This is the story of a woman who is so enlightened, so spiritual, so connected to the cosmic and the ethereal, that she has no need for earthly food, choosing to subside entirely by snacking on a spiritual sandwich known only as ‘Prana’.
Jasmuheen… (Or the less cosmic sounding ‘Ellen Greve’, as it’s written on her birth certificate).
As one might expect -when somebody discovers a way to live without food or water- due deference should be paid to that person and their discovery. I mean, 9 million people starve to death around the globe every year. Jasmuheen could single-handedly end world hunger!
And so an Australian television programme called ’60 Minutes’ asked Jasmuheen to show the world how this miraculous, life-saving ability was done.
So what happened?
Well, after 48 hours Jasmuheen displayed symptoms of acute dehydration, stress, and high blood pressure. Jasmuheen’s speech slowed, her pupils dilated, and she lost over 6 kg (or 14 lb) in weight. After four days, her pulse had doubled, and she was suffering extreme dehydration, bordering on kidney failure. The doctor overseeing this, Dr. Wenck, insisted that, if this experiment were to continue, it would surely be lethal, and the experiment was called off
So, yeah, it turns out you need food and water to stay alive.
And what happened to Jasmuheen?
Well, she lives in her large villa in the prosperous Chapel Hill area of Brisbane, with her convicted fraudster husband, Jeff Ferguson, with a generously stocked refrigerator and about half a million dollars of disposable income. Meanwhile, followers of the ‘Breatharian‘ movement continue to starve themselves to death.
With endless clickbait offering quick and easy fixes to complex medical problems, the rise of the flat-earth movement, and anti-vaxxers in their masses; it seems like pseudoscience has returned in all of its incomprehensible, illogical, inconclusive glory.
With the flat earth movement claiming to be –in their own words– taking off all over the globe (think about that one for a second), and snake-oil salesmen like David Wolfe and Deepak Chopra reaping tens of millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains, the question has to be addressed; why is pseudoscience so alluring?
Well, there may be no concrete answers, so I’ll do what the anti-vaxxers and advocates of ‘alternative medicine’ do so well: make my point using anecdotes and a number of sort of scientific-sounding words, in order to present my hypothesis as fact.
From my experience, I’ve identified three key factors that allow pseudoscience to thrive; An ‘Us vs Them’ mentality, the mistrust of governments and corporations, and the ‘backfire effect’.
The ‘Us vs Them’ mentality
Firstly –as all old wives’ tales begin- pseudoscience starts with a rumor, an anecdote, some remedy or established ‘truth’, which has become so ingrained in the public consciousness that it is almost absurd to disbelieve it. So here’s an easy one: Drinking coffee can help a drunk person to ‘sober up’.
There is absolutely no truth to this.
Whilst a hot cup of coffee might sharpen a drunk person’s senses, hydrate them, or stop them from falling into a drunken slumber, it does absolutely nothing to flush the alcohol from their system, which is processed out by the liver. In fact, there really is no way to flush alcohol out of your system any quicker than your body can process it naturally. And yet, this is –and will continue to be- an established ‘fact’, which is cited by many.
Though there’s probably no harm in giving a drunk person coffee to help them feel more alert, the danger lies in the misconception that –after a coffee- maybe that person can do things which they wouldn’t be able to do drunk, such as drive.
This is where pseudoscience is created, and it’s easy. All you really have to do to ‘prove’ that your hypothesis is correct is to say it with enough confidence and apply an easily digestible theory to it, and before you know it, people will be claiming it as a stony truth.
Take this for example:
“Eating vegetables on an empty stomach maximizes vitamin absorption. This is because the stomach acid levels are higher, and will break down the nutrients properly. The added hunger will ensure that all nutrients are absorbed and retained. Eating vegetables on a full stomach means that most of the nutrients will be excreted with the excess food which your stomach cannot process.”
Sounds believable right?
Well, guess what, I just made that up. What if I reversed the ‘theory’?
“Eating vegetables on a full stomach maximizes vitamin absorption. This is because the food is processed slowly, allowing the intestines enough time to extract all of the nutrients which –if consumed on an empty stomach- would be burned up by the stomach acid.”
So which one is more effective? Full stomach, or empty?
Well, the truth is that neither is more effective, and the difference is completely negligible.
But again, this isn’t so dangerous. I mean, how bad could it be if people actually followed either of these pieces of advice? If anything, just following some sort of routine might cause them to eat more vegetables, or maybe the placebo effect will make them feel healthier and happier; surely that’s a good thing, right?
