Types of Pseudoscience That Deserve More Skeptical Attention

Attention!

During the past decade, a lot of skeptical activism online has involved topics such as vaccines, GMOs, and evolution. There are thousands of videos, articles and blog posts destroying creationist delusions about bacterial flagellum, the Cambrian radiation and transitional fossils, countering fear-mongering about biotech applications and explaining the benefits of vaccines. Yet some forms of widespread pseudoscience receive considerably less attention in the skeptical community. This posts looks closer at some such cases, possible reasons for why these have been neglected and why they should be given more attention.

Anti-psychiatry:

The opposition to modern psychiatry takes various forms. Alternative medicine proponents think that psychiatric conditions are caused by fungal infection or chemtrails and can be cured with homeopathy, spices or organic potatoes. New age believers think that depression is caused by people attracting it to their lives, and therefore have themselves to blame. They usually think that everything can be cured with positive thinking. Sophisticated mysterians are often non-religious journalists who decry any scientific discussion of psychiatric conditions with accusations of “determinism” or “scientism”. They typically believe that science will never understand art, beauty or consciousness. Even people who are otherwise skeptical of pseudoscience have bought into anti-psychiatry, often displaying the common denialist tactics. There are also conspiracy lunatics who think that psychiatric medication brainwash people and that it is all a government ploy. Some scientologists think that psychiatrists kidnap, torture and kill their patients.

There are not so many skeptics that confront anti-psychiatry. Debunking Denialism has written a little over 20 critical posts refuting different aspects of anti-psychiatry. Steven Novella, Amy Tuteur and Harris Hall has written several detailed treatments. There are probably other skeptics that have covered it as well, but they have not gotten enough exposure. Despite this, it is essential to counter the actions of anti-psychiatry movements because psychiatric conditions affect so many people. According to WHO, depression is quickly becoming one of the biggest causes of disability in the world with around 350 million people directly affected. They and their loved ones are vulnerable to this kind of quackery and charlatans must not be allowed to exploit people.

Why has anti-psychiatry and mental illness denial been neglected among skeptics? There are probably several factors at play. There is a lot of stigma and ignorance about psychiatric conditions. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable and some have bought into the dangerous prejudice that individuals with mental illness are generally dangerous people (they are not). Perhaps by watching movies about psychopaths such as Hannibal and murderous borderline people like Sharon Stone’s character Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct or reading news headlines about paranoid schizophrenics escaping from prison and killing children. To some extent, anti-psychiatry is probably related to the suspicions against large pharmaceutical companies found among some sections of the political left. However, this cannot completely explain the neglect of anti-psychiatry, as this trope (or similar ones on the same theme) can be found when it comes to oppositions against vaccines, HIV science and GMOs as well.

Homebirth quacktivism:

This pseudoscience is based on the notion that giving birth at home is safer than giving birth at a hospital. This is, of course, an absurd idea. Giving birth at home is considerably riskier, both in terms of neonatal death rates and complication rates, than doing it at a hospital (even for low-risk births). They also have a deep antagonism against obstetricians, Caesarean section and epidurals. The homebirth quacktivst movement has an obsession with “doing things naturally” and is also considered to be the “gateway to all other forms of health woo” because it intersects with vaccine rejectionism, alternative medicine and conspiracy theories at a very crucial time in the life of a child and a young mother.

Tuteur (2014) that was linked above suggests that the reason that skeptics have neglected this pseudoscience is that many skeptical movements have a high proportion of men and it is the women who usually make decisions when it comes to childbirth. Major reasons to put more effort into debunking homebirth quacktivism is that is a gateway to woo and because it is more dangerous than hospital births with essentially no real medical benefit.

Physical punishment of children:

Convincing research has shown that children who are subjected to physical punishment (often minimized by being called “spanking”) have worse mental health outcomes, have poorer relationships with their parents, are not long-term compliant and more likely to hit loved ones. This remains a fact even when controlling for baseline level of aggression. Surprisingly, it does not even promote short-term obedience (compared with time-out) once you take into account baseline level of compliance. This is discussed in additional details in Gershoff (2013).

