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Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us

Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us

Professor Steven Novella M.D.
Yale School of Medicine
Course No.  1924
Course No.  1924
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

True or false: Eight glasses of water a day are mandatory for staying hydrated. Vitamin C protects you from catching a cold. Frequent snacking is the quickest way to bust your diet. Natural foods are always better for you. You hear advice like this all the time. But what do these four nuggets of so-called medical wisdom have in common? They're all myths, half-truths, and misconceptions—pieces of information so familiar we take them for granted without truly considering the scientific truth behind them.

In today's information age, when supposedly accurate medical advice and diagnoses can be found online with the click of a computer mouse, medical myths are all around us. But much of this information isn't true, and using it to make decisions about your own health—whether it's how to treat the symptoms of the common cold or how to care for a child or aging relative—can be harmful. Even deadly.

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True or false: Eight glasses of water a day are mandatory for staying hydrated. Vitamin C protects you from catching a cold. Frequent snacking is the quickest way to bust your diet. Natural foods are always better for you. You hear advice like this all the time. But what do these four nuggets of so-called medical wisdom have in common? They're all myths, half-truths, and misconceptions—pieces of information so familiar we take them for granted without truly considering the scientific truth behind them.

In today's information age, when supposedly accurate medical advice and diagnoses can be found online with the click of a computer mouse, medical myths are all around us. But much of this information isn't true, and using it to make decisions about your own health—whether it's how to treat the symptoms of the common cold or how to care for a child or aging relative—can be harmful. Even deadly.

Because you are the one who's ultimately responsible for your own health, it's critical to understand the accuracy of medical information; to break down the growing body of misinformation and discover the truth about everyday health and well-being.

"You can't assume that what you've always heard must be true simply because many other people believe it and spread it around," notes Dr. Steven Novella of the Yale School of Medicine, a medical doctor who has built his career educating patients, the public, students, and professionals about the highest standards in medical science and practice. "You should challenge all of your beliefs and, wherever possible, try to rely upon a consensus of authority or primary sources in order to check out everything that you think you know to be true."

This is exactly the approach you'll take with Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us. Dr. Novella's 24 revealing lectures are an empowering learning experience that will give you evidence-based guidelines for good health, will enhance your ability to be better informed about common medical myths, and will strengthen your skills at assessing the scientific truth behind medical information and advice—whether you're having an important conversation with your doctor or taking a trip down the medicine aisle of your local pharmacy.

Dispel Medical Myths with Authoritative Information

Popular and easily accessible sources such as websites, blogs, advocacy groups, marketing materials, and celebrity endorsements are where we often get quick medical information. But they're also the most unreliable sources. That's why Dr. Novella's course is an essential aid for any home—because the information in every single lecture is rooted in authoritative and reliable sources of fact and knowledge:

  • Physicians and other health-care professionals
  • Medical research and professional organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • University medical schools
  • Regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration

After you get a solid foundation for what constitutes "good" information and how to look for it, Dr. Novella guides you through some of the most prevalent and enduring medical myths. And to help you filter through the deluge of advice out there, he's organized Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths into three major sections that focus on specific aspects of health.

  • You Are What You Eat and Drink: So much of today's misinformation swirls around concepts related to dieting and nutrition. Here, you'll get pointed looks at proper hydration, the routine use of multivitamins, natural foods and probiotics, antioxidants, and more.
  • Fighting Diseases: Some diseases are merely inconvenient to our everyday life; others, however, can pose significant and lasting health risks. Which makes it all the more important to sort out truth from fiction regarding vaccines, vaccine safety, the supposed link between vaccination and autism, antibiotics, chronic diseases, and other subjects you learn about in this section.
  • Exploring the Alternatives: It seems as if there's a surplus of alternative medicines, remedies, and treatments designed to alleviate symptoms, prevent illness, or promote personal health. But which ones really work? Investigate the claims behind herbal medicines, homeopathy, acupuncture, and other alternatives that aren't as worthwhile as they claim to be.

Dr. Novella also opens your eyes to myths about pregnancy, loss of consciousness, detoxification, and the placebo effect. In one lecture toward the end of the course, he even takes you on a brief tour of common medical myths from around the world to demonstrate that medical myths vary, but misinformation is universal.

Intriguing Medical Questions, Revealing Scientific Answers

At the heart of Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths, of course, are the answers to questions that have long perplexed many of us. Much of the myths and misinformation we hear about sound true and seem to make sense. But do they really? Dr. Novella's answers, rooted in scientific knowledge and a wealth of medical research, may surprise you.

Here is just a small sample of the many myths you'll debunk in this intriguing course.

