For as long as there have been people, there have been sources of guidance. Deities, prophets, leaders; all have persisted through time and have been highly influential on our world. We look to them for answers to our problems, for ways to improve our lives, and we try to model our own lives in their image or vision. For thousands of years, humans modelled themselves after a god, or many gods, and these all-powerful beings generally rewarded “good” behaviour and punished “bad” behaviour. Unexplainable phenomena were attributed to these beings’ anger or sadness, and joyous, miraculous events were attributed to their pleasure and exuberance in response to our following of their teachings.
Overall, people trusted in their worshipped deity to maintain a natural order to the world, and for thousands of years it seemed like things were going pretty well. Until modern science, putting your faith in whatever deity you worshipped was the best way to explain the intricate workings of the world around you. So, even though it seems incredibly odd and foolish that the Ancient Egyptians believed that Ra, God of the Sun, traveled across the sky each day in the Mandjet and through the Underworld in the Mesektet, this was the best explanation available at the time, because nothing could disprove the logic upon which this belief was based.
This trend continued for thousands of years, while sporadic, groundbreaking scientific discoveries were made. Even though displacement, the Heliocentric model of the Solar System, gravity, and other major discoveries occurred, the majority of the world still accepted a supernatural force to explain the majority of the phenomena in their daily lives.
As long as there has been deitical worship, there have been those seeking to unseat those in power, influence a number of people, and gain power and money as a result. The most extreme examples of these types of situations are better known as cults. The word cult carries a very negative connotation in today’s world, largely thanks to a string of violent situations over the years involving cults. The mention of Charles Manson’s name still sends chills down people’s spines due to the gruesome murders he and his fellow cult members conducted. The Order of the Solar Temple, the Church of Bible Understanding, and Scientology are other famous examples of cults, though not all are inherently violent in nature.
Cults all operate under a similar doctrine of exposing members as victims and targeting their weaknesses using fear and humiliation. They eliminate independent thought and coerce members into adopting the core philosophies and the sacred creed of the cult. The leaders of cults are often psychopathic in nature, and the victims in cults are often weak-minded people who are vulnerable to the misleading teachings of the leader and other elders in the cult.
Improper, but powerful logic is wielded as a weapon to cut into the wounds that fear and abandonment have caused for new cult members, as cult members are often seeking refuge from society because they feel as if they do not have an identity within it. Along with the promise of identity, cults offer security, respect, and friendship. These are all core needs of human beings, and this is why the control a cult has over its members is so powerful.
Fear is a powerful tool that is employed by many marketing agencies at the core of their techniques. It can either be used explicitly or implicitly, but if you examine the message that a lot of advertisements are sending, most are in fact rooted in fear. Ads for alcohol are mostly targeted at men, and they often depict men consuming whatever beverage is being sold, and while doing so they are surrounded by attractive women. If you pay close attention to most alcohol ads, the women are much more attractive relative to the guys; you rarely see model quality dudes slamming back Bud Light, but all of a sudden the beer touches their lips and they’re surrounded by a bunch of girls approaching Kate Upton levels of hotness.
How does fear play into this? If you don’t drink our beer, you’ll be a loser like this guy was before and you won’t be surrounded by pretty girls at a party.
This pattern applies to all sorts of other products:
i) Buy this shampoo or else your hair (and you) will be ugly and no one will find you attractive
ii) Buy these clothes or else you won’t happy and attractive like our models are
iii) Buy this cleaning product or else your house will be a mess and no one will want to visit you
iv) Buy this car or else women won’t see you as powerful and successful
And it works. No one is immune to the effect that fear has on you; it just affects certain people to a greater degree.
Historically, cults were created to oppose the dominant source of authority at that time. Many people who felt lost or alienated by this authority for whatever reason were scooped up by cults and turned against the rest of the world. Because organized religion was the dominant explanation for life for thousands of years, most cults throughout our ancient history have been religious in nature. If someone felt lost and fearful in the world dominated by organized religion, joining a cult offered them an apparent safe haven. These organizations never really succeeded in making a difference in the world, but many of their vilified acts still live on in infamy. Cults still live on today, but they have a different form for a number of reasons.
Reason 1) A Changing of the Guard
Enter the world today: science has since supplanted organized religion as the governing body of explanation for our observations and questions. In the past, the behaviour of cults, like all humans, was much more violent in nature.
Dr. Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In his book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Dr. Pinker goes into great detail about why we, as humans, have become progressively less violent throughout history. The main reasons are commerce, the adoption of feminist ideologies, and cosmopolitanism. Our modern society values intelligence and being cultured over strength and violence. As a result, modern cultist behaviours mirror this change, and we now embrace the logic and reason that science is comprised of to fight our battles. Even the most famous religious cult, Scientology, gives a nod in its very name to the changing of the guard from organized religion to science.
While no formal cults (aside from PETA) exist to oppose the scientific community, many individuals or organizations have sprang up in recent years to try and debunk science, with a particular focus on the food and medical industries.
