Published on May 5th, 2015 | by Rayne1
“What’s the harm?”: How to create a pseudoscientist in 3 easy steps
One of most common and aggravating questions I receive from people about pseudoscience is “What’s the harm?”. It’s a question that stems from equal parts ignorance about the dangers of pseudoscience and equal parts mistrust of science. And it’s the question that annoys me the fucking most.
I’ve spoken previously about some of the reasons that people may turn to pseudoscience, in particular the disheartening feeling when going to a doctor and hearing that your illness can only be managed and not cured completely or the feeling of being “just a number” especially in a world where doctors have too little time and too many patients. It maybe as simple as a mistrust of science or the more dangerous ideology of “natural thinking”.
“Natural thinking” is an ideology that has gained momentum in the last few years and it is the number one reason why I constantly wonder if interacting with people would be more bearable if I developed a drinking problem. Based around the misconception that nature is anything more than an arsehole that doesn’t give a shit about us, “Natural thinking” romanticises the natural world as a blissful place full of bunnies and peace and harmony while disregarding the dangerous side such as venom, poison, anal warts, infection, bacteria, viruses and crocodiles.
Pseudoscience operates very much like organised religion in several ways – it’s a cunning predator that preys on the vulnerable for its own gain and the concept of faith to exploit people. Monotheistic organised religions use many tactics to continue their survival in the Age of Reason namely victim blaming, silencing, deflection, indoctrination, fear of the unknown, fear of questioning and logical fallacies. The aim of organised religion is to keep people in line by keeping them emotionally immature and by stunting their critical thinking abilities which has been pretty damn effective so far and pseudoscience has picked up on that.
Organised religion shares a few similarities with pseudoscience – namely they’re both faith-based institutions that lack scientific support for the assertions they make. In order to combat the lack of facts, they need to work harder and employee the strategies outlined above in order distract from the fact they can’t support their assertions. Not to mention the nasty habit that some religious authorities have of teaching people they are sick and evil, in order to sell religion as the cure to an illness of its own making. It’s like an arsehole salesman who stabs you in the foot so he can sell you a bandage. Just as organised religion has created the concept of sin to sell itself as the cure, pseudoscience sells fake diseases and warps science for profit. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Practitioners of pseudoscience love vulnerable people – especially mothers, and over the years quacks have created illnesses and useless diagnostic methods to gain credibility so they can have free rein to diagnose you with whatever imaginary yet management-only illness they want. These fabricated illnesses have vague symptoms that can be easily applied to a large percentage of the population such as tiredness, stress, irritability, restlessness, feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Often the practitioner will state these illnesses will require repeated sessions, for a hefty fee, of course. These include but are not limited to: chronic lyme disease, adrenal fatigue, candida, Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome and rope worms.
The rise of degree-mill unaccredited universities that hand out degrees to every person who can spell their own name is making it easier for scientifically illiterate people to seem credible despite having no real qualifications or understanding of science or medicine. One recent addition to the droves of Facebook based pseudoscientists is Nutritarian Nancy – a woman who claims to have earned her Ph.D after writing a 3,000 word “thesis”. The degree-mill she obtained her “Ph.D” from is the unaccredited University of Natural Health which allows anyone – with no prior education – who has about $5,000, to get a useless qualification that makes them sound good. Which she is using shamelessly to drum up business. Not surprisingly her bio is a human interest story about her being really sick and taking control of her unknown illness with broccoli or some shit.
An actual Ph.D on the other hand, requires the student to have a Bachelors, Honours and a Master’s degree before they can ever think about applying for the program. Accredited Ph.D programs can also take anywhere between 3 to 6 years to complete including data collection, data collation, experiments in the field and thesis writing and are subject to intensive and rigorous scrutiny by industry experts before being accepted. Shit, this blog post is about 3,200 words long – where the hell is my Ph.D?
I also have a human interest story – I too was really sick and it took 5 trips to the ER and doctors 18 months to figure out what was wrong, I started this blog after being bombarded with insults to my intelligence via people telling me to think positive thoughts or to waste my money on homoeopathy. I started this blog as a way to keep grounded while my insides attempted to crawl out of my arse for unknown reasons. I had a lot of health anxiety over not knowing what was going on which further increased my stress making me sicker which lead to more stress. I was on a hideous cycle of anxiety, stress and pain, blogging helped combat that.
