Note: This is the seventh installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will respond her assertions about disease and pathology. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.
So far, Bliss has made quite a lot of disturbing and anti-rational claims. She wrongly believes that that people with cystic fibrosis have themselves to blame because they allegedly caused their own condition through diet and thinking, when in reality, it is a genetic condition. She wrongly believes that eating genetically modified foods makes you less human, when in reality, GM crops are substantially equivalent of conventional crops. She wrongly believes that staring into the sun without protecting your eyes is beneficial, when in reality, it is very harmful and can even make you go blind. She believes that the DNA double helix has 12 strands instead of two, that dark matter is invented by the brain and doesn’t really exist and that quantum mechanics are relevant for human romantic relationships. The amount of pseudoscientific bullshit that Bliss spreads is enormous.
In this installment, we are going to check out her post about the disease concept. Contrary to Bliss, calling a medical condition “disease” or “dis-ease” probably does not matter and certainly does not “create an entirely new reality”. Humans living in the distant past were plagued with disease because modern medicine did not exist to cure or treat them and the body does not chose to have a disease. Becoming sick after getting a diagnosis is most likely due to the disease and not the diagnosis itself, so Bliss is performing the post hoc fallacy. She wrongly claims that human are not their bodies and even gets the placebo effect completely wrong. She also fails to understand why basic hygiene practices are a good idea. Finally, she promotes the falsified notion that there is a vital life force associated with living organisms.
The folly of “dis-ease”
Ah, the “dis-ease” gambit. It is classic germ theory denialist approach and here is how David Gorski describes it (Gorski, 2013):
Instead of using the word “disease,” quacks will often use the word “dis-ease” instead. Basically, the idea (apparently) is to choose not to empower health issues by focusing on a particular ailment. How focusing on a particular ailment “empowers” health issues, I don’t know. The quack’s answer to a nonexistent problem, however, is to use hyphenated variant to place emphasis on the natural state of “ease” being imbalanced or disrupted.
One might think that the way that the term “dis-ease” is used indicates that “ease” is roughly analogous to homeostasis. You’d be wrong. The word, as used by the sorts of practitioners and believers who tend to use it, is more a rejection of science-based medicine than it is a different way of expressing a concept that is at the heart of science-based medicine, homeostasis.
Adding a hyphen does not make a serious medical condition any less serious and modifying your interpretations of reality rarely changes reality itself to a substantial degree.
Health is not a natural state
Bliss seems to be under the impression that health is the natural state of humans. However, throughout most of human history, humans have been plagued with diseases, war and famine. So being able to live a long and healthy life is a relatively recent consequence of modern science and technology. In the early 1900s, the average life-expectancy was only around 30 or so (Prentice, 2006). Today the global average is almost 70 (CIA, 2013). We can even examine to what extent old age was common or rare among ancient hominins of the past. A paper by Caspari and Lee (2004) concludes the following:
Whereas there is significant increased longevity between all groups, indicating a trend of increased adult survivorship over the course of human evolution, there is a dramatic increase in longevity in the modern humans of the Early Upper Paleolithic. We believe that this great increase contributed to population expansions and cultural innovations associated with modernity.
Through most of human history it has not been the case that health has been the natural state of affairs. Rather, the natural state has been disease, famine, violence and as we saw above, less longevity. In other words, Bliss is confusing “natural” with “good”, which is a common fallacy used by proponents of quack treatments.
The body does not choose to have a disease
Bliss then goes on to assert that people want to be sick:
Often we are in resistance to this idea of returning to ease, and instead we believe that our bodies have malfunctioned and chosen the road away from health.
Why on earth would people often want to keep being sick? Also, disease is not a direction chosen by the body (except maybe when it comes to modifiable behavioral risk factors for disease). Diseases are usually caused by pathogens, genetic risk factors and environmental impacts.
Getting sick after a diagnosis is most likely due to disease progression
So many times, when a person visits their doctor and receives a prognosis that contains the word ‘disease’, the very word can throw the person into a complete dissolution of their present state of health, though nothing has changed in that moment, except the word spoken.
This can sometimes be the case, although it is most likely more related to what kind of disease it is, rather than just the word. Learning that you have HIV, cancer or a chronic autoimmune condition can often have a profound psychological impact, whereas learning that you have a cold probably does not. However, Bliss quickly turns away from reason when she makes the following insinuation:
Have you known someone who has spiraled into ill health just because they received a ‘terrible’ diagnosis?
Although not stated outright, she implies that the diagnosis itself is responsible when patients diagnosed with a terrible disease gets worse and worse. This is of course the post hoc fallacy; just because B happens after A does not mean that A causes B. The rooster crows and then dawn occurs, but that does not mean that roosters causes the dawn to occur. In this case, it is probably the terrible disease that is responsible for the person “spiraling into ill health”. That is kind of what terrible diseases do.
Humans do not exist independent of their bodies
We are not our bodies, as much as we like to think we are, as much as it feels like we are and as deeply as we identify with them.
Contrary to Bliss, modern science has shown that our thoughts, beliefs, urges, desires and feelings are dependent on the brain. Brain damage can impair cognitive functions and which cognitive function gets damaged depends on what part of the brain got damaged. Using brain scans, scientists have been able to show that certain brain areas are consistently associated with specific mental events. Additional evidence comes from comparative anatomy, where organisms with more complex brain has more complex mental functions and organisms with well-developed senses have a large brain area devoted to that sense (e. g. smell or vision).
