evidence supporting an hypothesis of crank magnetism

By Alison Campbell 27/09/2010

Orac often talks about ‘crank magnetism’ – the tendency for people who believe strange stuff in one area, to be attracted to other areas of oddness as well. (As far as I can tell, the terms was originally formulated on the denialism blog.) Anyway, having an hypothesis (the above crank magnetism) one must test it – in this case, perhaps most easily done on an observational basis. ‘Letters to the editor’ are potentially a good source of such information. And so we get…

False beliefs in medicine (an ironically-apt title, given what follows). The writer tells us that they

attended a lecture recently and heard a highly qualified doctor say we are bound by a number of fallacies around sickness and health. False beliefs. The symptoms are the problem; illness is caused by germs and genes; food has nothing to do with health; drugs can cure us.

As long as we believe these lies we will always look to pharmaceutical companies and medical doctors for the answer to our woes. The real problem is, few people are emotionally mature enough to challenge these false beliefs.

Fluoridating the water is based on one of these. Tooth decay is a symptom of poor diet and toxic overload. So is heart disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis – every disease process (including polio and swine flu). Nobody wants to believe this because it means they will have to take personal responsibility for their health. I object to being fluoridated/vaccinated/sprayed/medicated because others will not take personal responsibility. Anyone who wants fluoride can get it for themselves – or try eating healthy and brushing their teeth.

Whew! Where to begin?

Well, there is a kernel of truth in some of this – diet does have an impact on health, & it is implicated to a greater or lesser extent in tooth decay, cardiovascular disease, type 2 (not type 1) diabetes, & some cancers. But that’s about where the good bits stop. (Incidentally, if ‘poor diet’ is the cause of all disease, then why do epidemics run their course in the absence of any evidence of widespread dietary change?)

The writer cites “a highly qualified doctor” – this is simply an appeal to authority. No name, so we can’t check out their background or credentials. I’d actually be quite keen to know what the speaker was a doctor of – it would be a rare medical doctor, for example, who’d buy into denialism of germ theory, for instance, as this speaker and our letter-writer appear to do. However, this is not the case for many CAM practitioners (CAM = complementary & alternative medicine).

And including the statement that “illness is caused by germs and germs” on their list of fallacies is a sure sign that we’re hearing from someone who denies the germ theory of disease. Darned if I know where this one comes from. Is it because the writer’s observed that, during an outbreak of infectious disease, not everyone gets sick? It is, however, a logical fallacy to assume that if some don’t get sick, germs can’t be the cause of illness in those who do. Presumably this belief that germs don’t cause disease also underlies the writer’s objection to vaccination – unless they also buy into the many & varied claims regarding the perceived harm done by vaccines…

They certainly miss the point on personal responsibility. Had the polio vaccine been availble to them my mother & my friend Dorothy would have welcomed the opportunity to take responsibility for their own health. This would have been distinctly preferable to many months in an iron lung (Dorothy) & permanently wasted muscles (Mum) – & let’s not forget the savings to the health system. ‘Poor diet & toxic overload’ had nothing to do with their illness.

What is this ‘toxic overload’ thing anyway? It’s a common statement from people who, like our letter writer, are anti- modern medical practice – but they never seem able to pin down just what the toxins are, where they accumulate, or how they do harm. Many of the claimed toxins (including formaldehyde & methanol) are made by our own bodies as a part of normal metabolic processes – in quantities that are generally considerably higher than those supposedly provided by vaccines, drinking diet Coke, and so on. The idea that ‘toxic overload’ is – along with poor diet – the cause of all disease smacks of the thinking exemplified in this 1926 text (but note that nothing therein is in any way evidence-based, & as Harriet Hall notes, our understanding of illness & disease has moved on since then).

Plus – there’s more to personal responsibility than simply looking out for yourself. In the case of infectious diseases – polio included –  infants too young to be vaccinated, and those of all ages who are immunocompromised (cancer patients, for example), rely on herd immunity for their own protection. Denying that doesn’t strike me as a particularly responsible thing to do.

But there’s crank magnetism for you.

0 Responses to “evidence supporting an hypothesis of crank magnetism”

  • This warped view of “personal responsibility” has as you say consequences for the wider community. My young son will go for his first round of vaccinations on Thursday and it irritates me no end that his health is threaten by those in the public who think that their responsibility ends with their own skin.

    On a side note did you see the Editor’s note in the Hamilton press letters section last week on the fluoridation topic? Lets say that the appearance of pseudo-science within those pages is less of a mystery to me now.

  • Yes, I saw it :( Something of an inclination to ‘alternative modalities’, I think. (You’ll have twigged to the subject of my post, then?)

  • I think most sensible people realise that a healthy diet is an important part of health. It’s those who take it too far and suggest that this diet or that diet will provide you with “perfect health” that are frustrating.

    There are some typical warning signs that you are dealing with a less than rational person including:
    1) denial of germ theory
    2) denial of evolution and/or the age of the Earth
    3) government conspiracies
    4) alien conspiracies (or government conspiracies with aliens)
    5) description of “ancient” or “lost” knowledge
    6) misuse of the words “energy” or “quantum”
    7) phrases including “kills molecules” or “causes molecules to mutate”! (the last one was supposedly written by someone with a degree in health science, though I would suggest it may have beeb an “alternative health science” degree!
    8) intertwining/justification of religious beliefs with “science”
    9) phrases like “science doesn’t know everything”
    10) suggestions that “positive thinking will fix everything”
    11) terms like “toxic overload” or “mothers instinctively know best”

    Most of the time you will see several of these mentioned in one argument. Occasionally you may see all of them, in which case you are in the presence of someone who really is experiencing an alternative reality :-)
    Perhaps we could make a bingo game out of this?

    There is a fascinating talk about food and health at: http://www.thersa.org/events/vision/vision-videos/michael-pollan-food-rules-for-healthy-people-and-planet
    The speaker gives some interesting rules including “if your grandmother wouldn’t recognise it, don’t eat it” which I guess is an encouragement to stay away from overly processed food

  • Perhaps we could make a bingo game out of this? You mean like the bulls**t bingo that my brother plays in boring research meetings??? You’re on!

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