The decline of pseudoscience? More like the mainstreaming of pseudoscience

As hard as it is to believe, I've been spending a significant part of my time countering pseudoscience for close to 17 years, so long that it seems that I've always been doing it. Of course, that's not true; I didn't actually become involved in this seemingly never-ending Sisyphean task until I was in my mid-30s, which means that the majority of my life had been spent more or less blissfully ignorant that there are people out there who passionately believe, for example, that vaccines are dangerous and cause autism and that bleach enemas can reverse that autism or that there were quacks out there who advocate slapping yourself silly until you have bruises all over to treat, well, just about anything. And so it is with the vast majority of people out there, including physicians, who by and large know on a superficial level that a lot of what is part of "integrative medicine" involves the "integration" of quackery into medicine but don't know on a deeper, visceral level what, exactly, that means. Yes, being a skeptic, as rewarding as it is, can often be a lonely calling.

Periodically, over the course of my now lengthy history of doing my best to push back against the tide of unreason, I've wondered what the situation was. Are we being drowned in a wave of pseudoscience, or is what we skeptics do helping to hold it at bay? What got me thinking about this again, as I do every so often, is an article by Phoebe Maltz Bovy published in The New Republic, entitled The Decline of Pseudoscience, with a subtitle that read: "Now that 'natural' living has gone mainstream, its days are numbered." It's exactly the sort of op-ed that's comforting, making the sort of argument that I'd love to believe. After all, why wouldn't I (or you or any other skeptic) not want to believe that the tide is finally turning, that the seemingly endless swamp of pseudoscience and quackery through which we slog day in and day out is on the verge of being drained? No wonder I saw this shared by several of my friends on Facebook and showing up in several Twitter feeds that I follow.

Unfortunately, it's almost certainly exactly the opposite. Now that "natural" has gone "mainstream," if anything, it's become more profitable than ever, which means that it's going nowhere. It's actually a bizarre argument that's worth looking at mainly because of its excessive optimism and confidence that nonsense is going anywhere coupled with not being clear on the concept what is pseudoscience and what is not coupled with a conflation of trendy lifestyle choices with pseudoscience. Basically, Bovy's entire argument boils down to the first three short paragraphs, with the rest of the article consisting attempts to support a thesis that is questionable at best, totally wrong at worst:

Have we reached peak green juice? The New York Times' Brooks Barnes suggests as much in a recent story about what a haute-hippie refuge in California is bringing to an already over-saturated market:

With every mini-mall, gas station and gym in Los Angeles now boasting a juice bar, or so it seems, the truly cutting-edge folks need to raise the ante to the point of ridiculousness. Kale-avocado-dandelion-cucumber-caraway-seed-jalapeño-heirloom-pear smoothie? Snore.

When the “Style” section not only identifies a trend, but deems it passé, it’s a safe bet it has indeed run its course. But it’s not just glorified cold vegetable soup that’s lost its allure. The pseudoscience that persists more generally in America is losing its cultural cachet.

The story to which Bovy refers describes the Springs, an urban oasis where, according to a waitress there, "You can eat dinner — everything is raw, vegan, organic, soy free and gluten free — and then have your colon cleansed right through that door!" (I suppose you can consider it a full service vegan GI treatment.) One of the features at the Springs is drink made with Pürblack (because naming something with umlauts is always cooler than not), something I had never heard of before and apparently a mineral resin scraped off Himalayan rocks. Supposedly, before swallowing, you’re supposed to swish it around in your mouth to let the extract’s "healing properties" absorb through your gums. The humorous hook in the article was that apparently this drink tastes really bad, having been compared unfavorably to bong water.

There's no doubt that the Springs is a woo-ey place indeed, as a perusal of its website indicates very rapidly. For instance, its "wellness center" offers something called Gravity Colon Hydrotherapy (quackery), which is described as "the equivalent of giving your colon a deep cleansing bath," complete with claims of "removing toxins" and "strengthening the immune system" (my colon is quite happy the way it is most of the time, with the possible exception of after a heavy meal of spicy Mexican food, thank you very much); craniosacral therapy massage (which is also pure quackery); infrared sauna (more quackery); reiki (faith healing); and a wide variety of other "wellness" quackery.

To be honest, I'm just not seeing how a hippy dippy raw vegan restaurant coupled to a woo-filled "wellness" center designed to cater to hip and trendy denizens of Los Angeles and environs being dismissed as passe by the NYT Style section provides evidence that the decline in popularity of pseudoscience is upon us. Indeed, Bovy neglects to mention that, according to the NYT Style article she cited, is a "smash hit" among Angelenos who are into this sort of thing and already turning a profit after only six months in operation, which is very impressive for any new restaurant or spa. If anything, the example chosen seems to argue that, whatever the NYT Style section published about it, dismissive or not (and to my reading it was not), the Springs is a big hit. Moreover, it's not really any more "woo-ey" than any number of "wellness centers" in LA or elsewhere. Hell, I know of at least two such "wellness centers" with offerings every bit as quacky as those of the Springs within walking distance of my house. (OK, one of them would be a pretty long walk, but it's still quite doable.)

Heck, just Google "vegan restaurant" and "wellness center," and you'll see that the Springs is hardly unique. Lots of articles about the Springs pop up, but there are also links to, for example, Coco Green's Vegan Cafe and Wellness Center, a vegan restaurant and "detox center" in Nashville, TN; the Sol D'Licious Wholistic Cafe in Wisconsin; and the El Ameyal Hotel & Wellness Center in Cabo San Lucas. There aren't a lot of them, but, based on the success of the Springs, unfortunately, I suspect there soon will be.

The second part of Bovy's argument seems to be that, although pseudoscience such as what's peddled at the Springs and other such places became status signifiers to which mainstream America aspired, such that:

“Healthy” living became associated with being upper class, and therefore glamorous. The pseudoscience embraced by the rich—a group who also have superior access to actual healthy living, as in proper medical care, safe places to exercise, and so forth—is now, in turn, marketed to the rest of the population.

I actually don't disagree with this part. There's little doubt that "lifestyle" woo such as that epitomized by the Springs now did "trickle down, so that the masses now have access to it, sold and commoditized by companies like Whole Foods. I even partially agree with this:

But the backlash has begun. As Freeman noted, “a new genre of journalism has risen up in response to a growing trend,” consisting of articles “debunking quacky pseudoscience bloggers.” She cited Belle Gibson, the clean-eating blogger who cured what turned out to be non-existent cancer, and Vani “Food Babe” Hari, who also turns out to be full of something other than organic strawberry, as examples of discredited advice-givers. Freeman might have also mentioned Dr. Oz, and indeed does discuss him in a later column. Photogenic men, and photogenic people with medical expertise, have also entered the pseudoscience game, and it’s just as much fun to watch their downfalls. That said, there is a gender dimension to this issue, given the tremendous (if often unstated) overlap between dubious health advice and beauty tips.

A gender issue there might well be, but I would argue that it's not the amount of pseudoscience where there's a gender issue but in the types of pseudoscience. Yes, the "wellness" movement might have a larger female component, but from my vantage point tend to fall for sports-, car-, and electronics-related pseudoscience in a manner that women do not. Whether that's true or not, however, Bovy's next confident assertion grates on me, because I'm pretty darned sure it's not true:

Why the shift toward reason? The scientific evidence against quack theories is hardly new, after all. I suspect there are two related reasons for the decline of pseudoscience: an increase in awareness, and a decrease in trendiness.

As pseudoscience has become more popular, the threat it sometimes poses—not just to oneself, but to society at large—has become more widely known. The measles outbreaks has caused genuine, legitimate fear, inspiring otherwise apolitical parents to rail against anti-vaxxers and the celebrities, like Jenny McCarthy, who inspire them. Meanwhile, exposed fraudsters have bred disillusionment. Popular lifestyle blogger “The Blonde Vegan” revealed that she wasn’t extra-healthy but actually suffering from orthorexia; she gave up veganism (if not snake-oil peddling) and now calls herself “The Balanced Blonde.” Then there’s Dr. Oz, whose high profile quackery recently inspired ten fellow doctors to ask Columbia University to fire him, and now Oprah’s also done with him. When controversies like these get publicity, it reminds all of us, tastemakers included, that actions taken in the name of health can be detrimental to wellbeing.

Nutritional pseudoscience may be the first to fall. The ingredient-purity obsession has inspired a backlash from people citing the social benefits of notturning every meal into an ingredient-by-ingredient research project.

While I will concede that, over the decade that I've been blogging, there has been a salutary change in media reporting of some forms of pseudoscience. For instance, it's clear to me that many journalists have abandoned the "tell both sides" narrative that is fine if you're talking about politics but not so fine when discussing pseudoscience versus science. After all, in science some things are just plain wrong, such as antivaccine pseudoscience, and "telling both sides" is a trope akin to including the viewpoint of a flat earth believer in a story about geology or the viewpoint of a moon hoaxer in stories about space exploration. Although I don't have quantitative data to back it up, my overall impression is that these days it's much less common to include the antivaccine viewpoint in stories about vaccines than it was in 2005, when I first started paying attention to these things.

What if I told The Food Babe... What if I told The Food Babe...

That being said, however, I see no difference in the prevalence of pseudoscientific nonsense. Indeed, if anything, I can't help but think it's probably somewhat more prevalent than it was when I first started blogging in 2004. In fact, for some quacks, any publicity is good publicity. A great example of this is The Food Babe, the nom de quack (or should I say nom du canard?) of a former computer analyst turned "food activist" named Vani Hari. Yes, I've been highly critical. Science Babe has been highly critical. Many bloggers and now mainstream reporters have written some very unflattering things about her in critical articles in the press. Yet companies keep caving to her pseudoscientific quackmail, in which she demonizes chemicals in food based on how "yucky" they sound to her or how difficult their chemical names are to pronounce. Kraft is the most recent company to cave, and Chipotle recently decided to remove GMOs from its menu. Meanwhile, Panera announced yesterday that it's now "on a journey to remove all artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners, and flavors from the food in our bakery-cafes by the end of 2016," complete with a video showing people having difficulty pronouncing the names of certain food ingredients:

The stupid, it truly burns. It's thermonuclear in intensity. I feel like Mance Rayder in the first episode of this season of Game of Thrones crying for release as the flames engulf me. The add even concludes with this blurb:

If the ingredients in your food are unpronounceable we believe they shouldn't be in your food.

I know how Mance Rayder feels if those flames are flames of burning stupid. Orac knows how Mance Rayder feels if those flames are flames of burning stupid. Think of The Food Babe as Melisandre with dark hair.

It's as though Panera Bread has internalized the most idiotic of the many idiotic Food Babe messages that if you can't pronounce it you shouldn't eat it and turned it into an equally idiotic advertisement. Hell, Panera even basically stole her catch phrase, tarted it up a little, and turned it into an advertising slogan! If, as Bovy argues, Food Babe-style nutritional pseudoscience is on the way out,, then why is it that The Food Babe seemingly more popular and influential than ever. Whether the "Food Babe Army" had anything to do with this decision or not, The Food Babe is crowing over these new victories.

As for the antivaccine movement, yes, the Disneyland measles outbreak, the most famous of a number of outbreaks that have occurred over the last couple of years largely because of pockets of unvaccinated children exist, did produce a backlash. There might even be state laws passed to tighten up the requirements for nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates or, in the case of California, to remove them altogether. Yet none of this has stopped the inevitable antivaccine backlash cloaked in appeals to "freedom" and "parental rights" that have spewed forth from the mouths of even mainstream politicians blowing the antivaccine dog whistle.

Then there's the Dr. Oz incident. As you recall, ten doctors did indeed write an article to Columbia University's dean in essence asking him to fire Oz because of his peddling of anti-GMO pseudoscience and medical quackery on his show. Unfortunately, as I predicted, their letter, although it did garner some negative publicity for Oz, ended up backfiring spectacularly as Oz fired back with the predictable "shill gambit," a gambit made all the more effective because several of the doctors who signed the letter were arguably industry shills, particularly the those associated with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). Because these doctors were so eager to frame their criticism as having a lot to do with Oz's occasional anti-GMO segment (such segments are a small part of Oz's crimes against science) rather than his medical quackery, all Oz had to do was to paint himself as in favor of "more information," tar his opponents as industry shills (easily done), and claim to be "fighting for you," and the substantive criticisms got lost. The battle became one of industry shills trying to "silence" Dr. Oz because he had dared to gore the sacred cow of GMOs. The whole publicity stunt was a spectacular failure. Never mind that Dr. Oz himself has been caught looking for some sweet, sweet shilling opportunities from Sony and others.

I'm inclined to agree with my good bud, chemist Joe Schwarcz:

Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal, predicts the recent criticism will boost the careers of both Oz and Hari, even if their claims and arguments don't always hold scientific water.

"In the quackery business, any publicity is good, it doesn't matter if it's criticism," says Schwarcz, who is among Hari's critics.

"She'll be more popular than ever. So will Oz," he predicts.

Exactly. Bovy's article is nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking. The battle against pseudoscience and quackery won't be won so easily. It's a battle that will last generations, with victories and losses and momentary fluctuations. Arguably, it's a battle that can't be won as long as human brains have the cognitive quirks that predispose them to believe in superstition and pseudoscience, but if we take the long view working to counter unreason is still a worthwhile endeavor if only for the consumer protection aspect alone. It's also a good thing that more and more mainstream news outlets are becoming more critical of quackery and pseudoscience. But evidence of the "decline of pseudoscience"? There's no way we can say that until many years have passed, because this could just be a brief positive blip in favor of reason, and already the forces of unreason are rallying.