Notable examples include Mike Adams, who operates the website NaturalNews.com; Dr. Mehmet Oz of the Dr. Oz show; and Vani Hari, author of the blog FoodBabe.com. These three are at the forefront of the anti-science movement, and most of their dubious claims have been discredited; nonetheless, they still persist today.
Quacks prey on the public’s distrust of science and preference for “alternative” methods to solving their various health problems. They use fear mongering to lash out against large corporations, big pharma, and factory farms. They use fear-mongering buzzwords like “toxin” and “chemical”, and they generally paint the picture that the scientific community is dooming mankind through their freakish laboratory experiments. The problem is that science operates under a methodology of constant checks and balances; peer review prevents bad science from being propagated, and experiments are constantly being replicated and modified due to the open-minded nature of scientists.
Reason 2) The Prophet (and Profit) Motive
Many quacks are not only influenced by profit but by being a prophet to their loyal followers. Similar to cult leaders, many quacks are pathological narcissists. By becoming a prophet of sorts to a group of people, a quack satisfies their desire for attention and an inflated sense of self. Many quacks were also not entirely content with their profession, as it left them feeling bored or unfulfilled in comparison to the demands of their narcissism.
Dr. Oz was supposedly a successful surgeon and instructor at Columbia Medical School before he launched his quack branding and TV show, so clearly his ego was writing cheques that his job couldn’t cash.
Notable quack Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopath, perhaps felt inadequate in the earning potential of his profession, so he launched Mercola.com, along with a line of natural health products sold through his website. Now he lives in a multi-million dollar estate in Illinois. Foodbabe and Mike Adams have both made enormous profits off of their quackery, and all of these factors tie into it. If money was the sole motivator, a potential quack could have easily resorted to a well-paying job that was more behind the scenes. By being at the forefront of their respective causes, quacks can simultaneously feed their egos and fill their bank accounts.
Reason 3) The Naturalist Fallacy
Most quacks today spend their time crusading for organic or natural products and against conventional farming. We surely all bought into the hype that was organic food in the mid 2000’s and it was easy to see why: the cultural attitude at that time demanded change. Unfortunately, organic food is not all it’s cracked up to be. If you take time to browse the literature available on organic food, you’ll find a number of conclusions with regards to comparative studies between organic and conventional food. Organic food is not healthier for you, nor is it more nutritious, and the only reason it tastes better is due to a placebo effect. Every single review study published arrived at this conclusion. In addition, while 75% of conventional food contains traces of residual pesticide, what is more alarming is that 25% of organic food contains the same levels. These levels are FDA approved and deemed to be non-toxic, but the illusion that organic food is pesticide free should be apparent by now.
The common pattern these quacks employ is that they will pick on a certain product, for example, fruit juice. The article will go through all the dangers of fruit juice, the industrial processes and poisons thrown into the mix, and then it will leave you hanging, as if there is no hope, which induces fear. Miraculously, the article will then do a complete 180 and showcase a whole host of healthy juices that won’t poison you and aren’t made by evil corporations. They might cost 400% more, but at least you’re in good hands consuming safe, natural products!
What constitutes “certified organic” is also very misleading. Organic farms still use pesticides, but the only difference is that these pesticides are organic in contrast to conventional synthetic ones. These pesticides have actually been shown to be more harmful than synthetic ones because of their lack of specificity, i.e.. they kill the pest and a whole host of other organisms.
On top of that, because these pesticides aren’t as target specific or effective, they actually have to be sprayed more to have the same desired effect, which is obviously more harmful than using a synthetic pesticide much less. Because of this revealing data from the scientific community, organic food sales have slowed or begun to decline. This is not some big farm conspiracy; organic food has much higher profit margins than conventional food because consumers are simply willing to pay more for it, so it wouldn’t make sense to doom something that makes you more money.
Reason 4) The Internet
There is a wealth of information out there, and most of it is not policed whatsoever. Anyone can whip up a website and start spouting off facts without any scientific basis behind them trying to convince you that science is wrong and the government is out to get you. Online petitions, photoshop, and other previously unavailable technologies make recruiting new members to your organization so much easier. Facts can be easily twisted because websites can cite sources that are also false in nature, but appear legitimate given the context. The result is a twisted web of fact and fiction that takes a lot of work to sift through, and many people don’t have the time for that; they’d rather just buy that Brazilian power crystal.
What people need to be aware of is that quacks are out to sell you something just as badly as Wal-Mart is. They use the Naturalist Fallacy to their advantage to gouge people for higher prices and inflated senses of worth, but it’s all the same in the end. Educate yourself and be critical of the information presented to you. These individuals are intelligent people who are great at marketing themselves and their beliefs. The internet has made that incredibly easy and efficient to do, and almost anything can appear legitimate at surface glance.
There will always be individuals in a society who exhibit distrust of mainstream tastes, and there’s nothing we can do to change that; it is human nature to question the world we live in. However, there is both good and bad inquisition. All that can be done is respectful education and cautioning of the dangers of quack individuals.
Oh, and stay off the Huffington Post.