As hard as it is to believe, I’ve been spending a significant part of my time countering pseudoscience for close to 17 years, so long that it seems that I’ve always been doing it. Of course, that’s not true; I didn’t actually become involved in this seemingly never-ending Sisyphean task until I was in my mid-30s, which means that the majority of my life had been spent more or less blissfully ignorant that there are people out there who passionately believe, for example, that vaccines are dangerous and cause autism and that bleach enemas can reverse that autism or that there were quacks out there who advocate slapping yourself silly until you have bruises all over to treat, well, just about anything. And so it is with the vast majority of people out there, including physicians, who by and large know on a superficial level that a lot of what is part of “integrative medicine” involves the “integration” of quackery into medicine but don’t know on a deeper, visceral level what, exactly, that means. Yes, being a skeptic, as rewarding as it is, can often be a lonely calling.
Periodically, over the course of my now lengthy history of doing my best to push back against the tide of unreason, I’ve wondered what the situation was. Are we being drowned in a wave of pseudoscience, or is what we skeptics do helping to hold it at bay? What got me thinking about this again, as I do every so often, is an article by Phoebe Maltz Bovy published in The New Republic, entitled The Decline of Pseudoscience, with a subtitle that read: “Now that ‘natural’ living has gone mainstream, its days are numbered.” It’s exactly the sort of op-ed that’s comforting, making the sort of argument that I’d love to believe. After all, why wouldn’t I (or you or any other skeptic) not want to believe that the tide is finally turning, that the seemingly endless swamp of pseudoscience and quackery through which we slog day in and day out is on the verge of being drained? No wonder I saw this shared by several of my friends on Facebook and showing up in several Twitter feeds that I follow.
Unfortunately, it’s almost certainly exactly the opposite. Now that “natural” has gone “mainstream,” if anything, it’s become more profitable than ever, which means that it’s going nowhere. It’s actually a bizarre argument that’s worth looking at mainly because of its excessive optimism and confidence that nonsense is going anywhere coupled with not being clear on the concept what is pseudoscience and what is not coupled with a conflation of trendy lifestyle choices with pseudoscience. Basically, Bovy’s entire argument boils down to the first three short paragraphs, with the rest of the article consisting attempts to support a thesis that is questionable at best, totally wrong at worst:
Have we reached peak green juice? The New York Times’ Brooks Barnes suggests as much in a recent story about what a haute-hippie refuge in California is bringing to an already over-saturated market:
With every mini-mall, gas station and gym in Los Angeles now boasting a juice bar, or so it seems, the truly cutting-edge folks need to raise the ante to the point of ridiculousness. Kale-avocado-dandelion-cucumber-caraway-seed-jalapeño-heirloom-pear smoothie? Snore.
When the “Style” section not only identifies a trend, but deems it passé, it’s a safe bet it has indeed run its course. But it’s not just glorified cold vegetable soup that’s lost its allure. The pseudoscience that persists more generally in America is losing its cultural cachet.
The story to which Bovy refers describes the Springs, an urban oasis where, according to a waitress there, “You can eat dinner — everything is raw, vegan, organic, soy free and gluten free — and then have your colon cleansed right through that door!” (I suppose you can consider it a full service vegan GI treatment.) One of the features at the Springs is drink made with Pürblack (because naming something with umlauts is always cooler than not), something I had never heard of before and apparently a mineral resin scraped off Himalayan rocks. Supposedly, before swallowing, you’re supposed to swish it around in your mouth to let the extract’s “healing properties” absorb through your gums. The humorous hook in the article was that apparently this drink tastes really bad, having been compared unfavorably to bong water.
There’s no doubt that the Springs is a woo-ey place indeed, as a perusal of its website indicates very rapidly. For instance, its “wellness center” offers something called Gravity Colon Hydrotherapy (quackery), which is described as “the equivalent of giving your colon a deep cleansing bath,” complete with claims of “removing toxins” and “strengthening the immune system” (my colon is quite happy the way it is most of the time, with the possible exception of after a heavy meal of spicy Mexican food, thank you very much); craniosacral therapy massage (which is also pure quackery); infrared sauna (more quackery); reiki (faith healing); and a wide variety of other “wellness” quackery.
To be honest, I’m just not seeing how a hippy dippy raw vegan restaurant coupled to a woo-filled “wellness” center designed to cater to hip and trendy denizens of Los Angeles and environs being dismissed as passe by the NYT Style section provides evidence that the decline in popularity of pseudoscience is upon us. Indeed, Bovy neglects to mention that, according to the NYT Style article she cited, is a “smash hit” among Angelenos who are into this sort of thing and already turning a profit after only six months in operation, which is very impressive for any new restaurant or spa. If anything, the example chosen seems to argue that, whatever the NYT Style section published about it, dismissive or not (and to my reading it was not), the Springs is a big hit. Moreover, it’s not really any more “woo-ey” than any number of “wellness centers” in LA or elsewhere. Hell, I know of at least two such “wellness centers” with offerings every bit as quacky as those of the Springs within walking distance of my house. (OK, one of them would be a pretty long walk, but it’s still quite doable.)
