Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall for Them


Can your zip code predict when you will die? 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 can we unravel 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, medical journalist, doctor, professor, and former CDC 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 and disinformation 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?
  • Does playing football cause brain disease?
  • Should you eat your placenta?
  • Do the flat tummy teas promoted by celebs on Instagram actually work?
  • 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.

“Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall for Them”

Seema Yasmin | January 12, 2021 | Johns Hopkins University Press | Nonfiction, Science
Hardcover | ISBN: 1421440407 | $24.95

Based on her original reporting from West Africa and the United States, If God Is A Virus charts the course of the largest and deadliest Ebola epidemic in history, telling the stories of Ebola survivors, outbreak responders, journalists and the virus itself. This highly anticipated debut poetry collection by journalist, epidemic expert and poet, Dr. Seema Yasmin, features documentary poems exploring which human lives are valued, how news editorial decisions are weighed, what role nonprofits and the aid industrial complex plays in crises, and how medical myths can travel through the hot zone faster than a virus itself.

These poems also give voice to the Ebola virus. Eight percent of the human genome is inherited from viruses and the human placenta would not exist without a gene descended from a virus. If God Is A Virus reimagines viruses as givers of life and even authors of a viral self-help book.

If God Is a Virus: Poems

Seema Yasmin | April 6, 2021 | Haymarket Books | Poetry
Paperback | ISBN: 1642594598 | $16.00


Dr. Seema Yasmin is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, medical doctor, disease detective and author. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news reporting in 2017 with her team from The Dallas Morning News for coverage of a mass shooting. Yasmin was a disease detective in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where she chased outbreaks in maximum-security prisons, American Indian reservations, border towns and hospitals. Currently, Dr. Yasmin is a Stanford professor, medical analyst for CNN and science correspondent for Conde Nast Entertainment. Find her at, Twitter @DoctorYasmin and Instagram: @drseemayasmin.

An Interview with Dr. Seema Yasmin

  1. Viral BS feels especially relevant during a pandemic. Did you write it because of Covid-19?
    I started to write this book in 2016 following the success of a regular column I wrote called Debunked. Every week I’d dissect reader questions about medicines, chemtrails, vaccines, diets, and other health hot topics – and there were plenty of topics. Medical myths and health hoaxes are not new and sometimes the way studies are reported in the news can give a false sense of what a study actually found. That’s why there are chapters about dietary supplements, cholesterol-lowering medicines, vaccines and other topics on which there is much confusion. So it feels timely now because we are experiencing a pandemic and an infodemic, but the spread of health misinformation and disinformation is nothing new!
  2. How did you go from being a doctor and disease detective to a journalist?
    I went from medical school and the CDC to journalism school because while I was investigating epidemics I witnessed the spread of not only disease, but rumours and hoaxes about disease. I also saw the unraveling of decades of public health achievements, such as vaccines, because anti-vaccine groups were so effective at sharing their misleading stories. Journalism school was a way to train in effective storytelling, to try and counter some of the health misinformation out there, and to extend my public health work to a much wider audience. I wanted accurate health information to be available to as many people as possible.
  3. We’re living in a world where we are bombarded with misinformation. How do we become more mindful consumers of information related to disease and health? Do you have any tips on what to look for to help decipher between “real news” and fear-mongering?
    Use the BS detection kit at the back of Viral BS! It’s important to remember that false information often thrives and goes viral because it’s sensational, emotionally triggering and novel. It’s the kind of stuff that feels new and makes you want to share with others, versus accurate information which isn’t usually as “wow” inducing. False information is designed to go viral by being compelling. So consider that a first red flag. And then, like the United Nations #PledgeToPause campaign that I’m involved with, take a minute and pause before you retweet, repost or forward on Whatsapp. Do your due diligence, check what else has been reported on this issue, do a reverse image search and some fact checking before you share with others. And finally, talk to friends and family about what you’ve seen before deciding to believe it. Studies show that people exposed to false anti-vaccine messages on social media were less likely to fall for the lies if they discussed the messages with loved ones.
  4. What medical myths did you believe as a child?
    So many! The intro to Viral BS tells the story of how I believed lots of conspiracy theories as a kid, why that was, and how that informs my research on the spread of health misinformation and disinformation. As frustrating and dangerous as they can be, I have empathy for people who believe falsehoods because conspiracy theories often have a kernel of truth and because the reality of medicine and public health is that it was built on a legacy of exploitation of the most vulnerable people, and there are histories of unethical experiments that sound like conspiracy theories but are actually true.
  5. Your book “If God Is a Virus” focuses on the largest Ebola outbreak in history. How did you go from reporting on Ebola to writing poems about Ebola?
    There’s a line from one of my favourite poets, Marwa Helal, in her spectacular book Invasive Species that says: “poems do work journalism can’t.” I like to disrupt the boundaries of genre and find power in the way journalism can be interrogated and used through poetry. When I finished reporting on Ebola in West Africa and had published the magazine and newspaper stories that were expected of me, the stories of the people I had met never left me, and I wanted to see what poetry could do that traditional journalism could not.
  6. What were the greatest myths (or misinformation) you witnessed surrounding the recent Ebola outbreak? How can we prevent this?
    There was a myth that the outbreak was started by researchers at Tulane University in an experiment gone wrong; a myth that vaccines for Ebola would only work on White people; that it could be cured with herbal medicines. There were a ton of myths and hoaxes, some well-meaning and false, others malicious and spread with the intention to cause chaos and harm. We prevent this reoccurring by acknowledging that there is a chasm between science and the public – particularly some communities – and by building bridges ahead of a crisis.
  7. While I’m sure this is hard to narrow down, especially given the strength and courage of all disease survivors — do you have a survivor story that stays with you most?
    I can’t stop thinking about Salome Karwah, who I reported on for Scientific American and who is featured in some poems in If God Is A Virus. Salome lost her parents to Ebola, she lost friends and uncles, and her community was devastated by the epidemic. She couldn’t even properly bury her family members and mourn them according to tradition. Salome had survived two civil wars, then she became infected with Ebola – and survived. I attended Salome’s wedding to another Ebola survivor in December 2015. Her two children were there and it was a beautiful series of ceremonies. But a year later, Salome died in childbirth. And even though she had survived Ebola, it was that virus that in some ways killed her, because first responders and neighbors did not want to touch her or help her when she was suffering because she was an Ebola survivor and there was so much stigma about survivors. The headline for my magazine story about Salome was along the lines of, “A woman survives Ebola but not childbirth.” The two poems about her are titled “Baby Sister Survives Ebola…” “…& Dies in Childbirth.”