The medical freedom movement, which opposes government regulation of healthcare (see, for starters, anti-maskers), is the subject of If It Sounds Like a Quack... (PublicAffairs, Apr. 2023) by journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (2020’s A Libertarian Walks into a Bear). The author spoke with PW about why his reported account of healthcare misinformation includes serious discussion of aliens and zombies.
What prompted you to write this book?
People are perpetuating very dangerous ideas that are causing many to die who otherwise might live, and they’re doing it for a profit. I started to hear stories about some of the outlandish treatments that people believe in and pay money for, and I became very concerned. My research took me to unexpected places: many of the people I spoke with shared a belief in zombies, and it became clear that this was something I needed to pursue. I spent quite a bit of time trying to find out why so many people in the right-wing alternative healthcare community are talking about zombies as if they’re an actual threat to humankind.
How new of a phenomenon is medical misinformation?
The tracks for today’s misinformation were laid decades ago through a marriage of for-profit alternative healers and health freedom advocates who, until recently, occupied a tiny space in the political sphere. A lot of people know that the former president of the United States suggested bleach could be used to internally cleanse people of the coronavirus, but few know that the idea began with a man who once believed he was an immortal alien from the Andromeda Galaxy trying to save the world with his body-cleansing formula. The alternative health movement used to be entirely the hippie-dippy left; now, we’re talking about yoga studios affiliated with QAnon. How did that happen? There’s a profit motive that underlies this and has created a political advantage. The right wing of the Republican Party, which has co-opted the mainstream Republican Party, capitalizes on that.
Which findings challenged your assumptions?
Even people who were bad actors often started with noble goals. One of the treatments I thought was going to be as ineffective and nutty as the rest of them turned out to have some limited merit—leeches. One of my subjects, a Polish immigrant, came to America with the firm belief that leeching humans is a way to cure them of all ails; I use the phrase “one true cure” a lot in the book. I did a bit of research and learned that leeches are used in modern medicine. The FDA has signed off on the use of leeches for certain surgeries because they secrete an anticoagulant. Among all of these bizarre treatments, this one had some level of value to it.
What do you hope that readers take away?
That our healthcare and information systems, by design, allow for bad actors to flourish and spread their ideas. I also hold the medical establishment accountable—the lack of accessibility and the elitism. The AMA has worked to restrict the total number of doctors for a hundred years to preserve their exorbitant salaries; we have very few doctors per capita relative to other countries—even Kazakhstan has more doctors per capita. If you’re Joe Average with a sore knee, you start off looking for an alternative, and the next thing you know you’re being told that Democrats are zombies and need to be shot. It’s a wild ride.