Pseudoscience in your supermarket

By Ken Perrott 26/02/2014 3


pseudoscience1

Image credit: Blueollie

This article by Michael Schulson in the Daily Beast struck a chord with me – Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience. Possibly because I have spent far too much time debating  anti-fluoride activists. But the experience has certainly made me very aware the pseudoscience  extends a lot further than creationism and climate change denial. That’s the point Michael makes:

“you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.”

I have found that in very many cases if you scratch an anti-fluoridationist or anti-vaccinationists you will find a food faddist. Often a dogmatic food faddist.

Schulson makes the point that a lot of food faddism is pseudoscience – but it is a pseudoscience which seems far more acceptable, even to intelligent people, than what we usually think of as pseudoscience:

“there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.”

We all know people who get sucked in by this talk – maybe many of us get sucked in a bit ourselves. Perhaps there is a bit of food faddism in all of us. And isn’t this sort of thing harmless – if it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why bother?

But I think Schulson has a point when he writes:

“The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.”

For some people it is not far from a food fad to chemo-phobia. Start buying sea salt because it is advertised as “chemical free” and it is easy to get sucked into ideas that anything is bad because it contains ”chemicals.” “Chemical” becomes a bad word – and “natural” a good one.

In my article Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action?  I described how the NZ Health Trust, the organisation behind the recent High Court action attempting to rule fluoridation illegal, is a lobby group for the natural supplement and health practitioner industry. I described their court action as that of a corporate lobby group attempting to stop a public health policy.

One of my critics actually made the point that I was wrong. An industry selling “natural” health products could not be described as corporate because of the word “natural!”

Words like “chemical” and “natural’ can be emotionally laden for many people and this can make them susceptible to other pseudoscientific ideas.

That is what I have found with many people I have debated. Their emotional or ideological committment to food fads like “organic” food and coconut oil treatments often goes together with opposition to fluoridation and vaccination. With many of them it seems to lead to conspiracy theories like depopulation and chemtrails.

To me, that is the message of the poster above.

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3 Responses to “Pseudoscience in your supermarket”

  • An annoying side effect of anti-fluoridationists: in my quest to buy myself products which aren’t tested on animals, it is almost impossible to find toothpaste which is 1. not tested on animals and 2. has fluoride in it. There is only one (UK) brand that I have found, that I can only get in NZ over the internet for about $12 a tube, last time I looked. There are almost endless brands of toothpastes not tested on animals available in health food shops but they are all fluoride-free. I have reached an interesting intersection of animal rights activism and science.

  • The faddists and dogmatists are slaves to a phrase I find myself using too much: “they don’t know what they don’t know”, hence they are are sponges for any pseudoscience that sounds credible, and ignore any caveats that a scientist may add to a “health statement”. But how to counter the pseudoscience? Teach our school pupils the right stuff, but first we have to teach the teachers who are slaves etc etc.