  • The more vitamins you take every day, the better. Many vitamins can cause dangerous toxicity if taken in high doses (a practice known as megadosing). Regular use of high doses of some vitamins can also increase the risk of disease. For example, Vitamin E supplementation has been shown to correlate with an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Soda causes hyperactivity in children. Despite common belief, there is no evidence to support a link between caffeinated beverages like soda and behavioral changes in children. In fact, because caffeine is a stimulant, it may improve attention in some children. However, high doses of caffeine can cause jitteriness, nervousness, and sleep difficulty.
  • You can never be too clean. Regular exposure to immune challenges actually keeps our immune systems healthy—something that can be compromised by overusing antibiotics or being overly hygienic. Recent medical studies show a possible association between decreased immune system exposure and certain diseases like asthma.
  • If you're pregnant and carrying your baby low, then it's a boy. Myths such as these are pure folklore and are often rooted in ancient gender stereotypes. The only two legitimate methods for determining the sex of your baby are through ultrasound (which looks for physical sexual characteristics) or amniocentesis (which looks at the baby's chromosomes).
  • Most of your body heat is lost through your head. This myth is based on the false notion that body heat rises. Heat is lost through the entire surface area of your skin in several methods, including evaporation through sweat. If anything, your hands lose a disproportionate amount of heat due to their highly vascular nature.
  • Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis. A medical study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics examined 300 knuckle crackers and found no increased risk of arthritis. It did, however, find grip weakness, which was probably caused by repeated stretching of the ligaments around the knuckle joints.

Save Yourself Time, Money, and Worry

A strong proponent of ethics in medicine and the accuracy of medical information, Dr. Novella is a veritable fountain of knowledge who will enhance your understanding of medical truths and instill in you the confidence to overcome the bewildering amount of bad information around you. As an academic neurologist at the Yale School of Medicine, he's built a career teaching doctors how to become good doctors.

