Sunday, May 8, 2016

The theology of quackery; how pseudoscience has become a secular religion

As any doctor or public health official can tell you, it’s hard to combat quackery.
It makes no sense on the face of it. A group of otherwise logical people have fallen headlong for nonsense. It might be anti-vaccine advocacy; it might be supplements; it might be cancer quackery. None of it can be proven and all of it is too good or too easy to be true.
So why are people so gullible?
Detoxes and cleanses are pseudoscience exorcisms.
Perhaps we’ve been approaching this the wrong way. Instead of viewing quackery as a form of knowledge, albeit wrong, we might try approaching it as a religion.
What do I mean?
It seems to me that for a large proportion of people, particularly people on the political Left, pseudoscience has become a secular religion, complete with creation myth, demons and ultimate salvation.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of pseudoscience on the political Right, too. But often that is motivated by adherence to standard religious philosophy, the idea that the Bible is the world of God and that anything that contradicts it cannot be allowed to be true. On the Left, where many abjure religion, quackery has become the new religion.
When you think about it, the religious nature of contemporary quackery is hard to miss.
1. The creation myth
Every religion has a creation myth and quackery is no different. Indeed the quackery creation myth bears a startling resemblance to the creation myth of Judeo-Christian tradition with the difference that God is replaced by “Nature.”
Nature designed human beings to function perfectly in all respects (a state of grace known as “wellness”) and to live in a Paleo Garden of Eden where everyone ate organic, exercised regularly, used only natural remedies and lived to ripe old age and beyond. So what happened?
2. The fall
Human beings fell from grace. The serpent in the Garden was technology, which lured people farther and farther from the state of nature. As a result, people developed diseases like autism, cancer and obesity.
We got sick because we ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
3. Demons
We are now plagued by demons. We might not be able to see them, and we certainly can’t find them with our scientific technology despite its sophistication. Of course we don’t call them demons. We call them toxins.
Toxins function like demons. They are everywhere; they are insidious; and they lie in wait to prey on the weak.
4. Predestination
Just like the Calvinist belief in predestination allowed the spiritual elect to be identified by their wealth and success, quackery has its own version of predestination. In quackery, the spiritual elect can be identified by their good health.
Luck played no role in Calvinist predestination. You weren’t wealthy because you were lucky or even skillful. You were lucky because you had been chosen by God. Luck plays no role in pseudoscience. You aren’t healthy because you are lucky; you’re healthy because you are one of the health elect.
It goes without saying that people who get sick must have done something to deserve it or must have been damaged by demons.
5. The Devil
The Devil is a shape shifter. One day The Devil is technology; the next it is Big Pharma; or perhaps it’s Big Medicine. The Devil is responsible for illness and the only way to remain healthy is to thwart The Devil’s machinations. How? By refusing what the Devil is offering: CHEMICALS!
What are chemicals in quack theology? In contrast to the scientific definition of chemicals that encompasses every single substance both inside and outside the human body, “chemicals” means something different in quackery. It is any substance that has a long, scary name.
6. Exorcism
Disease is caused by toxins, the demons of pseudoscience, so it is hardly surprising that preventing and treating disease involves exorcism, forcing demons from your body by cleansing and detoxifying it.
7. Faith
Like all religions, quackery requires faith in the face of the inability to prove that it works or is true. Of course in quackery they call it “intuition.”
For example, it doesn’t matter to anti-vax advocates that there is no science to support the claim that vaccines cause autism, because their intuition tells them that it does. They explicitly reject rational explanations, and, like true believers everywhere, the persistence of faith in the face of ever greater evidence, is treated as a sign of devotion, not gullibility.
8. Priests
Like any religion, quackery has its own priests, the purveyors of quackery goods and services. Instead of offering rational prescriptions for health, quacks offer (for money) superstitions, affirmations, and support in rejecting rationality. They sell substances with no efficacy (herbs, homeopathy) and provide friendship and companionship as a substitute for knowledge.
Andrew Wakefield, the doctor deprived of his medical license because of research misconduct, is one such priest of pseudoscience, though there are many others.
9. Prayer
Affirmations are the pseudoscience version of prayer. Visualizing the destruction of cancer cells and birth affirmations reflect the magical thinking that thoughts have the power to affect outcomes.
10. Salvation
The goal of quackery, like the goal of many religions, is to be saved and welcomed into paradise. In the case of quackery, paradise is a return the imagined state of perfect health “designed” by Nature for blissful life in The Garden.
Approaching quackery as a secular religion has important implications for how we address belief in pseudoscience. It is very difficult to reason people out of beliefs that they didn’t reasons themselves into. Hence education in the sciences, or specific disciplines of immunology, oncology, etc. is doomed to be ineffective. That’s especially true when persisten faith in the face of evidence to the contrary is venerated as devotion.
Pseudoscience as secular religion goes a long way toward explaining the vehemence and vitriol of those who believe in it. When we question anti-vax advocacy, we aren’t merely questioning a specific empirical claim, we’re questioning an entire theology. Is it any wonder then that prominent physicians who try to combat anti-vax beliefs received death threats.
It might be helpful, and more effective, to alert people to the nature of quackery as a secular religion and their faith in it as akin to religious belief. Quackery is more than just ignorance of basic scientific precepts. It reflects a world view that allows people to control their fears around health and disease and imagine themselves as destined for return to the state of wellness afforded by the original health Garden of Eden.
Turning people away from the religion of quackery is going to require more than science education; it’s going to require spiritual conversion.

Image: (Skepticalob)


  1. I think you're doing language a strong disservice. The analogy is a poor one and you're trying to add definitions to words that already have their own meanings.

    Quackery exists because people are vulnerable to bad thinking. They lack the ability to distinguish facts from fiction and wishful thinking.

    In Venn diagram terms, you are approaching the circle of quackery, which contains the small circle of religion, and are saying that anything not in the small circle is not just "quackery" but "secular religion".

    Thus you have simply redefined "quackery" as "religion." Whatever isn't "traditional religion" is now "secular religion". You've just redefined something in an inaccurate way. All religion may be quackery, but much quackery has nothing to do with religion.

    Religion has its own definition (generally speaking, belief in a higher power and associated and shared cultural traditions and beliefs). If there isn't a higher power component to the religion, it's just a shared belief, like a love for a favorite football team, or a book club. Would you call those "secular religions"?

    If I think that vaccines cause autism, does that make me religious? Where's my higher power or transcendental spirit or something that would justify the use of the term religion? There is none. It's just a bad belief, the result of bad thinking an inability to parse what is true from what isn't.

    Also, by trying to redefine quackery into a "secular religion" label, you're muddying the word secular.

    1. I think you are missing the point. The author is making a comparison between religion and quackery showing how they are similar. I would also like to point out that one of the definitions of "religious" is "treated or regarded with a devotion and scrupulousness appropriate to worship." Thus, someone is capable of having a "religious" connection to something such as sports. Frankly, I think you are doing a disservice to language.

    2. The author is making a claim that this is a new phenomenon ("has become"). It isn't a new phenomenon. Pseudoscience has been around a long time.

      To try to be charitable to the argument, I think what OP is saying is that there is a particularly strong strain of appeal to nature fallacy going on, using poorly done science as a fig leaf.

      That's very different from "secular religion": neither of those words fits what is going on well, much less both combined.

  2. I am very anti-religion and I am a scientist. The author is mis-representing intuition as well as mind over matter. Yes our thoughts absolutely can have a profound effect on our well being.