Sunday, April 12, 2015

Six Degrees Of Separation In Pseudoscience

Birds of a feather flock together.
You know, like the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

I'm still kind of trying to pull this idea together in my brain so bare with me. I was thinking for example, a lot of people have sworn off grains and are hell bent on convincing everyone else to do the same, and the usual instruction is to "read Wheat Belly & Grain Brain and you'll see".

Grain Brain being a book written by David Perlmutter who I suppose people have accepted as a credible source of information.

Now I would put it to you that the anti-grain thing is almost mainstream now, and many quite reasonable and intelligent people are avoiding grains "for their health". The majority of those people probably aren't on board with more extreme "health" campaigns for example the anti-vaccination movement. Most people rightly are quite horrified and outraged by the nonsense that comes out of the anti-vax movement, intent on driving us back to the dark ages with a mistrust of the scientific community and the medical and pharmaceutical industries in particular, and allowing terrible diseases to make a come back, costing the lives of children and others who are vulnerable to infection.

Speaking of the anti-vax movement. One of the most financially successful anti-vaccination advocates is a bloke you may have heard of called Joseph Mercola.

Wikipedia has rather a detailed entry about Mercola covering many of the controversies he has been embroiled in, including the warnings he has received  from the US Food And Drug Administration related to his activities.

See also this quote from Business Week magazine:
Mercola gives the lie to the notion that holistic practitioners tend to be so absorbed in treating patients that they aren't effective businesspeople. While Mercola on his site seeks to identify with this image by distinguishing himself from "all the greed-motivated hype out there in health-care land", he is a master promoter, using every trick of traditional and Internet direct marketing to grow his business... He is selling health-care products and services, and is calling upon an unfortunate tradition made famous by the old-time snake oil salesmen of the 1800s
The anti-vax movement is still rather an extreme, fringe group and I think it is fair to say that most reasonable people see them as lacking credibility, to say the least. Therefore it is probably safe to say that many people who might see Perlmutter as a credible source of information and give credence to his views on the health effects of eating grains and cereals, would not see Mercola or any other promoter of anti-vaccine propaganda in a similarly favourable light.

But here's the thing.

If someone you accept as a credible source endorses, or is endorsed by someone you rightly recognise as a dangerous or disingenuous charlatan, how should that affect your perception of the supposedly "credible" source?

Now it would be fallacious logic to suggest that something "can't be true" on the basis that the author has been involved with someone else who we consider a charlatan. However... hopefully when presented with an idea such as "no one should eat grains" we assess the evidence and make a judgment on whether we feel the hypothesis has merit. How credible we consider the source of that information does come into this. How much faith can we have that we are being given the whole story, all of the evidence, and not just that which supports the authors assertions?

Here's what I've noticed. When it comes to pseudoscience, birds of a feather flock together and all of these people tend to be in cahoots with one other, lending the facade of credibility to one an other and so on. They tend to have a few fingers in a few different pies as well, so to speak, so there might be enough overlap in their areas of advocacy that the "clean eating" bloke can be interviewed by the "anti-vax" guy seemingly without specifically supporting the anti-vax cause.
Pointing out Mercola's anti-vax activities is
one of many good ways to find yourself
#blockedbypete on facebook.

I would suggest that getting on board with an anti-vax propagandist and presenting them as a credible authority on health matters is benefiting the anti-vax cause whether you discuss anti-vax matters or not. I would suggest that doing so while trying to hush up the anti-vax connection is even more disingenuous and deceitful.

So while it is interesting to note that peddlers of pseudoscience do seem to be happy to pair up and cross promote with other peddlers of pseudoscience, even when their primary areas of interest are seemingly unrelated and may not be something that one of them particularly wants to be associated with. What is perhaps even more noteworthy is how often a peddler of pseudoscience will cross promote with another who's pet theory is actually in conflict with their own.

For example the "paleo diet" advocate will cross promote with the "low carb high fat" proponent, who will cross promote with the "alkaline foods change your Ph balance" health guru, who will also be in cahoots with the "these foods unclog your hormones" guy, and so on with the "sugar is toxic and addictive" people and the "anti-GMO" people as well.

