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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

Lecture Titles

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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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Reviews

Rated 3.9 out of 5 by 54 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Novella needs to go back to school I am surprised the Great Courses still sell this one. While the initial two discs are useful Novella then gets into areas his seems to know little about or just ignores data that does not support his old school thinking. A couple of topics are just BS and he rambles into things not pertinent to the topic. His understanding of electromagnetism and the new developments in biophysics is lacking. The work of Robert O. Becker, M.D. dates back many years and he was black-listed because he opposed the electric industry's stand that high voltage lines had no negative risks. Novella did not note the very high levels of cancer in Russian electrical substations. The navy's SANGUINE project to build an extremely low frequency (ELF) system in Wisconsin and Michigan to communicate with submerged submarines around the world was shown to have serious health effects. The results were kept secret and the navy and government denied knowledge of the studies and the project was dropped. Becker's work on using (PEMF) pulsed electromagnetic fields to heal bone fractures is used by the medical profession, but he found the energy level had to be extremely low or it would not work. Higher energy levels damaged cells, the very low level caused cells to revert to more basic types (sort of like stem cells) that could become bone cells. Electromagnetism has influenced evolution over billions of years to the extent that some bacteria and many species have internal GPS's in that some their proteins contain magnetite. The earth has a permanent magnetic field (The Schumann Resonance) at the same frequency as our brain waves. This explains some of Novella's Myths. My biggest medical complaint is that the medical/pharmaceutical industry has spent billions of dollars on cancer research to sell toxic chemicals that kill all cells and destroy the immune system. Only recently have they centered on the immune system. Also they have not used the immense power of computers to study the effect of their treatments. September 5, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Different view of reality Going through Medical Myths, Lies and Half-Truths I experienced what I would call ...cognitive dissonance. Picture a venn diagram containing two overlapping circles, one labeled D for doc and one labeled P for patient. Inside circle D represents conventional docs like the author's views, outside is myth. It came as a shock to me, age 68, that the natural medicines I have used to successfully treat heart, cancer, and major infection are, according to the doc, not real. For example the doc apparently believes that drugs approved by the FDA are safe and effective while supplements are not. Yet drugs, taken as prescribed by docs conservatively killed over 100,000 last year, while supplements killed well...zero. The doc considers vaccines promoted by the CDC perfectly safe and effective. In theory a single vaccine might help, but in practice, vaccine manufacturers have to add Aluminum, mercury, aborted fetal tissue, foreign viral DNA to irritate the immune system enough so they work. And then they hit an infant with 49 doses by the time they are five, one-size-fits all. No wonder tens of thousands of mothers, like Kerri Rivera say their child was fine till they got their 5th,10th or 20th dose. Then the CDC recently all but admitted they buried data that showed an association between black children and autism. In the chapter on toxicity the good doc informs us that detox treatments have no medical legitimacy. Yet why did some out-of-the box alternative docs employ saunas, colon flushes etc. to successfully treat 911 workers years after other conventional docs loaded them up with toxic pharmaceuticals that only treat symptoms and never get at causes? I have a genetic condition that makes my skin four times as permeable as normal skin. If, in the toxic world that we live, if I didn't employ saunas and other detox modalities I don't think I am healthy enough to write this. In the section on anti-oxidants the doc made a good point when he said that “...we would have evolved mechanisms to sop up oxidative free radicals”. 7,000 doctors in Germany use ozone to treat infections. This is an oxidative therapy that stimulates an increase in super oxide dismutase, a very effective antioxidant. Of course money medicine will never embrace it because oxygen is not patentable. The good doc constantly makes a universal claim of no evidence for this or that alternative medicine therapy. Has he researched all 30 million studies in pub med? And do we really need an FDA approved $$ clinical trial to claim that water cures dehydration or that an herb that has been in the food supply for thousands is safe to eat? I think it is a myth that standard of care docs practice evidence based medicine. I could not find any safety studies of administering two drugs simultaneously to a patient let alone 5 or 10 drugs to children or the elderly. (For you math types the combinations of 5000 drugs are well into the quadrillions) In conclusion I recommend one read “The Truth About the Drug Companies” by a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, dr Marsha Angell or “Bad Pharma” and other books as an antidote to the misinformation in this course. September 2, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 A paid shill of Monsanto Corporation? If you believe Dr. Novella, then you'll be happily believing that there is a preponderance of science (or maybe even that there in FACT is proven to be no harm) to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that GMO foods, artificial chemical additives to foods, mercury in vaccines, and a host of other things that we are almost force-fed in America today, are totally harmless. According to him, go ahead and eat up with no worries. Well, I'm no conspiracy theorist, and my politics are fiscal conservative and social liberal. But I'm cautious enough about all the claims against these things to do my homework, due diligence. And I believe that there is NO proven science to date that says all these things he claims we should not worry about, are in fact safe. In fact, if you do your own homework, you'll see that only in North America (USA, Canada, and Mexico) are many/most of these things even allowed to be called "food". In other countries, it's illegal to place things such as ethylene glycol (that's the stuff in your car radiator that keeps the water from freezing - it tastes sweet, house-cats like it and are KILLED by it), high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, and a host of other chemicals that are in our "food supply" in anything meant for humans OR animals to eat. The big industrial "food companies" and corporations like Monsanto have successfully lied to and bribed our lawmakers into allowing this stuff to be in America's food supply. Well, I for one am NOT buying into it. And I'm not buying or consuming any of these things either, unless and until the day comes that it is scientifically proven without any doubt that there is no harm to these things. At this present time, there are more studies showing harm from these types of ingredients than there are showing good. BUT they make these large companies money, at the expense of all of our collective health. That this Doctor would repeatedly say in many of the lectures in this course that "for sure" there is no harm to any of this stuff; well, to me it reeks of crony capitalism. Like maybe he's a paid shill of Monsanto corporation. I'm asking for a refund on this course. I'll look for another one with a more balanced perspective, one that is truly based on what the science is, rather than what Monsanto would like me to believe. April 3, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Horribly biased Of course mainstream medicos are going to bash alternative medicine, but I expected something better from the Teaching Company. Regarding homeopathy a very skeptical friend who had worked in the mainstream medical field tried homeopathy and found that it helped her a great deal. Furthermore, her adult son with Down's Syndrome, had nearly miraculous healings of his issues (not the DS, but other things). How about offering a well-rounded opinion of alternative treatment methodologies instead of blindly following the mainstream? January 8, 2014
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