I do joke around often, but seriously this blog has helped a lot, every time someone would tell me to waste money on an unproven treatment or a Placebo – it made me want to run naked into a cactus out of sheer frustration. Apart from staying grounded, this blog has exposed me even more to the peddlers of pseudoscience and their apologists and allowed me to deconstruct how they’ve managed to survive in the Age of Information:
Three Easy Steps For Selling Pseudoscience
The beginning: People will often go to alternative medicine and pseudoscience because they’re dissatisfied with the answers evidence based medicine has provided or maybe they’ve had a bad experience with medical doctors. Medicine doesn’t know everything and the gaps in medical knowledge make a fine gloryhole for pseudoscience to attempt to fill and fuck you out of your money. Fuelled by the disheartening feeling a patient may experience when hearing the news their illness can only be managed and not cured completely, combined with the feeling of being “just a number” to an overworked doctor with too little time, alternative medicine sometimes can be perceived as the friendly more approachable route to treating illness. Except diseases don’t give a shit about your right to choose your own treatment, currently there is only one way to treat Type 1 Diabetes – injecting insulin and the treatment for Type 1 Diabetes isn’t going to change just because you want to be able to treat it with rainbows, positive thoughts, acupuncture and kale chips.
Step 1. Reeling people in: The easiest way to scare someone away from evidence based medicine and science is to exploit a parent’s love for their children and drop the “C” bomb – chemicals. Pick a target to turn into the latest Scary Thing, preferably something that people don’t know anything about and exploit the hell out people’s ignorance – vaccines cause autism, GMO’s cause autism, smartphones cause autism. Offer something sciencey sounding as an explanation as to how the Scary Thing occurs, perhaps with a little “Big Pharma” conspiracy thrown in to deflect criticism and you’re pretty much set. Sadly some people don’t want or don’t understand how to critically analyse scientific studies which is even better for a pseudoscientist because it means people will believe them at face value.
The best example of the exploitation of ignorance and vulnerable people is the South Park episode “Christian Rock Hard” where characters Stan and Cartman make a bet on whether Cartman could create a Christian Rock band and get a platinum record:
Eric Cartman: Our band should play Christian rock!
Kyle Broflovski: Christian rock?!
Eric Cartman: Think about it! It’s the easiest crappiest music in the world, right? If we just play songs about how much we love Jesus, all the Christians will buy our crap!
Stan Marsh: You don’t even know anything about Christianity!
Eric Cartman: I know enough to exploit it.
In this example, Cartman plays the role of the pseudoscientist – he knows the right words to say to sound legitimate and sincere but ultimately will warp science to exploit people for profit.
Logical Fallacies are the bread and butter of pseudoscience (also the alternative medicine industry). The logical fallacy Appeal to Emotion works well along with a few testimonials from people who don’t understand the meaning of correlation doesn’t equal causation. It is especially helpful if you have a heart warming origin story that makes people feel warm and fuzzy or scared and confused, it doesn’t have to be true and it really helps if you can place yourself as a small-time hero attempting to take on big faceless evil corporations or a victim of multiple illnesses outside of your control. People connect with things that make them emotional regardless of whether there is a grain of truth to the story. Scientific facts can be cold harsh mistress who doesn’t like using lube – terrifying and offering little satisfaction.
The Appeal to Nature fallacy is something that I’ve spoken about before, chemphobes will usually take that bait, hook, line and sinker. Scientifically illiterate people largely don’t understand or don’t want to understand the basic framework of medicine and science such as “the dose makes the poison“and “everything is chemicals” and because people have a romantic ideal of nature, using the idea that “nature equals good” and “chemicals equals bad” is easier to process. Plus it has the added bonus of demonising science and scientists as cold heartless robots, rather than them being humans who want to make the world a better place. The Skeptical OB and Science Babe discuss more in length about the dangerous of our romance with all things “Natural” and the rise of “Nature Inc”.
