Woo-meister Supreme Kim Evans takes on rationality and the swine flu at The Huffington Post

I know I’ve been ragging on The Huffington Post a lot lately. Trust me, I take no great pleasure in doing so. Indeed, more than anything else, it’s been a major frustration for me. It’s bad enough that HuffPo has been a hotbed of anti-vaccine propaganda and pseudoscience ever since its very inception, continuing through to today. Ditto Deepak Chopra, who has had a home there for at least three years now. But 2009 has been especially bad, adding proponents of distant healing, detox quackery, and, worst of all, the stylings of Kim Evans, a detox maven who thinks that antibiotics cause cancer. It’s not clear whether this is due to HuffPo’s new “Wellness Editor,” Patricia Fitzgerald, or whether it’s just an acceleration of a tendency that’s been there from the beginning, but the addition of Kim Evans and her detox quackery to the already toxic woo brew at HuffPo signals a new low.

Leave it to Evans to sink HuffPo to even lower levels still. She does so in a rapid fire series of two posts, first Health Care: Scientific or Rational? and then Swine Flu: Protect Yourself and Loved Ones. Oh, how the stupid does so burn.

In the first post, Evans reveals herself to be very, very unhappy at how mean we scientists and skeptics have been to her because of her “antibiotics cause cancer” post, in the process laying down a textbook example of antiscientific thinking and credulity such as I haven’t seen in quite a while:

In a recent post I got a lot of flack for not speaking like a scientist. Something in that rubs me the wrong way because it presumes that only by a very narrow method can we come to any valid conclusions or make any new discoveries about the world we live in – while also presuming that only a tiny portion of the population, with a very specific set of skills and communication methods, has the ability to do so.

Of which, I heartily disagree. I think it’s small minded thinking. I’ve never limited myself by what school I went to or any other largely esoteric sources that people regularly limit themselves by, and apparently limit and harshly judge others for. And by how easily this harsh judgment came to me, opens my eyes to how many others, children included, must be held back from speaking and following their truth by such sources.

This is nothing more than the classic “appeal to other ways of knowing” writ large. It’s all there, the attack on “small-minded” or “narrow-minded” skeptics and scientists who are just too wedded to the scientific method. It’s a common attack that woo-meisters use whenever scientists or skeptics call them on their misinformation, exaggerations, and scientific ignorance. They seem to equate “open-minded” with accepting any old health claim that they care to make (or, as in the case of Ms. Evans, given her fixation with enemas and “detox,” to pull out of her nether regions) as provisionally true, rather than, as a true scientist does, looking for ways to test such claims against reality and then accepting them as provisionally true only if they pass these tests. Characteristically, woo supporters can’t defend their health claims using legitimate science; instead they rely on cherry-picking studies, pseudoscience, and logical fallacies, and Evans is no exception.

Speaking of logical fallacies, Evans’ statement is also a huge straw man. We skeptics weren’t appalled by Evans’ claims that antibiotics cause cancer and her support for Dr. Tullio Simoncini’s cancer quackery because they were somehow outside the “way of knowing” of science. We were appalled because they were claims that are easily evaluable by science and by the methods of science easily shown to be wanting. We already know a lot about how the body works and how cancer forms, thanks to science, and it’s very clear that it has nothing to do with the nonsense that Evans was laying down in such copious quantities. We also already know a lot about the detoxification mechanisms the body uses, and we know that they have nothing do with “autointoxication” from huge quantities of waste caked on the walls of the colon cleanses or vague, unnamed “toxins” that are the cause, apparently, of virtually all illness if Evans’ book is to be believed.

But what else should we expect? After all, this is a woman who can make a massive straw man even more massive and then, as Steve Novella put it so well, become a pyromaniac in a field of straw men, with this nonsense:

To form the basis of your argument on the fact that you apparently don’t like where the information is coming from, the method of discovery, or by the words used to transfer information, is far from rational thinking. And for the moment, I’d like to transfer the focus from scientific to rational. In my mind, the truth is the truth, even if it doesn’t agree with what you already believe and regardless of where it comes from.

I just about spit up my iced tea when I read this. It’s so typical of the woo-meister way of thinking, all postmodernist and relativistic to the point where up equals down and hot equals cold. Because of this, Evans spectacularly misinterprets the reasons why scientists thought her antibiotics post was so risible. She thinks it’s just because of an irrational dislike of “where the information is coming from.” I have news for Evans. I don’t give a rodent’s posterior where information comes from. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do take into account the previous reliability of a source if I have knowledge of it. However, before seeing her antibiotics post, I had never heard of Evans before. I hadn’t the foggiest clue who she was. All I knew was what she wrote and that what she wrote was full of pseudoscience so astoundingly idiotic that it literally took my breath away briefly. That’s all I knew about her. If she had been posted sound science and rational, logical arguments, that’s all I would have known about her, and I would have been impressed.