Be that as it may, Bovy seems to think that the co-optation of pseudoscience by corporate America and its "trickling" down from woo-ey elites on the coasts like Gwyneth Paltrow to large mainstream companies like Panera is a good thing because it means that Paltrow and her ilk will view it as no longer cutting edge hip and cool, thus resulting in a backlash. This is nothing more than even more wishful thinking disconnected from reality. The type of people who go for the Springs will just move on to another form of pseudoscience. In practical terms what this mainstreaming of pseudoscience means is that pseudoscience has become such good marketing that companies now embrace it as a sales tool or a means of distinguishing themselves from their competitors, just as hospitals embrace more and more outlandish ways of "integrating" quackery in order to show they are "holistic" and, yes, distinguish themselves from their competitors.

Just watch that Panera video again if you don't believe me. I predict it is just "trailblazer" and that there will be many more.

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Okay. I had to know what the fuck Pürblack actually is.

It's a brand name for shilajit, which is also known as mumijo.

It's used in ayurvedic practice.

There are no independent studies confirming any medicinal effects.

And the name of that brand is simply silly. Why an ü? I guess the though 'Pureblack' was too mundane. It quite reminds me of the 'heavy metal umlaut'. Look that one up on tv tropes at your own peril.

Of course there will always be pseudoscience, for the reasons you mentioned. I have been following pseudoscience much shorter than you- a few years- but I noticed an incredible pro-science backlash in the past few months. Food Babe has taken a beating. Oz has taken a beating. Chipotle is getting blasted in the media. Anti-vaxxers are being ostracized like racists. This has been great fun to watch.

Perhaps Dr. Oz and Food Babe will emerge stronger, though I I am not so sure.

But will anyone emerge to take the place of Food Babe and Dr. Oz? Will another A-list celebrity come out as anti-vaccine? If so, they must know their pseudoscience will not go unquestioned for long before an army of pro-science bloggers and meme-makers mock and ridicule them. Good.

By Yvette Lewis (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Organic, a pure form of quackery, has been consistently growing at a double digit rate, even through the recession. Until organic sales drop, it will be hard for anyone to claim that pseudoscience and quackery are on the way out.

I have to agree that pseudoscience isn't going anywhere; for that to happen, there would have be a fundamental shift in how people approach problems, i.e. they would have to start using their brains. Sadly, that's just not going to happen in a lot of cases.

However, there are positive signs. Take Chipotle's recent announcement, which was greeted by cheers from the anti-GMO crowd, but was also quickly denounced in a bunch of major publications: the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, NPR, Time -- heck, even MOTHER JONES, that venerable haven of poor thinking, took them to task, pronouncing GMOs "totally safe to eat".

Here's the other thing that makes me hopeful: the supporters of science have become much more galvanized. There is a long history of believing "the facts will speak for themselves" and refusing to engage with the peddlers of quackery, as if it would demean science to take anything but the high road. But increasing, there are more bloggers such as yourself willing to speak out -- at great length, in, ahem, some cases -- in favor of science. There are more people like SciBabe (motto: "come for the science, stay for the dirty jokes") and the Food Hunk who are working to make science SEXY, for the lack of a better word. And the power of social media gives voice to those who love reason and rationality just as easily as it does to those who do not, and some of us are very, very pissed off about how badly science has been treated. Go to the Anti-Vax Wall of Shame for some great examples of how to laugh through the pain of dealing with the lunatic fringe.

On television, yes, we still have Oz, and we still have Maher, but we also have Jimmy Kimmel, who revels in mocking the stupidity of the organic lifestyle and openly laughs at the anti-vax nutjobs. John Oliver is enormously popular, and typically on the right side of rationality, as is (or was, now) John Stewart. These are a newer breed of personalities, who are willing, even eager, to use their influence for the good.

So while pseudoscience isn't going anywhere, I think the potential for it to be contained is there, because it is easier than ever to mock it. And in the end, mocking is a better strategy than education, because the kind of people who don't want to learn, want even less to be seen as ridiculous.

By Daniel Welch (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

The humorous hook in the article was that apparently this drink tastes really bad, having been compared unfavorably to bong water.

If something tastes really really vile, it should at least contain 40% alcohol.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Bovy's take on that restaurant reminds me of Yogi Berra's famous remark about a night spot or something: "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded!"

Seriously disappointed in Panera.

By palindrom (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

I do have two minds about Panera (which is so typical of me, sigh)

On the one hand I think it is all about marketing and pandering.

On the other hand I do think the more we can get people to eat minimally processed foods rather than flavor-enhanced and artificially colored the better.

Now sometimes the flavor-enhanced, artificially-colored food is also nutrient dense, phytochemical rich with appropriate macro nutrient balance, but mostly it just makes junk taste good enough you will eat it. I do wonder if eating too much of that junk ends up making actual food less palatable (so reinforces eating more junk as after awhile non-junk just doesn't taste right).

I seem to recall a study where enough people eat enough artificial flavors their palate/brain starts to think the artificial is the correct flavor and the actual food it is supposed to mimic starts to seem to be the wrong flavor for that food.

So while I think they are doing it for all the wrong reasons I do think the more we can get train people to prefer the flavor of food rather junk maybe we can get people to eat a bit more nutritious food on a regular basis as they get used to that taste rather than whatever flavor profile industry can use to get us to eat more of what isn't good for us.

This sounds like the old complaint that nobody goes to that restaurant anymore because it's too crowded.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Dang it - palindrom beat me to that.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

@1 Thank you for that information. I find that I absolutely cannot ingest this substance. It contains phospholipids, which I am unable to pronounce.

Why an ü? I guess the though ‘Pureblack’ was too mundane. It quite reminds me of the ‘heavy metal umlaut’.

I noticed that, too. It doesn't fit so well with the image they are trying to project. It comes off more like that classic Onion article, "Ünited Stätes Toughens Image With Umlauts".

“You can eat dinner — everything is raw, vegan, organic, soy free and gluten free — and then have your colon cleansed right through that door!”

She says that like it's a good thing. Maybe it's just me, but when I'm eating, I prefer not to think about what comes out the other end.

If the ingredients in your food are unpronounceable we believe they shouldn’t be in your food.

There may be good reasons for removing ingredients from food, but this isn't one of them. Among other things, it brings up the question: unpronounceable to whom? I recall a commercial from the late 1970s, riffing on the then-prevalent "Why Can't Johnny Read" mania, which showed six- to eight-year-old kids trying to read the ingredients lists of various food products and tripping on some of the longer words, e.g., "polysorbate-80". Panera is playing to exactly the same thing, except they are explicitly calling their customers morons: a well-educated adult native English speaker should be able to read those ingredients, whereas it's understandable for a child, or a foreigner (whose native language may not have certain phonemes--English has more than most), to have trouble with those unfamiliar long words.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Traditional western medicine is based mostly on pseudoscience. All science is open to being questioned. Each day, we learn more, and retract our old "facts." I'm in research and a health professional of the traditional sort, so save your hate speech. If you don't fully understand something, it doesn't make it quackery or pseudoscience. Many (most) of our most impressive treatment modalities have been discovered in nature, then refined, and reproduced in the laboratory. Beyond that, pharmaceutical medicine isn't the only, or even best way to deal with disease. Were you to delve into health research, you would see that we are researching and utilizing successfully, nutritional strategies to cure, reverse, and prevent many illnesses, physical and mental. Visit the NIH online sometime. The scientific method begins with asking questions and postulating ideas. Thinking outside the box, and being open to things that have not yet been discovered is how we learn, grow, invent, and ultimately cure. You are quick to judge and assume. I'm hopeful you are not in a position of research or any actual power in society. That's probably a safe assumption based on your rhetoric. More, I am hopeful those who read your blog see you for what you really are uninformed and grossly opinionated beyond your education and experience.

What sort of "health professional of the traditional sort" are you? Naturopath? Practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine? Homeopath? I'm more than happy to discuss the evidence with respect to pretty much any modality.

Nor am I "quick to judge and assume." My opinions with respect to "natural medicine" have been evolving for at least 17 years. For instance, I used to think there was something to acupuncture until around 8 years ago, when I actually started looking closely at the studies published in —yes—the peer reviewed medical literature about acupuncture. Doing so led me to realize that acupuncture is indeed no more than an elaborate placebo. That's changing one's mind. I'd also bet that my education and experience exceed yours.

The three ingredients most likely to kill you at Panera can be pronounced by your average second grader. We should really start a movement to get them to remove them- I'm sure they would still have a sustainable business plan after removing sugar, fat, and salt- right?

JLNIH, Are you in for a heap of feedback.
Claims unsupported by evidence: Aneoplastins, Gersons, acupuncture, bleach enemas, anti-vaxcination, etc.

Evidence is required, not good feelings.

@Ellie

Who can’t pronounce phospholipids? Or is that your point?
-------
How about calling for reform in labeling that allows listing things by their common names instead of their chemical names? In many cases, this would make much of an ingredient list more pronounceable for the less educated.

As to Panera, or Chipotle, who eats at these places? They are ful of the same calorie dense food as any other place, in fact a lot of their food has more calories than the traditional fast food outlets. But I forget myself--calories don’t matter as long as it’s an organic GMO-free calorie, right? And why eat kale salad when you can drink kale, avocado, blah, blah juice until you gag?

I will mention, however, that I dislike the tendency to equate veganism with pseudosicence. There is overlap, of course, but some of us go vegan for philosophical/moral reasons and because it’s a simple way to reduce calories and avoid many of the excesses of the meat industry in terms of animal treatment and environmental issues like water use. (And I’m not saying I NEVER have an egg or a bit of cheese or a speck of bacon in a salad--one does not have to be anal about a dietary choice).

By darwinslapdog (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Unfortunately, there is a whole lot of vegan woo, particularly raw vegan diets. It's there, and it's represented as the cure for almost everything. It's also not just in raw vegan cafes like the Springs. Hell, it's promoted in "integrative medicine" in a lot of places; i.e., by Dean Ornish.

Traditional western medicine is based mostly on pseudoscience.

You contradict yourself with the rest of your comment.

All science is open to being questioned. Each day, we learn more, and retract our old “facts.”

Well duh, that's the point of research.

I’m hopeful you are not in a position of research or any actual power in society. That’s probably a safe assumption based on your rhetoric. More, I am hopeful those who read your blog see you for what you really are uninformed and grossly opinionated beyond your education and experience.

You arrogant twit; you don't even know the author's background but make ridiculous assumptions based on butthurt. The fact is is that most here are educated professionals in science, medicine, engineering, etc. and can spot a sanctimonious, pseudoscience boot-licker like you a mile away.

By Science Mom (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Actually, I would almost agree with JLNIH. Traditional "Western" medicine is mostly based on pseudoscience, just like traditional Chinese medicine. After all, traditional Western medicine includes bloodletting, purges, the idea that disease comes from imbalances in the four humors, and other prescientific ideas as wacky as those behind TCM.

Science-based medicine, of course, is nothing like either traditional "Western" or "Eastern" medicine.

I don't understand why you're answering, Orac. You should be busy delving in to health research, or visiting the NIH online.

I have some medical quackery devices in my collection of medical antiques. They're fun to pull out to show the kinds of silliness people believed 100 years or so ago.

I think we got away from a lot of quackery when the FDA first came about and had some actual teeth. The deaths of children in the Septra case didn't hurt public opinion for reasonable regulation. And science itself enjoyed a much better reputation than it does now.

Years of the war on science and the decline of the scientist as respected expert are what's fueling this rebirth of open and mainstream quackery.

We need a Carl Sagan for medicine: someone who can connect with the public in a convincing way, and make science cool again.

@ Nicole #14: let's not forget water. Maybe if we relabeled it dihydrogen monoxide, that would get people's attention.

Hilariously, whilst the woo-centric name their establishment The Springs, instantly bringing to mind a pristine mountain oasis of purity and sparkling cleanliness, Orac describes slogging through the swamp of pseudoscience. Tell me about it.

- Yes, woo frequently permeates women's magazines and health/ beauty supply stores in an alarming way: every issue of Vogue, no matter from which fashion capitol it originates, seems to be rife with the stuff whether it involves general health, dietary considerations, highly specialised exercise, skin care or other weighty concerns. Some of it tests the imagination. A brief leafing through a current issue reveals the confessions of a spa 'virgin' and an article praising fermented foods, mostly fish.

- I personally began sceptically monitoring woo - while stifling my laughter- in the early 1990s by attending New Age presentations about spirituality, healing, yoga, tai chi, diet and crystals/ magic stones ( of all things). Usually, there was a lecture, a class or a demonstration followed by a barrage of balderdash. I even had my aura read in front of a roomful of believers in a university auditorium: supposedly, I have an extremely attractive one that precisely illustrates my remarkable talents and independent spirit. Or so they tell me.