Believe it or not, they even offered me a slice of the pie to promote an online weight loss summit with featuring the who's who of made up pseudoscience a few months back. I told them they could jam it.

Now while all of those approaches to diet may appear quite similar as in the choices of foods that are advocated and the choices of foods that are to be avoided at all costs, the pseudoscientific explanations of why we must all adopt that particular diet are at odds with one another. But interestingly, while they would insist upon the validity of their explanation in debate with an actual dietitian or a flexible dieting advocate, they seem to their differences aside when working together and focus on the common goal.

What is that common goal? Well... if you ask them you might get a different answer, but the common goal is in undermining established scientific method and fostering a mistrust in qualified professionals and regulatory bodies. The idea that qualified, experienced professionals in health, medicine and dietetics aren't "up to date with the latest research", or that "science sometimes gets it wrong, so we can just choose what we want to be right and insist that anyone who disagrees is on the take, getting paid to be a damn dirty liar". Aka "the shill gambit". 

The problem with all this is that... well... it actually kills people.

Infants contracting diseases that 10 years ago we considered eradicated, people with conditions that could have been treated only turning to conventional medicine when it is too late, after having been convinced to go the "just eat clean and think positive thoughts, you don't need that nasty chemo" route, just as a couple of examples.

What else is interesting is that many of the anti-scientific consensus type people don't actually realise that they are anti science. They see the mainstream as people who just blindly accept what the establishment tell them without question. This is far from what I am advocating here. People should be skeptical and choose carefully whom they should take advice from. Why should I believe this person is likely to be in a better position to know the details of this complex subject than that person? Does what he or she is telling me seem plausible, does it match up with what I can see happening with my own eyes, and even then... has this theory been tested and do the results of those tests stand up to scrutiny?

We're all to some extent afflicted with a confirmation bias, which makes it easier to see the flaws in an argument that we already disagree with, and harder to see the flaws in an argument supporting a position that we believe to be correct. However if we are really reasonable, enlightened adults with an interest in learning the truth, we should be encouraged to over come our biases and not be so emotionally invested in our opinions and beliefs that we would not consider changing them in the face of new and credible evidence.

What pseudoscientists and snake oil pushers of any subset all tend to have in common is... well, the opposite of what I suggested above. Rather than encouraging people to be aware of their own biases and to think critically and objectively, the overwhelming message and example set is to simply choose an opinion that best suits you, insist that it is correct, and dismiss any evidence or research that suggests otherwise as being inherently flawed or falsified out of hand. Similarly, insist upon the validity of any research that can be cherry picked to support your position, regardless of glaringly obvious flaws in the methodology or inconsistency between the data collected and the conclusion being presented.

I have digressed a little as usual.

Ideally, people are free to do what works best for them. When it comes to diet that could be any of a dozen approaches with countless permutations of possible food choices. If you have stumbled on to one that works for you, that you enjoy and that you feel is producing the changes in health and condition that you were aiming for... that should be enough. It should not be necessary to insist that this is the "only" way to achieve or to deserve similar results in improved health and condition, or to argue that certain foods are the issue rather than overall appropriate or not appropriate eating habits... especially when you're insisting this to people who've had a similar, or perhaps even greater level of success with some other approach that happens to suit them better.

When it comes to diet, consider the root source of the information when someone is trying to convince you "it can only be done this way" or "it can't be done that way", especially if they are going against the consensus of the vast majority of qualified and experienced professionals in the field. While it's not impossible that they could be right where everyone else is wrong, you should require some solid, convincing evidence before you accept it as fact. It might be quicker and easier though to find out what other "alternative" theories they are on board with first.

If it is anti-vax, anti-fluoride, anti-conventional medicine and so on... if you wouldn't take their word for it on those matters why should you when it comes to diet and nutrition?

Side note: we had a productive discussion recently on how research is supposed to be conducted and how qualifications such as degrees are attained which might be helpful or interesting.