The pervasiveness and policy consequences of medical folk wisdom in the U.S. Academic Article uri icon


  • Medical folk wisdom (MFW) refers to widely held, but factually inaccurate, beliefs about disease, immunity, pregnancy, and other medically-relevant topics. Examples include the idea that fasting when feverish ("starving a fever") can increase the pace of recovery, or that showering after sex can prevent pregnancy. The pervasiveness of MFW, and whether or not it-like other forms of medically-relevant misinformation-shapes Americans' health behaviors and policy preferences is an important and under-studied question. We begin this research by proposing and validating a novel measure of MFW; including a short-form scale suitable for administration in public opinion surveys. We find that nearly all Americans-irrespective of socio-economic status, political orientation, and educational background-endorse at least some aspects of MFW. Concerningly, and consistent with the idea that folk wisdom challenges scientific expertise, we additionally find that those highest in MFW tend to place less value on medical expertise and the role experts play in shaping health policy. However, this skepticism does not appear to translate to peoples' health actions, as MFW appears to have an inconsistent effect on public participation in healthy behaviors.

published proceedings

  • Sci Rep

altmetric score

  • 46.2

author list (cited authors)

  • Motta, M., & Callaghan, T.

citation count

  • 15

complete list of authors

  • Motta, Matthew||Callaghan, Timothy

publication date

  • July 2020