Internet Propagated Pseudoscience: The Alchemy of our Time

Last night’s debate between creationist Ken Ham and scientist Bill Nye illustrated to the world that a subject as fact-based as science still experiences a great deal of controversy. Science, which, contrary to Mr. Ham’s false dichotomy of observational science and historical science, has followed the same natural laws throughout the existence of time, still has some glaring errors and is not without controversy and corruption within itself. This corruption is often falsely attacked by the true proponents of the real corruption, creating a situation where the “good guys” are actually the ones spreading rumours largely predicated on falsified data and bad science. I’m talking, of course, about the anti-vaccine movement, the anti-GMO movement, and the naturopathic supplement industry.

I know this will be controversial, and I know that some people that I know as friends may completely disagree with what I have to say, but my hope is offer a balanced perspective on the matter, and explain the damages of pseudoscience as a cultural movement rather than directly attack people with these beliefs. This is more an attack on the methodology of how people come to their decisions, as all of these ways of thinking are largely fuelled through examples generated from anecdotal evidence, not hard science. Here we go…

As long as there’s been public access to the Internet, there’s been bullshit. It started with chain emails that promised to grant you good luck for years if you sent them along, or promised your imminent death if you refused. It continued on with mass emails that reported ludicrous events such as: the existence of aliens, the Muslim Apocalypse, or the infamous Nigerian Prince mail scam. Fast forward to the Web 2.0 era, and Facebook is the primary vehicle for the spread of all of this “information”. It could be a simple photo that “proves” Jamie Oliver has won the fight against McDonald’s and their “pink slime”, or a whole group that spreads the word about the dangers of Fruit Loops cereal, how fluoride is a mind control agent used by the government, or the “new” and “groundbreaking” research in the fight against GMOs.

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. What is the unifying principle that all of these rumours share? Fear. Why is a rumour started in the first place? To create fear, largely enacted out of jealousy. What a lot of supporters of these rumours forget is that the most famous movements were those motivated out of jealousy to create fear in their target consumers, knowing that they could create business as a result. People who believe in a lot of these “alternative” products are simply more easily influenced by fear than others. Fear is largely motivated by that of the unknown, and for those who are uneducated on many of these matters of pseudoscience, it is easy to fall victim to alternatives. My personal experience with this has been that most of my friends point their fingers and laugh at those who buy into these alternative products and conspiracies, because we all have science degrees, so our view is altered as such. Most of these rumours are created by companies or individuals who are just as greedy and corrupt as the evil corporations that they like to attack. Let’s investigate a few examples.

1) The anti-vaccine movement. Perhaps the movement getting the most attention today. Where did it all begin? In the 1960s, there were a few famous cases of vaccine disasters, including the Cutter Incident, where live strains of polio were actually contained in the vaccine dosage. That was over 50 years ago, and medicine has made some remarkable advances since then, including much more scrutinized testing. In his 2007 paper “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Life Saver”, Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick writes that “The great irony underlying current vaccination controversies is that, as vaccines have become more effective and safer than ever before, an anti-vaccine world view, reflecting a combination of nostalgia and cultural pessimism, has become more prevalent.” I couldn’t agree more.

What is really driving the recent spike in anti-vaccination activity is the now-defunct (and yet still cited) study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. At the time, this paper demonstrated evidence for a casual link between autism and a vaccine used for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). Unbeknownst to the scientific community at the time, Dr. Wakefield had in fact been paid by British lawyer to forge his data in the hopes that it could be used as evidence in an upcoming lawsuit against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. The truth came out, Wakefield was incited as a fraud, and his name was forever tarnished. The study was removed from the prestigious British Medical Journal, The Lancet, in which it was published, and the scientific community was in general uproar. Wakefield’s results have yet to be reproduced to this day, and the MMR vaccine controversy is viewed as one of the greatest cases of fraud in recent history. Yet, the belief that vaccines are bad still persists to this day. I will dive into the ethics of this, because it has already been exhaustingly covered already by numerous articles and publications.

