I am part of the problem.

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.  – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1948)

As a graduate of the humanities I frequently lament my choice as a teenager to not study any STEM subjects, despite guidance from people who know better than me that I ought to have done so (sorry, Dale). I joined the legions of young women who turned away from science and maths – be it out of stereotype bias, or a fear of hard work, or the perception that they are elitist and exclusive disciplines.

And this is quite a shame, because they are emphatically not.

It is this general scientific ignorance that, in my early twenties, led to me being quite credulous of everything put in front of me, regardless of whether it was plausible or even possible. It was challenging, as someone who was not very scientifically literate, to discern between what was scientific fact and what had the aura of scientificness about it: the titles, the claims, the jargon and the studies. The idea that it is only the stupid or the very uneducated who fall for pseudoscience and health fraud is offensive and untrue. I am an intelligent and literate person who found the allure of paleo and alternative medicine more positive, more promising, more inclusive than what I perceived to be on offer from the conventional sciences.

And this crucially leaves aside the fact that I have personally never had reason to be truly fearful for my health or survival: I have never been so distressed by a diagnosis or prognosis that I have ever needed to fitfully search for something, anything that would give hope. Add fear to ignorance and the result is deadly: people dying of diseases almost eradicated by vaccines, young women dying needlessly from initially-curable cancers, and families bankrupted financially and emotionally by the vampires of the wellness industry.

The unnecessary and exclusive distinction between the humanities and the sciences has created discord and misunderstanding between their adherents, particularly with scientifically untrained practitioners using the language of the sciences to manipulate and position readers to see them as valid alternatives of equal value.

For the longest time the perception has been to challenge the science and the logic behind the claims of altmed practitioners. Yet, there is nothing different between a quack’s use of language and that of a propagandist or political spinmeister. When a naturopath or wellness blogger offers a means of healing, or claims that they are healing themselves, the layperson may reasonably interpret that they are offering a cure. To the critical reader, it is a dogwhistle: as a word, healing is so worthless and devoid of any real meaning that they may as well say magicking or hoping.  It takes time and repeated exposure to see a pattern emerge: of pleasant, positive-sounding worthless words that present an appealing facade while concealing an undercurrent of victim-blaming, just-world cognitive fallacy, neo-Calvinist moral ideology and bare-faced greed.

It is this facade – shiny, photogenic, brimming with the sort of vitality that moral and natural hygienists of the turn of the 20th Century might have frothed at – which lures the desperate and hopeless like the Sirens lured fishermen and sailors to their death. Only, our sirens don’t have the bodies of vicious birds of prey: they are beautiful and lively, and gouge cash, rather than flesh, from their victims through affiliate marketing, public appearances, book deals and fraudulent healthcare businesses.

It is facilitated by people like me: those who, at one point, were disdainful of what science had to offer them, who did no study it at school, who disparaged those who were interested in it as being esoteric or unpopular. We voted in governments who have decimated funding to research, and who even this year hold the threat of university research funding cuts and surcharges over our head like an ineptly authoritarian parent might with a child they have parented poorly. We nodded in sympathy with peers and friends who chose the natural path of herbs, unnecessary elimination diets or homeopathy, though we might be unwilling to allow them to encounter natural snake venom or organic, gluten-free shark attacks.

I am not a scientist. I cannot run trials, or study compounds in a laboratory, or offer a cure. I am not a model, or a fitness trainer, or anyone who makes their livelihood on their body, and I highly doubt anyone is going to look like a model or fitness trainer while following my daily routine.

But I am a writer. I can use words. I can critically look at how other people use words. And while my lack of expertise and knowledge means I am part of the problem, I hope I can play a role in the solution.

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6 thoughts on “I am part of the problem.

  1. I agree with what you say.absolutely, however the issue is complicated further by similar marketing and research fraud which pervades the scientific and medical fields also. Dr Norman Swan on “The Health Report” on RN interviewed a very interesting European professor about 4 weeks ago on this very subject. This gives rise to some mistrust of conventional medicine and adds to the general confusion.

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    • Yep: Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma addresses exactly this. However, I have faith that the peer-review process and regulatory authorities are able to act in cases where lives are at harm, like with Vioxx. That altmed has none of this critical discussion or regulatory oversight – in addition to being flat up scientifically implausible – makes it worse.

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  2. Great read! I am a fitness trainer and have been for 20+ years and I am embarrassed to be part of an industry that is all about making a quick buck off vulnerable people. I educate my clients to take control of their health using SCIENTIFICALLY proven training and nutrition. I don’t do dieting or use gimmick training methods. Great work on producing a blog like this!

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    • Yep. There are plenty of PTs and sports massage therapists using evidence-based treatment who are getting pissed off with the woo meisters, and recent health insurance coverage changes have impacted badly on them because so many are doing the wrong thing.

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  3. At the age of 10 I started wearing a copper bangle in the hopes that it would protect me from rheumatoid arthritis (spoilers: it didn’t, but it did turn my arm green), so yeah, I’ve been there. Even now, I have to restrain myself from putting some Rescue Remedy in the cat’s water bowl when he’s being especially aggressive or anxious. (Why do I even own Rescue Remedy?)

    I’m moving to a neighbourhood with a vast organic/local/fancy pants/alternative remedytastic supermarket, so I hope you realise you’ve just volunteered to be spammed with pictures of homeopathic toothpaste etc.

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  4. Great post. I am glad to have found this blog and will be looking forward to the next posts. I think it is very interesting to see how all these wellness warriors, anti-vaxxers, cancer cure spruikers could be analysed from social anthropology point of view (continuation of Susan Sontag’s “Illness as metaphor” maybe?).
    It is good to see someone else from humanities field (who also had to train critical thinking) being on the side of reason.

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