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!

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  • rational thinker

    Its people like this that gives feminism a bad name. This is why I feel the need to call myself a “classical feminist”.

  • mabelcruet

    Many years ago, my then-partner and I both had musculoskeletal issues. I was suffering from anterolateral neck pain (which turned out to be a scalene muscle problem) and my partner had lumbosacral back pain. I went to a physiotherapist-I paid for it privately, in the NHS my GP could have referred me but there are long waiting lists so I chose one a friend from work recommended. My GP had already sent me for an x-ray which showed my cervical spine was fine, so the physio then began a course of treatment. I had 3 sessions of treatment, 1 hour each, and he showed me a series of exercises, stretches and massages to do, and that was that. Pain
    gone in 3 sessions at the cost of about £180 total, and I was shown the door, waved goodbye, and told to come and see us again if it flares up but you should be ok if you do the exercises.

    Meanwhile, my partner, decided to go to a chiropractic rather than a chartered physio. Without even being examined, he was told he would need daily manipulation the first week, then it would be 3 times a week for 12 weeks, and then once a week indefinitely. After paying out over £1000 for manipulations over the course of just a few weeks, and with even worse pain than before, he finally accepted that perhaps properly qualified health professionals who had taken registered and chartered examinations and who were subject to professional regulations and required to undertake ongoing professional development, education and learning were actually worth going to.

    With alternative medicine practitioners, its ALWAYS about the money.
    Alternative practitioners play the concerned, empathetic, holistic ‘I care about you and only you’ role so well, and are happy to sit and chat for an hour with a patient, and that’s how they suck in clients, they are master predators, peddling nonsense at high cost.

    An old favourite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMGIbOGu8q0

    • rational thinker

      LOL loved the video. I have chronic venous insufficiency and anytime I am having worse pain than usual a friend of mine (who’s idiotic medical beliefs I have written about here before) lectures me about how I need to be going to a chiropractor despite trying to explain to her this is a vascular problem. I love telling her the only way I would go to a chiropractor is if you put a gun to my head. She also tells me I would get better if I ate less sugar and processed foods.

      • mabelcruet

        I found it very hard to bite my tongue when a friend, who otherwise appears fairly normal, told me that they had been to a kinesiologist and diagnosed with multiple food allergies (not just the usual peanut and egg, but odd things like apples but not pears, red onions but not spring onions, blue cheese but not normal cheese). The way they were tested was by holding a ‘gadget’ of some sort in their hand and the quack pushed down on their shoulder. The ease with which the shoulder was pushed down showed what they were allergic to, because allergies weaken your muscles. It was utter nonsense, but this friend has a long history of medically unexplained symptoms (odd sensations, pains that drift across his body moving around). I try and be sympathetic but he keeps an obsessive diary of his symptoms and it’s basically a minute by minute account of his body’s state-stuff that everybody gets from time to time are written up as major new diseases (like his stomach audibly rumbling because hes hungry becomes possible gluten sensitivity, pins and needles in a foot because hes sat in an odd position become possible multiple sclerosis or nerve damage, being able to hear his heart beating in his ears becomes a brain tumour, random itch becomes fungal infestation). I think he’d be better off seeing a psychiatrist personally, hyperchondriasis is a difficult condition to deal with, but then I get told I’m typical of the arrogant medical profession, dismissing his symptoms, trying to tell him it’s all in his mind. He sees a lot of alternative quacks and of course they all tell him he’s deficient in this and that, and he needs to take various sugar pills and mysterious potions that they can provide him with at an extra low price because they feel so sorry for him having so many health issues. The only effect its having is to lighten his wallet.

        • rational thinker

          Quacks sadly do prey on hypochondriacs, they do just tell them what they want to hear. A popular thing in the past 20 or so years is for people to fake having food allergies. If you take 10 people who say they are allergic to something like peanuts, I figure maybe one or two out of the ten actually do have an allergy to peanuts.

          When I was little like ten years old we had neighbors with a couple kids next door. It was probably the first time I witnessed the special snowflake thing. The mom would lie about a lot of little things trying to make her family look good and she would just try to act like she and her kids were better than everybody. Then one day she says her kids are very allergic to milk and peanut butter they will have hives and stop breathing within 5 minutes of eating peanuts or drinking milk. A couple months after that her and her husband had to go somewhere for the day so they asked my mom to babysit.