The scientific rationale for basic hygiene practices
Bliss does not even seem to grasp basic disease ecology because she seems baffled as to why people would follow basic hygiene practices:
We live in a germ-fear culture. By this I mean that nearly everyone is afraid of ’catching germs’ from the dirty door handle, the item on the ground, someone else’s silverware, that piece of garbage – we literally empower things outside of ourselves to control our inner environment and dictate our level of health. Why do we do this?
The answer is simple: because basic hygiene limits the spread of infection diseases. Even Florence Nightingale (practicing in the late 1800s), herself a germ-theory denialist (Hall, 2008), knew about the benefits of sanitation. When humans practice basic hygiene practices, we reduce the chance that disease-causing entities outside ourselves get the ability to get into our bodies, replicate and potentially wreck havoc.
The placebo effect is not mind over matter
Bliss apparently thinks the explanation for why people practice basic hygiene is that they have been fooled by the media and that suggestion can cure people because the placebo effect exists.
We are more powerful than we allow ourselves to believe, than the media leads us to understand. Our minds have the ability, through mere suggestion, to act as if it has just taken the most powerful medication or healing balm, just look at the success of the placebo effect.
Like many proponents of quackery, Bliss severely misstates the nature of placebo effects. Placebo effects are not mind over matter. Rather, placebo effects are any improvement that occurs that cannot be attributed to the effects of the pharmaceutically active ingredient. Instead, it includes statistical factors such as regression to the mean and spontaneous improvement, human errors such as misdiagnoses and psychological factors such as classical/operant conditioning and expectancy effects (Carroll, 2013).
Furthermore, the placebo effect is not as strong as Bliss claims it is. A meta-analysis carried out by Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche (2001) gathered and synthesized the results from studies that had both a placebo group and a no treatment group. They could not find a difference between the two groups when it came to objective outcomes (binary or continuous) or subjective binary outcomes. They did observe a difference when it came to subjective continuous outcomes and for pain treatment, but that might have been a result of bias as the effect sizes in small trials were large (suggesting publication bias).
The researchers repeated the study a few years later (Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche, 2004), this time including over 40 new randomized controlled trials (bringing the total up to 156 trials with a total of almost 12000 patients) and they came to a more or less similar conclusion: “We found no evidence of a generally large effect of placebo interventions. A possible small effect on patient-reported continuous outcomes, especially pain, could not be clearly distinguished from bias.”
Thus, the placebo effect is in many cases irrelevant and in other cases too small to be of clinical significance.
The notion of a life force is disproved pseudoscience
Keeping with her tradition of making stuff up as she goes along, Bliss ends her post by promoting vitalism:
We are vital life force systems connected to the entire universe. We are grids of energy, thought patterns and fields of consciousness.
Perhaps the most stunning refutation of vitalism was the creation of a synthetic genome by Craig Venter and colleagues that was inserted into a cell (Gibson et al, 2010). A “vital life force” that can be churned out in a lab by combining nucleotides is no “life force” at all.
The average human life-expectancy was terribly low prior to modern medicine and health cannot be said to be a natural state for humans. Getting sick after being diagnosed with a terrible disease does not mean that the sickness is a result of the diagnosis. Rather, the sickness is probably a result of the disease itself.
Basic human hygiene practices reduce or prevent the spread of infectious diseases. The placebo effect is not mind over matter, but rather every effect not due to the active pharmacological ingredient, such as regression to the mean and and expectations. Studies have show that the placebo group does not improve clinically significantly more than no treatment group for most conditions and the conditions were an improvement may occur is clouded by bias.
Living organisms do not contain any vital life force. This was most clearly falsified by the creation of a synthetic genome by Craig Venter and colleagues.
Carroll, R. T. (2013). Placebo Effect. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Accessed: 2013-07-29.
Caspari, R., & Lee, S-H. (2004). Older age becomes common late in human evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(30), 10895-10900.
CIA. (2013). Country Comparison: Life expectancy at birth. CIA World Factbook. Accessed: 2013-07-29.
Gibson, Daniel G., Glass, John I., Lartigue, Carole, Noskov, Vladimir N., Chuang, Ray-Yuan, Algire, Mikkel A., . . . Venter, J. Craig. (2010). Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. Science, 329(5987), 52-56.
Gorski, D. (2013). Disease, “dis-ease,” what’s the difference?. Respectful Insolence. Accessed: 2013-07-29.
Hall, H. (2008). “I Reject Your Reality” – Germ Theory Denial and Other Curiosities. Science-Based Medicine Accessed: 2013-07-29
Hróbjartsson, Asbjørn, & Gøtzsche, Peter C. (2001). Is the Placebo Powerless? New England Journal of Medicine, 344(21), 1594-1602.
Hróbjartsson, A., & Gøtzsche, P. C. (2004). Is the placebo powerless? Update of a systematic review with 52 new randomized trials comparing placebo with no treatment. Journal of Internal Medicine, 256(2), 91-100.
Prentice, T. (2006). Health, history and hard choices: Funding dilemmas in a fast-changing world. Accessed: 2013-07-29.