- HOWEVER my adventures in the Dead Marshes of Unreasonability really began around the turn of the millennium when I chanced upon a radio broadcast that provided the answer to all health concerns through veganism by proclaiming that, in effect, life was "like a beanstalk" ** . All ills could be prevented or cured and longevity could be secured by following a few simple rules that forever forbade animal products, wheat, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, most cooked foods and a laundry list of taboo substances as one exercised religiously daily, dutifully swallowed handfuls of supplements, steadfastly meditated and persued the spiritual instead of the worldly. A person's true lifespan should be 150 years, not a mere 80, but most people are DOING IT RONG, so they'd better listen up and straighten up and fly right.

- Although my active pursuit of woo has taken as many twists and turns as antivax advocates' theories concerning why vaccines cause autism, I feel that perhaps there is a now mainstreaming effect: what might have once been arcane knowledge, restricting only to the alternative initiates years ago, is now splashed all over the place and sold from every food market and beauty supply store. It's bigger business than ever.

One consolation however is that recently mainstream media seems to become more aware of potentially dangerous woo like non-vaccination. I'm afraid though that there will not be non-proliferation of the dietary stuff because it is becoming so linked with corporate profits and imagery. "We sell healthy food not junk", they crow. That's not entirely a bad thing but is it really true? I wonder.

** No wait, that was Procol Harum

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

This article somewhat hits home for me, as I was a produce manager at a Whole Foods a few years back. The amount of woo flying around is literally astounding, with the employees promoting everything under the sun. And they recommend them to customers too; although it's always "off the record", of course. I left to go back to school and am applying to medical schools this June. I don't think it should come as a surprise that the friendly atmosphere disappeared entirely when I told them why I was quitting. I did my best to counter it all when I had interactions with customers, however.

It's very disappointing to me how many vegans are so heavily into pseudoscience. I've been vegan for a decade and I have deliberately avoided associating with most others precisely because of that. It seems just having personal moral reasons isn't good enough. They have to prosthelytize and tout outlandish health benefits. It's another reason I never bring up being vegan to anyone; I don't want to be lumped in with them!

By VegasPremed (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

"The battle against pseudoscience and quackery won’t be won so easily. It’s a battle that will last generations, with victories and losses and momentary fluctuations."

Ah, the old warfare metaphor. I suggest you leave that one to pseudoscience and religion. Science does not require jihad.

I believe a little mockery, some gentle humor, and a pinch of marketing (propaganda) works wonders for both Woo's and Corporate-types to open hearts (and minds) to evidence and critical thinking.

By Old One Eye (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Traditional “Western” medicine is mostly based on pseudoscience, just like traditional Chinese medicine.

Very true however I doubt JLNIH was making that distinction in his/her condemnation given that s/he referred to his/herself as a "traditional" healthcare professional.

By Science Mom (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

The other day I felt like going for a long-a** walk, so I walked like halfway to Ypsilanti, and stopped at Trader Joe's on the way home to pick up a couple things. There's a big sign in there now that says: "If it says Trader Joe's, that means no G.M.O.s!" Grumble... I mean, I gave half a thought to boycotting Chipotle over the anti-GMO nonsense, but sometimes you just need a Mission-style burrito the size of your head.

So yeah, I mean, I think some of the ranker pseudoscience, like anti-vax stuff, is finally getting the public shaming it deserves, but food woo in particular is at an all-time high, anti-GMO sentiment in particular. And it's just about impossible to have a rational discussion about it with most people - the "antis" have been way too successful with their emotional appeals and fear-mongering, and even Joe Average has a head full of Monsatan and fishmatoes now.

@ Science Mom:

Oddly enough, I have heard TWO separate usages of the word *traditional* by alt med proselytisers :
- as in traditional Chinese medicine ( woo)
- ALSO to refer to non-alternative standard health care ( SBM)! Believe it or not! Because OBVIOUSLY to those riding the tsunami of paradigm shift, medicine looks traditional and probably habitual as well.

But then, these people usually don't know what they're talking about anyway.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

@ JP:

There's a book about a mental hospital called IIRC The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

“Traditional western medicine is based mostly on pseudoscience.”
“Western medicine” versus “Eastern medicine” is an false dichotomy, JLNIH: there’s simply medicine-treatments that have been shown to work--and everything else.

“ If you don’t fully understand something, it doesn’t make it quackery or pseudoscience.”
Agreed: it’s instead the lack of evidence that something is effective which makes it quackery (e.g., acupuncture), and that we understand something well enough to state with certainty it cannot work by the mechanism proposed (e.g., homeopathy) which makes it pseudoscience.

“Many (most) of our most impressive treatment modalities have been discovered in nature, then refined, and reproduced in the laboratory.”
And for each of these modalities there’s a robust body of evidence characterizing safety and demonstrating efficacy.

“Beyond that, pharmaceutical medicine isn’t the only, or even best way to deal with disease.”
Which diseases, under what circumstances? Preventing a disease is of course always preferable (i.e., “better”) to addressing it once acquired, but in many cases pharmaceutical medicine is the only or best way to deal with diseases once they’ve been acquired. (Consider drug intervention to treat HIV infection, which has successfully converted what was once a rapidly fatal disease into a chronic one that can be managed.)

“Were you to delve into health research, you would see that we are researching and utilizing successfully, nutritional strategies to cure, reverse, and prevent many illnesses, physical and mental.”
Be happy to: please provide citations to the articles published in first or second tier peer-reviewed journals where the results of this research is published so I so ‘delve’.

“ The scientific method begins with asking questions and postulating ideas.”
Actually, it begins with collecting observations.

“Thinking outside the box, and being open to things that have not yet been discovered is how we learn, grow, invent, and ultimately cure.”
What box is it you believe we need to think outside of—surely not the one where conclusions are drawn from evidence?

Good point on dihydrogen monoxide. They could always drown in their cup of complimentary lemon water.

TBH, I think the blueberry scones would do me in first. Well, maybe not now that they're anti-science scones. I'll have to find a replacement for my carbs and fat death pastry addiction.

"I’m in research and a health professional of the traditional sort, so save your hate speech."

Gosh darnit, you've spiked my best comebacks!

"The scientific method begins with asking questions and postulating ideas."

Except when it's woo that you identify with, evidently.

"You are quick to judge and assume. I’m hopeful you are not in a position of research or any actual power in society."

Oops! Not only is Orac involved in research, he wields vast powers in Society and has brought many a villainous woo-ster to his/her/its knees. Trifle not with the box of blinky lights and his hordes of ravenous minions.

*any bets that JLNIH is from Austin?

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

@ Nicole:

Wheat has become alties' devil du jour.

Interestingly, in the olden days, health food stores were stocked to the rafters with breads, granola, cereals, sweet alternatives and pasta composed of WHOLE wheat and WHEAT germ amongst other more exotic grains.

Woo does evolve but it follows no path of discernible rationality: just new taboos and sources of mana emerge as if by magic. Survival of the most marketable I suppose.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

"Nutritional pseudoscience may be the first to fall." Oh no!

I just got my "Applied Nutritionist"[1] business cards printed up. I have not managed one consultation yet and the market is collapsing.

I have not even managed one free meal yet.

It may be time to switch to "Behavioural Economist". I'd just use "Economist" but the PM has sullied that one.

1. Note the term "Applied Nutritionist" is not a legally protected name in my province :)

By jrkrideau (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Agree that the wellness elite will just move on to new old woo (better the old new woo) but I do think that rationals are becoming more inclined to call this crap out. In the past, politeness along with an assumption that CAM is mostly harmless would prompt them to refrain. Now I do see more challenging happening thanks to a growing realisation that there are real-world consequences that are non-trivial.

Although the market for woo-tinged goods and services has grown considerably, the number of suppliers have increased to the point where it's not really enough to have a Buddha statue and an Enya soundtrack anymore. You need to invest heavily in slick marketing, décor and the like to have any cut through because you don't have much else. Over time, small players will have to increasingly have to scrabble for scraps while a few major players do well. And big players become big targets and start to behave a lot like 'vested interests'. Won't matter to true believers but the mildly woo prone may take notice.

If you're going to walk all the way to Ypsi, keep going until you hit Zingerman's. Their scones are better than Trader Joe's anyway.

How many of the woo-ful can pronounce the γ-tocopherol they gleely slurp down in excessive quantities?

In terms of chemical names that are simple to pronounce, many roll easily off of the tongue, very pretty words - methanol, phenol, thallium, phosgene. Not a great idea to ingest.

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Daniel Welch wrote "But increasing, there are more bloggers such as yourself willing to speak out — at great length, in, ahem, some cases — in favor of science. There are more people like SciBabe (motto: “come for the science, stay for the dirty jokes”) and the Food Hunk who are working to make science SEXY, for the lack of a better word."

Hey, not to forget: the excellent work being done by Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University! He has an App, even! (OSS, which stands for Office for Science and Society)

By Roman Korol (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

If you’re going to walk all the way to Ypsi, keep going until you hit Zingerman’s. Their scones are better than Trader Joe’s anyway.

Zingerman's is like ten minutes from my apartment; I was walking to Ypsi from Ann Arbor. Trader Joe's has a great cheese section, though, and reasonable prices on certain Belgian ales. I also like to buy flowers there sometimes.

I used to get Zingerman's care packages from my mother.

(Adopt me).

One of the things that we get from the local TJ's is edamame, which are just soy beans. Since at least 85% of the soy beans grown in the US are GMO-derived, I guess that means that Trader Joe's has found the minority that are not. Or maybe it's not GMO if you call it "edamame" instead of "soy bean" .

Some random comments:

“You can eat dinner — everything is raw, vegan, organic, soy free and gluten free — and then have your colon cleansed right through that door!”

My mother was a public health nurse. She would be appalled. So am I.

life was “like a beanstalk

"Life is a beanstalk, I want to weed it all night long"
Worst Tom Cochrane song ever.

Thinking outside the box... is how we learn, grow, invent, and ultimately cure.

It's ironic how you guys who tell us to "think outside the box" always resort to the most tired cliche in the world: " think outside the box".
Anyway, my cats sometimes "think outside the box". The results are the same.

Basically, isn't any fruit or vegetable that has been selectively bred a GMO? So if Trader Joe's is selling Red Delicious or Mackintosh apples, or Country Gentleman corn...

(the spousal unit has a vague idea that GMOs are "wrong" but that doesn't keep him from scarfing down the Country Gentleman in July).

If you controlled for the actual level of science knowledge in a society at any given time, I'm guessing a historical study would show the presence of 'pseudoscience' as more-or-less constant: certainly not in decline as Ms. Bovy claims, but also not "the opposite" as Orac fears.

The issue is not as Daniel Welch puts it of 'people not using their brains,' but one of HOW they use their brains. It would be impossible to approach every aspect of everyday-life with due regard for scientific rigor. In terms of real people getting through their day, various forms of 'not-reason' are completely rational strategies at a macro level. The skeptic describes and decries all the failures of 'magical thinking', logical fallacies, 'intuition', 'common sense'... This is, frankly, unscientific. A proper scientific take on 'common habits of mind' would examine them in totality, including the considerable ways in which they DO 'work' for people in all manner of mostly small things. And it would also ascertain how these habits actually function, including the 'depth' of any thought processes involved. 'Pseudo'-science, like real science, requires a time and cognition investment that any individual can only devote to a few select priorities. It might be warped. but it's not superficial. In that sense, mainstreamed practices originally rooted in some pseudoscience – unscientific behaviors, aren't evidence of the spread of genuine pseudo-scientific thinking at all.

In the end, I argue "pseudoscience" is not a valid generic category for social concern, as it ranges from superficial trivialities to very dangerous and deeply held ideologies. Related, and even more troubling to me, is the whole language of whether or not something 'works'. For one thing, it's utterly ineffective as critique, as the way scientists deploy it is both tautological and blindered in ways J. Doe intuits, if not fully understands. More importantly, it fails to address the reasons J. Doe might ever care about any of these issues.

Everything 'works' in one way or another. The question is 'WHAT WORK DOES IT DO?'

So, just for sake of argument, imagine I'm right and a certain more or less constant quantity of both pseudoscience thought and unscientific behavior are part of the human condition. If the numbers don't change, the qualities and effects can still vary in the extreme, and the 'what work does it do?' question becomes essential for guiding concern and action about applying science, where we MUST put our priorities for push-back, and what we can write-off as tolerable annoyances.

The slippery slope is a textbook logical fallacy. One thing does NOT lead to another. Sure, Mike Adams will attach and interweave all forms of woo. But he's a charlatan-kook who markets to the kook fringe. If the J. Does like a common-word ingredient list at Panera, or feel mildly comforted by the "no GMO" banner at Trader Joe's, that hardly means they're on their way to anti-vax zealotry, cancer quackery, slapupuncture, or even a trip through the colon cleanse door after a vegan meal at The Springs.

The question is 'what's the harm?' – not in the rhetorical sense of 'nothing to worry about here' – but literally. If society has a constant woo-quotient, the directions that takes could be shifting toward lower harm if anti-vax is taking it in the shorts, or greater harm if naturopaths get PCP certification and prescription privileges. To the extent overly broad semiotic oppositions between science/pseudoscience distract us from evaluating changes in relative genuine harm, and focusing on the most important stuff, that doesn't 'work' for me.

Pürblack
It's for people suffering from a lack of Pürbs.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Also, sadmar seems to be writing as though he thinks that skeptics have never thought about these issues before, as if we don't make any distinctions based on potential harm. He comes across as attacking a straw man that we're advocating a society completely run by science and reason, with all of us being good little Mr. Spocks.