Heck, just Google “vegan restaurant” and “wellness center,” and you’ll see that the Springs is hardly unique. Lots of articles about the Springs pop up, but there are also links to, for example, Coco Green’s Vegan Cafe and Wellness Center, a vegan restaurant and “detox center” in Nashville, TN; the Sol D’Licious Wholistic Cafe in Wisconsin; and the El Ameyal Hotel & Wellness Center in Cabo San Lucas. There aren’t a lot of them, but, based on the success of the Springs, unfortunately, I suspect there soon will be.
The second part of Bovy’s argument seems to be that, although pseudoscience such as what’s peddled at the Springs and other such places became status signifiers to which mainstream America aspired, such that:
“Healthy” living became associated with being upper class, and therefore glamorous. The pseudoscience embraced by the rich—a group who also have superior access to actual healthy living, as in proper medical care, safe places to exercise, and so forth—is now, in turn, marketed to the rest of the population.
I actually don’t disagree with this part. There’s little doubt that “lifestyle” woo such as that epitomized by the Springs now did “trickle down, so that the masses now have access to it, sold and commoditized by companies like Whole Foods. I even partially agree with this:
But the backlash has begun. As Freeman noted, “a new genre of journalism has risen up in response to a growing trend,” consisting of articles “debunking quacky pseudoscience bloggers.” She cited Belle Gibson, the clean-eating blogger who cured what turned out to be non-existent cancer, and Vani “Food Babe” Hari, who also turns out to be full of something other than organic strawberry, as examples of discredited advice-givers. Freeman might have also mentioned Dr. Oz, and indeed does discuss him in a later column. Photogenic men, and photogenic people with medical expertise, have also entered the pseudoscience game, and it’s just as much fun to watch their downfalls. That said, there is a gender dimension to this issue, given the tremendous (if often unstated) overlap between dubious health advice and beauty tips.
A gender issue there might well be, but I would argue that it’s not the amount of pseudoscience where there’s a gender issue but in the types of pseudoscience. Yes, the “wellness” movement might have a larger female component, but from my vantage point tend to fall for sports-, car-, and electronics-related pseudoscience in a manner that women do not. Whether that’s true or not, however, Bovy’s next confident assertion grates on me, because I’m pretty darned sure it’s not true:
Why the shift toward reason? The scientific evidence against quack theories is hardly new, after all. I suspect there are two related reasons for the decline of pseudoscience: an increase in awareness, and a decrease in trendiness.
As pseudoscience has become more popular, the threat it sometimes poses—not just to oneself, but to society at large—has become more widely known. The measles outbreaks has caused genuine, legitimate fear, inspiring otherwise apolitical parents to rail against anti-vaxxers and the celebrities, like Jenny McCarthy, who inspire them. Meanwhile, exposed fraudsters have bred disillusionment. Popular lifestyle blogger “The Blonde Vegan” revealed that she wasn’t extra-healthy but actually suffering from orthorexia; she gave up veganism (if not snake-oil peddling) and now calls herself “The Balanced Blonde.” Then there’s Dr. Oz, whose high profile quackery recently inspired ten fellow doctors to ask Columbia University to fire him, and now Oprah’s also done with him. When controversies like these get publicity, it reminds all of us, tastemakers included, that actions taken in the name of health can be detrimental to wellbeing.
Nutritional pseudoscience may be the first to fall. The ingredient-purity obsession has inspired a backlash from people citing the social benefits of notturning every meal into an ingredient-by-ingredient research project.
While I will concede that, over the decade that I’ve been blogging, there has been a salutary change in media reporting of some forms of pseudoscience. For instance, it’s clear to me that many journalists have abandoned the “tell both sides” narrative that is fine if you’re talking about politics but not so fine when discussing pseudoscience versus science. After all, in science some things are just plain wrong, such as antivaccine pseudoscience, and “telling both sides” is a trope akin to including the viewpoint of a flat earth believer in a story about geology or the viewpoint of a moon hoaxer in stories about space exploration. Although I don’t have quantitative data to back it up, my overall impression is that these days it’s much less common to include the antivaccine viewpoint in stories about vaccines than it was in 2005, when I first started paying attention to these things.
