My Dad always said that he was going to live to be 100. He made it to 83. My mother will be 97, this year of 2015. Her mother lived to be 97.
We may not all want to live to be 100, but most of us want to live a better healthier lifestyle. So we are susceptible to every new idea that comes out and is popular for a while.
One could go back even farther, but have you ever heard of the Atkins diet? Some still swear by it. I suppose that is because it tells you to eat all the things that other diets and knowledgeable nutritionists have discovered to be bad for you, contributing to many health problems.
Most people like meat, in fact our society often celebrates a large steak done just right on a barbecue. So avoiding carbohydrates and eating steak, bacon, fat beef and all kinds of red meats appeals to those who are not aware of the dangers of eating too much red meat.
I go to Costco and make the rounds of the tasting stations. Way too many of them end up their little spiel about the product with “and it’s gluten-free”.
My response is “Oh no! I need all that glu-ten just to keep me together at my age!” But my real point is that when gluten became a swear word for the health-seekers, I decided to read up on gluten. It turns out that gluten is an important nutrient to our health. Also even tho “all the world” may think they should cut out gluten to eliminate their “wheat-bellies”, I discovered that it in actuality only about 1 per cent of the population has any problem with gluten. Avoiding gluten when you do NOT KNOW that you are allergic to it is like avoiding water because you don’t like the taste.
Okay now the reason for this introduction. Joseph Brean has an article in the National Post on Saturday, February 7, 2015 discussing those people who run from one “nutritional” fad to another in order to feel better.
Rise of the health truthers: Medical skeptics and conspiracists in search of certainty in a confusing world
Nearly two decades after measles was eliminated from Canada, Toronto has banned unvaccinated children from the schools in which a new exposure has occurred until the small outbreak is over.
The move, announced Friday, follows events that highlight the broad social influence of medical skeptics, denialists and conspiracists. Three of the first four Toronto measles cases, for example, were not vaccinated, despite clear medical advice nearly everyone should be.
From a major measles outbreak at Disneyland in California to the revelation Queen’s University has for years incorporated anti-vaccine misinformation in a health course, and from the rise of “pet anti-vaxxers” to “pox parties” and “flu flings,” in which diseases are deliberately spread to create immunity, the power of alternative views about infectious disease control is deeply established and resistant to mainstream criticism and scientific evidence.
It has even spread into the U.S. presidential campaign, where presumptive candidates this week struggled to strike a balance between evidence-based public health policy and personal liberty.
In the past, I think people had less information, there weren’t as many experts making pronouncements. They trusted the priest, they listened to the priest, then they prayed to God
All these cases show how decisions about health are rarely like scientific judgments. Rather, they can be esthetic choices, personal and subjective, based as much on intuition and emotion as reason and evidence.
In Canada, the vaccine controversy follows the outcry over the death of Makayla Sault, the First Nations’ girl who pursued alternative therapy for leukemia. This raised the question of how much society should defer to alternative views of health and well-being, and whether the answer is different in the Aboriginal context.
But health trutherism is broader than medicine. It spans many aspects of modern life, from grocery shopping to energy policy. Adherents have many bugaboos: wind turbines, vaccines, some environmental illnesses, perfume sensitivity, toxins, gluten, pesticides, fluoride, cellphone radiation …
These issues are connected by skepticism about mainstream science, usually for its links to industry. Often the underlying fear is of a departure from the natural or the pure, although this romantic vision glosses over its more destructive aspects, like killer viruses. Just as often, there is a resistance to changing one’s views even in the face of strong evidence or authoritative advice.
“Part of this is about how people navigate a complex, uncertain world,” says Herbert Northcott, interim chair of sociology at the University of Alberta. “In the past, I think people had less information, there weren’t as many experts making pronouncements. They trusted the priest, they listened to the priest, then they prayed to God. That’s how they managed risk.”
Health trutherism, then, “functions like religious faith used to function.” Like religion, it mixes fear and hope into a single motivation, and like religious faith, it is impervious to worldly arguments.
Prof. Northcott cites the “Thomas Theorem,” a principle of sociology that says whatever people believe to be real is real in its consequences.
But the spread of those beliefs also has real-life consequences, as the measles outbreaks show. A poll this week, for example, found one in five Canadians believes some vaccines cause autism, despite no proper evidence for this other than a fraudulent, retracted paper.
Hostility toward conventional medicine is a popular theme in just about every modern conspiracist movement — including Scientology, UFO groups, and 9/11 Truth
Like religion, trutherism spans the political spectrum. The modern health truther is just as likely to be an anti-government libertarian opposed to fluoride in the water as a lefty vegan helicopter parent opposed to pesticides on crops.
“It’s mostly a class-based thing,” says Jacqueline Low, who studies the use of alternative therapies at the University of New Brunswick. These treatments “cost money, so it tends to be people who have the money to purchase them.”
“The common thing I’ve found was that they were solving health problems that they could not solve in any other way,” she says.
The problem is health truthers think differently from scientists and believe for different reasons.
One key difference is in the view of the placebo effect, Prof. Low says, which mainstream medicine regards as a “false effect” and a “sham.”
The battle over vaccinations threatened to become partisan in the U.S. Monday, as the latest outbreak of measles that has infected more than 100 people inspired some political leaders to weigh in.
On Monday’s Today, U.S. President Barack Obama strongly urged parents to vaccinate their kids, saying, “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, however, begged to differ, telling reporters that while his kids are vaccinated, “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance.”
“Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others,” he added.