And while it's always important to seek medical advice directly from your family physician, it is just as important to be your own doctor and to have the knowledge to make smart and savvy health decisions that can save you time, money, and—most of all—unnecessary worry. All of which you'll get with Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Medical Knowledge versus Misinformation
    In Dr. Novella's introductory lecture, discover the importance of debunking medical myths and learn tips on where to seek out solid, medically backed information. Then, get a taste of the lectures to come by unpacking common myths about hiccups, sneezing, swallowing gum, curing a hangover, and swimming after eating. x
  • 2
    Myths about Water and Hydration
    Water is the most basic element of life. And yet there are many misconceptions about keeping your body hydrated. How exactly do our bodies regulate water? How much water should you really drink every day? Are expensive bottles of water and water purifiers worth the cost? x
  • 3
    Vitamin and Nutrition Myths
    You cannot overdose on vitamins. Organically grown food is more nutritious than traditionally grown food. Everyone should take vitamin supplements—and the more the better. These are some of the many myths and half-truths you investigate in this lecture on vitamin use and nutritional health. x
  • 4
    Dieting—Separating Myths from Facts
    More than any other component of health, dieting is the area most prone to myths and misinformation. Here, evaluate the veracity of everything from the benefits of low-carb and low-fat diets to the use of weight-loss supplements and intense workouts to the nature of "good" and "bad" fats. x
  • 5
    The Fallacy That Natural Is Always Better
    Natural isn't always better for you, as Dr. Novella demonstrates by guiding you through some common fallacies about the "natural foods" you can find in almost any grocery store around the world. These include how such foods are cultivated, how they're labeled and sold, and how they're prepared and consumed. x
  • 6
    Probiotics and Our Bacterial Friends
    There are billions of bacteria around and inside your body—and some of them are actually beneficial to your health. Explore the truths behind probiotics: what they are, whether they help with issues like tooth decay and irritable bowel syndrome, and the future possibilities of genetically engineered bacteria. x
  • 7
    Sugar and Hyperactivity
    It's commonly believed that large amounts of sugar lead to hyperactivity in children. But is that really the case? Debunk common misconceptions about the effects of sugar, food additives, and food allergies on children's behavior, and learn more about what may sometimes be the true culprit: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. x
  • 8
    Antioxidants—Hype versus Reality
    Another popular medical subject is antioxidants: substances in "superfoods" such as green tea that stabilize oxygen-free radicals. Discover what scientists have found about the potential for antioxidants to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, to prevent cancer and heart disease, and to promote longevity and lifelong health. x
  • 9
    The Common Cold
    Finally put to bed the popular myths about one of the most common illnesses: a cold. You've heard the stories about not going out in cold weather, eating chicken soup, washing your hands, and taking over-the-counter medicine. Now, discover what science says about what works and what doesn't. x
  • 10
    Vaccination Benefits—How Well Vaccines Work
    Vaccines are perhaps the single safest and most effective preventive health measure ever devised. In the first of two lectures on this subject, learn the history of vaccination, what types of vaccines doctors use to stave off specific diseases, and why some people still question whether this technique works. x
  • 11
    Vaccination Risks—Real and Imagined
    Focus now on myths surrounding the safety of vaccines—including the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine and its false link to autism in children. Because of the unwarranted fear and confusion among parents, this particular myth has led to decreased vaccination rates and the reemergence of serious infectious diseases. x
  • 12
    Antibiotics, Germs, and Hygiene
    Infection remains a serious problem for our species, despite our well-developed immune systems. After learning about different bacteria and other invasive organisms, delve into some half-truths about antibiotic resistance and good hygiene. End the lecture with the answer to an intriguing question: Can you be too clean? x
  • 13
    Vague Symptoms and Fuzzy Diagnoses
    Diagnoses are the labels we attach to the signs and symptoms of particular diseases or illnesses. But not all diagnoses are equally valid. Here, learn how doctors make informed diagnoses and investigate several diseases that illustrate the controversy behind them, including chronic Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. x
  • 14
    Herbalism and Herbal Medicines
    Herbalism is perhaps the oldest form of medicine. So how much does it really differ from modern pharmacology? Find out as Dr. Novella explores the complicated process of drug development and testing, and then scientifically debunks popular herbal remedies such as echinacea, Gingko biloba, and St. John's wort. x
  • 15
    Homeopathy—One Giant Myth
    Devised before the advent of science-based medicine, homeopathy is a controversial belief system that should not be substituted for effective treatment. So how is it supposed to work? Why has the science community rejected its prescriptions? How are homeopathic products prepared—and what is actually in them? x
  • 16
    Facts about Toxins and Myths about Detox
    Find out where toxins come from, how our bodies work to effectively handle toxins, and what toxins you should worry about. Then, discover the scientific reasons why detoxifying treatments like colon cleansing, over-the-counter herbal agents, and skin products do nothing more than leech money out of your wallet. x
  • 17
    Myths about Acupuncture's Past and Benefits
    Acupuncture has recently received a great deal of attention but has yet to be convincingly proven to be medically effective beyond nonspecific placebo effects. In this lecture, take a closer look at the practice's Eastern and Western origins, its medical claims, its false potential as a form of anesthesia, and more. x
  • 18
    Myths about Magnets, Microwaves, Cell Phones
    The idea of using electromagnetism to heal has been around for centuries. Investigate how magnetic fields in objects like microwaves and cell phones work on our bodies, how healing is attempted through devices such as bracelets and pads, and how research shows that this curious form of medicine is scientifically unsound. x
  • 19
    All about Hypnosis
    When you hear the word "hypnosis," odds are you're thinking about the trance-like states you see on stage and TV. But does it have actual medical benefits? Here, delve into the neuroscience of hypnosis and examine truths about its clinical uses in dealing with memory loss, sleep disorders, chronic pain, and more. x
  • 20
    Myths about Coma and Consciousness
    What are the different levels of consciousness one can have in a coma? Is it truly possible to just wake up from a coma? Can people know that others are present while comatose? Movies and stories in the media perpetuate our confusion about comas and consciousness. Separate myth from reality here. x
  • 21
    What Placebos Can and Cannot Do
    Myths about placebos are "gateway myths"—meaning they often lead to many other medical misconceptions and half-truths. By understanding how placebos are defined, how they are administered, and what their different effects can be, you can better grasp whether they really make for an effective form of medicine. x
  • 22
    Myths about Pregnancy
    Carrying a baby low while pregnant means it's a boy. Never eat fish or drink caffeine while pregnant. Intercourse every 48 hours will increase your chances of conception. A whirlwind of misinformation surrounds the subject of pregnancy. Unpack many of the most common—and popular—myths in this lecture. x
  • 23
    Medical Myths from around the World
    Get a broader perspective on medical misinformation with this tour of myths from around the world, including South Korea (where sleeping with an electric fan on is thought to be deadly), parts of Africa (where it's believed that intercourse with a virgin can cure HIV infection), and Japan (where some believe personality is tied to blood type). x
  • 24
    Roundup—Decluttering Our Mental Closet
    Finish the course with a brief survey of "mini-myths," including that body heat is mostly lost through your head, that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis, and that eating turkey makes you sleepy. Afterward, take a moment to ponder the benefits of knowing how to sort through misconceptions and hype. x

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Steven Novella
M.D. Steven Novella
Yale School of Medicine

Dr. Steven Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University. Dr. Novella is active in both clinical research and in medical education at every level, including patients, the public, medical students, and health professionals. An expert in neuroscience, Dr. Novella focuses his practice on neuromuscular disorders. His personal blog, NeuroLogica Blog, is considered one of the top neuroscience blogs and covers issues in neuroscience as well as the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella is also the founder and senior editor of Science-Based Medicine, a medical blog dedicated to promoting the highest standards of basic and clinical science in medical practice. Dr. Novella is president and cofounder of the New England Skeptical Society, a nonprofit educational organization designed to further public understanding of science. As the host and producer of the organization's award-winning science show, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, Dr. Novella explores the latest scientific discoveries, the presentation of science in the mainstream media, and public understanding and attitudes toward science.

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