Making Sense of the Unfamiliar

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Post by Meilynn Shi
2024 Building Trust Essay Contest Honorable Mention

My dad turns off the Wi-Fi at 10:30 every night. He bought an automatic timer last month so he can’t forget. He wants to minimize the amount of time our bodies are exposed to the electromagnetic fields generated by Wi-Fi signals. I’m ready to tell him it’s ridiculous, but I know that won’t change his mind. After all, it has nothing to do with education (he has a graduate degree) or irrational thought (studies have looked at the effect of phones on sperm count). It’s just how he copes with something unfamiliar.

During the past few years, more and more health conspiracies and conspiracy-like ideas have found their way into the spotlight. COVID-19 generated a new thread of conspiracies, partly in response to mRNA technology.1 There were theories about vaccines injecting 5G microchips that Big Tech and Big Brother were using for surveillance. There was Donald Trump suggesting we inject bleach to kill the virus. There were people declaring that COVID-19 wasn’t real and neither were the death rates. There were the usual conspiracies igniting anti-vaxx and anti-pharma and anti-establishment furor. Studies found that increased exposure to conspiracy theories led to increased reluctance to engage in COVID-19 prevention measures, such as social distancing and vaccination, along with increased willingness to engage in alternative treatments, such as chloroquine and garlic.2 Such phenomena are not specific to COVID-19 either.3 

Health conspiracies often sound similar to the messaging associated with alternative health movements and wellness culture, terms that broadly encompass everything from yoga to acupuncture to reiki. Wellness culture arose from 1960s counterculture that sought to experiment with holistic practices and increase access to healthcare.4 But today, wellness culture is primarily dominated by chatty influencers promoting trends on unregulated platforms, at times creating fodder for conspiracy theories that can align with far-right political agendas.4 Not only does this debase alternative medicine practices that can actually help people,5 but this also creates demand for people who consistently make unsubstantiated and misleading claims.6

But it’s not helpful to deride conspiracy believers as outright delusional. That’s not entirely fair. Conspiracy theories have a long history rooted in distrust of political elites and central authority. They are attempts to understand sociopolitical events, especially during times of upheaval, by claiming that people in power are colluding for malevolent purposes.7 They share four principles: they are universal in that they are not specific to a group of people or to a period of time but rather part of basic human survival mechanisms; they are emotional in that they are a product of emotion-driven sense-making processes that often draw upon automatic cognitive systems; they are social in that they seek to uphold collective identity and protect the ingroup from the outgroup; and they are consequential in that they influence the way individuals and groups decide to act.8 Many false beliefs, even those that do not qualify as conspiracy theories and especially those that hold the vaguest hint of plausibility, share similar principles and similar consequences. But no matter where they lie on a spectrum of truth, they all stem from the same sentiment: fear of the unfamiliar. They are all driven by epistemic crises and existential threats—things we all experience.7

Preserving truth and building trust is not just about censuring all falsehoods and all believers. Whether it’s in medicine, politics, or daily life, it’s foremost about understanding why someone chooses to think the way they do. Most of us don’t respond to scientific literature or hard evidence. We respond to our own versions of truth, versions based on our individual lived experience and on our shared struggle to be human.  

Fifty years from now, I wonder how I’ll cope with a technologically unfamiliar world. When AI has found a grip on many parts of our lives, I can imagine myself being distrustful of most information—I’m already wondering if the Reddit video of a Russian man brushing a bear’s teeth is just a figment of the AI imagination. When that happens, I might also find myself turning off the Wi-Fi at 10:30 every night, in part to get off the grid, maybe also in part to avoid unnecessary electromagnetic radiation. Deep down, we all have a voice like this, a voice that is anxious about the unfamiliar and perhaps unsure of the science. And that’s okay. We should talk about it with each other because we’re all just trying to make sense of the same things.

Meilynn Shi is a medical student at Northwestern University, pursuing a path in academic cardiac surgery. She received her bachelor’s in American Studies and Political Science at Northwestern University. She likes running, cooking, reading, and writing.


  1. Dolgin E. The tangled history of mRNA vaccines. Nature. Sep 2021;597(7876):318-324. doi:10.1038/d41586-021-02483-w
  2. Bierwiaczonek K, Gundersen AB, Kunst JR. The role of conspiracy beliefs for COVID-19 health responses: A meta-analysis. Current Opinion in Psychology. 2022/08/01/ 2022;46:101346. doi:
  3. Oliver JE, Wood T. Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2014;174(5):817-818. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.190
  4. Baker SA. Alt. Health Influencers: how wellness culture and web culture have been weaponised to promote conspiracy theories and far-right extremism during the COVID-19 pandemic. European Journal of Cultural Studies. 2022;25(1):3-24. doi:10.1177/13675494211062623
  5. Yang Y, Li X, Chen G, et al. Traditional Chinese Medicine Compound (Tongxinluo) and Clinical Outcomes of Patients With Acute Myocardial Infarction: The CTS-AMI Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2023;330(16):1534-1545. doi:10.1001/jama.2023.19524
  6. Korownyk C, Kolber MR, McCormack J, et al. Televised medical talk shows—what they recommend and the evidence to support their recommendations: a prospective observational study. BMJ : British Medical Journal. 2014;349:g7346. doi:10.1136/bmj.g7346
  7. Douglas KM, Uscinski JE, Sutton RM, et al. Understanding Conspiracy Theories. Polit Psychol. 2019;40(S1):3-35. doi:
  8. van Prooijen J-W, Douglas KM. Belief in conspiracy theories: Basic principles of an emerging research domain. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2018;48(7):897-908. doi: