Fake news. Distrust of science. Conspiracy theories. Alternative medicine. These are some of the trends that have swept through science in recent years, leading to potentially destabilizing consequences.
While these had all been present for years before COVID-19, the pandemic seemingly accelerated their growth and brought them to the forefront of public discourse.
While Canadians trust scientists much more than those in other fields like politics or journalism, trust has nonetheless decreased since 2021. As trust in scientific procedures and treatments go down, what do people turn to? As a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and University of Alberta suggests, some Canadians — namely those who are more drawn to risk and a distrust of science — are turning to alternative medicine.
To begin with, the researchers define alternative healthcare (AH) — which has seen an increase in popularity in recent decades — as “a range of therapeutics that largely originate from traditions… distinct from contemporary biomedical science, and which claim mechanisms of action outside of those currently accepted by scientific… consensus.”
However, the study specifically focuses on risk-associated alternative healthcare (RAAH) behaviours, which includes treatments that 1) conflict with biomedical care (e.g., replacing biomedical care with AH), 2) are based on alternative belief systems (e.g., cupping), 3) are physically manipulative (chiropractic), or 4) involve hazardous supplements (e.g., herbal pills containing heavy metals).
The researchers also outline some psychological traits that have been found to be associated with RAAH behaviours. These include a higher sense of control over one’s health, a tendency to seek positive rewards rather than avoid negative outcomes, negative beliefs about science and dissatisfaction with biomedical models of medicine, and the tendency to use risky products or services.
These traits were measured by the Control Beliefs Inventory (CBI), the Reward Responsiveness BAS scale (RBAS), Positive Attitudes to Science (PAS) survey, the Satisfaction with Orthodox Medicine (SOM) survey, and the Susceptibility to Persuasion-II scale, respectively.
The researchers administered a survey to 2,253 people, with 1,492 respondents completing it fully. The survey consisted of sections on demographic information, history and types of RAAH treatments used, and the five psychological scales mentioned above.
Over 40% of respondents reported experiencing at least one RAAH behaviour, with physical manipulation (67.5%) and herbal supplements (55.1%) being the two most common types. Overall, respondents were more likely to engage in RAAH if they were women, had higher levels of income, or had higher levels of education. Older respondents were more likely to not engage in RAAH behaviours, which the authors hypothesize may stem from them being more risk-averse. Additionally, respondents of Asian ethnicity were more likely to not engage in RAAH behaviours. Surprisingly, respondents who worked in healthcare were 50% more likely to use RAAH treatments!
In regards to the psychological scales, the researchers found that those who were more susceptible to persuasion and had less positive attitudes about science were more likely to engage in RAAH behaviours, with the other scales not being statistically significant.
The authors conclude by highlighting the importance of “understanding how to best identify and educate the public on the significant risks encountered with some AH therapeutics.”