Alternative health and pseudo-knowledge

Alternative health advocates, regardless of their specific beliefs, are all supremely confident about one thing. Whether they are vaccine rejectionists, natural childbirth advocates or aficionados of vitamins and supplements, they are absolutely sure that they are more “educated” than the rest of us. They are not “sheeple” who blindly follow whatever advice their doctor offers; they have done extensive “research” on the internet, and they know things that they did not know before, and that the rest of us do not know at all.

It is certainly true that advocates of alternative health have often done a great deal of reading. And it is true that they have learned lots of new things. But what they fail to understand is that they have acquired pseudo-knowledge. It has the appearance of real knowledge; it uses lots of big words, and it often includes a list of scientific citations. There’s just one teensy problem; it’s not true.

We are surrounded by pseudo-knowledge in everyday life and most of us understand that it isn’t true. Advertisements of all sorts of products, both legitimate and bogus, and filled with pseudo-knowledge. Most of us are quite familiar with the language of pseudo-knowledge:

“Studies show …”
“Doctors recommend …”
“Krystal S. from Little Rock lost 30 pounds in 30 days …”

In the era of patent medicine, claims like these were usually enough to sell a product. But consumers have become more jaded and the language of pseudo-knowledge has become more sophisticated as a result. Consider this explanation of the benefits of acai, the current favorite among the scourge of bogus nutritional claims. According to Dr. Perricone (a real doctor!):

The fatty acid content in açaí resembles that of olive oil, and is rich in monounsaturated oleic acid. Oleic acid is important for a number of reasons. It helps omega-3 fish oils penetrate the cell membrane; together they help make cell membranes more supple. By keeping the cell membrane supple, all hormones, neurotransmitter and insulin receptors function more efficiently. This is particularly important because high insulin levels create an inflammatory state, and we know, inflammation causes aging.

This exerpt is classic pseudo-knowledge. It contains big, scientific words and sounds impressive. It contains actual facts, although they are entirely unrelated to the benefit being touted. It contains completely fabricated claims that have no basis in reality (“they make the cell membrane more supple”) and which, not coincidentally trade on the gullibility of some lay people (if my skin is no longer supple, it must be because the membranes of the individual cells are not supple) and it asserts that “we know” things that are flat out false.

Acai has been little more than a giant credit card scam. After tricking people with such language, unscrupulous advertisers have offered to send a “free supply” in exchange for a credit card number. The acai may or may not show up, but the credit card is billed for a large amount regardless.

Vaccine rejectionists are being scammed in exactly the same way. They are proud that they are not pathetic “sheeple.” Just because their doctor tells them that vaccines are safe, effective and one of the greatest public health successes of all time doesn’t persuade them. They want to “educate” themselves to understand the issues involved.

What might you need to know to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of vaccination? Obviously, you need an understanding of immunology including an understanding of the difference between cellular and humoral immunity, and the formation of antibodies. You need a basic understanding of virology with emphasis on protein coats, and the difference between live, attenuated and fragmented viruses. And of course, you need an understanding of statistics as applied to large populations over long periods of time.

But wait! Science is hard and that’s unfair. Who has the time, the background or the ability to understand the fundamentals of immunology? Not vaccine rejectionists. Their knowledge of virology does not extend beyond a recognition that there are two kinds of “germs,” bacteria and viruses. And their knowledge of math often trails off at basic arithmetic, leaving them no way to understand statistics, even if they bothered to read the relevant texts.

So if they’re not reading about immunology, and if they’re not reading about virology, and if they’re not analyzing statistics, what exactly are they doing when they “educate” themselves? They are simply acquiring a large body of pseudo-knowledge.

Much of what they think they know is flat out false (“the incidence of vaccine preventable diseases was falling before vaccines were introduced”), is anecdotal information proving nothing about anything (“Jenny McCarthy cured her son of autism!”), or goofy conspiracy theories that are ludicrous on their face (the entire medical pharmaceutical complex is aware that vaccines are not safe and not effective but they’re giving them to their own children anyway.).

The natural childbirth crowd, is, if anything, even more aggressive in its ignorance. Vaccine rejection is touted by quacks and charlatans, Playboy bunnies and physicians who stand to profit from encouraging fear of vaccination (Dr. Andrew Wakefied, Dr. Bob Sears). No one in the medical profession takes them seriously; they are professional embarrassments. In contrast, the natural childbirth philosophy is part and parcel of midwifery. Both academic midwifery experts and celebrity midwives spew absolute nonsense and call it “knowledge”.

Barely a week passes on this blog without a lay person parachuting in to boast of all she has “learned” from the likes of Henci Goer, Amy Romano, Barbara Harper or Ina May Gaskin. And don’t even get me started on Ricki Lake; she just makes it all up as she goes along. Their assertions mark them just as effectively as if they had tattooed “gullible” on their forehead.”

“The US ranks poorly on infant mortality.” But that’s a measure of pediatric care, not obstetric care. Perinatal mortality is a measure of obstetric care and the US does very well on that measure.

“The majority of births in the Netherlands are homebirths and it ranks highly on measures of obstetric care.” Only 30% of births in the Netherlands are homebirths and the Netherlands has one of the highest perinatal mortality rate of any Western European country.

“Johnson and Daviss published a paper in the BMJ that showed that homebirth is safe.” The Johnson and Daviss paper is a bait and switch that shows exactly the opposite of what it claims.

“Homebirth is Canada is safe.” Canadian homebirth midwives have far more education, training, supervision and restrictions than American homebirth midwives.

When it comes to homebirth and natural childbirth advocates just about everything they think they “know” is factually false. The same is true for vaccine rejectionists and most other purveyors or advocates of alternative health.

The truth about health education is both simple and stark. You cannot be educated about any aspect of health without reading and understanding scientific textbooks and the scientific literature. Period!

Don’t waste your time perusing the internet. Unless you are willing to confirm what you read on the internet by reading the scientific literature, you can’t be sure you’ve learned anything.

Don’t bother to tell the rest of us that you are “educated” because you’ve demonstrated nothing more than your gullibility. You haven’t acquired knowledge, you’ve acquired pseudo-knowledge, and it marks you as a fool.

This piece first appeared in October 2010.