Why is the physical punishment of children not criticized more by skeptics? Perhaps it is due to the fact that people who have been subjected to spanking are more likely to be favorable towards it and the U. S. has historically had a high rate of spanking. Perhaps it, like homebirth quacktivsm, is due to most active skeptics are men. Because of the well-known negative effects of physical punishment of children, skeptics should give more attention to the flaws underlying this notion.

Concluding thoughts

There seems clear that some forms of pseudoscience that are much more covered by skeptics than others. For sure, skeptics cannot be everywhere all of the time, but several forms of pseudoscience, such as anti-psychiatry, child abuse and homebirth quacktivism deserves more critical attention.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

23 thoughts on “Types of Pseudoscience That Deserve More Skeptical Attention

  • December 15, 2014 at 08:19
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    I’m glad you put anti-psychiatry at the top of the list — that one has seemed so virulent as of late, I can’t keep up with it. What do you think of the “social scientists vs biological scientists” paradigm that some individuals often claim, Emil? Worthy of a skeptic’s attention, or is it more political than pseudoscientific?

    • December 15, 2014 at 19:02
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      The “biologists versus sociologists” is an overrated conflict in my opinion. Emphasizing a biological explanation should not be considered a dismissal of social or psychological explanations or vice versa. Good science combines insights from both the natural and social science.

      With that being said, so called “race realism” or “human biodiversity activism” or whatever they are calling themselves nowadays are certainly worthy of the attention of skeptics.

    • December 15, 2014 at 22:42
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      A lot of it is political, more than one might imagine. It’s highly tied into the nature-nurture debate and has raged on in its modern form from the rise of sociobiology in the 70s and earlier since Galton’s Social Darwinism. Now, this stuff is moistly found in the HBD-sphere on the internet and in the writings of evolutionary psychologists and such, famous modern example being Steven Pinker, and older one being E. O. Wilson. Many debates and feuds are intertwined with this, but a lot of politics is implicitly involved, and sometimes explicitly.

    • December 16, 2014 at 23:20
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      It should be noted that there are considerable differences between Pinker / E. O. Wilson on the one hand, and race realists / HBD activists online. That said, Pinker has sometimes made flawed arguments and bought into stuff that supported his preconceived notions a bit quickly, such as genetic clustering in PCAs.

  • December 15, 2014 at 08:36
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    There are only a few skeptic/science based beauty blogs I know of and they are- The Beauty Brains, Lab Muffin and The Brightest Bulb in the Box. The last two do not exclusively do science posts, they also do normal reviews but they both have formal science training and debunk lots of beauty related myths. Fear mongering about mineral oil and anti-perspirant are two examples. Learning disability denial and calling LD a mental illness is also a problem.

    • December 15, 2014 at 19:05
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      Skepticism and beauty claims, that’s a good example! Never read about that before.

    • January 2, 2015 at 09:00
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      In light of the recent suicide of a trans teen, many are claiming that sharing the details of the suicide will make more people kill themselves, yet many social activists use suicide stories to draw attention to a particular social issue. Is the claim that sharing the details of a suicide in the media makes more people kill themselves based in evidence? Many link to Samaritans reporting guidelines but NGOs are not inherently trustable, EWG is a good example in regard to beauty science. You are the only skeptic blog I know that covers mental health so I am asking you. Here is an example of that kind of article- http://www.newstatesman.com/sarah-ditum/2015/01/if-you-believe-trans-lives-matter-dont-share-leelah-alcorns-suicide-note-social

    • January 3, 2015 at 03:03
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      Great question!

      There is pretty good evidence that media reports of suicide makes more people kill themselves based on the social psychology principle called “social proof”. This has its own name, The Werther effect / Copycat suicide.

      My main source is the book “Influence: Science and Practice” (2001) by Robert B. Cialdini (pp. 120-128), who cites Phillips (1974), Phillips (1979) and Phillips (1980).

