You know it’s quackery if …

Others have pointed out the tendency of mainstream websites like the Huffington Post to present “alternative” medicine quackery as medical news. (See, for example, Orac’s Fire Marshal Bill discusses vaccines and autism on The Huffington Post, and Steve Novella’s, The Huffington Post’s War on Science.) Even articles that are purportedly written by “doctors” are pseudoscientific nonsense. (See “Dr.” Patricia Fitzgerald’s Jenny McCarthy’s Autism Crusade: Healing, Hope… And Controversy). So how are lay people supposed to distinguish quackery from scientific medicine?

Rory Coker, professor of physics and University of Texas Austin, has written a very informative article for the website Quackwatch. The article, Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience, was not written with “alternative” health in mind, but accurately captures the essence of “alternative” medicine. Using these principles, the average person can distinguish quackery from scientific medicine.

You know it’s quackery because:

1. “Pseudoscience displays an indifference to facts.

Instead of bothering to consult reference works or investigating directly, its advocates simply spout bogus “facts” where needed. These fictions are often central to the pseudoscientist’s argument and conclusions. Moreover, pseudoscientists rarely revise. The first edition of a pseudoscience book is almost always the last, even though the book remains in print for decades or even centuries…”

Homebirth advocates, both professional and amateur, routinely make up “facts” to suit themselves. For example, homebirth advocates routinely claim that the US does poorly on measures of obstetric care (false), that Cytotec was used “experimentally” for labor induction (false) or that homebirth is “as safe as life gets” (only if life is filled with easily preventable infant deaths).

Cory points out that pseudoscientists rarely revise their books even though new scientific studies are constantly published. Williams Obstetrics has been through 3 editions (20th, 21st and 22nd) since Henci Goer published “The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth” which represents itself as an analysis of the scientific evidence, yet she has not revised it.

2. “Pseudoscience begins with a hypothesis … and then looks only for items which appear to support it.

Conflicting evidence is ignored… [T]he aim of pseudoscience is to rationalize strongly held beliefs, rather than to investigate or to test alternative possibilities. Pseudoscience specializes in jumping to “congenial conclusions,” grinding ideological axes, appealing to preconceived ideas and to widespread misunderstandings.”

“Alternative” health doesn’t merely appeal to widespread misunderstandings, it actively seeks to create widespread misunderstanding.

3. “Pseudoscience relies heavily on subjective validation.

Joe Blow puts jello on his head and his headache goes away. To pseudoscience, this means jello cures headaches… This phenomenon, called subjective validation, is one of the foundations of popular support for pseudoscience…”

Jenny McCarthy believes that her son had autism. She provided him with “therapy.” He seems better. Jenny McCarthy believes that the therapy “cured” his autism.

4. “Pseudoscience always avoids putting its claims to a meaningful test.

Pseudoscientists never carry out careful, methodical experiments themselves … Pseudoscientists also never follow up. If one pseudoscientist claims to have done an experiment … no other pseudoscientist ever tries to duplicate it or to check him,.. Further, where a pseudoscientist claims to have done an experiment with a remarkable result, he himself never repeats it to check his results and procedures…”

A corollary to this is also often found in vaccine rejectionism, the claim that the vaccine quack “hasn’t had time” to publish the results.

“Alternative” medicine advocates are also very careful never to appear in any venue where they could be questioned by scientific peers, yet they speak extensively at gatherings of laypeople.

5. “Pseudoscience often contradicts itself, even in its own terms.

Such logical contradictions are simply ignored or rationalized away…”

Childbirth is painless. Childbirth is very painful, but the pain can be managed with the right attitude. Not only is childbirth not painful, it is actually pleasurable. Homebirth advocates can’t make up their minds which one of these claims is preferable.

6. “Pseudoscience deliberately creates mystery where none exists, by omitting crucial information and important details.

Anything can be made “mysterious” by omitting what is known about it or presenting completely imaginary details…”

Vaccine rejectionism relies very heavily on misrepresenting what vaccine rejectionists don’t know as “unknown”. Homebirth advocates prefer to claim that there is no scientific evidence for obstetrics practices when copious evidence exists and is easily accessible to anyone who bothers to look.

7. “Pseudoscience does not progress.

… within a given topic, no progress is made… New theories are seldom proposed, and old concepts are rarely modified or discarded in light of new “discoveries,” since pseudoscience rarely makes new “discoveries.” … No natural phenomena or processes previously unknown to science have ever been discovered by pseudoscientists…”

“Alternative” medicine never changes. It always amounts to nothing more than rejection of conventional practice.

8. “Pseudoscience appeals to false authority, to emotion, sentiment, or distrust of established fact.

A high-school dropout is accepted as an expert on archaeology … A psychoanalyst is accepted as an expert on all of human history, not to mention physics, astronomy, and mythology, even though his claims are inconsistent with everything known in all four fields…”

Henci Goer and Ina May Gaskin have no training in their supposed areas of “expertise”. Marsden Wagner is a pediatrician and Michel Odent is a general surgeon, yet they are touted as experts on birth even though obstetricians disagree with them.

Actors Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey are “experts” on autism.

9. “Pseudoscience appeals to the truth-criteria of scientific methodology while simultaneously denying their validity.

Thus, a procedurally invalid experiment which seems to show that astrology works is advanced as “proof” that astrology is correct, while thousands of procedurally sound experiments that show it does not work are ignored…”

Vaccine rejectionists cite poorly done or discredited research as proof of their claims, while routinely ignoring thousands of medical studies that thoroughly debunk their claims.

HuffPo presents Patricia Fitzgerald, its Wellness Editor, as “Dr.” when her “doctorate” is in homeopathic medicine.

10. “Pseudoscientists often appeal to the ancient human habit of magical thinking.

Magic, sorcery, witchcraft—these are based on spurious similarity, false analogy, false cause-and-effect connections, etc. That is, inexplicable influences and connections between things are assumed from the beginning—not found by investigation.”

For example, birth “affirmations” can purportedly influence whether a baby will be breech or will fit.

11. “Pseudoscience relies heavily on anachronistic thinking.

The older the idea, the more attractive it is to pseudoscience—it’s the wisdom of the ancients!—especially if the idea is transparently wrong and has long been discarded by science…”

“Alternative” health practitioners love to claim that Chinese medicine or herbs are effective because they are ancient. Meanwhile, the Chinese die in droves of conditions that are easily treatable by real medicine, and herbs are less effective (or ineffective) compared to medication.

The Huffington Post has learned that presenting quackery as scientific medicine draws readers and perhaps that is why they promote quackery in their pages. Or perhaps Arianna Huffington is a devotee of “alternative” health quackery. Either way, Huffington Post is promoting pseudoscience as if it were science. The average person can use the above principles to tell the difference.


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