Well sure, until that same person rebrands themselves as some kind of health guru and tells people that the only real cure for cancer is eating apricot seeds (read all about it, in my book).
To the average person, that concept sounds absurd, and yet the ‘alternative medicine’ industry is worth billions, and it’s turning a lot of slimy charlatans into multi-millionaires; but worse, it’s killing people, and undermining scientific and medical progress.
So how do people like David Wolfe -and other quacks like him- convince people that the scientific community at large are not be trusted?
Why would a person search for alternative remedies, to begin with?
The answer is simple, they’re terrified –and rightly so- of death and ill-health.
But the darkness is coming for us all, and there is no way to prevent it. Sorry.
So what these quacks offer is a fantasy; a world in which cancer is easily curable, humans are not biological robots, but spiritual entities, and the world isn’t some insignificant mote of dust in a cold, indifferent universe, but a flat disc at the epicentre of the universe, watched over by a benevolent god.
You see, bullshit is seductive, tempting, alluring.
Bullshit smells so fucking good that we all need a slice of it from time to time.
But it’s just empty calories.
Pseudoscientists cultivate a mindset which suggests that all peer-reviewed academia is not to be trusted. They encourage the farcical idea that they themselves are being censored; and if they are, it is not because they’re selling nonsense which has been scientifically proven to be misleading, it is because the powers that be simply can’t afford for their ‘cures’ to be revealed to the public.
Cancer is –after all- a billion dollar business.
The peddling of paranoia is –and has always been- a profitable one.
Pseudoscientists will gladly tell you about global conspiracies to suppress the cure to cancer, spread autism through vaccinations, or misrepresent the shape of the world. The supposed motivations behind such global conspiracies range from the kind of believable to the utterly absurd.
Some say that the cure for cancer is being suppressed because ‘Big Pharma’ make far too much money selling medication. Others will tell you that the government are trying to spread autism to create ‘more voters for the liberal party’ (yeah, I’ve no idea how that works either), and some will tell you that NASA is in league with Satan himself, trying to convince people that the world is –in fact- not at the centre of the universe, and perhaps human beings aren’t actually as special as our inherent narcissism tells us we are.
Whatever the ‘reason’, this ‘Us vs Them’ mentality helps to conveniently render every other argument as worthless propaganda.
But surely people are more likely to believe the collective conclusions of the scientific community than some quack on the internet?
Well, that brings me to my second point.
Mistrust of governments and corporations
It is no surprise that people do not trust big corporations. Since time immemorial, big business has cut corners, circumvented regulations, and manipulated the social and political landscape to maximize profits and further their own ends. In the 1920’s, we had the ‘Radium girls’, who worked with radium until their jaws literally rotted off. In the 1970’s we had the Ford Pinto, equipped with a fuel tank which exploded and burned people alive. In the 2000’s we had trillions of dollars of toxic debt, knowingly sold as bonds, which led to a huge global financial crisis.
I could fill this entire article with examples of corporate corruption, and only cover a fraction of it. So it’s completely understandable that people do not trust governments and big business.
This mistrust –righteous as it may be- is capitalized on by –ironically- big business.
David Wolfe, Deepak Chopra, and Andrew Weill alone have a combined wealth of around $140million, and they are just a fraction of the charlatans out there, peddling snake oil.
The business of alternative medicine, and more broadly, pseudoscience, is a multi-billion dollar industry; and it seems everybody wants a thick, juicy slice of that sweet, bullshit pie.
So, a great deal of pseudoscientific quackery is aimed at the American public.
Because they have an enormously flawed and failing healthcare system.
Is it any wonder that in a country with the worst health care of the high-income nations, somebody might identify a gap in the market?
To many, the concept of a vial of snake oil might be much more appealing than paying tens of thousands of dollars for a treatment that may, or may not, save your life. To others, it’s a last resort. As they say, ‘a drowning man will grasp at a straw’; if you were given three months to live, would you try a magical elixir from a quack on the internet? It couldn’t hurt, right?
But therein lies a flaw.
With pseudoscience, you can cherry-pick the evidence you need to support your claim.
So let’s imagine that somebody has cancer, gets chemotherapy, but it doesn’t work. So they try the snake oil and –it’s a miracle!- they get better. Well, obviously that was the snake oil, right?
But what if the snake oil doesn’t work, and cancer spreads, eventually killing the patient.
Well, in that case, it was the chemotherapy that killed them.