      – “The influence of suggestion on suicide: Substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther effect,” American Sociological Review 39 (1974): 340-54
      – “Suicide, motor vehicle fatalities, and the mass media: evidence toward a theory of suggestion,” American Journal of Sociology 84: 1150-74 (1979).
      – “Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass media: Towards a theory of imitation and suggestion,” Social Forces 58: 1001-24 (1980)

      The evidence is substantial and mutually reinforcing. It is not just an increase of suicides after a publicized suicide, but the increase is only observed in the geographical area it was broadcasted in, only in the types of suicides (e. g. car, plane) and the number and kinds of fatalities match very well.

      The post you link references a WHO report on the issue. See Annex 1 for scientific background:

      Since Phillips’ study, over 50 other investigations into imitative suicides have been conducted. Collectively, these studies have strengthened the body of evidence in a number of ways.

      They cite three systematic reviews:

      – Pirkis J, Blood RW. Suicide and the media: (1) Reportage in non-fictional media. Crisis 2001;22(4):146-154.
      – Stack S. Media impacts on suicide: A quantitative review of 293 findings. Social Science Quarterly 2000;81(4):957-972.
      – Stack S. Suicide in the media: a quantitative review of studies based on non-fictional stories. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior 2005;35(2):121-33.

      Because of this, I would be extremely hesitant about making news stories out of suicides. To put it bluntly, I would not do it.

      The situation with Leelah Alcorn is truly horrifying: both her suicide and the ripple effects on suicide rates that may be influenced by the the news media. Information about how young trans people are treated horribly by family, relatives and society needs to be made widespread knowledge. However, that has to be done very carefully or the consequences could be dire (and ultimately counterproductive in the short-term).

  • December 15, 2014 at 11:10
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    This is a very useful list, I will personally add a few more. Racialism has made a resurgence under moniker of “HBD” and is especially dangerous because it essentially provides a seemingly scientific justification for racism and Social Darwinism, and even more so because most people take its claims at face value. Diet fads are another, the current popularity of the “paleo diet” is an example where more skeptical writing would be appreciated. There are many more pseudosciences and pseudoscience-marred topics to mention that aren’t coming to mind right now.

    • December 15, 2014 at 19:06
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      Yeah, “race realism” / “HBD” is a good example. There is a lot of skeptical activism against racism as such, but limited coverage of the more detailed arguments and fallacies used by race realists.

  • December 16, 2014 at 01:20
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    “The homebirth quacktivst movement has an obsession with “doing things naturally” and is also considered to be the “gateway to all other forms of health woo”

    You mean, considered by one HB-obsessed Amy Tuteur. Its her niche, her interwebs claim-to-fame – and she’s not shy about patting herself on the back for being the lone shining light of skepticism, in the linked article. Who based part of her theory on some crack investigative research she did herself at…Reddit. Because we all know Reddit is a perfect analogue for the wider culture.

    The fact that all of woo is not even remotely all female refutes this notion that HB quacktivism is the mother of all woo. HB quacktivism holds no special rank or place among practitioners of other forms of woo either.
    Tuteur blames contemporary HB quacktivism on a Grantly Dick-Read. “Grantly Dick-Read, widely considered to be the father of modern natural childbirth.” Tuteur, SBM – 2009. “The movement started with Grantly Dick-Read…” -Tuteur, Time – 2011. “Grantly Dick-Read, the father of natural childbirth…” -Tuteur, SOB – 2012. She’s made this proclamation many other times. However, “health woo” is as old as human recorded history. Clearly “health woo” existed long before Grantly Dick-Read.

    “it intersects with vaccine rejectionism, alternative medicine and conspiracy theories at a very crucial time in the life of a child and a young mother.”
    Contemporary vaccine denial has its genesis in feminism. But, you don’t have to take my word for it, simply buy Elena Conis’s book, “Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization” or her essay summary published in The Bulletin of the History of Medicine, “A Mother’s Responsibility: Women, Medicine, and the Rise of Contemporary Vaccine Skepticism in the United States”. I find Conis’ scholarly work on the topic to be far superior in every way to that of Tuteur’s, referenced by her personal experience with Reddit and her word.