As usual, the post-modernism-influenced guy has nothing worthwhile to say in his plodding long paragraphs. Shorter sadmer: "Me! ME!! ME!!!".

'Pseudoscience' is in fact a very useful category, and attacks on it by humanities scholars - usually influenced by poststructuralism and constructivism - are a major causal influence on that particular nonsense that hurts our culture today.

As I see it, this certain kind of 'scholar' has given intellectual cover to this an other nonsense. The social constructivists are free to complain, as they always do, that guys like me don't 'understand' them, that they never meant to denigrate science, etc. Honest people would instead admit that their school has had a massive negative influence on public respect for, and understanding of, science.

Indeed. sadmar also seems to think that skeptics don't think about and debate the definition of science, particularly what we like to call the demarcation problem (that is, where science crosses over to become pseudoscience).

Since at least 85% of the soy beans grown in the US are GMO-derived, I guess that means that Trader Joe’s has found the minority that are not.

The frozen ones are imported from Southeast Asia.

JP,

Zingerman’s is like ten minutes from my apartment;

I'm envious, I love Ann Arbor, and Zingerman’s is the best deli every.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

I’m envious, I love Ann Arbor, and Zingerman’s is the best deli every.

Indeed it is, although it's too expensive for me to go there terribly often.

Ann Arbor itself has gone somewhat downhill in my opinion, even since I moved here five years ago; I'm sure some people see it as "movin' on up," but the rents keep rising, the town is getting increasingly "bougie," and every time I turn around there's another new expensive high-rise apartment building. I hear the tuition is about three times what it was in the 90s, and the U is trying ever harder to attract out-of-state students. The place is starting to feel like more of a country club than the Ivies.

If I had a car, I'd probably be living in Ypsi, to be honest.

Were you to delve into health research, you would see that we are researching and utilizing successfully, nutritional strategies to cure, reverse, and prevent many illnesses, physical and mental.

Some concrete claims from JLNHI -- rather than this unspecific hand-wavy "many diseases" -- would have been nice.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

@ TBruce:

No, it actually *was* Procol Harum, 'In Held twas' etc: I was g--gling videos last week which was sparked by JP's link.

Interesting how associative memory works. Too bad alties muck its results up so badly.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

"'Life is a beanstalk, I want to weed it all night long'
Worst Tom Cochrane song ever."

Isn'tt Tom Cochrane the guy who keeps trashing influenza vaccine in his comprehensive reviews?

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

@Roman Korol

Hey, not to forget: the excellent work being done by Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University! He has an App, even! (OSS, which stands for Office for Science and Society)

Joe Schwarcz was interviewed on The Current today.

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

"The frozen ones are imported from Southeast Asia"

A bit more googling has revealed that worldwide soybean production is approaching 80% GMO, but it seems that SE Asia is one of the corners of the planet that has largely not adopted GMO-based agriculture.

If Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, & Burma ever switch to GMO, then TJ's is going to have to remove their edamame. It will have to disappear from their shelves just like that frozen strudel I used to enjoy. I now suspect that the strudel maker was using GMO apples provided by Monsanto.

I believe that edamame are generally only certain varieties of soybean, and as yet these varieties tend not to be GMO (I could be wrong, but I'm reasonably sure I'm not) - not all soy is equal, just as not all corn is created equal (for a long time there simply wasn't GMO sweetcorn, even though most corn was GMO, because most corn isn't actually sweetcorn)

I agree with the "unpronounceable for whom?" comment.

I can correctly pronounce each one of those in a second, and that last woman was almost perfect with "dimethylpolysiloxane". So she and I can eat it without fear, right? While it'll kill everyone who can't say it. Actually, between equal quantities of DMPS and sugar, the DMPS is better for you.

Well, just think: for millenia, there was nothing but psuedoscience and superstition. A mere four centuries or so of science-based reasoning can't wholly eradicate that, but a lot of progress has been made!

Keep at it for another four centuries, Orac, and you'll see the results of your hard work.

By Garnetstar (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

In my experience, everyone loves him some Science as long as you define Science to be "a club for beating the fundies" or "proof that dope smoking cures cancer." Turn that around into "evidence that your favorite boogerman is not in fact killing widows and orphans and small furry animals" then you find that you have created fresh converts to the Republican campaign to destroy Science for the Public Good.

By Robert L Bell (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

You're probably correct, Ewan, although most of the natural websites that I found seemed to recommend varieties based upon where they come from more than anything else. Edamame is just defined as "young soybean picked before hardening". I can do without it, but the spousal unit likes to snack on it, and she refuses to spend more on something just to get "GMO-free" or "Organic" ion the label. I do wonder at what point others, particularly those in poorer countries, may come to same conclusion.

A recent look at the bottles in the Whole Foods supplements aisle shows that the supplement makers are quite guilty of using long, hard-to-pronounce polysyllabic names in their lists of ingredients. It seems very odd to me that relatively simple chemical names are deemed "yucky" by the alternative med types, but long pseudo-latin names are acceptable.

In my opinion, the supplement makers are more guilty than Kraft of obfuscation in their labeling methods.

I read over a list of things that Panera has put on it's No-No list (how childish is *that* name) and the ingredient that really stuck out to me was *lard*. What's artificial about lard? What's hard to pronounce? Laaaaaarrrddd. It's not hard.

If I were inclined to real-life trolling (which I'm not) it would be a fun bit of performance art to walk into a Panera, horrendously mis-pronounce something on the menu, and then demand it be removed, because I can't pronounce it. Something like ciabatta.

Now that I think about it, the whole "don't eat it if you can't pronounce it" is pretty xenophobic. Or American-English-centric.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

‘Pseudoscience’ is in fact a very useful category

Assertion w/o evidence. √

And attacks on it by humanities scholars

Grammar fail. √

usually influenced by poststructuralism and constructivism

Citation needed. √

are a major causal influence on that particular nonsense that hurts our culture today.

Hilarious. √

As I see it, this certain kind of ‘scholar’ has given intellectual cover to this an other nonsense.

Ad hominem airquotes. √

The social constructivists are free to complain, as they always do, that guys like me don’t ‘understand’ them.

You don't understand them. You can't cite and explicate a single major point from this corpus accurately. You fantasize some monolithic perspective among people who disagree one another constantly. Arrogance of ignorance. √

that they never meant to denigrate science

Useless definition of "science", failing to distinguish scientific validity from 'science' as a social-economic institution. √

Honest people would instead admit that their school has had a massive negative influence on public respect for, and understanding of, science.

Umm, smart people would admit that the public neither knows or gives a mouse's butt about humanities scholarship. And honest people would realize, as such, that they've created a boogeyman to blame for their own failures.

Failure to address any substantive points in my post. √

the ingredient that really stuck out to me was *lard*

They're going to have a devil of a time eliminating cysteine from the menu. And I take it that they're also using only naturally occurring baking soda and cream of tartar.

Wait... theobromine? WTF about the chocolate pastry?

Grammar fail. √

This should be good. Oh, and...

Doesn't know what a surd is. ✓

Does like a common-word ingredient list at Panera, or feel mildly comforted by the “no GMO” banner at Trader Joe’s, that hardly means they’re on their way to anti-vax zealotry, cancer quackery, slapupuncture, or even a trip through the colon cleanse door after a vegan meal at The Springs.

It's not that I find the "no GMO" banner at TJ's particularly harmful; it's that I find it annoying. It's disingenuous pandering on the likes of TJ's, Panera and Chipotle, and it feeds into a general miasma of fear about GMO's that one could argue actually does do material harm. Look at the developing countries like Zimbabwe that have refused food aid shipments because they were GM; that doesn't come from nowhere, it comes from the anti-GMO fear-mongering of orgs like Greenpeace.

Not to mention that I find the whole anti-GMO thing to be symptomatic, if you will, of a general anti-science attitude among the general public, "liberal" types like my own tribe in particular. Anti-science just annoys me more when it comes from my own side, especially given how much libs like to beat Republicans over the head about their anti-evolution and global warming denialist stances (and rightly so.) TBH, I'd like to see more people on both sides of the aisle basing their opinions/worldviews/whatever on reality and not on ideology and ideology-driven emotion.

If you controlled for [undefined] the actual level [undefined] of science knowledge in a society at any given time, I’m guessing a historical study would show the presence of ‘pseudoscience’ as more-or-less [sic] constant: certainly not in decline as Ms. Bovy claims, but also not “the opposite” as Orac fears.

Well played.

‘Pseudoscience’ is in fact a very useful category

Assertion w/o evidence. √

The same can be said of your assertion that "pseudoscience" is "not a valid generic category for social concern."

I read over a list of things that Panera has put on it’s No-No list (how childish is *that* name) and the ingredient that really stuck out to me was *lard*. What’s artificial about lard? What’s hard to pronounce? Laaaaaarrrddd. It’s not hard.

It's in the "already not in our food" color, so it wasn't there anyway; I'm guessing they put it on the list just because it sounds yucky and has certain connotations. (Lard-a**, etc.) I mean, it's not like Panera is a vegetarian joint or anything, so I can't think of any other reason.

Now that I think about it, the whole “don’t eat it if you can’t pronounce it” is pretty xenophobic. Or American-English-centric.

Maybe they should start calling it "manteca" and using it in their food. Judging by the quality of the food at my cousin's taqueria, it'd improve the cuisine at Panera quite a bit.

Orac seems to be strawmaning via reductio ad dichotominium. :-)

he thinks that skeptics have never thought about these issues before

I think individual skeptics actually, vary a lot in how much or how well they have thought about these issues, but overall the community has not addressed them suffiicently

as if we don’t make any distinctions based on potential harm

Of course skeptics make distinctions based on potential harm all the time. But sometimes they don't. And sometimes they get it wrong.

He comes across as attacking a straw man

That wasn't an attack.

we’re advocating a society completely run by science and reason

I'm not saying that. I'm talking about recognizing the limited extent to which science and/or reason can ever be expected to guide human thought and behavior, thus differentiating between the importance of Un-science and Un-reason based on harm, and thus creating strategies to maximizing the pro-social effect of asserting science and/or reason by picking and choosing. I'm suggesting skeptics may actually be doing a good enough job of that, that while the total amount of woo floating about now may be the same as it was 15 years ago, things might indeed be better now, all things considered. Not that I necessarily think they ARE better. I just think it's a fairly complicated question, open to investigation and debate.

with all of us being good little Mr. Spocks.

Hey, I iove Spock! :-)

^ Regarding #67, it's true that in the olden days I would have told the typesetter "set rad+vinc"; then again, we also told them "solidus" when they knew what was meant was "virgule."

Bringhurst, oddly, doesn't have an entry for the term, but OUP's The Printing of Mathematics (1954) concurs with "surd."

I mean, it’s not like Panera is a vegetarian joint or anything, so I can’t think of any other reason.

It is quite difficult to get nonhydrogenated lard, at least at the consumer level.

Serious proposal:

This "if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't eat it" meme is a major danger of going viral, getting Food Babe and her ilk much more publicity & actual power.

We need a counter-meme campaign that a) brings people back to reality and b) destroys the value of Food Babe's meme via mockery and c) goes viral faster & better than her dreck.

Possibilities:

"If you can't pronounce it, look it up."

"If they can't pronounce it, they're stupid!" (Certain venues only, this one might be controversial.)

List of various international dishes that many people eat but many can't pronounce: particularly French but also some Asian and some Mexican, with the header "Can you pronounce these correctly?"

List of common chemicals in foods, with their common names after their chemical names, ending up with "Dihydrogen monoxide: Water," and the tag line "Chemicals: they're everywhere!"

Stick-figure cute cartoon characters representing molecules, with the text-ballons over their heads saying "We are chemicals. We are everywhere!" This plays on the old gay rights slogan "we are everywhere," and will get traction in the progressive community if it's done right. This also suggests "chemicals: they're coming out of the closet" as part of the theme.

Brainstorm & suggestions welcome.

(In case someone has already suggested this: I just wrapped up work & haven't had a chance to read all the comments yet, sorry about that...)

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

it’s true that in the olden days I would have told the typesetter “set rad+vinc”; then again, we also told them “solidus” when they knew what was meant was “virgule.”

I have tried correcting people who talk about "slash-fic" when clearly they mean "virgule-fic", but they just don't listen.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

I have tried correcting people who talk about “slash-fic” when clearly they mean “virgule-fic”, but they just don’t listen.

There could be little objection to "shilling-fic" in that case.

sadmar also seems to think that skeptics don’t think about and debate the definition of science, particularly what we like to call the demarcation problem (that is, where science crosses over to become pseudoscience).

My bad. What I was trying to get at is the idea that 'pseudoscience' sometimes gets deployed as if it was a unified category, with everything inside the Venn diagram (however you draw the lines) generically bad in the same way and to the same degree. But I botched it badly by not clarifying what I meant by "overly broad opposition". So Orac's interpretation of that as 'nonsense' makes perfect sense.

List of various international dishes that many people eat but many can’t pronounce: particularly French but also some Asian and some Mexican, with the header “Can you pronounce these correctly?”

My favorite example is a Greek sandwich thingie that you must order as if you are requesting a component of a guidance system, or you will wind up with another type of sandwich.

