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Thursday, July 06, 2017

The dangers of scoffing at new age cures

Nikhil Sonnad recently wrote a piece for Quartz pointing out that many of the same pseudo-scientific products are promoted on both Gwynneth Paltrow's Goop and Alex Jones's InfoWars.

This article lost me at "people who can afford $25 'activated cashews'", which I gather means that they buy some amount of many cashews for $25, which of course most people I know have done cumulatively. So it's a statement that only sneers, and doesn't inform.

I also think it's misleading to say that Alex Jones "has said" Sandy Hook was staged, which I assume is literally true, but obscures the fact that he has since walked that back. Not that Alex Jones especially deserves excusing, but we're only getting the sizzle and not the vitamins -- the self-satisfaction and superiority, and not the caveats.

And that's just in the first few paragraphs. If I edited this person, I'd make a mental note to carefully check all of his facts and reign in his phrasings, to make sure we're not overstating, obscuring and sensationalizing information for the sake of entertainment. That editorial oversight doesn't seem to have happened here, so I don't know how seriously I should take the rest of it.

That said, my extended friends and family include quite a few people who buy these sorts of nonsense products, and probably half of them sometimes use homeopathic placebo pills and creams. The weirdest thing I've seen is a necklace with a piece of electronic circuitry on it, with a vague claim that it conducts some sort of beneficial energy field.

I've spent lots of time around learners and teachers who peddle much of this kind of nonsense, and claim to practice or study things like the effects of remote prayer, reading auras, and surviving bodily death. I've argued with the more intellectual promoters of such study. They feel that the limits of what is considered respectable to study in mainstream scholarship are too narrow, and it is cital to support the types of seeking of knowledge and connection that are excluded from study elsewhere. This has been the case with formerly eyeroll-inducing folk practices/substances like meditation, yoga, acupuncture, red wine, curry, MDMA, cannabis, germ flora, and prenatal and early childhood exposure to nuts and seafood -- all of which have demonstrated their value, in the face of dismissive skepticism, through further scientific study, or are in the process of being so.

I do think that there are some disturbing limits on what the mainstream considers respectable to wonder about. For instance, somehow it became ridiculous in serious conversation to worry about GMOs. Calls to more actively monitor GMO research and production, or to label them, are met with eyerolls. But there are many documented cases of environmental damage from GMOs, and disturbing legal precedents that make it illegal to farm with seeds you own if the company which modified them doesn't want you to. In other words, there is ample reason to respect and listen to concerns about GMOs.

Similarly, vaccines in the US have indeed hurt many children due to government and industry incompetence, irresponsibility and/or greed. There are also many different points of failure at which the administration of a vaccine dose could harm your child, and the public at large, on net. I do allow all immunizations that my children's doctor recommends, and I think that's the responsible thing for all parents to do. But I certainly have reservations, and I think if you don't, that's fine, but it's because you're not informed or reflective enough on the topic to realize that reservations are appropriate. But parents with reservations are treated as know-nothing fools.

Another one is vitamins. There are numerous articles that announce that multivitamins have failed all sorts of experiments, but that don't get into the weeds about how some of the components of multivitamins have shown positive effects. We know precious little, really, about vitamins and nutrition, but we don't know enough to be certain what the effects of taking all sorts of supplements are.

To take up an especially dangerous example of excessive certainty, I think we popularly assume we know more about climate change than we do. I agree that it's very likely true that the planet is warming and human activity is the main cause. But I also acknowledge that the global climate is a hugely complicated and somewhat chaotic system, whose complexities our past models and theories have often significantly failed to capture

I don't buy crystals or homeopathic placebos or other similarly ridiculous products. But I think we should all keep in mind how very many times in history folk knowledge has run ahead of scientific knowledge, and how many times mainstream science has served politics, groupthink, hubris and oppression and forestalled understanding and truth.

It's fine to say that, on balance, the evidence for homeopathy or activated cashews appears vanishingly weak. But they can be bullshit without us having to overstate our case. I think people who believe in that microchip necklace or the power of crystals are ingenuous fools. But I also think there's plenty I don't know about all of the ideas around them, and the experiences of their users. It's not where I would focus research, but I don't want to be too smug about it.

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