The thing is, proponents of alternative medicine feed off our mistrust of governments and corporations; presenting themselves as caring, wholesome people, offering simple, natural solutions to complex medical problems.
Meanwhile, the actual medical community is in the pocket of ‘Big Pharma’, the umbrella term for what is apparently an enormous global conspiracy to keep everybody medicated and sick.
What amazes me is that –it seems- every single cancer research organization, whether government-run, private or otherwise, across literally every nation on earth, have somehow come to heel, joining this great conspiracy, for the sole purpose of furthering American corporate interests.
I actually have a friend from school who works on cancer research; he earns about $26,000 a year. Really not much, considering the enormous global conspiracy that he’s being paid to keep hidden.
With a poor healthcare system, a huge element of distrust towards corporations and governments, and many people simply being priced out of healthcare, it is no surprise that people are turning to ‘alternative medicine’ to offer some hope.
But what exactly is ‘alternative medicine?’
Some call it ‘treatments or therapies which have been ignored, denied or rejected by conventional healthcare’. Others might –more accurately- describe it as a collection of unorthodox medical approaches, all defined by a singular feature: the absence of supporting evidence.
And yet, the popularity of alternative medicine is undeniably on the rise; in 1970, 14% of people claimed to have used it; by 2002 that figure had risen to 34%. Today, some estimates put that number at 40%.
I often wonder what Edward Jenner might think, if he knew that nearly half of the descendants of the people his smallpox vaccine saved –people who likely wouldn’t be alive if it were not for his vaccine- were rejecting modern medicine in favour of unproven, unregulated, unscientific –and ultimately- unsuccessful ‘medicines’.
It was only in my father’s time that Polio was still a very real threat. Almost anyone over the age of 60 will be able to tell you of somebody they knew who contracted polio. But that simply isn’t the case anymore. I don’t know anyone of my generation who contracted polio, smallpox, tuberculosis or any of the plethora of diseases which have ravaged generations past.
Because vaccines work.
In some ways, the invisibility of what are very real diseases has left us blind to the catastrophic effects they can have. In the west, we are so insulated to the damaging effects of epidemics that we almost do not believe in them. But anyone who’s seen a cholera outbreak in a developing nation will be acutely aware that disease is real, it does kill -and magic crystals and magnetic therapies won’t save anyone- but modern medicine will.
In fact, the evidence for the miraculous effects of modern medicine is so well proven, so well documented, so fucking obvious, that you’d think they didn’t bear discussion.
So, when presented with cold hard facts, how could anybody in their right mind cling to the notion that alternative medicine (and other pseudosciences) has as much –if not more- merit than peer-reviewed, empirical science?
Well, that brings me to my third point…
The ‘backfire effect’
The ‘backfire effect’ is essentially when people cling to their ideas more sincerely when presented with facts. The term was first coined by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler to describe how some individuals, when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs, become even more entrenched in their beliefs, rather than viewing them objectively.
Why does this happen?
Because often –in the discourse of any argument- you are battling with a person’s identity. And when this is challenged, it is seen not as a logical back-and-forth exchange of ideas, but a direct attack upon the other person’s fundamental intelligence.
Conversely, it’s often well-educated people –intelligent people- who cling to their beliefs with the most conviction. The overconfidence of the intelligent and the educated can often be the flaw that allows them to fall victim to misinformation; the idea that they can master any topic by themselves.
Often subjects are approached –not with an open mind- but with the objective of proving that their predisposed belief is the correct one. This leads intelligent people to cherrypick facts and disregard others from sources they deem to be biased, untrustworthy, or directly hostile to them.
It is, in some ways, unnatural to be skeptical or scientific in the pursuit of knowledge, when somebody is looking to prove something they already believe.
As my father once said; “If you want to prove something, first try to disprove it.”
A survey carried out in 2016 shows that 31% of Americans believe that vaccines lead to autism, more than 50% believe that weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq, and 36% believe that President Obama was born in Kenya; despite all of these things being proven to be false.
Does this mean that the American people are stupid?
Of course not.
What we’re witnessing here is a manifestation of pre-determined ‘facts’ being ‘proven’ by simply selecting information that confirms that pre-determined idea. It’s incredibly difficult for an intelligent person to admit that their assumptions were incorrect. Often, it’s viewed as a weakness or a flaw, when in fact, it is a great strength of objectivity.
Lisa Rosenbaum, M.D wrote an interesting article for the New England Journal of Medicine entitled Resisting the Suppression of Science.