    By Tuteur’s own figures, HB accounts for less than 1% of all births. And this tiny sliver of mothers is supposed to give rise to ALL other forms of woo? Uh, no, that doesn’t compute.

    I suggest applying a bit of skepticism to -all- the claims Tuteur makes.

    • December 16, 2014 at 23:31
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      The claim is not that homebirth quacktivism is the historical root of all health woo or that all woo mothers got it from homebirth activists, but rather that homebirth works as a gateway into health woo for many young mothers, as many homebirth quacktivists support many other kinds of health woo, such as anti-vaccine and alternative medicine.

      Contemporary anti-vaccine sentiments has its origins in either the pertussis vaccine scare caused by the “DPT: shot in the dark” book by Harris Coulter and Barbara Loe Fisher from the mid-1980s or the 1998 Wakefield paper (depending on how long timescale you include in “contemporary”). Neither have any substantial relationship to feminism.

      It is good to be skeptical of claims, but it is also worth making sure one has understood the claims in the first place.

  • December 24, 2014 at 16:09
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    Emil, have you heard of neoreaction?

    • December 25, 2014 at 00:31
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      Only briefly. Seems to be some kind of hybrid between race realism, anti-feminism and market anarchy.

  • January 4, 2015 at 06:15
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    Does diet healthy diet prevent colon cancer because of the fiber or are there more factors than just the fibre? I eat an unhealthy diet because I am poor, I add a fibre supplement because I worry about colon cancer and other diet related cancers.

    • January 4, 2015 at 06:41
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      I am not a medical doctor, so I cannot give any medical advice.

      Mayo Clinic writes:

      Low-fiber, high-fat diet: Colon cancer and rectal cancer may be associated with a diet low in fiber and high in fat and calories. Research in this area has had mixed results. Some studies have found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who eat diets high in red meat.

      They also write that evidence that dietary fibers prevent colon cancer is “mixed”.

      We should also be careful with our usage of the term “unhealthy” when it comes to diets. Eating a healthy diet is not about wasting money at Whole Foods, but about getting enough calories not to starve and enough nutrients not to develop deficiencies (usually accomplished by some variation food eaten). It is very hard to get too few calories or become deficient in the vast majority of mid to high income countries.

      In general, supplements are a waste of money.

      If you avoid eating the worst-of-the-worst junk food several times a week, avoid excess consumption of sugary beverages, reducing smoking and heavy alcohol use, and getting semi-regular exercise (if possible), then it is my opinion that lower fiber content in the food probably isn’t that much of a big deal in comparison in terms of colon cancer risk. There are plenty of other modifiable lifestyle factors that one can work on.

  • January 4, 2015 at 06:15
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    I also hate the taste and texture of most veggies.

  • January 5, 2015 at 08:06
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    Sorry, I wasn’t asking for med advice, for wondering what the research said.
    Why do some people say CFS is a fake disease? This kind of attitude is responsible for restriction of bio-medical research in the area. Also I heard MS and ALS are probably caused by a virus, does that mean you can catch it? Please like this page to support CFS research if you are on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cfsresearchcenter?fref=ts
    It is very depressing as a CFS sufferer how mostly absent CFS drug development is. You can also read about the antics around the drug Ampligen. I miss before I was sick, I loved to go on long walks.

    • January 5, 2015 at 09:06
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      The “no medial advice” is just a common skeptical maxim.

      I think it has to do with the observation that humans want concrete, easy-to-understand explanations for clear, definable events:

      – “smoking cause lung cancer”
      – “HIV cause AIDS”
      – “herpes virus cause herpes”

      and find more complicated conditions (such as MS, CFS, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and so on) to be more difficult to grasp. A lot of them are not that visible to bystanders, have diffuse symptoms that overlap with other conditions and there is a lack of detailed knowledge of etiology / effective treatments. In addition, laypeople are usually not intellectually equipped to distinguish these conditions from conditions that are truly non-existent, such as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, Morgellons, chronic Lyme’s disease or hypothyroidism type-II.

      The potential connection between e. g. MS and viral infection is not like a typical pathogen-disease connection like influenza or Ebola. You cannot “catch” MS from a person with MS.