Brainstorm & suggestions welcome.

I gotta say that the "dihydrogen monoxide" routine is so trite that it sets my teeth on edge.

Well, the actual names of 'life-saving' vitamins don't sound exactly edible either.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

@Orac #48: as sadmar relies on argumentum ad nauseum to make his points, I pretty much just skip over his posts.

Re. “You can eat dinner — everything is raw, vegan, organic, soy free and gluten free — and then have your colon cleansed right through that door!”

Comeback: "_That_ door? The one that leads to the _bathroom_? So if I eat dinner _here_, I'll have to dash in _there_ when I'm done? Is "colon cleansing" a euphemism for food that gives you _diarrhea_? One more question: do you, er, uh, _recycle_?"

---

Pris @ 1: Someone needs to test Pürbläck for toxic heavy metals, for example lead and cadmium. It would not surprise me if that stuff was loaded. Ayurvedic medicine also includes something about drinking your own urine. Eww. "Ayurvomit" anyone?

Herr Doctor Bimler @ 5: And the reverse is also true: if something contains at least 40% alcohol, chances are it tastes really vile, and dissolves the cell membranes of neurons. I prefer ice cream;-)

Vegan stuff: There are also the ecological impact issues of meat production. I eat my share of meat & dairy etc., but there's some truly excellent vegan food out there and it's no sacrifice to have veggie or vegan meals a couple of days a week.

Wooful Groceries: Last I checked, Whole Foods also charges $3 extra for two types of meat on a deli sandwich, even if you want half-and-half rather than double meat. At Safeway deli, half-and-half is free, and it's something like 50-cents or a buck for double meat. (The only thing Whole Foods deli has that Safeway deli doesn't is fresh spinach, and I'll admit I like fresh organic spinach.) I told the nice lady at the Safeway deli that she makes better sandwiches than Whole Foods, and she was very happy to hear that. Now that our nearby Safeways (Oakland CA) carry Clover Dairies milk (local oldschool dairy, best-tasting milk around), I have very little reason to go to Whole Foods.

Re. Trader Joe's: Delicious store-bakery soft chocolate chip cookies, that harden like concrete two days after you open the package. This happened a bunch of times in a row so I stopped buying 'em. _And this is why I *like* preservatives._ I don't want my food going inedible within a couple of days. BHA and BHT etc. prevent waste of food. Speaking of religious/moral principles: wasting food is bad.

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Narad:
Is there a keyboard shortcut for a real check mark? (I shall happily continue to lack Pürbs, but I welcome the typographic knowledge).

JP:
I totally get the 'annoyed with my own tribe' thing. Berkeley, f'rinstance, is just TOO MUCH for me to take. But I'd say TJ's isn't so much pandering as just doing marketing-business-as-usual, hyping whatever essentially empty label has some cultural buzz. For most customers, I think 'No GMO' is just another fad label, basically another iteration of 'No (X)', so the typical response is more like 'well if there's any possible problem, I guess I'm glad that stuff isn't in there, whatever it is, not that I care that much...' I mean, there's even a "Not Made With GMO Ingredients" on CHEERIOS! My point in #45 was that this isn't symptomatic of ANTI-science, just of the routine and pragmatic absence of science in the routines of everyday life, and much less weird in that than most of what most people do most of the time.

Gray Squirrel:
If people demand food ingredients they can pronounce, won't the manufacturers just change the names? Just call azodicarbonimide 'addimite'; call semicarbazide 'somadoe'. Those sound yummy!
How about a faux-Food-Babe giving thumbs down to benign ingredients with letter-salad names, and thumbs up to easy-phonetics poisons? "The pronunciation-based diet!" I can say 'arsenic', 'lye', 'ammonia' 'mouse feces'... So 'Red Dye #2' must be cool, it's all three letter words!

The issue is not as Daniel Welch puts it of ‘people not using their brains,’ but one of HOW they use their brains.

No, it is if they use their brains, as opposed to their hearts, or funny bones, or genitals.

You seem to be either purposefully misunderstanding, or perhaps splitting a hair that would be better left whole, but the point of my comment was that decisions that require data to make correctly are far too often made without it, or indeed despite it. People hate GMOs because they have an instinctive revulsion to eating "unnatural" things, not for any rational reason. They call glyphosate "poison" without recognizing that the caffeine they probably drink everyday is about 30 times as poisonous; it's all about the base, er, dose. They believe in astrology because one time, by sheer chance, their horoscope was right, and they remember that and forget the thousand times it has been wrong. They favor Creationism because their religion demands it. They believe in gigantic-yet-totally-hidden conspiracies because... oh, who the hell knows why, maybe because it makes the world seem more exotic to their dull minds.

These are all examples of people not using their brains. I think the meaning of the comment was perfectly clear.

By Daniel Welch (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

What I was trying to get at is the idea that ‘pseudoscience’ sometimes gets deployed as if it was a unified category

Grammar fail. ✓

But I botched it badly by not clarifying what I meant by “overly broad opposition”. So Orac’s interpretation of that as ‘nonsense’ makes perfect sense.

Failed use–mention deployment. ✓

(BTW, the Zorse's Ass really needs some help in this regard hereabouts. He's been pining for you, as well.)

Is there a keyboard shortcut for a real check mark?

I don't think you appreciate the (disastrously conceived) scope of Unicode. If you're on OS X, I can probably tell you how to put access to the character palette – if it still exists in modern versions – in the menu bar, but I haven't remapped the keyboard in some time.

It's not really used that much, after all, although I'm mildly surprised that the HTML ✓ "entity" (← 'scare quotes')* doesn't seem to exist.

But misappropriating the mathematical symbol requires wholesale abdication of the notion that designed symbols might exist solely by virtue of specific denotations.

* Assuming ← does.

But I’d say TJ’s isn’t so much pandering as just doing marketing-business-as-usual, hyping whatever essentially empty label has some cultural buzz.

No, that's just what I mean by "pandering." It's annoying when it comes to gluten-free stuff, or the coconut oil fad, or drinks based on aloe vera, or whatever, too. It's just that I think it's actually problematic when it comes to anti-GMO fear-mongering, because it encourages knee-jerk rejection of a whole freaking technology that has great potential to be of real benefit, including from an ecological standpoint.

Berkeley, f’rinstance, is just TOO MUCH for me to take.

Don't get me wrong; I like the far-out types, much more than I like the wealthy middle-of-the road liberal types, though I don't necessarily pass judgment on the latter. I just like weirdos in general. I do get annoyed when radicals spew the whole "there's no difference between the Democrats and Republicans!" nonsense, but that's another story.

I applied to Berkeley, actually, but I didn't get in. I heard the same from a bunch of people who applied to the Slavic dept. there and were accepted in a whole bunch of other places; we all got rejection letters within about three weeks. My suspicion is that they just weren't accepting graduate students due to the funding crisis, but in that case, they could've said so, and saved me the fifty bucks or whatever it was I paid to apply. (In all fairness, my main reason for applying there was that I sort of wanted to stay on the West Coast.)

My point in #45 was that this isn’t symptomatic of ANTI-science, just of the routine and pragmatic absence of science in the routines of everyday life, and much less weird in that than most of what most people do most of the time.

The marketing maybe, but the anti-GMO is blatantly anti-science. The studies that people try to wave around when they want "science" to back up their anti-GMO position are absolute transparent BS, for instance.

^ the anti-GMO movement.

Gray Squirrel:
Oakland, eh? Used to live there, then Alameda, went to CT for 13 years, back in Daly City now. Before Oakland I was in SF, and I was never fond of the Safeways, which were too small for me. So I used to drive to SSF to the Pak 'n Save, which I found out, was actually run by Safeway. I suffered Safeway in Oakland, as nothing else was close, but in Alameda, I lived by the tube and went to Lucky. Which got a lot better when it became Albertsons. But then Albertsons sold all the Albertsons stores to SuperValu and CVS, which sold the NoCal locations to Save-Mart, which renamed them back to 'Lucky'. And then Albertsons bought Safeway, though they didn't rename it, and as far as I can tell it's still the same old Safeway pretty much. So I'm really confused, and I just go to Target – which is also between 280 and the mobile home park so, you know, I conserve gas :-).

if something contains at least 40% alcohol, chances are it tastes really vile, and dissolves the cell membranes of neurons

I'm pretty sure that's not how EtOH neurotoxicity works. In fact, now that I briefly scout around, I'm not sure that a direct effect exists at all outside of rodent models.

Isn’tt Tom Cochrane the guy who keeps trashing influenza vaccine in his comprehensive reviews?

No, that's a former US President.

I just like weirdos in general.

How do you feel about a weirdo's three cats if said weirdo loses the roof over his head?

How do you feel about a weirdo’s three cats if said weirdo loses the roof over his head?

I hope said weirdo is not you, as I find that possibility personally distressing. Sadly, I'm not in a place to be adopting any cats, as I live in a little studio apartment with a strict no-pets policy, and I have a certain globe-trotting tendency as well; I'm going to be out of the country for most of the fall semester.

I would certainly hope the three cats could find a good home if that needed to happen. I do know some people in various locales in the Midwest who would probably be able to adopt some cats.

JP:

I'm all for weird. Berkeley isn't too 'out there' for me. It's too... I'm tempted to say hegemonically granola-crunchy, but that's not quite it. And I think it's the townies more than the UC folks. It's a great school, and there's an intellectual/political tension there, in a good way, like people are using their minds. Telegraph Ave. is cool. You'd have liked it there, I think...

Too bad Ann Arbor's going bourgie. I was only there once, in the 80s, when Borders was still just the (totally awesome) local bookstore, and it rivaled Madison for college-town cool. But other big State schools in the Midwest have been under similar economic pressures to get smaller and more 'elite', and that burns me. Same at Minnesota, which is barely recognizable these days compared to my UG days in the 70s.

FWIW, the Grad Colleges usually handle the incoming applications, want as many $50 fees as they can get, and neither know nor care how many slots are open in any specific program. If you inquire with the head of grad studies in the department, they usually give you the straight story. Now, if you want to get abusive time-wasting at the department level, wait until you apply for a tenure track teaching job...

The GMO-thing is a real mess. Short version: technology that has great potential to be of real benefit, and is not in and of itself harmful, is often used to create more harm than good in the service of profit and power. (This is basically the history of industrial technology in a nutshell.) People conflate the use with the technology, and TPTB actually benefit from that by being able to discredit any social critique of use as 'anti-technology'. If the GMOs-are-poison loonies didn't exist, Monsanto would probably invent them...

Speaking of Whole Foods. Gotta like this.
" Whole Foods Tops List Of Companies Forced To Recall Food." ... "Within the food industry, some companies appear to sell contaminated food more often than others. Whole Foods tops our list of offenders, with 26 store-brand products recalled since the beginning of 2014." From https://www.yahoo.com/health/whole-foods-tops-list-of-companies-forced-…

@Narad:

BTW, do you have my contact info? If you need any help getting anything figured out - and I am invested in making sure things get figured out, for the cats and for the human - I can be reached at j l p a r s @ u m i c h . e d u.

"vantage point tend to fall for sports"

Should there be a men in there somewhere? Might want to fix that.

BTW, do you have my contact info?

I do now, thanks.

Narad,

I have a place for you to crash and know some mountain movers (of which I am also one) if you need anything.

Check your email.

Alain

OTR (off the record),

I met over 300 peoples since January 2014 and selected out 4 or 5 of them as mountain movers. I no longer work at SAP but currently involved with these 4 mountain movers (one of which, I'm ready to marry and asking her out today) to start 4 businesses.

I also have many other plans but these 4 businesses I'm working on at the moment.

Alain

BTW, many thanks JP :)

sadmar:

But I’d say TJ’s isn’t so much pandering as just doing marketing-business-as-usual, hyping whatever essentially empty label has some cultural buzz.

Good point. It is important to make the essential distinction between pandering for unspecified reasons, and pandering for profit. Good to know the motive is greed.

Probably too late, but I thought of a better way of characterizing how social media is a powerful weapon in the fight against pseudoscience:

Quacks make it their full-time job to bamboozle the public. Vani Hari, to cite an example that is particularly grating at this moment (seriously, she's like a tiny, tiny splinter under a fingernail), quit her job as a "computer consultant", whatever that means, to focus on her career as a food advocate scam artist. And we all know how little actual doctoring Dr. Oz does these days.

No single person, no matter how much they love reason and rationality, can compete with that -- everyone has a life to lead, and all the quacks have to do is out-wait their critics. But with social media, the criticism can be done in tiny slices which "normal" people can accommodate. Enough tiny slices, and you get the whole pie. Now, whenever I have five or ten minutes, I can leave comments, express outrage, poke fun, or whatever I can do to further the cause of science. My little efforts don't add up to much all by themselves, but if there are enough people doing it -- and there are now -- it can have a substantial impact.

We have, in effect, crowd-sourced skepticism.

By Daniel Welch (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Depends a lot on where you post the tiny slices, after all some pages seem quick to ban people and scrub themselves clean of dissent.

At least based on the number of large banned by... groups and the size of them.

sadmar:

Everything ‘works’ in one way or another. The question is ‘WHAT WORK DOES IT DO?’

In the fake debate over human-caused global warming, pseudoscience has delayed action by about 25 years, and will probably continue to slow the process to a crawl for at least another decade. (See James Hansen's 1988 predictions. Which were presented to the US congress.)

