to health and your body, it is always advisable to cross-check the claims and have an unbiased approach.

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