Vaginal steaming and the seductive appeal of pseudoscience

Hand drawn phrase NO isolated on white sheet

Why, in the absence of any scientific evidence to support it, are ridiculous “treatments” like vaginal steaming embraced by purveyors of pseudoscience?

Why, in the absence of any scientific evidence to support it, has anti-vaccine advocacy become so popular?

Why, in the absence of any scientific evidence to support it, have homeopathic products that are nothing more than water become big sellers?

Doing the exact opposite of what authority figures recommend is a sign of immaturity, not deliberation.

These are questions that can be asked of any of the myriad forms of quackery that travel under the banner of “alternative health,” a multi-billion dollar industry that is burgeoning despite the fact that it is based on nonsense.

Doctors, scientists and public health officials often imagine that the problem reflects a lack of understanding of basic science. But opposition to science based medicine has nothing to do with science at all. It’s really defiance based medicine, predicated on the bizarre belief that defying authority is a form of empowering anti-elitism, distinguishing independent thinkers from the pathetic “sheeple” who are nothing more than followers.

In contrast to science, which is defined by the principles that causes and consequences are knowable but unpredictable, alternative health is entirely predictable. It’s just the mirror image of science based medicine.


1. If it works, claim it doesn’t. Anti-vax is the paradigmatic form of alternative health. Vaccines are one of the greatest public health advances of all time. That’s why the heart of anti-vax advocacy is the assertion that vaccine preventable illnesses were disappearing before the advent of vaccines.

2. If it doesn’t work, claim it does. Eating right, exercising, and taking herbs and supplements can’t prevent vaccine preventable diseases. There’s no evidence that it can and no evidence that it does so. That hasn’t stopped anti-vax advocates from insisting that the key to health is diet.

3. If it’s safe, claim it’s dangerous. Whether it’s vaccines, medications or GMOs (genetically modified plants), it is an article of faith among alternative health advocates that side effects are scary conditions — autism, autoimmune diseases — whose causes are not yet understood.

4. If it’s dangerous, claim it’s safe. Whether it’s colloidal silver, bleach enemas for autistic children, and even turpentine (I kid you not), alternative health is full of “remedies” that are deadly.

5. If it’s natural, claim it’s perfect. Because everyone knows that natural = safe, even though there is nothing in nature that is perfect and plenty (hurricanes, rattlesnakes, earthquakes) that is naturally deadly.

6. If it’s technological, claim that it’s harmful. Alternative health advocates labor under the delusion that technology has led to disease when the opposite is patently obvious. There was a time when all food was organic, everyone exercised and the only remedies were herbs, and the average life expectancy was — 35 years. In 21st century industrialized countries, massive portions of foods filled with artificial ingredients are plentiful, exercise may be limited to operating the TV remote control, and everyone seems to be on medication of some kind, yet the average life expectancy now approaches 80.

7. If it’s nonsense, claim it’s science. Vaginal steaming is nonsense. Homeopathy is nonsense. Eating placentas is nonsense. People are spending their money on treatments that don’t merely fail to work; they could never work.

8. If it’s science, claim it’s nonsense. Chemotherapy supposedly doesn’t work. Antibiotics supposedly do nothing more than create resistant organisms. Medicine supposedly doesn’t save lives; it kills people.

9. If someone is an expert, claim her education is worthless. Don’t listen to immunologists about vaccines, oncologists about cancer, or gynecologists about care of the vulva and vagina. They’ve been indoctrinated in a technocratic model of illness and disease. What do they know?

10. If someone is an amateur, insist she is an expert. Jenny McCarthy is a prophet of immunology knowledge; Suzanne Sommers is an oncologist, and no one knows more about women’s health than Gwyneth Paltrow.

Yes, there are many societal ills that stem from the fact that previous generations were raised to unreflective acceptance of authority. It’s not hard to argue that unreflective acceptance of authority, whether that authority is the government or industry, is a bad thing. BUT that doesn’t make the converse true.

Unreflective defiance is just the flip side of unreflective acceptance. Only teenagers think that refusing to do what authority figures recommend marks them as independent. Adults know that doing the exact opposite of what authority figures recommend is a sign of immaturity, not deliberation.

Pseudoscience exists in opposition to science based medicine not because advocates don’t understand science (although they don’t); it exists because some people confuse unreflective defiance of authority with independent thinking. But belief in pseudoscience isn’t independent thinking; it’s not thinking at all.