Pseudoscience is not a feminist statement

Quack Doctor

One of the most depressing aspects of health pseudoscience is that it is dominated by women. Women are far more likely to believe in and use quack “treatments.” They believe in and spearhead deadly movements like anti-vaccination. And, of course, quack practitioners like herbalists, cranio-sacral therapists and lay midwives are often women.

Perhaps even more depressing is that women who profit by peddling pseudoscience, defend it as “feminist.” But there’s nothing feminist about ignorance or making money by peddling it.

The answer to medical professionals who ignore women’s suffering is NOT women entrepreneurs offering faux concern while biopsying women’s wallets.

The recent attacks on gynecologist Jen Gunter are an excellent example. Gunter has dared to criticize Gwyneth Paltrow and other peddlers of pseudoscience for preying on vulnerable women. And those who make their money selling pseudoscience are not taking it lying down.

According to The Daily Beast:

…Gunter has taken flak from her fellow physicians and feminists. On Twitter and Facebook—and in the respected journal Scientific American—peers criticized her for “bullying” women and “gaslighting” survivors of sexual abuse. Critics wanted to know why she was so skeptical of alternative medicine, and so dismissive of the women who used it.

That’s not true. Gunter is not taking flack from the bulk of physicians or feminists. She’s taking flack from physician and feminist entrepreneurs.

Gunter threatened the hegemony of the book Our Bodies Ourselves:

The first stone in the battle was lobbed by the editors of Our Bodies, Ourselves—a classic feminist tome first published in 1970, which drew on medical research and personal experiences to explain women’s health and sexuality. The book was widely seen as revolutionary for including women’s own experiences—not just a male doctor’s point of view—in a manual about their health.

But in interviews promoting her own book, The Vagina Bible, Gunter highlighted OBOS as a source of misinformation, noting that it was not written by doctors and contained suggestions like using garlic to treat yeast infections. “We [now] know a lot more about the clitoris, and other structures, and about sexually transmitted infections than we did then, and I thought women needed a physician to write a book for them,” Gunter told WBUR.

OBOS is a historically important resource, but that does not exempt it from criticism for promoting misinformation. But those who sold that misinformation were stung.

They weren’t the only ones whose business is threatened by Gunter.

Ob-GYN Jennifer Lang wrote an open letter to Gunter. Lang is also an entrepreneur. She describes herself as “an OB-GYN who supports women who seek alternative, holistic, and awakened care.” She runs Magamama, a vehicle for selling her services, book, and high prices courses ($350+) like “ Money and the Nervous System” and “Activate Your Inner Jaguar.”

Lang mobilizes the language of feminism to protect her business:

There is nothing the patriarchy likes to see more than a good cat-fight. I read your open letter to Ms Paltrow when it was published in 2017, and at the time found it very unfortunate. I, too, struggled with whether it was worth my time or mental energy making a public response as urgent social, environmental and political events piled up around us. I decided to classify your letter as yet one more public beat-down of a female voice offering an alternative narrative to the monopoly-on-truth claimed by the western medical model. I ignored it.

She continues in the same passive aggressive vein:

First, I’ll say that I have no interest in participating in a take-down of any woman, least of all a single mom with medically-challenged kids who (I truly believe) is trying to help. This f***ed up patriarchal world does enough of that every single day. I celebrate strong female voices, professional success, and especially doctors who have found ways to bring in alternative revenue streams as insurance company reimbursements decline by double-digits annually…

She celebrates “strong” female voices but apparently draws the line when a strong female voice potentially threatens her income.

The latest contributor to the pile on is Jennifer Block, another woman who makes her living peddling pseudoscience to women.

It’s a sign of how low Scientific American has fallen that they published her hit job, Doctors Are Not Gods.

I’m familiar with Block’s “journalism” because she wrote a similar takedown about me (How To Scare Women; Did a Daily Beast story on the dangers of home birth rely too heavily on the views of one activist?). It was filled with so many distortions that Michelle Goldberg (current columnist for The New York Times) felt compelled to publicly respond.

Now Block is focusing her ire on Gunter:

In attacking [Our Bodies Ourselves}, Gunter tips her hand. What irks her isn’t actually the manipulative capitalism of Goop, but really anything that undermines her authority as a physician: Jade eggs and vaginal steaming and home remedies like yogurt or garlic to balance vaginal flora cannot possibly be beneficial because the medical establishment, the authorities, have not researched or endorsed them as such.

I suspect however, that what irks Gunter is any attempt to manipulate women into buying products that don’t work, cost a lot and that, in some cases, can harm women.

In advancing this supposedly “feminist” argument, Block betrays distinctly anti-feminist reasoning: women shouldn’t be held to scientific standards because those are the standards of authority figures. Apparently it is subversive to ignore professional expertise. That’s precisely how we got the climate change deniers and the anti-vaccine advocates and it is difficult to be more wrong than they are.

Doctors are not gods, but they are doctors and Block is not.

She’s not an anthropologist, either:

Goop’s grandiose claims about the ancient Chinese origin of jade eggs and their magical powers so incensed Gunter that she teamed up with prominent archeologist Sarah Parcak, winner of the TED prize, and surveyed databases of 5,000 Chinese artifacts for evidence of the concept’s provenance. They found none.

I called up Parcak because I was curious why she, an internationally renowned Egyptologist who created satellite analysis that finds lost civilizations, would care enough about something so relatively insignificant as a Goop trinket. Parcak focuses on “harmful mythologies” writ large—for instance, the racist idea that aliens built ancient monuments. And when she and Gunter crossed paths on Twitter, she was equally perturbed by Goop’s profiteering off what looked like another harmful, racist myth.

“I’m just so sick of the way that people’s money and time and belief systems are being warped,” she says. She did the research because to her, Goop is part of the crisis in facts. “It’s all connected to this bigger theme of what role do experts have in our world today. Who should you be listening to?”

So Jade eggs have no magical powers, may harbor harmful bacteria and didn’t originate in ancient China. No matter!

How dare experts criticize what purveyors of pseudoscience have managed to monetize?

Gunter, who has tweeted “I’m the fucking expert,” takes the same hard-NO stance on vaginal steaming, which she warns could cause a burn (as if women can’t handle boiling a pot of water). Out of curiosity, I tried this at home over the weekend. It was warm, gentle, contemplative—all qualities I also happen to value in a health care provider.

Why are women particularly vulnerable to health pseudoscience? It’s often because conventional medical practitioners ignore their suffering.

But the answer to medical professionals who ignore women’s suffering is NOT women entrepreneurs and their apologists offering faux concern while biopsying women’s wallets. The answer is conventional medical practitioners — like Gunter — who pay attention to women’s concerns, treat women as intelligent and discerning and respond with accurate information.

If that means less profit for those who peddle pseudoscience, so be it!