      Rather, the idea (called “molecular mimicry”) is based on the hypotheses that some pathogens share 3D molecular similarities with human protein substances. So if you are infected with the virus, the immune system will also attack the host protein structures that are similar, and this can contribute to the origin of autoimmune conditions. I do not know anything about a putative connection between ALS and viral infection.

  • January 5, 2015 at 09:32
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    Another fake one is “multiple chemical sensitivity”. Thank you for believing in CFS. I even deal with some GPs who think its fake sometimes. My specialist says he has argued with these doctors.

    • January 5, 2015 at 13:00
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      I have often found it useful to remember that people who claim to have one of these “fake conditions” have real symptoms of something, although mainstream medicine disagrees on what is causing them. In other words, it is really a conflict about names and causes, not about presence of symptoms.

      This might be a useful approach to take against those who do not accept the existence of CFS: even if they are right in their prejudicial belief that CFS is not “real” (i.e. the symptoms are caused by some other medical condition instead of CFS), it really does not matter what they think about names or causes: the symptoms and experiences are still very real.

  • January 25, 2015 at 03:03
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    A lot of sufferers hate the terms CFS and PEM because they are trivializing and misrepresentative. Malaise and fatigue are improved with rest yet that is not true for CFS so there no reason to even use words like that. I’m not talking about doctors who just disagree with the terminology, I’m talking about going through every test until I could only be diagnosed with CFS and I still deal with doctors who believe it is a psychological issue. The psych establishment has had a monopoly on this condition so long that its hard for researchers to get funding for biomedical research. I also have an issue with the term CFS/ME because it does not meet WHO naming standards. I understand wanting to avoid the term CFS but ME is also problematic because it says something very specific which there is no sufficient evidence for and in reality we need to fight tooth and nail for any biomedical research to be done. It makes it seem as if the cause is already known which is actually what we are struggling with. This is the same problem I have with CFIS because immune-deficiency is not proven to be the cause. ME stands for myalgic encephalitis. One study suggested Post-exertional Relapse Syndrome would be a better name for the condition. There are problem diagnosis itself because some doctors will go off any 4 things on the list and don’t consider exercise intolerance inherent to CFS, yet that is what is so profoundly disabling about it. So we have people from all sides telling us we are just lazy and unmotivated because there are people who have been diagnosed with CFS would can work full time jobs. The only approved treatments are GED (graded exercise therapy) and CBT but both these are problematic. Talking to therapists actually makes me feel suicidal because most of them know very little about it and treat it as a motivational issue which it’s not. I had a lot of dreams for my life and was an active person and did not want to have to let go of everything that makes life worth living. Then there is GED which ignores that we didn’t just sit on our lazy arses one day and decide we wanted to stop exercising. The idea behind this is also that we are lazy. I had a student doctor tell me to “push through” the exercise intolerance which is one of the worst things you can do since even in GED thought you are supposed to find and respect your threshold. Doing the amount of activity I used to do make me feel extremely irritable, exhausted and its hard for me to even get out of bed to use the washroom. It top it all off we have idiot quacks insisting all over the internet that its a nutritional deficiency, which it isn’t since anyone who knows even the basics about CFS knows that nutritional deficiencies have to ruled out. I can’t even trust mental healthcare anymore because its even more upsetting when they treat me like a lazy person with delusions. I’m probably going to end up killing myself because there might never be any decent treatment for this condition in my lifetime. I’m only 19 but drug development is a snail’s pace and when I say that we deserve drugs to help us with our symptoms I am told, just like many people with mental illness, that drugs are a crutch and I am making excuses to be lazy and unproductive. The only company that has ever tried to make anything to treat CFS made a drug called Ampligen and the antics of that company are definitely worth a skeptical analysis. They are controversial but in my view they are an insult to suffers with all the bullshit they have pulled.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rintatolimod

    http://www.cortjohnson.org/blog/2014/11/06/fatigue-disorder-multiple-sclerosis-taught-us-chronic-fatigue-syndrome/

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