She’s also wrong in making a dichotomy between science and rationality. Science requires rationality. It doesn’t work without it. Rationality may encompass more than science, but making a distinction between the two reveals Evans’ mindset, which is that she thinks she recognizes the “truth” without science. To her, if it seems “rational,” it must be right. Too bad the history of science is littered with the corpses of “rational” hypotheses that didn’t stand up to experimental and observational testing. Even worse for her is that it’s quite possible for “rationality” to lead to belief in pseudoscience if those beliefs are not rigorously tested against reality using…the scientific method. Indeed, I have seen creationists and believers in the paranormal use exactly the same sorts of arguments that Evans uses in her HuffPo post.

Ideally, scientific medicine should operate based on testing one’s hypothesis against reality. It require not just that, too, but also reproducibility. Hypotheses that fail that test or do not make reproducible predictions quite correctly fall by the wayside. Not that that stops Evans from spewing the usual “alt-med” misinformation about “toxins” (the alt-med equivalent of evil humors) in a completely evidence-free spew, which I sample here:

There’s a decent chance you’re also not familiar with many of the behind-the-scenes-chemicals that are used in the food supply, and I’m referring of course to non-organic foods. Bananas are pulled in a warehouse and gassed to ripen. Vegetables are being treated with radiation. Formaldehyde is being used on foods. Many foods contain genetically modified materials which offer genetic creations never before found on the planet and these plants often have pesticides built right into them. These are all off-label, and you’ll find thousands of other on-label chemicals used in foods, including the main ingredient in anti-freeze. And be sure to drink your eight glasses of unfiltered water a day because much of it contains fluoride, which you can also find as a main ingredient in rat poison. I could go on about common toxicity sources for the next six days, but I’m gathering you’re getting the point.

Actually, I am getting the point. Kim Evans is a moron who could spew nonsense about what she doesn’t understand for days on end. Formaldehyde? Geez, does Evans even know that the body makes formaldehyde as a byproduct of its own metabolic processes? Fluoride? Give me a break! Antifreeze? Has she been reading Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine nonsense? And, oh noes! It’s the dreaded genetically modified food! Then it’s all followed up by a heapin’ helpin’ of the oldest, tiredest alt-med conspiracy-mongering:

So, while all of this looms and is largely unaccounted for in the standard health care equation, critics judge harshly alternative views and hail a system that’s been found to kill almost 200,000 people a year due to preventable errors. The same system has been found to kill another 100,000 annually with drugs, and seriously harm another 2.1 million each year by the same means. They hail “proven” methods for cancer that are known to cause significant damage to the immune system, and are even known to be carcinogenic, which means to cause cancer. So, I ask, “Is this rational?”

Yes, but Evans is not.

I’m always curious about how the estimates of medical errors that lead to preventable deaths (based on most lax interpretation of what constitutes and “error”) of 100,000 seem to morph to 200,000 and then millions “seriously harmed.” It’s also an exaggeration, in which In any case, unlike the “alternative” medicine that Evans likes to tout, scientific medicine actually pays attention to medical errors and tries to correct them. Moreover, these numbers are highly overstated in that they only take into consideration of the risks of intervention without a consideration of the benefits, and the benefits of scientific medicine in general far outweigh the risks. Woo like Evans’ is never subjected to testing and improvement. Evans tells you why! If it’s rational to her, it must be true, science be damned, which leads her to a false dichotomy:

And if being rational never really enters the health care equation, I ask you, “What are we left with?”

Perhaps a population where most of the constituents have a health problem or two, and where new diseases pop up out of nowhere? Maybe a society where an estimated forty percent of the population is expected to have a problem with cancer? Or a populous where 80,000,000 members have some sort of problem with heart disease? Perhaps one where huge numbers of the population, including children, are on drugs long term for all sorts of calamities?

Oh wait, that’s exactly where we are now… So, in light of the numbers above and all of the proof that’s literally walking around next to us, maybe it’s time we started looking at and thinking about things a little differently. Because if a reliance on proven demonstrated science has gotten us exactly to the situation I describe above, perhaps a shift of focus to rational is the best move we can make.