The Appeal to Tradition fallacy is another useful tactic when dealing with scientifically illiterate people. It’s the idea that treatments used for thousands of years are superior to the now used but still relatively young evidence based medicine. The glaring flaw in this idea is quite simple, just because something has been used for thousands of years doesn’t mean that it works – it just means we haven’t discovered anything different because we haven’t been looking.
Step 2. Keeping your followers: Having to explain the bullshit that comes out of the mouths of pseudoscientists is hard when there are no facts to support them. Pseudoscience is defined as a belief structure or idea or “treatment” which masquerades as science in trying to claim legitimacy which it would not be able to achieve on its own merit. This is why it needs to piggyback off science and use scientific concepts to give it merit, it has none of its own.
Conspiracy theories are a good way to deflect from having to adhere to the Burden of Proof thus saving psuedoscientists from having to explain themselves to their followers. Deflection by using the Shill Gambit is useful because it puts the attention back on critics and takes away from the fact that everything the quack or pseudoscientist has said has come out of their arse. Conspiracies about “Big Pharma” work nicely because for some people it’s easier to think their critics are being paid to discredit them rather than admitting they’re wrong. Victim blaming is also a good tactic to use because it deflects away from the fact that whatever you’re peddling is as useful as handjob from a Reiki practitioner. It’s not your fault, it’s not the treatment’s fault, it’s the fault of the user – they didn’t
have enough faith follow the treatment correctly.
Circle jerk references are a must for anyone who needs to pretend they have evidence for their claims. Gerson therapy is a good example of this. The Gerson therapy site has all the information about Gerson therapy except for proof for how it works. If you use Google to find information about the therapy, you’ll find that it has been replicated word-for-word on a host of other websites because the Argument from Popularity works better than having to explain yourself. If you don’t have science to back up your assertions, convince the masses it works because a lot of people use it. The Appeal to Authority fallacy only works if you have cemented your place as an expert or trusted source of information regardless of whether the information is correct. The “Food Babe” Vani Hari has developed a cult following using tactics that have placed her into a position of a “trusted advisor”. She’s even managed to convince people who believe the statement “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” is actually a legitimate way to make food choices.
I can pronounce “genitalia”. I guess I can just give up food altogether and give head. It’ll save me heaps of time on cooking and make my wife happy.
A sense of community or purpose is useful for followers who feel isolated. This can often evolve into a sense of superiority and elitism especially if the followers are encouraged to think they alone know and understand the “Real Truth” that is the bullshit pseudoscience being promoted. Amber Rodgers in her blog piece “Confessions of a (Reformed) Natural Mom“, speaks about the phenomenon that is the “Natural Mom”. Mum’s who are seduced in by pseudoscience and quackery, having had their motherhood and the human need for community membership exploited by way of misinformation and lies. Largely this is due to the appeal of the superiority complex that pseudoscience provides.
Step 3. Silencing your critics: Now that the pseudoscientist has an audience and kept them from jumping ship, it’s time to use those followers to take on critics. Pseudoscience isn’t based on fact, it’s based of faith, the Placebo effect and a cult-like mentality. This means in the absence of factual and accurate information, it needs to work harder at looking like legitimate science and not the steaming pile of bullshit it actually is. Using the media and encouraging the use of the Balance Fallacy, the pseudoscientist can promote the idea there are two sides to every story – their side and science – as a way to be heard in front of a larger audience.
Mostly, pseudoscience survives by exploiting the fear and ignorance (and sometimes wilful ignorance) of its consumers. Using deflection tactics and fuelled completely by conspiracy theories and logical fallacies – pseudoscience can amass of legion of loyal followers who will silence critics and dissenters without the peddler of the pseudoscientific claims having to ever lift a finger.
Science unfortunately is largely perceived as a cold and heartless industry and as a result has a hard time communicating itself to the masses. Science is promoted by the media as an industry for nerds who are awkward and emotionless and want to take the magic out of life. Scientists are portrayed as tactless people – the robotic Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory is a prime example. You don’t see scientists on TV being portrayed as down-to-earth average everyday humans with families like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Facts and science cannot hope to compete with the warm fuzzy feelings promoted by pseudoscientists who emit an air of kindness when the representation of science is inaccurate and frightening.
