In his post at The Atlantic yesterday, Abraham Verghese made the case that magical thinking is a powerful driver of debates over health and health care.
“We all want to believe that a pill or potion that comes from sea coral or from the Amazon jungle will cure that pain for which little else has worked,” Verghese writes. The “flip side,” he says, “is that we are extraordinarily sensitive to any suggestion that someone is taking away something we think is good for our health.”
And magical thinking’s influence isn’t limited to cruising the natural supplements aisle or reading the ads in a health magazine. Sometimes it’s part of expert opinion — and so it becomes part of widespread belief.
Consider how the flu experts talk about the possibility of swine flu’s return this fall. In Monday’s Washington Post, the experts’ words wax electric. Dr. William Schaffner, chair of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt U.’s medical school, asserts that “The virus is still around and ready to explode…. We’re potentially looking at a very big mess.” And Dr. Arnold Monto, a physician epidemiologist at U. Michigan’s School of Public Health, worries “about our ability to handle a surge of severe cases.”
So, even as H5N1 reports that an article in The Independent finds scientists skeptical as to whether there will be a so-called second wave of serious flu outbreaks in the northern hemisphere this fall, we’ve got American scientists suggesting — in high-voltage terms — that something awful is going to happen.
They’re not wrong: something bad might happen. That’s always true.
But language matters. And language coming from so-called experts matters a lot. It has magic.
Vigorous metaphors promote popular fears. The last time swine flu came around, in early 1976, respected virologist Edwin Kilbourne published an influential op-ed piece in the NY Times (13 Feb 1976), called “Flu to the Starboard! Man the Harpoons! Fill with Vaccine! Get the Captain! Hurry!” Kilbourne urged officials to prepare for an “imminent natural disaster.” Fair enough: a serious H1N1 flu might have happened in ’76 (it didn’t) — but his whaling metaphor appealed to more than just preparation. It was about power and authority (“get the captain!”). Presumably, the authority of science, industry, and government.
And so with other metaphors that are meant to be calls to arms. There were the warfare metaphors about the alleged threat of bioterrorism, and the plague metaphors about AIDS. Now, there are explosive metaphors about obesity.
Last year, acting U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Steven Galson called childhood obesity a “national catastrophe,” for instance. And Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, warned of obesity’s “corrosive” effects, which, she asserted, imperil a generation of America’s youth. According to Dr. Matthew Gillman of Harvard “You build [obesity] up over generations” — like an electrical charge in a capacitor, like explosive potential, the reader has to presume.
Talking about childhood obesity, Dr. Eric Hoffman of Stanford told the Washington Post that “we have taught our children how to kill themselves.”
Invoking metaphors to create magical thinking isn’t just an American habit. Childhood obesity is a “time bomb,” according to physician Howard Stoate, chair of Britain’s All-Parliamentary Group on Primary Care and Public Health.
Verghese’s right. People can be afraid to let go of what they believe they need for their health — however magically. And magical thinking is inside the way our experts talk to us about health. That sort of magic can run deep.
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 13th, 2009 at 1:25 pm and is filed under Disease, Health Professions, Myths, Narratives, obesity, Physicians, public health, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.