That being said, however, I see no difference in the prevalence of pseudoscientific nonsense. Indeed, if anything, I can’t help but think it’s probably somewhat more prevalent than it was when I first started blogging in 2004. In fact, for some quacks, any publicity is good publicity. A great example of this is The Food Babe, the nom de quack (or should I say nom du canard?) of a former computer analyst turned “food activist” named Vani Hari. Yes, I’ve been highly critical. Science Babe has been highly critical. Many bloggers and now mainstream reporters have written some very unflattering things about her in critical articles in the press. Yet companies keep caving to her pseudoscientific quackmail, in which she demonizes chemicals in food based on how “yucky” they sound to her or how difficult their chemical names are to pronounce. Kraft is the most recent company to cave, and Chipotle recently decided to remove GMOs from its menu. Meanwhile, Panera announced yesterday that it’s now “on a journey to remove all artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners, and flavors from the food in our bakery-cafes by the end of 2016,” complete with a video showing people having difficulty pronouncing the names of certain food ingredients:
The stupid, it truly burns. It’s thermonuclear in intensity. I feel like Mance Rayder in the first episode of this season of Game of Thrones crying for release as the flames engulf me. The add even concludes with this blurb:
If the ingredients in your food are unpronounceable we believe they shouldn’t be in your food.
It’s as though Panera Bread has internalized the most idiotic of the many idiotic Food Babe messages that if you can’t pronounce it you shouldn’t eat it and turned it into an equally idiotic advertisement. Hell, Panera even basically stole her catch phrase, tarted it up a little, and turned it into an advertising slogan! If, as Bovy argues, Food Babe-style nutritional pseudoscience is on the way out,, then why is it that The Food Babe seemingly more popular and influential than ever. Whether the “Food Babe Army” had anything to do with this decision or not, The Food Babe is crowing over these new victories.
As for the antivaccine movement, yes, the Disneyland measles outbreak, the most famous of a number of outbreaks that have occurred over the last couple of years largely because of pockets of unvaccinated children exist, did produce a backlash. There might even be state laws passed to tighten up the requirements for nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates or, in the case of California, to remove them altogether. Yet none of this has stopped the inevitable antivaccine backlash cloaked in appeals to “freedom” and “parental rights” that have spewed forth from the mouths of even mainstream politicians blowing the antivaccine dog whistle.
Then there’s the Dr. Oz incident. As you recall, ten doctors did indeed write an article to Columbia University’s dean in essence asking him to fire Oz because of his peddling of anti-GMO pseudoscience and medical quackery on his show. Unfortunately, as I predicted, their letter, although it did garner some negative publicity for Oz, ended up backfiring spectacularly as Oz fired back with the predictable “shill gambit,” a gambit made all the more effective because several of the doctors who signed the letter were arguably industry shills, particularly the those associated with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). Because these doctors were so eager to frame their criticism as having a lot to do with Oz’s occasional anti-GMO segment (such segments are a small part of Oz’s crimes against science) rather than his medical quackery, all Oz had to do was to paint himself as in favor of “more information,” tar his opponents as industry shills (easily done), and claim to be “fighting for you,” and the substantive criticisms got lost. The battle became one of industry shills trying to “silence” Dr. Oz because he had dared to gore the sacred cow of GMOs. The whole publicity stunt was a spectacular failure. Never mind that Dr. Oz himself has been caught looking for some sweet, sweet shilling opportunities from Sony and others.
I’m inclined to agree with my good bud, chemist Joe Schwarcz:
Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal, predicts the recent criticism will boost the careers of both Oz and Hari, even if their claims and arguments don’t always hold scientific water.
“In the quackery business, any publicity is good, it doesn’t matter if it’s criticism,” says Schwarcz, who is among Hari’s critics.
“She’ll be more popular than ever. So will Oz,” he predicts.
Exactly. Bovy’s article is nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking. The battle against pseudoscience and quackery won’t be won so easily. It’s a battle that will last generations, with victories and losses and momentary fluctuations. Arguably, it’s a battle that can’t be won as long as human brains have the cognitive quirks that predispose them to believe in superstition and pseudoscience, but if we take the long view working to counter unreason is still a worthwhile endeavor if only for the consumer protection aspect alone. It’s also a good thing that more and more mainstream news outlets are becoming more critical of quackery and pseudoscience. But evidence of the “decline of pseudoscience”? There’s no way we can say that until many years have passed, because this could just be a brief positive blip in favor of reason, and already the forces of unreason are rallying.
Be that as it may, Bovy seems to think that the co-optation of pseudoscience by corporate America and its “trickling” down from woo-ey elites on the coasts like Gwyneth Paltrow to large mainstream companies like Panera is a good thing because it means that Paltrow and her ilk will view it as no longer cutting edge hip and cool, thus resulting in a backlash. This is nothing more than even more wishful thinking disconnected from reality. The type of people who go for the Springs will just move on to another form of pseudoscience. In practical terms what this mainstreaming of pseudoscience means is that pseudoscience has become such good marketing that companies now embrace it as a sales tool or a means of distinguishing themselves from their competitors, just as hospitals embrace more and more outlandish ways of “integrating” quackery in order to show they are “holistic” and, yes, distinguish themselves from their competitors.
Just watch that Panera video again if you don’t believe me. I predict it is just “trailblazer” and that there will be many more.