Review: Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall for Them by Dr. Seema Yasmin

Thanks to Dr. Yasmin (@DoctorYasmin) and Books Forward (@booksforwardpr) for providing me with the ARC to review!

Synopsis: Can your zip code predict when you will die? Will testosterone supplements boost your libido? Should you space out childhood vaccines? Does talcum powder cause cancer? Why do some doctors recommend e-cigarettes while other doctors recommend you stay away from them? Health information–and misinformation–is all around us, and it can be hard to separate the two. A long history of unethical medical experiments and medical mistakes, along with a host of celebrities spewing anti-science beliefs, has left many wary of science and the scientists who say they should be trusted. How do we stay sane while unraveling the knots of fact and fiction to find out what we should really be concerned about, and what we can laugh off?

In Viral BS, journalist, doctor, professor, and CDC-trained disease detective Seema Yasmin, driven by a need to set the record straight, dissects some of the most widely circulating medical myths and pseudoscience. Exploring how epidemics of misinformation can spread faster than microbes, Dr. Yasmin asks why bad science is sometimes more believable and contagious than the facts. Each easy-to-read chapter covers a specific myth, whether it has endured for many years or hit the headlines more recently. Dr. Yasmin explores such pressing questions as

– Do cell phones, Nutella, or bacon cause cancer?

– Are we running out of antibiotics?

– Does playing football cause brain disease?

– Is the CDC banned from studying guns?

– Do patients cared for by female doctors live longer? 

– Is trauma inherited?

– Is suicide contagious?

and much more.

Taking a deep dive into the health and science questions you have always wanted answered, this authoritative and entertaining book empowers readers to reach their own conclusions. Viral BS even comes with Dr. Yasmin’s handy pull-out-and-keep Bulls*%t Detection Kit.

Genre: Non-fiction, Health

Publication Date: January 12th, 2021

Publisher: Books Forward

Length: 272 pages

My Rating: 4/5

So what use is the truth anyway?” 

This statement is very poignant, especially if you have ever tried to argue with a relative on social media. Sometimes it feels like, no matter how many facts you have or how many sources you cite, you cannot change a person’s mind once it’s made up. Dr. Seema Yasmin explores this issue at length in her book Viral BS, examining why people are so set in their beliefs, even when they are incorrect, and how occasionally you can change their mind.

Information Literacy is becoming more vital as our access to information grows. We need to know how to avoid the fiction and find the facts. One thing I like to do when I read a non-fiction book, especially one dealing with anything health related, is to check out the source of this information. I looked up the author, Dr. Seema Yasmin, and was in awe of her credentials. This was enough to encourage me to read her book. 

The chapters of Viral BS are split into different beliefs/misconceptions that people have about health and science, and explore the history behind the beliefs and the studies involved. If you are not a traditional cover-to-cover reader, this chapter set-up facilitates the ability to peruse the different questions based on your interest in the topic. Personally, I read the book from start to finish, but the narrative is open enough where skipping a chapter that doesn’t interest you personally will not affect the readability of the book.

I found that there was a good variety of topics covered by Dr. Yasmin. The first few chapters cover popular areas of contention, such as flat-tummy detox teas, vaccines, and autism. Even with my previous understanding of these topics, I still learned a lot from the facts that were presented. As I moved through the book, the topics became less familiar to me, with some chapters introducing brand new information, like the one on the Statin debate. This could possibly be because of my age, or where I grew up, but I just never came across these topics before. Each chapter is clearly well researched, with some including several studies discussing the many different aspects of the argument and its history. However, no matter how detailed the chapters were, I never felt overwhelmed by data, which can happen quite easily when dealing with scientific studies. 

The level of detail that Dr. Yasmin puts into her research is impressive. I know that a lot of statistics and quoted studies can be daunting, and too much scientific jargon can be off-putting for the casual reader, but Dr. Yasmin is able to break up the science with a narrative voice that keeps this book from becoming too much like a textbook. I enjoyed the author’s personal stories and bits of humour that were injected among the facts, it lightened the tone of the book without removing any of the credibility. In fact, I found that by including stories from her work history and even from her childhood, I could more easily accept the information she was providing as plausible. I also really appreciated that Dr. Yasmin pulled no punches when it came to pointing out when the medical community failed in its treatment of marginalized communities, women and BIPOC. 

“We don’t talk much about the bloody history of public health or the creation of modern medicine…By airing our dirty laundry, we get to get to the truth of modern-day public health travesties”.  

It’s easy to blame these beliefs on people’s ignorance, but as Dr. Yasmin explains, a lot of this misinformation can be traced to injustices that occurred in the history of the medical community. I’m happy that Dr. Yasmin addresses this instead of pushing it aside like so many people do.

With a non-fiction book, there are certain things I’m looking for. For me, credibility is the most important, and Dr. Yasmin definitely provided that. Another is readability, which I believe was also achieved in Viral BS. I do admit, there were a couple of chapters that I found to be a bit harder to get through, as the topic itself was not really of interest to me. I will also note that I read this book in bits and pieces, as it is quite a bit of information to digest all at once. However, I had no problem picking it back up to continue reading, and I didn’t feel like it was an effort to finish in the least. I especially liked the ‘Bullshit Detection Kit’ included at the back of the book. This is a great little guide to information literacy that everyone should use when reading things online. Overall, I recommend this book to everyone who wants to be more informed, or who has a curiosity for health matters and the origins of common beliefs.

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