That's the difference between getting started back when co2 levels were at about 355 ppm, and getting started 10 years from now - and now, co2 levels are about 399 ppm. In 10 years they'll be at 420 ppm or more. Some estimates suggest co2 will more likely peak as high as 450 ppm, or maybe even 550 ppm, depending on what we do. Then, hopefully, we'll do things like cover an area 1.5 the size of India (500 million hectares) with BECCS, and suck some of that co2 back out. If BECCS works, a thing we do not yet know. But let's go with 420 ppm as the long term level that will eventually determine global sea level rise.

Does that not sound like much? Well, we know that during the Eemian, global sea levels were probably 4 to 6 meters above today's levels. What was co2 during the Eemian? It varied, but no more than about 300 ppm at any given time.

If, the difference between the pre-industrial level of about 275 ppm and the Eemian level about 300 ppm amounts to 5 meters of sea level rise, then, what does the difference between 355 ppm and 420 ppm amount to? We're talking a 25 ppm differnce in the first case, and a 65 ppm difference in the second case. But the relationship between co2 and global temperature is approximately logarithmic. But the relationship between global temperature and sea level rise is not too well understood ...

Hansen and Sato, 2011 found the Eemian was probably no more than about 1 C warmer than today. Does 1 C amount to 5 meters of sea level rise? It might. (See also this )

Well, if a doubling of co2 produces a 3 C rise, then, the difference between 355 ppm and 420 ppm is about 0.7 C . The math is (* (- (/ (log 420) (log 2)) (/ (log 355) (log 2))) 3) , if you read elisp. I don't do algebra anymore. How much sea level rise is that, if the Eemian was 1 C warmer than today, and had sea level 5m higher? I don't know. Let's go with 3.5 m . The relationship is almost certainly not linear, but I don't know enough to pick a better estimate.

What population of people is threatened by 3.5 m of sea level rise? One country, Bangladesh, has a population of about 156 million, and about 10% of its land would be drowned by 1m of sea level rise. That's 15 million people. There are other densely populated river deltas too. The Mekong, and others.

Now, for reasons that make little sense to me, practically all projections of sea level rise end at 2100, and forecast between 1m and 2m of sea level rise by then, but that's not the ultimate sea level rise, because the ice sheets are not going to melt that fast - we hope. (Presently, the west antarctic and greenland ice sheets are melting much faster than expected). I don't know how long it will take for 3.5 m of sea level rise to come about. Glaciologists toss around figures like "300 years", for how long it might take the Greenland ice sheet to melt (Greenland is about 7 meters of sea level rise), but they do not seem to place much confidence in any particular estimate.

But, according to this USGS slide on sea level rise , 5m of sea level rise would affect about 670 million people, and 3.5 meters threatens about 600 million people. Note this does not account for the fact that global population is likely to grow from about 7 billion or so to about 9 or 10 billion or so, so "600 million" is conservative.

So, I am going to assume that the difference between stabilizing co2 at 355 ppm, achievable if we had acted in 1990, and stabilizing at 420 ppm, what is more likely to result from today's politics, results in a sea level difference that affects 600 million people - though, I don't know if the population between the sea level rise reached as a result of 355 ppm and the sea level rised reached as a result of 420 ppm is the same. Probably it is not, but for now it is my best estimate.

So while governments have been listening to pseudoscience, 600 million people have been put at risk due to fossil fuel caused sea level rise. And sea level rise is not the only effect of global warming. Global warming will also dramatically displace agriculture. (See here for a little overview on the effects of climate change on agriculture.) (Or see here for effects already occurring.) And there will be many other effects - recall the European and Russian heat waves that killed tens of thousands of people. But to keep my estimate conservative, I will just go with the 600 million lives threatened by sea level rise.

Now, sure, there are many uncertainties in my back-of-the-envelope math. I am not a scientist of any kind.

But for now that is my conclusion: 600 million lives at risk. That is the work that pseudoscience does, sadmar.

@ Daniel Welch:

Exactly.

Woo-meisters spend their entire lives lying, posturing and spreading false information- they're experts at it. It's how they support themselves. Most of them have a history in this mode of behaving in untrustworthy fashion

If a dedicated group of sceptics documents their escapades, believe me, the message will spread. And it already has. I notice that the anti-vaxxers are spending a great deal of time countering their critics and web woo-meisters need to present conspiracies that explain why sceptics are totally compromised. Now Mike Adams himself announces that he is inaugurating his very own search engine to combat the obvious crimes of the most popular ones. Wikip--- is a designated enemy these days and the name of Orac is known far and wide. TMR and other anti-vaxers want to desert facebook because it censors their nonsense ( perhaps they will use MeWe they say). I know that they can feasibly use our efforts to their own advantage by presenting themselves as persecuted martyrs who have the Real Truth (tm).but eventually, they go too far
( see Alex Jones recently)

I find that besides explicating the obvious pseudoscience, we can also explain 1. HOW these charlatans operate- the minutiae of their business plans; what they write, how they seek out followers, how they branch out to other charlatans, how they control more than one business, how they manipulate internet ratings, etc. It's interesting to find that one single individual runs several businesses- all scams- and may even have a charity or two to bilk the public.

AND 2. How they are motivated- what makes a person live this way? Who are these people? Are there any personality flaws or weaknesses that can give us insight into their malfeasance? Why would a guy spend his entire life tearing down SBM? Why would a woman spend her days hooked up to others on the internet teaching misinformed rubbish that might conceivably endanger children?.

Hilariously, they often represent their activities as a public service or as education when it is merely the means to self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement. It's to benefit themselves and their accounts.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Daniel #104:
Good point! Scammers can devote all their time and energy to scamming, because its lucrative. They really are a minority, though, so they can be countered if a lot of people chip in a little, and time is almost as good as money as a chip. This is basic democratic political strategy – e.g. the only way for the many workers to push back against the few bosses is to unionize. This may be happening to some extent now, as my sense is the comment threads on relevant stories in 'general issue' media are increasingly anti-woo compared to a few years back. Things change slowly, and it's easy to get frustrated. But if enough ' little efforts' keep pouring in, the tide can indeed turn... eventually.

I can't help but note that the limits of time we 'normals' all have to devote to such things you discuss correlates to what I was trying to say about how we use our brains. In #85 you use "brains" figuratively – as opposed to "hearts" etc. – and I was using "brains" literally – 'heart' is a brain function, of course. If "decisions that require data to make correctly are far too often made without it," a major reason for that is that we simply don't have time to gather all that data and process it properly in our cognitive frontal lobes, so the tasks get slotted to short-cut-land involving more of our lizard brains. The decisions that result may not be scientifically "correct", but for most routine human business, they function pretty well. We all make a massive number of decisions every day, large and small, each one involving a massive amount of potentially relevant data, and we'd just freeze if we tried to process each one cognitively with something like scientific reason. I'm not talking about labeling glyphosate “poison” or astrology or Creationism or conspiracy theories, all of which DO involve time-investment and can indeed be critiqued as 'poor thinking'. I'm talking about more 'reflex' or 'automatic' responses that occur in a split-second. As you said yourself, the bias against the 'unnatural' is instinctive, but I'll assert it needn't rise to anything near revulsion for the consumer to pick one box of breakfast cereal off the shelf over another.

So, basically, I was posing the same question you did in #104: how do we use our limited time resources most effectively? Because a major limit is the amount of attention we can expect any 'normal' person to devote to listening to us amid all the demands of work, family, etc.

@ sadmar:

Perhaps an apt phrase can get to the heart of matters...

-Heath expert's degree is in technical writing.
-Natural health guru is poisoned by his own product.
-Researcher who warned of vaccine dangers was patenting his own version.
-Surgeon earns more money on television than in the operating theatre.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

@ Narad;

I hope you have an alternate place lined up. I'm sorry to hear that.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Denice #106:
Yess! Exposing how the scams work, and interrogating the true motives of the scammers IMHO is far more persuasive than "this is wrong on the facts." But when conflicting claims get weighed, being right on the facts sure helps. Look at how much mileage woo-promoters get from false exposes of process and false attribution of motives: e.g. 'the Pharma Shill Gambit'. It's textbook turdblossom: accuse your opponents of your own sins. Simply documenting that this is factually wrong becomes back-on-your-heels defense. Fight that fire with fire, and trust that the flames will burn the position built on a house-of-cards un-reality more than a position anchored in the concrete of verifiable scientific fact.

@ sadmar:

Of course. The facts are the foundation. ALWAYS.

Here's the tricky part:
some of the idiots I survey present their own distortions as fact because they know that their followers will hardly go and LOOK IT UP.

Here are a few recent ones:
-Both Thorsen and the Whistleblower, Thompson, are portrayed as LEAD authors in charge of the studies.
-Doctors who oppose vaccination ( those nearly ubiquitous shrieking harpies, Humphries, Banks, Brogan & Tenpenny) are called 'vaccine experts'.
-Offit's vaccine and HPV are portrayed as "killing" children and teenagers.
- and a thousand other memes

Another probem is that the woo-entranced listen or read this swill regularly and may even ((shudder)) cross-reference- thus repeating the prevarication- by going from Adams to Null to Olmsted and to Lord knows what other snake-in-the-grass h3llbent upon securing their discretionary income.

I notice that a certain journalist we know used great headlines to lead into his precise and detailed findings.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

it feeds into a general miasma of fear about GMO’s that one could argue actually does do material harm

Yes, exactly this. I purposefully avoid buying food that brays about being 'non-GMO,' and as a vegetarian in the SF Bay Area, that is getting increasingly frustratingly difficult.

Anti-science just annoys me more when it comes from my own side

Yup. Anti-GMO, vax pseudoscience, colon cleanses, crystal healing, anti-microwave-oven BS, childbirth woo - come on, liberals, you're letting me down...

(The only thing Whole Foods deli has that Safeway deli doesn’t is fresh spinach, and I’ll admit I like fresh organic spinach.)

I've never been to a Subway that doesn't have it - I do sometimes have to ask for it, as they don't always have it out. Probably not organic, but as that's food-woo, too, I'm happy about it.

Re: Berkeley - it just seems so very predictable, these days. Affluent folk showing their 'counter-culture' credentials by buying the Right Food and the Right Clothes and having the Right Jewelry. It warms my heart when I come across an Actual Hippie.

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

This is a rather late reply to the umlaut discussion, but I don't think they were going for a heavy metal thing. Rather, it was probably more like what Häagen-Dazs did. They threw the double-a and umlaut in to appear Danish, but of course it's really just a nonsense phrase invented by a Polish immigrant who spoke no Danish whatsoever, but who knew that people tended to associate Denmark with quality products. Foreign branding, it's called, and I bet that's what's going on here.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

@ Roadstergal:

Oh yes the Bohemian Bourgeoisie!
One of my gentlemen works where they reside and occasionally I am invited to some activity there and must decide if I should attempt to fit in or just be myself.
So far, it appears that they actually LIKE me. I don't know iif I should be happy or upset by that.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

@KayMarie #7
I've been musing on what you wrote, and wanted to comment on it - this isn't a personal attack; not too long ago I would have entirely agreed with you.

On the other hand I do think the more we can get people to eat minimally processed foods rather than flavor-enhanced and artificially colored the better.

I have radically changed the way I think about this over the past few years. I came to realize much of the way I thought about food was rooted in vitalism; I had uncritically swallowed the idea that raw food or juices are healthier than cooked vegetables, for example. I'm not at all convinced that flavor-enhancers and colorings are a serious problem. I suspect that the real problem is that humans are hard-wired to enjoy sweet and fatty foods like chocolate, ice cream and donuts. Sugary sodas probably don't help either, though these days it's increasingly hard to find any with sugar in them.

Few otherwise healthy people are malnourished in the developed world, though I have come across one person with laboratory confirmed scurvy, albeit mild (his diet was very weird). I think the main cause of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, obesity and type 2 diabetes is simply consuming too many calories and using too few through exercise. Some foods may fool our satiety responses, and rarely there may be genetic factors involved, but generally speaking I think it's a pretty simple of input exceeding output.

When you refer to flavor enhanced foods and artificially colored foods, which flavor enhancers and artificial colors do you think are bad for us, and why?

My reading suggests that the evidence for adverse health effects from artificial coloring is weak and contradictory (for example); though probably most of us know someone who claims their children become hyperactive when exposed to certain food colorings.

Evidence for adverse effects of flavor enhancers, which are mostly (perhaps all) entirely 'natural' (e.g. glutamates, inosinates, guanylates and salts of 5'-ribonucleotide), despite their frequent demonization, is equally sparse; even Chinese restaurant syndrome does not appear to be caused by MSG as some have claimed, since carefully designed double-blind studies show no effects.

Now sometimes the flavor-enhanced, artificially-colored food is also nutrient dense, phytochemical rich with appropriate macro nutrient balance, but mostly it just makes junk taste good enough you will eat it.

In general I think sugars, fats and salt make junk foods so popular, and all of those are indisputably 'natural'. For example, I just checked the ingredients on a bag of tangy cheese Doritos, and every ingredient is entirely 'natural' (in the sense of not being made out of petrochemicals in a factory); the flavor enhancer is MSG and the colorings are paprika and annatto.

