People believe a lot of wacky things. Some of these things are merely amusingly wacky, while others are dangerously wacky. Among the most dangerously wacky of things that a large number of people believe in is the idea that germ theory is invalid. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that among the most dangerously wacky of nonsense is germ theory denialism; i.e., the denial that germs are the cause of disease. Few theories in medicine or science are supported as strongly by such a huge amount of evidence from multiple disciplines that converge on the idea that microorganisms cause disease, supporting it with an interwoven web of evidence that bring germ theory about as close to a fact as a scientific theory can be. True, for different diseases it’s not always clear what the causative organism is or even if there is a causative organism, but these examples all fit into the general framework of the germ theory of infectious disease.
Yet, as is the case with other incredibly well-supported scientific theories, such as evolution, a shocking number of people still assert that microbes don’t cause disease, among them Hollywood celebrities like Bill Maher. I thought it might be worth considering the question: How on earth could people seriously deny the germ theory of disease, given how much success the application of this theory has demonstrated in decreasing mortality? Think about it! Antibiotics, modern hygiene and public health measures, and vaccines have been responsible for preventing more deaths and arguably for saving more lives than virtually any other intervention, preventative or treatment, that science-based medicine has ever devised. What “inspired” me to revisit this topic was my coming across a couple of screeds against the germ theory of disease and Louis Pasteur that remind me just how much of “alt med” is permeated with germ theory denialism.
Before we get to the fun of the screeds, the first thing I should clarify is just what we mean by the “germ theory of disease.” In most texts and sources that I’ve read, the germ theory of disease is stated something like, “Many diseases are caused by microorganisms.” We could argue whether viruses count as microorganisms, but for purposes of the germ theory they do. (Most biologists do not consider viruses to be true living organisms, because they consist of nothing more than genetic material wrapped in a protein coat and lack the ability to reproduce without infecting the cell of an organism.) Now, let’s take a look at the latest germ theory denialist idiocy I’ve come across. The first one, not surprisingly, I found on NaturalNews.com. Surprisingly, it was not written by Mike Adams, but rather by someone named Paul Fassa, who proclaims You have been lied to about germs. It should have been called “You are about to be lied to about germs.”
First, though, since this article wasn’t by the usual science-hating loon Mike Adams, I was curious just who Paul Fassa is. I had never heard of him before. It didn’t take long to find Fassa’s Twitter account and then from there his blog Health Maven, which bills itself as an “escape from the medical mafia matrix.” Interesting. Why does it appear that any time I come across a germ theory denialist like Fassa, he’s someone who uses terms like “medical mafia matrix”? I don’t know, but such people also tend to write introductory paragraphs like this:
We have been taught to fear germs, pathogens, viruses, and bacteria that invade us from out there. This is the Pasteur model of disease contagion. This creates a dependency on Big Pharma to protect us from invading microbes, each having one form (monomorphic) and creating one specific disease.
Pasteur`s model of disease won over rival Claude Bernard`s more accurate argument of the inner terrain. Pasteur`s declaration, though serving the coffers of Big Pharma, creates more questions: How come some get a disease that`s going around and others don`t? How do all these new bugs come out of nowhere to haunt us? Why do vaccines and antibiotics ultimately fail and create super bugs?
These questions are answered by understanding the inner terrain and pleomorphism.
Note how Fassa first misrepresents the Pasteur model of disease. This is common among germ theory denialists, in my experience. They tend to assume that germ theory states that pathogenic microbes are 100% infectious and always cause disease. Consequently, when people are exposed to pathogenic microbes and don’t become ill, people like Fassa point to that as evidence that germ theory is invalid. After all, the germ didn’t cause disease, at least in this one case! That must mean that all of germ theory is wrong! Concrete thinking, thy name is Fassa (and other germ theory denialists.) It’s rather odd that even most teenagers can understand that catching an infectious disease is dependent not just on the microbe but each person’s resistance to that microbe. This is the same thing that mystifies HIV/AIDS denialists, who seem to view the observation that most exposures to HIV do not result in AIDS as some sort of devastating indictment of the hypothesis that HIV causes AIDS. Add to that a long asymptomatic period and highly variable rates of progression, and HIV/AIDS denialists, who are–let’s face it–really nothing more than a subtype of germ theory denialists who deny vehemently that one particular germ causes disease have all the doubt they need.
But I digress.
