Thursday, February 13, 2014

21st Century Snake Oil

In a backlash against technological advancement, numerous anti-scientific beliefs are enjoying a surge in popularity -- even among the wealthier and better-educated segments of the populace.

Recently, I was chided by a couple of good friends for my response to their posting on Facebook a viral video purporting to show popcorn kernels popping when several ringing phones were placed next to the kernels. I was the "spoilsport" who pointed out the video was fake, and that were such a feat possible, the implications would be far more severe and noticeable. Extensive studies have proven cell phones do not cause any health problems, but vague fears of the effects of cell phone radiation (like a previous generation had for microwaves) abound in the popular imagination.1

I have noticed, too, that the similarly-aged friends and acquaintances I know who pay attention to horoscopes, visit psychics, or believe in other supernatural ideas often do not accord much or any importance to the most mainstream supernatural belief: religion. Americans, especially young Americans, are less tied to religion than ever before -- nearly a third of people under age 34 do not claim a religious identification.2 Could it be that these alternate beliefs are filing a vacuum of order in people's lives in the absence of religion? A report this week released by the National Science Foundation revealed that belief in astrology is on the rise, and that younger Americans are fueling this trend.

Beyond just supernatural ideas, anti-scientific beliefs, i.e. magical or non-rational concepts, are enjoying a high profile lately. They are driven by anything from yuppie fads (e.g. an obsession with "super" foods and alternative medicine) to superstitious celebrities (e.g. "energy" necklaces en vogue with athletes).

A Newsweek essay I read some months ago provided an interesting overview of attempts to combat several types of "woo-woo," a catch-all phrase applied to all manner of non-rational beliefs. Among the concepts debunked were the mysterious "Power Balance" bracelets I recall seeing on so many baseball players a few years ago. Since that scam/fad has faded, the value of the placebo effect continues to manifest itself: in November, controversy arose in my home of Chicago when local basketball superstar Derrick Rose was prohibited by the NBA from playing while covered in strips of black "Kinesio" tape. Adherents of the tape claim increased blood flow, among a host of benefits, and public opinion was largely on Rose's side. The NBA, which earlier had a team's arena named for Power Balance, reversed its ban within a few days.

Gullible athletes looking for an extra performance edge are an easy target, but how about middle- and upper-class, well-educated working professionals and their obsession with "master cleanses" for "detoxifying" themselves of the invisible sins in modern foods? (Your body is not beset by "toxins" that need to be flushed by cayenne pepper lemonade, and while you will feel better by avoiding bacon cheeseburgers, only consuming liquids for more than a few days will lead to muscle breakdown.) Or their affinity for a fad diet system whose name perfectly captures wistful anti-modern sentiment -- the "Paleo Diet"? (Here the problem is less with what is consumed and more the crazy-eyed fervor with which its adherents believe they are emulating cavemen, and that that would be a good thing.) How about the popularity of TV star "Dr. Oz," a well-pedigreed medical professional who surely realizes "it would be hard to fill five hours [of airtime] a week with...a common-sense message [of balanced nutrition and exercise]," so he instead engages in fear mongering and touts unsubstantiated supplements?

And then there are GMOs and the raging debate over genetically modified food products. In a widely read and discussed article last month, the New York Times (a liberal bastion) quoted a plant pathologist reacting to largely liberal critics: "These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything. [Their anti-GMO stance] hurts." This was published the same week General Mills earned plaudits for announcing GMO-free Cheerios, proving that ideology has largely trumped science in the debate over GMOs. While it is warranted to criticize the use of GMOs for potentially allowing agribusiness companies to abuse their patents, it is unfounded to claim human consumption health risks when no adverse effects have ever been proven.

Of the ideas addressed above, some are harmless, some are self-serving, and others dangerous. How best to correct misconceptions on these topics is trickier. For miracle diets and athletic enhancers, common sense application of the "too good to be true" test is sufficient, but issues like cell phone radiation and GMO effects require people to understand basic science and pay attention to research findings. Belief in supernatural concepts like astrology or fortune-telling, as with religion, tends to be strongly emotional and often impervious to reason. Ultimately, most people believe what they want to believe.

1. I once met a friendly ex-pat in the Peruvian jungle who told me that he was there because it was the only place he could get away from the cell phone tower waves that caused him headaches and nausea.


nj said...

Ironically GMO opponents might do more harm to people than GMO proponents: in the sense that limiting food productivity may lead to dangerous food shortages in the poorest places on earth.

neha said...

I don't know that there's any correlation between belief in superstition or God and people's decisions to believe in "fad" science. For what it's worth, I also don't know how accurately measurable the former is. A lot of people indulge in superstition for kicks without truly believing in it or using it to make significant life choices. I read horoscopes and fortune cookies all the time- I think they're fun. But I don't actually believe they have basis in reason or reality. I even got an ionic foot bath once purported to clear toxins and whatnot; again, it was fun, partly because of the false marketing. I never truly believed that it would have any health effect at all.
I'd imagine that the surge of "fad" science is largely due to the accessibility of science, and the fact that people's confidence in their understanding of science, as well as mistrust in scientific claims, have definitely gone up in the past few decades. People know now that scientific conclusions have inherent uncertainty, and often knowingly use that uncertainty to try to prevent unlikely events. Or they feel qualified to have opinions on things they really don't understand, and trust arguments made with science-y terms that vaguely resemble conclusions they've drawn in everyday life. People definitely believe what they want to believe...I just don't know whether belief in ionic foot baths and miraculous free radicals has anything to do with belief in the supernatural.

David G said...

My favorite response to fans of the paleo diet is to point out that cavemen rarely lived past 40 years old.

Jay said...

I also should have mentioned the people who believe "gluten-free" = "healthful," regardless of whether they have Celiac's disease (<1% of Americans) or diagnosable gluten sensitivity (another ~6%).

"There is a growing population of people who have somehow heard that gluten-free is healthier or think of it as fashionable, and when they remove gluten from their diet, they’re inadvertently taking out a lot of processed foods and are really feeling the benefits of eating healthier foods."

That, and the placebo effect, I would add.