I do wonder if eating too much of that junk ends up making actual food less palatable (so reinforces eating more junk as after awhile non-junk just doesn’t taste right).

That's an interesting possibility. I think that may be be true for salt and sweetness. It is certainly possible to train ourselves to use less salt and sugar, and as with anything in life we become used to it eventually. For example I stopped using dressings on salads almost entirely a couple of years ago and now thoroughly enjoy munching through an undressed salad (which may consume more calories than the salad contains).

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Oh yes the Bohemian Bourgeoisie!

I love that. I'll have to send it on to my poly-sci sister.

I doubt I'm welcome over there, because someone will eventually ask about my work, and that will inevitably lead to one of those awkward conversations where everyone thinks they understand 'inflammation' better than me. :p (The last time I was in Berkeley was for a Willie Nelson concert, which lead me to a very firm conclusion - yes, one can get too stoned.)

I had uncritically swallowed the idea that raw food or juices are healthier than cooked vegetables, for example

There's a grain of truth to that - boiling vegetables can leach away some of the nutrients, and frying them can bring along excess calories for the ride. But steaming or sautéing in a non-stick pan rectifies a lot of that...

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Denice #114
Be yourself, of course. The hard-core new-agey loonies will get all huffy, but they're actually pretty rare. In my experience, most NoCal new-age is more 'soft', and the people are genuinely nice. I think Roadstergal echoes part of my own discontent with the comment on predictability. It's a 'vibe' you can get moving through the area and taking it in as a whole. On the other hand, when you meet people as individuals, it's usually a different story – more openness and tolerance. The Actual Hippies (and other genuine Bohemians) have been squeezed out by economics, not because the bourgie-libs dislike them and want to be rid of them.

I actually base a lot of comments here on people I've known in the Bay Area – a self-selected sample to be sure – most of whom seem to be into some form of woo... but to varying degrees, mostly benign, and limited to certain specific topics. That is, they'll be kinda woo-ey about (X), kinda 'rationalist' about (Y), not particularly dogmatic about either... no sign of 'crank magnetism.' Complex and contradictory, as most people are at base IRL, (their internet personae notwithstanding).

I don't consider cooked food less real or nutritious than raw/juiced foods. I know that is common but really never bought into that one. However I sometimes will go to town on a good veggie or fruit plate ignoring whatever dip they put out to try to make it edible.

Although I will say that last event with the roasted veggie plate, Oh man was that good. I tend to get impatient and take them out too soon or get distracted and leave them in too long, these were at that perfect level of charred but not charcoal.

I wasn't thinking so much that the things you put in to make one bit of processed thing taste a bit different than the other bit of processed thing was bad for you directly I think overall they are mostly harmless.

Just the training people to prefer intensely sort of strawberry flavored pseudo-strawberries may over time make people think regular strawberries taste funny so are less likely to eat them. So at least some actual food in the fast casual dining space doesn't irk me quite as much as it otherwise might.

I do agree the pack in as much salt, fat and sugar into a bite doesn't help, either with the preferring junk over real food.

Although that may be more of a problem in kids where sometimes giving in to something that is designed to hit the right buttons they will eat the first time is much easier than the however many times they need to actually eat a real piece of chicken rather than a preformed bit of ground chicken like nugget, a real bit of fruit rather a "fruit snack" or some real cheese instead of orange powder cheese.

no sign of ‘crank magnetism.’

I have to admit, that hasn't been my experience. My friends are generally decently-off, college-educated, fans of NdGT, Bill Nye, and the like - and they'll still have a good wide streak of pseudoscience, combining usually more than one form of food-woo (mostly anti-GMO, pro-'organic,' anti-microwave), cancer woo, and supplement-woo; the parents are usually into several sorts of childbirth/AP woo and most are 'formula is poison' woo.

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

"Rather, it was probably more like what Häagen-Dazs did. They threw the double-a and umlaut in to appear Danish, but of course it’s really just a nonsense phrase invented by a Polish immigrant who spoke no Danish whatsoever, but who knew that people tended to associate Denmark with quality products. Foreign branding, it’s called, and I bet that’s what’s going on here."

You see that on beauty products in the US -- lots of accents aigus added to the names of shampoos and moisturizers to make them seem more French. Because all Frenchwomen are beautiful, non?

Roadstergal,

I doubt I’m welcome over there, because someone will eventually ask about my work, and that will inevitably lead to one of those awkward conversations where everyone thinks they understand ‘inflammation’ better than me.

Really? Inflammation is hideously complex and even the word gives me a headache by association.

(The last time I was in Berkeley was for a Willie Nelson concert, which lead me to a very firm conclusion – yes, one can get too stoned.)

Ain't that the truth. I'm reminded of a recent TV show in the UK in which researchers gave Jon Snow, a well-respected journalist and presenter, a substantial overdose of THC and filmed him unraveling. He has been under fire in war zones but said getting stoned was the most frightening experience of his life. The whole thing seemed more than a little disingenuous to me. You could get a teetotaler to drink a bottle of vodka and film them vomiting and suffering the spins as an argument against alcohol.

There’s a grain of truth to that – boiling vegetables can leach away some of the nutrients, and frying them can bring along excess calories for the ride. But steaming or sautéing in a non-stick pan rectifies a lot of that…

True, but a surprising number of vegetables are more nutritious when cooked, with the exception of vitamin C. Also, don't forget that some antinutrients are destroyed by cooking.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

(The fact that the Huffington Post has become The Go-To Reading For Liberals around here - for no good reason I can think of - doesn't help, because they support all the woo.)

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

@ sadmar:

Sure but occasionally I do like a little dress-up ( without going all-out cosplay). A crisp shirt and neat trousers looks fabulous with my unruly hair. I can't do the faded jeans and Indian cotton shirts in all conscience.

Altho' my area - very near the great city of [redacted]- has its share of hippies, liberals, bourgeoise, yuppies, moneyed perfectionists and arbiters of hip, I must admit that NorCal has more fine lines of distinction in leftie-ism. BUT I agree, I constantly meet very nice people whenever I visit. there.

They just love me.. So do 20-something shopgirls/ boys in the City and café employees.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

The whole thing seemed more than a little disingenuous to me.

For sure. I've been 'too stoned' in 'wow, I really can't be arsed to get off of the couch and stop watching The Simpsons,' but it's another few leaps to 'everyone around me is smoking pot endlessly and it's just really a lot of THC.' They were even blowing bubbles filled with pot smoke around, which were beautiful but Too Much.

Also, this factor.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8FzGlgVGdo

Ooh, thanks for the SA link! I always like good food info. :)

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

anti-microwave

I don't think I know anyone who is anti-microwave in general, beyond simply thinking it declassé, but a surprising lot of people in my circles are convinced that specifically microwaving tea water is bad, either for taste or health.

Most, if pressed, can't explain why they think so or what difference there'd be from other means of heating. One suggested that by heating the water evenly, there'd be less convection and thus the water would pick up less oxygen. No explanation was given, of course, as to why you'd want tea water highly oxygenated (and I don't know if it even works in the first place - gases become less soluble in water with increasing temperature, so if anything getting convection going might if anything help the water lose oxygen).

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Kreb:
I used to joke my five essential food groups were sugar, fat, salt, caffiene and starch. :-)

But seriously, I think your post shows how easily different and complex things get conflated and over-simplified, with the imprecision of language playing a major role as usual. Processed foods are mainly processed to amp up the 'natural' flavor enhancers of sugar, fats and salt. While the ingredients may be 'natural', the balance is not. Thus the "minimally processed foods" are more 'natural' in that more 'holistic' sense. I have no illusions my packaged junk food diet is as healthy as meals prepared from fresh groceries at the market, and that belief has nothing to do with vitalism, which I take as nothing but a crock.

No doubt we're ever more sedentary, burn fewer calories than humans of yore, and our hard-wired drives for raw fuel lead us to take in more than we can expend. But I don't think that alone accounts for the obesity epidemic by any stretch. Consider the differences between the rampant obesity in the U.S. compared to other countries. Here we have fewer and/or less powerful heathy diet traditions, and the most aggressive packaged-food industry acting like pushers for 'unnatural' concoctions of sugar/starch/fat/salt junk.

There's a class angle, too. The more well to do have the money and time resources to eat better, while the less-well-off gravitate toward the fast and cheap. You can see this by walking through the grocery stores in different neighborhoods and checking the different things they stock – which is not just response to 'consumer demand' as the vendors pay the stores for shelf space.

I suspect the presence of certain preservatives/additives and also certain nutrient-diminishing processing has an economic root in increasing the shelf-life of the sugar/starch/fat/salt junk, so maybe that adds to the confusion: the 'unpronounceable' chemical ingredients are benign themselves, but have some correlation with the 'natural' junk content (??).

(The last time I was in Berkeley was for a Willie Nelson concert, which lead me to a very firm conclusion – yes, one can get too stoned.)

Ain’t that the truth.

Brownies are pretty dangerous in this regard for the young and inexperienced. Just sayin'.

Roadstergal:

I'd expect multiple forms of food-woo to go together. If the cancer-woo is anything but a minor offshoot of that, I'd be surprised (and worried). But the Bill-Nye-loving Whole-Foods-shopping is just the kind of contradiction I'm talking about as far as not buying crank magnetism as a real slippery slope.

But then, nobody I know gets their news from HuffPo — more Daily Kos, The Nation, The New Yorker... Makes we wonder exactly what 'here' you're 'around'... :-)
[Like, tell me so I can avoid going there, if possible...]

But the Bill-Nye-loving Whole-Foods-shopping is just the kind of contradiction I’m talking about as far as not buying crank magnetism as a real slippery slope.

Or former Bill-Nye-loving. I posted something on FB some time back about how Bill Nye basically did a 180 on GMOs, and one of my friends said that "he should stick to [something or other.]" People say the same thing about Neil deGrasse Tyson if he dares to say anything about GMOs - "he should stick to astrophysics!" In other words, a lot of people like popular science guys, unless they say things they disagree with. They want the cachet of liking science, but they don't want to actually listen to scientific consensus when it doesn't jive with their ideology.

A lot of people also seem to honestly think science is on their side on issues like GM technology, or they desperately want science to be on their side, to the point that they'll try to point to BS like the Seralini study or some bunkum by Stephanie freaking Seneff as "evidence" that GMOs are bad. Even relatively scientifically literate people will do this; it's sad, honestly.

Ideology: what a drug.

They want the cachet of liking science, but they don’t want to actually listen to scientific consensus when it doesn’t jive with their ideology.

Yes, that's perfectly put, and neatly describes the people I'm thinking of. Science is great - until it doesn't agree with what they've already decided, and then they jump to the Brave Mavericks.

I'll turn around on things given evidence - I don't always do it graciously or punctually, but I'll do it - and that's really important to my own self-worth.

Like, tell me so I can avoid going there, if possible…

Oakland, SF, Marin county, scattered down the Peninsula, Santa Cruz, a few that are overseas...

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

JP:
Yup, even very scientifically literate people pick-and-choose to fit their conformation biases. IMHO, your observation that people desperately want science to be on their side is spot on, and points to a complex dynamic that could tell us a lot if we unpack it properly. The proliferation of Seralini/Seneff-type pseudo-science is a testament to the social power of 'science'. It means the cranks know 'science' = legitimacy. How else do we get should-be-oxymorons like "creation science"? But 'science' (as a socio-cultural institution) bears some responsibility for the ideological mechanisms behind the effectiveness of its fun-house-mirror reflections, by casting itself as outside of ideology when it is anything but. Scientific consensus goes a lot farther when it jives with the dominant ideology, no matter how pernicious that ideology may be [obligatory Werner Von Braun reference, though I'll claim to be Pynchoning rather than Godwining in this case :-) ]. Scientific research takes money and permission, and the people who hand out out the resources direct them to serve their own ends. Legit medical science is probably toward the least-ideological end of the scale, but as a whole the nature of scientific has always bent toward the powerful. Specifically, the histories of many branches of science are inextricable from the history of militarism.

E.g. science education in U.S. public schools was pretty lame, neglected and underfunded until the late 1950s. Then, in the shadow of Sputnik, Congress passed the Defense Education Act... and new science classrooms popped up all over the country all but over-night, with new teachers hired to teach newly expanded curricula. Which only happened because the Pentagon really wanted it. The manned space program was a massively expensive Cold War exercise, pushing science away from all sorts of more beneficial projects into what amounted to an MI-complex boondoggle (and no I don't think the creation of Tang justifies the budget wastage).

Maybe if scientists admitted they're the hand-maidens of power – and their rigorous and correct science is always framed by some ideology or other – the legitimating mystique of 'science' would fade enough for pseudo-science to crumble under the weight of questioning any claim to science with 'What for?'', 'Whose agenda is driving this?' and so on.

I don't know what skeptics think of Vonnegut, but the man had a solid science and technology background, which he came to view through the lens of the horrors of Dresden and his work as a tech writer for General Electric. Between 'Player Piano' and 'Cat's Cradle' he pretty much nailed the social context of STEM with satire. When the scientists don't just create EPICAC, Orange-O and Ice-9 because that's what they're expected to do; when they talk back to power and bite the hands that feed them; when they say, "well, the science is good, but the purpose seems mighty sketchy so let's reconsider..."; when they stop waving their own scientifically valid studies as totems of social legitimation... how then can pseudo-science scams survive the exposure?