In her article, she wrote about how doctors deal with patients who state their preference for non–evidence-based therapies, such as “organic food for coronary disease or detox cleanses for cancer.”
“Personally, I’ve never come up with an effective response. I offer facts, and then, sensing that I’m getting nowhere, I offer more facts. I blink rapidly to avoid rolling my eyes. Eventually, I resort to the “I statements” taught in medical school: “I understand that’s what you believe,” though my body language surely gives me away. Not surprisingly, I haven’t had much success in overcoming disbelief of science. And though many physicians may approach this challenge more skillfully one on one, as a scientific community, we often seem trapped in a similar dynamic. Whether it’s the science of vaccines, climate change, or gun control, we tend to endlessly emphasize the related evidence, and when that fails, exude a collective sense of disgust.”
Whilst it is always important to respect people’s opinions –everyone is entitled to one- it is flawed to believe that all opinions are equal. Lisa Rosenbaum’s opinions on the best cancer treatments –being an experienced and qualified doctor- are much much more valuable than mine. There is a good reason that it takes 6 years of training to become a doctor; and so whilst I am certainly entitled to my own opinions, that doesn’t mean my opinion is worth shit in the face of established medical fact.
This idea that everybody’s opinions are equally valuable only invites people to manipulate facts in order to sway public opinion to further their own nefarious aims.
Looking at the following blog post: “Autism Rates Skyrocket Since SB277 Took Hold In California” or this one, “Autism Rates in California Schools Jumped As Much as 17% Among Kindergartners Since Mandatory Vaccine Bill Was Signed.” One might be of the opinion that the SB277 bill -which eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates- has, in the space of just one year (the posts were written in 2016) increased autism rates dramatically in California.
Yet, even a rudimentary observation shows that this is entirely nonsensical. Given that SB277 was only signed into law in the summer of 2015 and didn’t take effect until the 2016-2017 school year, and that the median age of diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders ranges from 3 years, 10 months (for autistic disorder) to 6 years, 2 months for Asperger’s, we can clearly see that –even if vaccines were the cause of autism- the effects of SB277 would not be visible until at least 2019.
Even then, the statistic wouldn’t be nearly as high as stated, as less than 10% of California kindergarten children aren’t already vaccinated. This means that –if vaccines caused autism- the rise in autism diagnoses would only rise by a few percentage points.
Luckily, vaccines don’t cause autism.
The lack of foresight shown by those who wrote the aforementioned blog posts is startling; so much so that –to the objective individual- it becomes completely obvious that the person writing the blog posts does not believe what they are saying; in fact, they surely know it to be a lie. Not an accidental misrepresentation of facts, not a mistake, but a deliberate lie. Which begs the question, why would they deliberately mislead people in such a way?
The answers are not simple, but you can be sure that there is some agenda here; some attempt to get people fired up and what better way to cause an emotional, kneejerk reaction, than by inducing fear? Not simply fear, but the fear that some shady government conspiracy is attacking your children.
As Orac said, 2016 was the year that bullshit was weaponized.
Misinformation, emotionally charged, biased and unobjective reporting has created a culture of mass hysteria, which can be harnessed like a weapon and directed towards any end.
We live in a world of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, a media-saturated with stories that over-represent dangers, twist, warp and invent facts, and sow the seeds of distrust. Objectivity, rationality and critical thinking have been traded for social media echo chambers and paranoid ‘tinfoil hat’ thinking.
The inconvenient reality is that knowledge is paralyzing; the more you know about any particular issue, the more influencing factors present themselves, making it harder and harder to give a solid answer to anything, and even harder to take any action.
It’s easy to close your eyes and open your mouth. People want results, and they want them now. And so, it’s all too easy to turn to people of action, who claim to have a secret map to navigate the complexities of life with ease. It’s much harder to accept that, for some problems, there is no simple answer, and so almost any action taken in haste is likely to be the wrong one.
Cancer is killing us, and it will be years before a cure is found. But just how Edward Jenner rid the world of smallpox, somewhere down the line, somebody somewhere will rid the world of cancer too. But it won’t be David Wolfe, or any of the multimillionaire health ‘gurus’, making money off the ignorance and fear of the masses, it will be a scientist; one who is working as hard as they can, studying rigorously, conducting tests, and is probably poor as dirt.
With great thanks to Orac of Respectful Insolence and his wonderfully skeptical mind, for much of the inspiration for this article.