2) On to GMOs. A very controversial subject indeed, perhaps not because of the actual GMOs themselves, but because of one of the companies that researches, manufactures, and sells them: Monsanto. To a lot of people, GMO sounds like a very scary term, but in reality, we’ve all had GMOs at one point or another growing up. If you’ve eaten cereal in the last 20 years, you’ve ingested some GMO corn. But what about the rats with the exploding stomachs and cancer, you say? The famous study that always gets cited in the debate against GMOs is a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini that demonstrated increased rates of cancer and tumours in rats who were fed a diet of GM corn made by Monsanto. Not only were Séralini’s results never replicated, his paper was actually retracted from the journal that it was originally published in. Aside from the lack of replication, Séralini’s study contained a small control group, a strain of rats prone to cancer (his control group had similar cancer rates), and Séralini himself is a widely-known advocate against GMOs.

I googled “gmo rat study”, and the first results were from the following websites.

Aside from incredibly biased journalism and awfully stereotypic website names, the articles fail to address the scientific shortcomings of the study. Any supporting documents cited are also from notoriously pro-GMO organizations, and the entire argument is another one of creationism vs. science. If you believe that GMOs are truly bad for you, then that’s fine, but just know that you’re being played no different than the people you choose to convey your “holier than thou” attitude on.  Most of these agencies are out to make money, and what they’re selling you is often costly, unproven, and downright fraudulent. This leads nicely into example 3.

3) Naturopathic supplement fraud

Studies have begun to surface that show many naturopathic supplements are nothing more than greenwashed filler pills. The FDA has a list of almost 100 supplements that have been found to show fraudulent amounts of the substance advertised, or simply none of it at all. Additionally, numerous supplements have unproven effects. Dr. Oz is largely to blame for pushing many of these supplements and products to the public. A spam email was sent to my inbox a few weeks ago, so I clicked on it like any smart person would do. It was a link to a site about green coffee beans, with an embedded YouTube video of the green coffee bean segment from the Dr. Oz show. This is just one of the many examples of Dr. Oz pushing products to his audience, but what I really don’t like is how dishonest he is about the whole process. He tries to act very objective on the manner, approaching at these products with a great degree of false skepticism to reassure the audience of his scientific validity. I predict in a few years some whistle blower will emerge, and then all of the companies who paid Dr. Oz to sell their products will emerge. The guy has a Harvard MBA in addition to his MD. He’s not stupid when it comes to business.

After watching two minutes of the video, I opened a new tab and googled “green coffee bean fraud”. Tons of results. I thought so.

The study is flawed, and there’s only one study out there that even demonstrates that green coffee is remotely effective. No reproducible results, control group was flawed, small study. See a trend?

This is not to say that all naturopathic medicine is flawed, or that you shouldn’t take certain supplements. For example, fish oil has is a well-known, well-established supplement that is universally agreed upon to be good for you. But if you’re basing your entire conclusion about something from anecdotal evidence, please re-evaluate how you make critical decisions in your life. It would be like me waking up hungover after a night of drinking and going to an exam I had to write. Then when I aced the exam (duh), I decided to go around saying that being hungover makes your brain more alert and your memory recall better, because I just aced an exam, and so can you. Anecdotal evidence – my brain might react completely differently to the effects of a hangover, so to take my advice could work, but it could also screw you over. Same goes for switching to organic food, or taking green coffee bean extract, or cutting out carbs, or whatever. The human body is incredibly complex, so one study on a few people or rats is not going to cut it. Quit reading bad marketing disguised as pseudoscience, and start being smart about your decisions.

What a lot of people need to start doing is check their sources. It’s not that hard. Just because someone has a “Dr.” in front of their name, that doesn’t necessarily make them a credible source. What is credible is a scientific consensus, reproducible results, and good experimental design. Somewhere along the lines we lost the process of honest science, and only wanted the results, and it’s this movement that has resulted in the explosion of pseudoscience.

So be skeptical of the skeptics. They’re out to get your money just as much as the “big evil corporations” are.


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