Immunizing children against deadly bullshit

matt-oxman-portrait-croppedThe following guest post is by Matt Oxman, a writer and researcher based in Oslo. His work focuses on the development and evaluation of learning resources for helping people make well-informed decisions about health. He tweets as @matt_oxman

Anyone familiar with knows the media are infested with misleading claims about the effects of treatments—for example that light boxes increase sex drive in men, based on a study that was light on participants. I imagine the reviewers wrote their evaluation by banging their heads against the keyboard.

Most people do not seem to understand why claims made in many health stories are unreliable. This is a dangerous and expensive problem. It is why, as part of the Informed Health Choices project, my colleagues and I have developed and tested a comic book for 10-year-olds in Uganda.

Credit Sarah Rosenbaum/Informed Health Choices

Credit Sarah Rosenbaum/Informed Health Choices

When people act on bullshit and discount good advice, they risk unnecessary deaths and wasted dollars. The measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine provides a good example.

Based on anecdotes, Donald Trump and other media magnets—or, as we call them in Norway, “lens lice”—claim the vaccine causes autism.

Reviews of the research—for example, this one from 2014 and this one from 2012—suggest that that the vaccine prevents deadly infections and show no association with autism. In this case, the ability to assess opposing claims can be the difference between life and death for children.

Our goal is for the next generation to be vaccinated not just against deadly diseases, but also against deadly bullshit. That is why we have started developing and evaluating resources to help people think critically about what affects their health.

Belief in bullshit is a global problem. However, it is particularly pressing for those with the least resources, because they can least afford to waste the little that they have. That is why we chose to start somewhere like Uganda.

The senior researchers working on this project have tried for decades to help health professionals, policy makers and journalists understand and apply the basic principles of sound health research. The challenges have been many.

Not least, most adults are pressed for time. Moreover, they not only have to learn more about evidence, they have to unlearn misconceptions and question deep-held beliefs that are tied to their identities. Children, on the other hand, are open-minded and energetic. That is why our first learning resources are targeted at fifth-graders.

This brings us back to the comic book, which is really a textbook of which the central component is a comic story. The book also includes instructions for classroom activities and a glossary. To go along with the textbook, there is an exercise book and a guide for teachers using the materials in their classrooms. (Click the image for a larger view.)


The main characters are two children who are motivated to learn about assessing claims when one of them infects his burnt finger by sticking it in actual bullshit. It is a common claim in East Africa that cow dung heals burns.

At the clinic, they meet two health researchers—Professor Compare and Professor Fair. The professors agree to teach the children why fair comparisons (randomized trials) of treatments are important.

We are putting our money where our mouths are. This year, we tested the learning resources in a randomized trial in Uganda. Over 15,000 children participated. Half of them used the materials. All of them took the same test. Soon we will know whether those who used the materials performed any better.

Our plan is to develop and evaluate new learning resources for all age groups, all over the world. For the sake of the next generations, as well as the aching foreheads of contributors to, I hope we succeed.

Earlier this week we profiled risk communication guru Gerd Gigerenzer, whose work, like that of Informed Health Choices, seeks to improve the ability of young people to apply critical thinking skills. We also wrote recently about CNN’s troubling “Student News” program, which is a good example of why children need to be immunized against bullshit health news.  

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