(NdGT obviously has worthy things to say about a lot besides astrophysics, but lately the guy's reach has exceeded his grasp, and he doesn't seem to know where his limits are and when to STFU...)

sadmar:

Maybe if scientists admitted they’re the hand-maidens of power

Like this?

@ Andreas Johansson:

I do hear a little anti-microwave sentiment courtesy of PRN and Natural News but they don't push too hard for it because, I imagine their customers enjoy convenience and might be turned off by that type of woo. HOWEVER some of the antivax crunchy moms fear the micro-ondes.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

@sadmar:

I don't know if science is inherently ideological, or the "handmaiden of power" or whatever. I do more or less agree with Latour in, say, We Have Never Been Modern that the separation between science and what you might call "society" is completely imaginary, although it has served a certain purpose in "Western" intellectual history. Science is ultimately a product of society, of particular cultures, languages, etc. - scientists can't do science without language, after all - and yeah, it can't be neatly separated from politics, either. BUT what social constructivists - who want to reduce everything to "society" - don't realize is that all of the societal stuff they study is nothing other than a product of objectively real physics, chemistry, biology, etc. It's a book worth reading, though you may have already done so, although it is pretty freaking dense. I think I was averaging like 10 pages an hour when I was reading it.

As far as the space program goes, I mean, when it comes to a "whose dick is bigger" contest, I'd much rather see it played out in space travel than in stockpiles of nuclear weapons. TBH, there are worse things to spend money on, and in any case, it's f*ckin' cool that we can build a thing that can shoot us up into space and keep us alive there.

Gluck-ose? Glue-kis? Glue-cosy? Guh-lu-koze?
Now you know why nobody likes my desserts.

By Old Rockin' Dave (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Hands up, any scientist posting here who thinks he/she is a "hand-maiden of power."

I'm sure that my lovely brothers and sisters from the great state of California will thoroughly enjoy Mike Adams' latest article ( Natural News today) wherein he predicts the future:
a massive drought, real estate collapse, bankruptcy, default, poverty, fear, loathing and dogs and cats living together drinking pee.
.In Oakland.

AS if that isn't bizarrely unrealistic enough, he then predicts that the impoverished, desperate refugees will head to Austin, where he has lived for the past several years.

Imagine that! He is frightened however that they might bring those danged Calyfornicatin' values with them - and whilst he wouldn't begrudge them drinking their smoothies- he does draw the line at their uncanny unliklihood of being gun toters.
What's wrong with these people? He can't wait until he can carry his rod openly ( is that what they call them? Rods?) as a freedom-loving,, flag-waving, government-hating patriot.

Interestingly, I hear almost the same rant from Null at PRN.
These guys saw too many western movies when they were children or else know deep down that they can't live up to the lifestyle in CA- they're not hip enough.

Harken back to the olden days that exist in your imagination, fellows. Dream on.

Perhaps if they are right about real estate, we can all pick up some great bargains. How about an old Mission? Or an historic adobe? I might fancy a lighthouse myself., Or a place where I can watch sea lions bark.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

@ shay:

Well, I am a handmaiden of Draconis, does that count?

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Maybe if scientists admitted they’re the hand-maidens of power – and their rigorous and correct science is always framed by some ideology or other – the legitimating mystique of ‘science’ would fade enough for pseudo-science to crumble under the weight of questioning any claim to science with ‘What for?”, ‘Whose agenda is driving this?’ and so on.

I really don't think so. Honestly, I think what gives science the aura it definitely does possess, and what makes people want to associate themselves with it even when they don't understand it, boils down to one thing: engineering. Science enables us to build really cool sh*t. We're all surrounded by marvels like airplanes, computers, modems, pacemakers, and so on and so on. These things work - you have to literally deny concrete reality to say that they don't. That aura of power around science that drives cranks to couch their BS in "sciencey" language is always going to be there, really; I think maybe the best counterweight to it is to encourage people toward empiricism and a questioning attitude. Nobody wants to be a dupe when it comes down to it.

When the scientists don’t just create EPICAC, Orange-O and Ice-9 because that’s what they’re expected to do; when they talk back to power and bite the hands that feed them; when they say, “well, the science is good, but the purpose seems mighty sketchy so let’s reconsider…”; when they stop waving their own scientifically valid studies as totems of social legitimation… how then can pseudo-science scams survive the exposure?

I was actually talking about this with one of my former Russian students, an adorable rocket scientist, who recently moved back to the area and got a job here because he hated Alabama. We were talking about the whole Manhattan Project thing, actually, and how it's like, yeah, this is the worst thing anybody could ever have made. But once the knowledge to enable us to build nuclear weapons exists, we're going to build nuclear weapons. We are, when it comes down to it, all too human in that sense. It's sort of like that law that says that if you can think of something, there's porn of it on the Internet.

To be honest, when it comes to the history of the development of the bomb, I can't say that I'm entirely convinced that it's not a good thing it was the US that got there first.

Hands up, any scientist posting here who thinks he/she is a “hand-maiden of power.”

Do we get to wear revealing frilly costumes? Asking for a friend.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 07 May 2015 #permalink

Maybe if scientists admitted they’re the hand-maidens of power – and their rigorous and correct science is always framed by some ideology or other

What such ideology "frames," say, quantum chromodynamics?

What do you think about the (occasional) debate over the leap-second? After all, 'time of day' is about the clearest use of science to enforce a social construct imaginable.

^ One might note that an accumulated ∆UTC of 3 s has a noticeable effect. (And I had no idea that this had been in the news recently.)

I should have written social constructionists above, incidentally, not "social constructivists." I had Vygotsky in my head or something.

when they say, “well, the science is good, but the purpose seems mighty sketchy so let’s reconsider…”

Like this? Beware: One side is waving around "totems of social legitimation."

The math is (* (- (/ (log 420) (log 2)) (/ (log 355) (log 2))) 3) , if you read elisp. I don’t do algebra anymore.

That's surely the strangest endorsement of Polish notation that I've ever heard.

Maybe if scientists admitted they’re the hand-maidens of power – and their rigorous and correct science is always framed by some ideology or other – the legitimating mystique of ‘science’ would fade enough for pseudo-science to crumble under the weight of questioning any claim to science with ‘What for?”, ‘Whose agenda is driving this?’ and so on.

So if those hand-maidens of power would just admit that all the independent lines for evidence that lead to the conclusion that the Earth and the life on it are billions of years old are just framed by some ideology or other, then the legitimating mystique of geology and biology will crumble and young Earth creationists will start asking their pastors, 'Whose agenda is driving the claim that the Earth is 6,000 years old?'

Oh, sure. I can totally see how telling young Earth creationists that geology and biology are nothing special, just some more socially-constructed stories supporting the military-industrial complex of the United States is going to lead them to question their religious beliefs.

#140 JP:
"We were talking about the whole Manhattan Project thing, actually, and how it’s like, yeah, this is the worst thing anybody could ever have made."

Well, it did save countless millions of Japanese lives, and kept WWIII from happening, so it does have that going for it.

271994121

By NoPanShabuShabu (not verified) on 08 May 2015 #permalink

I'm really disappointed that there's been no subsequent analysis of the social implications of the hegemonic 'science' of the 'leap-second'.

MESSAGE BEGINS------------------------------

Yes, Domina Walter, I'm still here.

I'm just busy. New Royal Hatchling. Quarrelling Rothschilds. Generally misbehaving monkeys. New filing system. The Food Babe. But I'm watching. Always watching . . .

Yrs in Ph Evl

Lord Draconis Zeneca, VH7ihL
Thrice Celebrated, Exalted, Forward Mavoon of the Great Fleet, Monkey Master of Mars, etc., etc.

Glaxxon PharmaCOM Orbital
001011000011010111001001

-------------------------MESSAGE ENDS

By Glaxxon Pharma… (not verified) on 10 May 2015 #permalink

My dearest Lord Draconis,

Of course, you have my sympathies.

Our scheduled activities are progressing nicely in Sacramento and elsewhere.

I only ask that you please don't call me the D word publicly: people might get entirely the wrong idea and we wouldn't want that to happen, now would we?

Most sincerely yours,
DW.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 10 May 2015 #permalink

Ideologies and power are things that are always there. Neither category is inherently bad. Nor are human activities typically shaped by only one ideology, or one source of social power. Rather our social projects are 'contested terrain' with different forces and ideas tugging at them.

LEAPING
These struggles frame ALL practice – some more than other, though, and generally at a macro level that may appear (or truly be) trivial when we dig down into specifics like the 'leap second'. Narad pointed to the macro-level significance of concepts of time, but I think the distinction JP observed between the inter-related but still different projects of science and technology may be apropos here: I might amend Narad's observation to: ‘time-of-day is about the clearest use of technology to enforce a social construct imaginable', as I'm not sure 'science' per se has a major role in that.

While 'time' is indeed a highly ideological social construct, and uses of clock-technology highly ideological as well, it would be egregiously simple-minded to suggest these things have any uni-vocal source or effect; e.g. an exclusively progressive or repressive trajectory ('dialectic', blah, blah, yada yada). Contrary to what skeptics may imagine, ideological analyses in the Humanities are not just pulled out of a critic's butt, but require extensive research, yielding enough evidence to support a plausible argument. While peer-review in the Humanities has very different standards than in the sciences, it's more often than not quite rigorous. And much more so than in the sciences, if you put out a piece of pure BS, the relevant community of scholars will rip it to shreds on its own failed terms.

If I could still do that kind of research (which I can't) a passable "analysis of the social implications of the ‘leap-second’" would take me at least 3 months to write, and I'd have no reason to imagine the result would be interesting or productive enough to justify the time and effort.

MYSTIQUE
The distinction between 'science' and 'technology' has been a major site where "the legitimating mystique of science" has been deployed to justified social agendas articulated through technology. Since we're talking about time, I can think of better example of this than the work of F. W Taylor, through which industrial capital used the rubric of 'science' to control and dehumanize labor in ways that were not genuinely 'scientific' at all.

More broadly, "the legitimating mystique of science" means social agendas get legitimated by wrapping them in a rubric of 'science'. This is NOT a discussion about the legitimacy of factual claims produced by scientific research as recognized by scientific consensus, but rather what what the policy implications of anything taken to be 'science' by TPTB can or should be

The Manhattan Project is emphatically NOT an example of this. AFAIK, no one involved in the nuclear weapons race between the U.S. and the Third Reich had any illusion about what they were doing. In Cat's Cradle the story of Ice-9 is a parable of unintended consequences, or rather a utter vacuum of intent-consequence connections. In contrast, I'd offer Oppenheimer as an example of a scientist expressing proper recognition of the social context of his work. He understood the stakes, and admitted the larger moral contradictions, but at the end of the day could say 'this is why I did what I did, why I thought it was absolutely justified under the conditions.'

FRAMES
The premise that everything is framed by ideology and power simply demands that we all be willing to acknowledge those frames, accept responsibility for the consequences of our choices, and find a legitimate social argument to stand proud behind them. WWII was framed by a pernicious ideology of militarism, but once that was activated in armed conflict pacifism became highly questionable, and the argument that the relevant question had become 'which side are you on?' in terms of the contesting configurations of power: fascism or democracy? Being a handmaiden of power isn't necessarily anything any of us need apologize for. Personally, my own apologies include not being a better handmaiden for "power to the people!'

So, yes, "the independent lines for evidence that lead to the conclusion that the Earth and the life on it are billions of years old" are "framed by some ideology or other," but not just</i. so. Nor is this an example of biology and geology being used as a means of mystification, or in service of the military industrial complex. Evolution and natural history have been openly politicized from the get go. If biologists and geologists dating the Earth were aware of the various ideological influences on their work, on balance I doubt those badges would be anything they'd be ashamed to wear.

Invoking the mystifying appeals to 'science' by Young Earth creationists here is reductio ad absurdem, since those claims are pretty transparent attempts to put rationalist lipstick on a pig of Biblical-literalist blind faith. The broader terrain of 'creation science' and 'intelligent design' is another story, though, as it seeks to square spirituality and supernatural dieties with biology and geology by disputing the interpretations of various empirically verified facts.

TOOLS
Finally, deconstructing/undermining "the legitimating mystique of science" isn't going to lead anyone to question their religious beliefs. They're religious beliefs. They don't depend on science at all. The people who hold those beliefs employ pseudo-science to justify their beliefs to society beyond their in-groups-of-faith, largely to make arguments about policy — e.g. using the profit-motive-driven economics of the textbook industry to displace solid science with woo in the national science curriculum by stirring enough enough trouble with a fervent minority in Texas. We are talking about the political arena here, and "the legitimating mystique of science" gives any agenda that can support itself by some 'sciency-ness' that looks enough like science to pass with policy-makers gets an unfair leg up.

Why does woo manifest itself wearing a lab coat? Because, in the social/political/cultural realm 'Pseudo-Science Works!" If we could kick out ALL the props offered by the rubric of science, do you doubt the causes of 'real' science would prevail of the causes of the woo-ists? Admitting that the development of factual scientific knowledge was framed by some agenda doesn't make it false. Having the collected facts on your side still offers a superior basis for argument. If 'science' is unwilling to answer the question "But what work does it do?" with moral confidence, then indeed something is very, very wrong.