Here’s a clue: If scientific medicine has areas where it needs to improve, that does not leave embracing your quackery as the only other solution. Moreover, the reason that a third of the population eventually gets cancer is because of the very success of scientific medicine (you know, vaccines, antibiotics, treatments for cardiovascular disease and hypertension, and stuff like that) keep people alive to old age, and cancer is, above all, a disease of old age. The more people who make it to old age, the more people will develop the diseases of old age, such as cancer and heart disease. Because we’ve done a better job at decreasing the mortality from heart disease than we have for cancer over the last 100 years, it won’t be long before cancer is the number one killer. If we were to reduce cancer mortality by 50% or 90%, more people would die of something else, because everybody dies eventually of something. Rational scientists and physicians know this.

Pseudoscientists like Evans don’t like science because inevitably many, if not all, of their pet ideas fail its test. They also don’t like science because it is a methodology that goes to great lengths to minimize the effect of normal human cognitive biases and quirks. We humans have a huge tendency to confuse correlation with causation and to remember what supports out beliefs while forgetting that which doesn’t. We all do it; we’re all prone to it–even Evans and, yes, even scientists. The difference is that pseudoscience boosters like Evans don’t understand that, and scientists do. Indeed, science is a bulwark against normal human irrationality tainting our conclusions about how the world works. In contrast, Evans seems to view such irrationality as equal to that of science, so much so that, in the second article, she is more than willing to recommend her detox quackery for a purpose where its use could be most dangerous, protecting against swine flu:

Cleansing involves changing your internal environment and specifically, removing a bunch of the stored waste that most people have trapped in their bodies. Most estimates are that the average person has ten or more pounds of stored waste just in their colon, and I’d argue far more throughout their body. In any case, many people have found that disease disappears when this waste is gone, and that when the body is clean it’s much more difficult for new problems, like viruses, to take hold in the first place. And it’s my understanding that many people who took regular enemas instead of vaccines during the 1918 pandemic made it out on the other side as well.

That’s right. Evans is recommending enemas and “detox” quackery to protect yourself against the swine flu. I can tell you one thing; this woman is utterly clueless, as can be shown by her utter ignorance of history. Here’s a clue, Kim: There was no vaccine against influenza during the 1918 influenza pandemic. In fact, influenza vaccines were only developed widely available during World War II, where they were used to protect our soldiers. You’re either clueless or lying. I pick clueless, given how easy it is to find this information out. (A liar, I suspect, would produce a better, less easily discovered lie.) Moreover, there are not–I repeat, not–ten or twenty pounds of “stored waste” in the colon that are making people sick, and it especially isn’t poo in your colon that gives you the flu. Any surgeon who’s ever operated on the colon regularly (as I used to do until I subspecialized) or gastroenterologist who does endoscopy knows this to by a myth, but it’s the basis of so much enema quackery, as is the belief that the liver needs “help” dealing with these unnamed “toxins” through purging and enemas. Indeed, this obsession with “toxins” and poo caking the inside of the colon is nothing more than the alt-med version of the religious belief that one is “unclean” and needs “purification,” but all the enemas in the world won’t purify believers in this woo. They always think they need more.

Unfortunately, Evans looks as though she’s going to be a permanent fixture on HuffPo. She’s clearly using it to sell her books, but the very fact that HuffPo would offer her a popular platform on its blogs tells me that it’s upping the ante. No longer is mere anti-vaccine propaganda and “quantum” woo like that of Deepak Chopra is enough. Kim Evans is now the new standard, and–oh, look!–there’s a post by a chiropractor named M. J. Wegmann spewing the same “toxins” pseudoscience, but with a twist: He’s listing chiropractic as one of three “sure-fire strategies to prevent the swine flu,” claiming it can “boost the immune system” and thereby protect you from swine flu! Truly, the swine flu scare is drawing quacks to it like moths to a flame, the difference being that people who listen to this sort of nonsense are the ones who will get burned.

Given its history over the last few months, it’s clear to me that, no longer satisfied with being the “respectable” home of antivaccine lies and quackery in the blogosphere, HuffPonow wants to invade Whale.to and Natural News territory. It’s getting there, too. Fast. All that remains are posts about “noxious earth energies” and conspiracy theories about lizard men, the Illuminati, and claims that the Asian tsunami of 2005 was in fact due to a nuke.

Just give HuffPo time. I’m sure it’s recruiting Mike Adams and James Scudamore as I write this.