Lies, Myths, and the Alligator Woman
By Richard P. Holm, MD
It was June 10, Old Settler’s Day in De Smet, SD, and the carnival was in town. As a fifth grader, I had been doing odd jobs for a month to save up money for that day. For the price of 25 cents, I filed through a trailer to see a “real alligator woman, half human, half alligator.” Of course, it was fake. Sitting there on a table was a dried-up, stuffed, alligator body connected to a live human woman’s head (who was chatting with us). The table had mirrors to cover the hollow box that held the woman’s body underneath. It was an amusing ruse, a trick, an intentional untruth that benefited the marketer exactly 25 cents per viewer. That was, by definition, disinformation.
By contrast, misinformation happens when people believe some ineffective treatment helps or some effective treatment harms, and they spread that misinformation. For example, in the 1980s, we noted that people, who were having heart attacks, had more premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) and these people were more likely to die. Researches found drugs that suppressed those PVCs thinking to save lives. It took us about ten years to discover that those drugs increased deaths rather than lessened them. We thought we were doing right but were, by mistake, harming people instead. That is misinformation.
Another example of misinformation occurred in the 1980s when I encouraged parents to place their babies on their bellies to sleep, thinking to protect babies from inhaling drool. We later found that babies sleeping on their bellies had more sudden infant death than those sleeping on their backs. We were misinformed.
Another example would be in trying to help others by telling them to avoid vaccinating babies with the mistaken thought that this would prevent autism. This is spreading misinformation and is harming people by allowing the spread of a killing virus, especially to immune compromised younger children and older adults.
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