Pseudoscience is anything that is peddled as being scientifically-based but is, in fact, not. That’s a big, broad definition for a big, broad topic. Pseudoscience is often composed of people who want to feel like they have some semblance of control over a situation (often an emotionally fraught one) and those looking to make money by taking advantage of other people by using technical-sounding jargon. Let’s break down these two scenarios while also acknowledging that they are not mutually exclusive.
There is a lot of uncertainty in the health care realm. We know so much while still understanding so little. We quickly reach the limitations of our medical knowledge in discussion about disease, how the body reacts to disease and injury, nutrition, etc. Additionally, our knowledge is constantly changing as we learn more. At some point in life, every single person will feel powerless over what is happening to their body, and that’s not a good feeling. It’s scary. The natural reaction is to look for a way to feel more in control of the situation. It’s an unsettling truth that we don’t have all of the answers and that sometimes the old adage “time will tell” is the best we have or “I don’t know, but maybe” is the best we can do. This place of vulnerability and despair is easy to take advantage of. Often, if someone simply says “Oh, they just don’t know but this thing WORKS,” those who are desperate will easily cling to whatever that thing is, regardless of plausibility. This is where pseudoscience comes in. It’s easy to take advantage of an emotionally fraught situation. People grappling with death or health challenges are looking for any advantage they can to hold on to every last second out of their lives. Enter, pseudoscience.
Pseudoscience can be difficult to pick out because one of its hallmarks is to use technical-sounding language to lend an air of legitimacy to whatever the thing is (e.g., vaginal steaming, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc.). Oftentimes, it’s created as a way to make fast cash—think essential oils and COVID-19.1 Sometimes it’s created out of a desire for an easy answer.2 Sometimes, it’s all of these things. Whatever the reason, pseudoscience is a big problem.
Let’s walk through an example of pseudoscience during this pandemic. In the desperation for a cure and a prevention (other than physically distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing, that is) the internet was alight with a myriad of suggestions. In a world shrouded in uncertainty and desperation, people were and still are willing to cling to any number of those suggestions, one of which was colloidal silver.3, 4 Collodial silver has no real medical use. It can and does have serious side effects including turning your body blue, kidney damage, seizures, and possible detrimental interactions with other drugs that you might be taking.5, 6 With these potential side effects in mind and the fact that colloidal silver doesn’t have any documented medical benefit, this isn’t something that should be taken thoughtlessly or “just in case.” It can, does, and has had, serious consequences. Also, it’s a waste of money, which is something few people can afford right now.
We’re constantly bombarded by messaging from high-profile people (people on TV, famous on the internet, radio stars, etc.) and because the message sounds and looks really good, and is promoted by a public figure, it lends an air of legitimacy to claims that are anything but. Pseudoscience has led to people drinking bleach,7, 8 the poisoning of infants,9 and death by bee sting10 all under the guise of “wellness.” Here’s a list of celebrities who push, peddle, advertise, and hock pseudoscience:
- Dr Oz 11
- Gwyneth Paltrow 12, 13
- Robert F Kennedy Jr 14
- Novak Djokovic 15, 16
- Kanye West 17
In a list of just five people we have a major television personality, a world-famous movie star, a prominent political figure, one of the most well-known athletes in the entire world, and a music mogul who recently announced a bid for the American presidency. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it demonstrates nicely how celebrity can amplify pseudoscience.
What you can do
- Vet your sources (I’ve written about this before–https://www.coaccess.com/facts/)
- Check the date. Is it still relevant?
- Validate author credentials
- Is the author selling something? If so, then the site should only be used to jump-start additional research
- Do they make extraordinary claims? If so, do they have extraordinary evidence? If both, are there other sources reporting something similar or are there conflicting reports?
- Do you have access to the primary source?
- Be skeptical. Don’t take claims at face value. Ask questions. Try to poke holes in the assumptions. If the claim(s) can’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s not worthy of your money.
- S. Food and Drug Administration. For Consumers. Health Fraud Scams. Fraudulent Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Products. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/health-fraud-scams/fraudulent-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-products. https://www.fda.gov/inspections-compliance-enforcement-and-criminal-investigations/warning-letters/careful-cents-llc-607756-05262020
- The Conversation. Coronavirus: there are no miracle foods or diets that can prevent or cure COVID-19. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-there-are-no-miracle-foods-or-diets-that-can-prevent-or-cure-covid-19-136666
- The Atlantic. A Common Snake Oil Reemerges for the Coronavirus. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/06/does-colloidal-silver-work-covid-19/613177/
- KARK News. Rutledge sues Jim Bakker for peddling colloidal silver products to cure COVID-19. https://www.kark.com/news/local-news/rutledge-sues-jim-bakker-for-peddling-colloidal-silver-products-to-cure-covid-19/
- National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Colloidial Silver. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/colloidal-silver
- Mayo Clinic. Healthy Lifestyle. Consumer Health. Colloidial Silver. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/colloidal-silver/faq-20058061
- CBS 46. Georgia men reportedly drink bleach, Pine-sol and more to prevent COVID-19. https://www.cbs46.com/news/georgia-men-reportedly-drink-bleach-pine-sol-and-more-to-prevent-covid-19/article_8c9c0248-89c1-11ea-8865-5fe1a0435ade.html
- The Guardian. ‘Church’ to offer ‘miracle cure’ despite FDA warnings against drinking bleach. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/19/church-group-to-hold-washington-event-despite-fda-warnings-against-miracle-cure
- Scientific American. Hundreds of Babies Harmed by Homeopathic Remedies, Families Say. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/hundreds-of-babies-harmed-by-homeopathic-remedies-families-say/
- USA Today. Report: Woman dies after ‘live bee acupuncture’ treatment. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/03/20/report-woman-dies-after-live-bee-acupuncture-treatment/444403002/#:~:text=A%20woman%20from%20Spain%20died,Investigational%20Allergology%20and%20Clinical%20Immunology.
- Harvard University. Policy Lab. Pulling Back the Curtain on Dr. Oz. https://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~policylab/2013/06/14/pulling-back-the-curtain-on-dr-oz/
- Hi’s Eye. Beware of Celebrity Pseudoscience. https://hiseye.org/6641/his-eye/opinion/beware-of-celebrity-pseudoscience/
- Washington Post. Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Goop Lab’ is horrible. The medical industry is partly to blame. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/08/gwyneth-paltrows-goop-lab-is-horrible-medical-industry-is-partly-blame/
- Scientific American. How Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Distorted Vaccine Science. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-robert-f-kennedy-jr-distorted-vaccine-science1/
- Yahoo! Sport. ‘Scepticism of science’: Novak Djokovic and wife’s conspiracy theories. https://au.sports.yahoo.com/novak-djokovic-jelena-conspiracy-theories-adria-tour-040545334.html
- For The Win. USA Today. Novak Djokovic suggests you can change water’s molecular structure with your emotions in bizarre livestream. https://ftw.usatoday.com/2020/05/novak-djokovic-psuedoscience-babble
- The Guardian. Kanye West takes anti-vaccine, anti-abortion stance in US presidential bid. https://ftw.usatoday.com/2020/05/novak-djokovic-psuedoscience-babble