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I’m a doctor. The real issue isn’t Hillary Clinton’s health it’s that she might win | Celine Gounder

Parkinsons, seizures, sedatives: wild rumors about the Democratic candidates health signal fear among Trump supporters that theyre heading for defeat

Former secretary of state Hillary Clintons health has been under scrutiny in recent weeks, not by medical professionals but by politicians and supposed pundits playing doctor on TV. Clintons personal physician, Dr Lisa Bardack, has repeatedly said: Secretary Clinton is in excellent health and fit to serve as president of the United States. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories about Clintons supposed ill health have gone viral. Theres no evidence these claims are true.

Im a doctor. I dont play at being a doctor. I dont diagnose patients in the absence of unbiased, reliable information, such as performing a physical exam or reviewing tests. When I write or am interviewed on television or the radio, Ill talk about what new research will mean for patients and the science behind the latest guidelines. Ill explain why were seeing increasing rates of certain diseases and whether policies to combat them make sense. I dont talk about individuals except to say what one might expect more generally with regard to a particular medical illness.

But the scientist in me understands that the real issue here isnt Clintons health. Conspiracy theories signal fear; in this case, Trumps realization that Clinton may well be the next president of the United States.

This is not the first time rumors of illness have been deployed to attack a seemingly untouchable political adversary. At a time when Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had a 10-point lead over then vice-president George HW Bush in the polls, reports circulated that Dukakis suffered severe depression after losing his first re-election campaign. When asked if Dukakis should release his complete medical records, Ronald Reagan did little to dispel those rumors, saying: Look, Im not going to pick on an invalid.

Some Trump surrogates are also calling on Clinton to release her medical records. Trump has not released his, and a letter from his physician reads as if Trump had written it himself: little in the way of detail but plenty of superlatives like astonishingly excellent and extraordinary. Meanwhile, in contrast to Clinton and every other presidential candidate in the last 40 years except Gerald R Ford, Trump has yet to release his tax returns.

What is different is that Trump gushes conspiracy theories like a fire hose. He was one of the most vocal birthers, those who claimed Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim and thus ineligible to hold office (that was untrue). Trump later claimed that Clinton started the birther movement, not he. He tweeted: The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive. He said thousands and thousands of people in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attacks, implying they were Muslims. He tweeted an allegation that 81% of white homicide victims are killed by blacks. And he suggested that vaccines cause autism. The list goes on. None of these assertions are true.

Its almost as if Trump is reading from a textbook on how to invent and disseminate conspiracy theories. First, target those who feel most alienated and disempowered. Then, identify a complex social or political threat to control, which might include stagnant wages, demographic changes or terrorism. Next, identify an outsider group such as China, Latino immigrants, blacks or Muslims who you can blame. Then tell a simple, black-and-white story of conflict between good versus evil, us versus the other. Finally, say the system is rigged by the mainstream media or the elite.

Trump is riding a rising tide of alienation and disempowerment, most notably among working class white men. Theyre his strongest supporters because uncertainty, anxiety and powerlessness drive the need to reassert control. Its also perhaps why those with a more authoritarian bent tend to favor Trump.

Trump shares a certain worldview with his supporters, but hes also a brilliant psychologist. It should come as no surprise that he loves the poorly educated. Theyre most likely to buy into his conspiracy theories, and not because theyre stupid. Researchers have found that having less education not sex, race, ideology or knowledge is the most reliable predictor of whether someone will believe a conspiracy theory. Education not only arms us with facts but also teaches us how to think analytically (methodically and scientifically) not just intuitively (from the gut).

The scientist in me knows that attempts to debunk conspiracy theories whether theyre about Clintons health or the myth that vaccines cause autism are at best futile and may in fact backfire. We pick and choose those facts that add up to the truth weve already chosen to believe. The more someone tries to disprove the reality weve constructed, the more we dig in our heels.

In 2008, questions about President Obamas citizenship intensified with his likelihood of clinching the Democratic nomination. So long as the odds of winning the election remain in Clintons favor, we can expect to see more conspiracy theories emerge between now and November.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/24/hillary-clinton-health-rumors-doctor-column