          My mom agreed to babysit. Then when it was time for lunch she made them peanut butter sandwiches with a glass of milk. The kids ate and drank it all and guess what, no allergic reactions, no effects at all. Then after they went home I remember my mom say to my dad “see I told you she was full of shit.”

          • Caravelle

            Did your mother have a plan for the remote chance the neighbor wasn’t full of shit?

          • Sarah

            Yes, that sounds like a risky game to play.

          • rational thinker

            Honestly I think their mother may have had munchausen by proxy.

          • rational thinker

            She had seen these kids eat that stuff before they had these sudden allergies. The woman could not keep track of her own lies so she would forget that everyone had seen them eat peanut butter and drink milk before. One day she just started saying that they have been severely allergic since they were babies.

        • KeeperOfTheBooks

          Ooooh, those fools (the quacks, not your friend) drive me mad. A friend’s mom has essentially had her life ruined by one of them. She had been one of the brightest, most intelligent women I ever met; put herself through college, complete with a very difficult course in math, all on her own…that sort of thing. She’s now basically bedridden and incontinent because she won’t listen to established medical types until she has a massive health crisis, and will only listen to her local quack because he’s of the same religion she is. So, for example, her heart issues have nothing to do with a poor diet, lack of exercise, being overweight, or long-term heart disease, it’s because she’s allergic to everything, including, and I am not making this up, “paper” and “fertilized human embryos.” (She’s about twenty years past menopause, so while I have no interest in her sex life, I think I can safely assume that her contact with “fertilized human embryos” is…limited.) And, you see, someday she’ll hit on the right combination of wacky (and expensive) supplements and oddball devices and the weight will magically drop off, she won’t get UTIs, her heart won’t act up, et all…instead of moving a bit more, taking her meds regularly, drinking water rather than energy drinks, and eating more vegetables than Cheetos. Sigh. I would dearly love to have that guy chucked headfirst into the nearest jail, but fat chance of that.

          • mabelcruet

            I honestly think its a cult-if we had enough GPs so that every patient could spend an hour with them instead of 10-15 minutes (standard appointment length in the UK for general practice), I bet the income of alternative practitioners would plummet. Their skill is in listening, or apparently listening, to the patient, encouraging them to come back again and again, and talk about themselves for however long they want, which ends in them convincing the patient that they are the only people who will listen to their health concerns. I think many of the people who are frequent flyers with alternative practitioners tend to have ‘shit life syndrome’ with a lot of non-medical issues that causes them distress: there is no magic wand that will cure it, but these charlatans convince them otherwise

          • Cristina B

            That’s how they got my cousin. She was trying to get her GP to run some tests and the GP refused saying she was too young for whatever it was. She saw a nutritionist who had her sit on a thing (?) and immediately said that my cousin must have had fertility problems because the electrical wavelength was disrupted there (????). Anyway, now she has 1 page of food that she is allowed to eat because the nutritionist diagnosed her with something and she is a believer.

          • rational thinker

            Well ive never heard the embryo allergy before, thats crazy.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            When she told me, straight-facedly, that part of her problem was that particular allergy, I lost my usual cool enough to say, “FERTILIZED HUMAN EMBRYOS?! Aren’t you at least a decade past that being an issue?!”

          • rational thinker

            So she is allergic to pregnant people? LOL

          • PeggySue

            This reminds me of a patient’s family member I once met. That family member’s mission in life was to keep their own needs as the highest priority for the whole family. When their spouse died, the family member announced that SOMEONE in the family would need to move in and provide total care, because the family member could NEVER go into a care facility or hospital because “I am allergic to ALL medications, prescription or over the counter.” I pointed out that there were medications to treat allergies and the family member replied, in a huff, that they were allergic to ALL OF THOSE as well.

        • Ozlsn

          Oh NAET! My favourite candidate for stupid alternative therapy. I came across it while reading “Naturally Better” by Kristen Morrison – a book in which she tells about how she cured her son of Downs Syndrome using on alternative therapies. NAET featured heavily. To diagnose a baby they get the mother to hold the baby in skin-to-skin contact, put a glass vial containing the “allergen” in contact with the baby and then push down on the mother’s arm. Morrison spent (very conservative estimate here) at least $10,000 “curing” her son’s glass allergy. And not only did it diagnose and cured allergies it could detect and then boost testosterone levels, and more!
          I threw that book across the room at least three times, but the NAET bit had me in hysterics.