One thing I have noticed about pseudoscience and quackery in general is that it loves to prey on women. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with “caregiver” role that has been bestowed upon us by society or the fact that more mothers stay at home with their children and use the Internet – either way, scared first time mothers are a goldmine for pseudoscientists. Scared, confused and scientifically illiterate with a noble want to keep their children safe makes a prime target for quacks.
Pseudoscience does have a golden ticket – the Placebo effect. The Placebo effect is the most misunderstood and exploited phenomenon on the planet. The misunderstanding is often used as evidence of the effectiveness of the quack treatment. The Placebo effect makes you feel better but it doesn’t mean that you actually are any less ill. Some of us know that feeling better and actually being better are too completely different things, unfortunately not everyone can differentiate the two which is why pseudoscience has amassed plenty of apologists who can silence critics and victim blame victims without the quack practitioner ever lifting a finger. “It worked for me” is the battle-cry of the apologist, people who are high on a mixture of Placebos and their own confirmation bias. Confirmation bias and the Placebo effect are a hell of a drug.
So what’s the harm?
You, me and a bottle of scotch and I will tell you what the harm is.
The apologist statement “What’s the harm?” is often asked after I have explained to people about the ineffectiveness of most pseudoscientific and alternative medicine treatments. The reasoning is: If the treatment actually doesn’t do anything, what’s the harm?
Let’s ask Aidan Fenton, no wait I can’t.
The boy is fucking dead.
Aidan Fenton was a 7 year old Australian boy whose parents decided that taking him to a “Traditional Chinese healer” for his diabetes was a brilliant fucking idea. The healer’s treatment was “slapping therapy”, a therapy that basically involves slapping a person to the point where they’re left horrifically bruised and in pain. Apparently this domestic violence disguised as “clinical therapy” eliminates toxins.
Now it’s unknown if slapping the shit out of the poor boy was the cause of death or whether he was taken off his insulin prior to his death but we can surmise that his parents took him to the healer because they either wanted to find an alternative treatment to using insulin or they wanted a cure for his diabetes.
Neither of which they got.
Now the reasonable minded people who read this blog are wondering what the fuck possessed Aiden’s parents to go to a healer to slap the diabetes out of him? That’s not how diabetes works! That’s how pseudoscience and quackery operates. A mistrust of medicine and science combined with desperation, fear and ignorance all equal one dead child.
Does it make me a bastard if I say I don’t feel sorry for the parents? I feel sorry for poor Aiden, who suffered horribly before he died and the parents have their own stupidity to thank for it.
How about we ask Daniel Hauser, Katie Wernecke, Abraham Cherrix, Jacob Stieler, Sarah Hershberger, Cassandra C, Makayla Sault, Chantale Lavigne or Mazeratti Mitchell? Children and adults who have suffered or died because of pseudoscience. Let’s ask the children of the parents who use bleach enemas as a “treatment” for autism. Or the people who have been denied or refused chemotherapy and other medical intervention in favour of homoeopathy or supplements. Or the children who have died due to anti-vaxxers lowering the herd immunity? Or AIDs deniers? Or the many who have died after throwing away their medications in favour of faith healing.
Nine-month-old Gloria died from septicaemia and malnutrition due medical neglect from her parents. Her parents thought it was a fantastic idea to refuse medical treatment in favour of magic homeopathic water which resulted in their child’s suffering and eventual death. Anti-pseudoscience website whatstheharm.net has created a list of people who have been maimed or died as a result of using treatments proven not to work or proven to be nothing more than Placebos. Not to mention the “Wellness Warrior” Jess Ainscough, the woman who owned and operated an empire dedicated to telling people they can cure their cancer with an organic diet and alternative medicine.
She’s dead now. From her cancer. No surprise. She’s most likely taken a whole heap of other people with her, people who might have had a chance at survival.