Also notice Fassa’s early and immediate invocation of the pharma shill gambit. If there’s another thing about germ theory denialism, it’s that those who cling to it tend to be extremely distrustful of big pharma. I realize that in many cases big pharma deserves a lot of mistrust; its record in many areas demands it. What distinguishes many of these germ theory denialists is that they take healthy skepticism and take it to a pathological extreme. They also seem to think that the reason that antibiotics ultimately fail is because germ theory is invalid, which reveals an incredible ignorance of how antibiotics work. Helloooo! Evolution? Ever heard of it? Bacteria are incredibly good at evolving under the selective pressure of antibiotics. That’s what creates superbugs, that and our tendency to overuse antibiotics. But what is the “inner terrain” and pleomorphism? This is where we find the “intellectual” basis of rejection of germ theory. As is the case with many alt-med beliefs, this basis harkens back to “ancient” knowledge (or at least 150 year old knowledge). It harkens back to Antoine Béchamp, who did indeed postulate nearly the exact opposite of what Pasteur did: that microorganisms were not the cause of disease but rather the consequence of disease, that injured or diseased tissues produced them and that it was the health of the organism that mattered, not the microorganisms.
Basically, Béchamp’s idea, known as the pleomorphic theory of disease, stated that bacteria change form (i.e., demonstrate pleomorphism) in response to disease, not as a cause of disease. In other words, they arise from tissues during disease states; they do not invade from the external world. Béchamp further proposed that bacteria arose from structures that he called microzymas, which to him referred to a class of enzymes. Béchamp postulated that microzymas are normally present in tissues and that their effects depended upon the cellular terrain. Ultimately, Pasteur’s theory won out over that of Béchamp, based on evidence, but Béchamp was influential at the time. Given the science and technology of the time, Béchamp’s hypothesis was not entirely unreasonable. It was, however, superseded by Pasteur’s germ theory of disease and Koch’s later work that resulted in Koch’s postulates. What needs to be remembered is that not only did Béchamp’s hypothesis fail to be confirmed by scientific evidence, but his idea lacked the explanatory and predictive power of Pasteur’s theory. Fassa is sort of correct about one thing, though. Béchamp’s idea was basically something like this:
The inner terrain includes our immune system, organ tissues, and blood cells. Those who stepped out of line from Pasteur`s dogma asserted that the inner terrain was more vital for remaining disease free than searching for new antibiotics and vaccines to kill bacteria and viruses.
As an analogy, flies don`t create garbage. But garbage attracts flies that breed maggots to create even more flies. Removing garbage is more effective than spraying toxic chemicals, which endanger human and animal life, around the house. Similarly, adding toxins to humans is not as effective as cleaning out the inner terrain.
As I said, there’s a grain of truth there, namely that the condition of the body and a person’s immune system does matter. Specifically, it is true that the condition of the “terrain” (the body) does matter when it comes to infectious disease. Debilitated people do not resist the invasion of microorganisms as well as strong, healthy people. Of course, another thing to remember is that the “terrain” can facilitate the harmful effect of microorganisms in unexpected ways. For example, certain strains of the flu (as in 1918 and H1N1) are more virulent in the young because the young mount a more vigorous immune response. However, latter day Béchamp worshipers fetishize this idea to the point of claiming that the “inner terrain” is all that matters and that bacteria and viruses are manifestations, not causes, of disease. It goes beyond that, though. According to Béchamp, it’s said:
Blood is alive. It is not a liquid, but a mobile tissue (Béchamp was the first to describe blood thus). The things in our blood are alive. And one thing modern medicine does not accept is that something like a bacterium can change into a yeast that can turn into a fungus that can turn into a mold. We’ve talked about this in previous newsletters; it is called pleomorphism. Pleo meaning many and morph meaning form or body.
This is, of course, complete nonsense. Bacteria cannot change into yeast or vice-versa, while yeasts are organisms in the kingdom Fungi. Dimorphic fungi can exist as a mold/hyphal/filamentous form or as yeast, but this fact does not invalidate the germ theory of disease. Indeed, some of these fungi are pathogens, such as Blastomyces dermatitidis, Histoplasma capsulatum, and Sporothrix schenckii. The misunderstanding of microbiology required to accept the rejection of germ theory in favor of Béchamp’s ideas is staggering. Yet they remain very influential. Not among scientists, of course. Science moved on a long time ago. Rather, they remain influential among cranks.
I think there are a couple of reasons. First, If it isn’t bacteria or other microbes that cause infectious disease, then vaccines are not necessary. Although their rhetoric against vaccines is often cloaked in appeals to “strengthening the immune system” or similar words, much of it, when you strip away the obfuscation and come right down to it, often denies germ theory. Second, germ theory tells us that there are some things we cannot control, and alt-med is all about the illusion of control. Germs, after all, are scary. You can be perfectly healthy, and an infectious disease can strike you down–possibly even kill you–through no fault of your own. By denying that the germs are the cause of disease, germ theory denialists can tell themselves that if they just eat the right diet, do the right exercise regimen, take the right supplements, germs can’t hurt them. Righteous living triumphs!
Too bad the real world isn’t like that and infectious diseases can kill.