“In contrast, alternative practitioners value the placebo effect … they think of it as a human capability that we need to harness,” he says. “You can make yourself sick and you can heal yourself.”
Adherents follow personal experience over the advice of authorities.
They have a “core philosophical belief” alternative treatments are natural and thus safer and purer, “irrespective of whether it’s true or not,” Prof. Low says.
Contrary to natural science’s “generic model,” they believe different therapies work differently in different people, and so they will judge a treatment’s efficacy by their own reaction, not a randomized trial.
“They’re not really interested beyond that, they’re satisfied it does work,” he says.
In his book Among the Truthers, Jonathan Kay calls this kind of thinking “damaged survivor conspiracism.”
“Hostility toward conventional medicine is a popular theme in just about every modern conspiracist movement — including Scientology, UFO groups, and 9/11 Truth,” he writes.
“Even right-wing conspiracy theorists, no enemies of the free market, tend to embrace herbal miracle-cures and other forms of quack medicine more commonly associated with the vegan Left.”
Believing that vaccines cause autism allows emotionally vulnerable parents to blame companies and government agencies for a trauma that might otherwise be seen as a mere act of God, he says.
“As religious martyrs and psychologists alike can attest, virtually any amount of suffering can be endured if the one enduring it feels it has a purpose.”
This view may be wrongheaded, but it is not always ignorant.
“Far from being scientifically illiterate, these individuals have a well-developed understanding of both the principles and practices of science,” says Christopher Fries, a health sociologist at the University of Manitoba.
“However, it is actually this understanding that leads them to be suspicious of scientific knowledge. They understand that techno-scientific knowledge, while at times valuable, is shaped by commercial and economic interests … This leads many to be skeptical of science as a way of knowing.”
The result is many people “shop around and pick and choose diverse elements with which to construct [their] lay beliefs about health and illness — a little science here, a little ethnic and indigenous knowledge there.”
As religious martyrs and psychologists alike can attest, virtually any amount of suffering can be endured if the one enduring it feels it has a purpose
“People just aren’t very good with numbers, so their evaluations of risk are generally not mathematical, they’re subjective and personal,” says Prof. Northcott.
“We’re not a rational species, we’re a rationalizing species. We’re more likely to come to a conclusion and then manipulate the facts to support our decision.”
“A lot of the anti-scientific movements are attempts for people to get control over their lives in a world that seems increasingly out of our control,” says Stephen Kent, who studies alternative religions at the University of Alberta. “As we lose faith in people in power, a lot of people believe they can only rely upon themselves.”
Pop culture taps this vein of suspicion nicely, he said, with movies about “vaccinations run amok,” such as World War Z.
“It’s not that people think they are real, but their constant presence wears down people’s remembrance that they are fictions. They think this could have happened.”
Prof. Kent describes several religious objections to vaccinations, notably by the conservative branch of the Dutch Reform Church, which believes they interfere with God’s will. Travel between their communities in Canada and abroad has been implicated in several outbreaks of measles, mumps and rubella.
There are also religious fears of conspiracy, for example the polio vaccine, which some believe is an attempt to sterilize Muslims. In some rare cases, there actually was a conspiracy, as when the Central Intelligence Agency used a vaccination program to try to gather information about Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The public health effects of these ideas as they catch on can be dire. They can create “clusters of vaccine refusal” in which unvaccinated children get sick, but so do a few vaccinated ones.
It is like the old Punch joke about the man who, having been served a rotten egg by his superior, replies “parts of it are excellent.”
Parts of the vaccine regime are excellent, but that is not enough. If significant numbers of people opt out, it is a rotten egg.
It’s not that people think they are real, but their constant presence wears down people’s remembrance that they are fictions
It can be easy to laugh or scorn. Much like the response of atheists to believers, there is a condescending arrogance in much of the mainstream rebuttal to health trutherism, an unbending certainty in their own views that suggests they do not really understand or fully appreciate the problems.
The Toronto Star found this out this week after a critical news report on the Gardasil vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV), for which it was mocked and shamed for giving voice to people who believe the vaccine caused their physical problems.
There are side effects and risks to vaccines. They are not recommended for everyone.
Courts have struggled with this problem. In 2006, a court in Ontario found hepatitis B vaccinations caused chronic fatigue syndrome in a woman, saying “a legitimate scientific controversy is raging about possible serious adverse sequelae of the vaccine.”
The judge also expressed concern government health authorities “cannot concurrently be a cheerleader and an objective critic of a vaccine.”
Likewise, major public health disasters like Thalidomide, and outrageous failures of medical ethics like eugenics, are not so far in the past as to be completely irrelevant. Prof. Northcott points outsociology legitimizes certain things, while stigmatizing and denigrates other things, often out of step with science.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel, for example, learned this when he wrote a book about the failure of evolutionary science to account for human consciousness, for which he was quickly tarred, falsely, as a creationist. Likewise, climate skeptics can be wary of pointing out the problems with climate models, such as their failure to account for the current “pause” in warming, for fear of being labelled an outright denialist or petro shill.
“I still wonder about how much gets legitimizes even when it shouldn’t, or how much we believe in today that we won’t believe in 50 years,” says Prof. Northcott.
“Both camps [medicine and its alternatives] can be equally committed to their religions, so when they speak to each other they don’t communicate. They speak past each other and they both speak with derision.”
He said the Queen’s University episode, however, looks like a case of inappropriate, unscientific “fear-mongering.”
“I don’t think academics should preach,” he says, adding with a laugh, “Our students aren’t listening anyway.”
• Email: email@example.com