Amora Bain Carson, a 13 month old girl whose mother believed her to be possessed by demons. Her faith-filled indoctrinated parents killed her by beating her with a hammer to get “the demons out”. Isabella Denley was a 13 month old girl who was diagnosed with epilepsy and prescribed medication as treatment. Instead of being intelligent human beings, her parents consulted an iridologist, an applied kinesiologist, a psychic and an osteopath. She with homoeopathy when she died because magic water and the placebo effect don’t fucking work in treating illnesses. Two year old Brittney Dorcy and her sister Jessica were killed by their mother when she decided to stop the pharmaceutical medication that was treating her depression in favour of St Johns wort. Their mother shot them in a forest. Harrison Johnson was 2 years old when he was stung by wasps requiring medical intervention, what he got was prayer instead. By the time his parents wised up and rung for help 7 hours later, Harrison was gone. “Jane Roe” was a 56 year old lady who was prescribed an herbal anti-anxiety pill by a naturopath. She later suffered fatigue, nausea and jaundice, she was rushed to the hospital, unfortunately her liver failed five days later. She had an emergency transplant but it was too late – she died. Candace Newmaker, who was being treated for an attachment disorder using unsound and untested methods – died by suffocation after being berated and beaten for days. On the fourth day, she was smothered to death beneath the weight of several adults who held her down and ignored her cries– all because they believed she could be “reborn” and “cured” of her disorder.
So what’s the harm in using a treatment that doesn’t do shit? That’s the point: it doesn’t do shit. It might make you feel better but you won’t be better – both physically and financially. The use of alternative treatments that don’t work or the promotion of anti-science ideals can lead to death from preventable diseases, it causes parents to feed their children bleach enemas. It makes rational people refuse medical care in favour of having a stranger slap the hell out of their child. It gives the perception of legitimacy to unqualified people who are just crapping out of their mouths.
According to this, you have to already be unhealthy for germs to make you sick. Therefore if you’re healthy…you won’t get sick because the conditions in your body aren’t the correct conditions that germs need to make you sick.
Unless you for some reason your healthy self becomes unhealthy, then you’ll get sick so you should totally go to this person’s website to get tips on how to be Ebola-free. The author of the quote on the right, Herbert M. Shelton, argued that good health was strictly a consequence of a person’s behaviour and if you displayed good behaviour, you would stay healthy. Shelton also argued that bad behaviour meant poor or failing health. He advocated fasting and “Natural Hygiene“, and not medical treatment, as a cure for any and all diseases. Having only obtained a naturopathy degree, he was repeatedly arrested and jailed for practising medicine without a licence, was accused of negligent homicide in the death of one patient, and was sued for letting another starve to death. Ironically but not surprisingly, when he contracted a degenerative neuromuscular disease thought to be Parkinsons, he was unable to cure himself by the treatment methods he promoted and died at age 77 after being nearly completely bedridden by his disease.
Here’s a tip, the correct conditions for a person to be infected with Ebola is that they have to be alive. Germ theory denialism makes no sense.
Pseudoscience not only has the potential to cause harm physically and financially it also weakens our intellectual integrity, it stunts our ability to critically think resulting in a trail of victims, most often children. In the case of psychics and horoscopes – superstition and pseudoscience absolve people of responsibility. Why work on your life when you can blame the alignment of the planets? or use a psychic to tell you what you want to hear instead of what you need to hear?
Pseudoscience has built a suit of armour around itself to deflect criticism. The silencing tactics and conspiracy theories used to shift the attention to its critics has gone a long way into turning pseudoscience into yet another faith-based institution exempt from criticism. Death and destruction as a result of believing in pseudoscience is overshadowed by the confirmation bias of moderate users and the Placebo effect it gives.
The real harm of pseudoscience is that people cannot or will not see the harm it causes. To hand-wave away or ignore its glaring dangers, to exempt it from criticism, to shift the burden of proof to those who want pseudoscience to start having some semblance of accountability are all the hallmarks of a faith-based institution that would never survive if people started critically evaluating it. Science is more than happy to submit itself to the rigours of critical evaluation – that’s what the scientific method is built upon. Pseudoscience uses everything it can think of to exempt itself from scrutiny leaving science and medicine to clean up the mess.
No wonder Ultron wanted to kill us all.