Exploding factoids

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 57, No. 5, June 2015, Page 181 Editorials

"Genetically modified wheat is so harmful that it causes insects to explode.”

I remember a wise older physician defining the word “factoid” in medical school. He explained that factoids in every way resemble a fact and are communicated by someone who is convinced of their validity, but that factoids have no basis in truth. I admit that factoids exist in medicine, and I actually enjoy it when someone disproves some long-held dogma. But lately, I’m losing my patience when forced to listen to pontifications that are clearly factoids. Often, proclamations like the one above are made by educated acquaintances at some social get-together. I should probably just let these statements slide, but I can’t, fearing that if I do, these mistruths will continue to be spread as gospel. I can understand that people want to know more about the safety of genetically modified food, but let’s do this in a scientific way. As our population grows we might have to come up with inventive, hardier foodstuffs to feed all of us.

So I give it a try.

“Which insects are you talking about?”

“All of them.”

“Are you saying that the insect’s exoskeleton just vaporizes?”

“What’s an exoskeleton? Besides, you physicians are all controlled by big business and pharmaceutical companies.”

This last statement is often used to end the conversation—while physicians are well meaning, they can’t be trusted.

Other recently overheard statements include “sunscreen causes skin cancer,” “chemotherapy doesn’t help,” and “carbs are bad for you.” I met a guy who told me that supplements and vitamins don’t work because we can’t absorb rock-based substances, only those that are plant based. He didn’t even laugh when I asked him to pass the salt. He went on to explain that dementia and Parkinson disease are caused by heavy-metal poisoning, including from the mercury that we absorb from dental fillings and consume in fish. He headed the other way when I pointed out that neither teeth nor fish are plants.

I know I should be more patient, so I’m asking for your help. Please send in your tactics for dealing with these factoids before I end up alone at yet another get-together, hopped up on carbs, nursing a heavy-metal-laden drink while petting the genetically modified cat that’s about to explode.

David R. Richardson, MD. Exploding factoids. BCMJ, Vol. 57, No. 5, June, 2015, Page(s) 181 - Editorials.

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