What do Gwyneth Paltrow and Ken Ham have in common?
It’s what they don’t have in common that connects them. Both public figures adhere to beliefs that — it is widely claimed — aren’t supported by science. Problematically for critics, they promote their respective beliefs as though the evidence for them is grounded in acceptable methods of inquiry.
Detoxification and creation science are considerable disputes on the public radar. Yet, while these positions may be rightfully classified as pseudoscience, they aren’t so easily dismissed.
Last week, Dr. Timothy Caulfield, a health policy researcher from the University of Alberta, spoke at the Rotman School of Management about the role of pseudoscience in popular culture. Caulfield targeted celebrities who provide the kind of advice that scientific study either fails to support or contradicts entirely.
According to Caulfield, the danger of celebrity-driven pseudoscience lies in a luminary’s influence on public opinion. Caulfield charged medical professionals, such as Alejandro Junger, with using their cultural presence as leverage — making it possible to mislead consumers into believing that the body requires “cleanses” to remain healthy, rather than acknowledging the self-cleansing capabilities of our organs.
Caulfield has good reason to hold famous figures such as Paltrow and Junger accountable for spreading falsehoods. Since Paltrow, for instance, alleges proficiency on health and dietary matters, she should be held to the same scientific standard as any other expert.
“I think Gwyneth is fair game. She’s always talking about what we should all be doing,” Caulfield says. “And what we should be doing right now… is we should all be on the ‘goop’ detox.”
However, as Caulfield demonstrates, the Internet’s obsession with detox dieting is based on a premise that our bodies contain unnamed “toxins” that can be eliminated by certain foods, drinks, or procedures. These premises are not founded in empirical studies, but pretending that they are is integral to maintaining the $5 billion detox industry.
Similar examples attract criticism from the greater scientific community. Outspoken creationists such as Ham, who debated pop scientist Bill Nye last February, attempt to combine religious belief and scientific method in order to support the idea that the Earth is scarcely 10,000 years old.
Perhaps less innocuous than Caulfield’s nutrition-based research focus is the anti-inoculation stance that threatens the dormancy of diseases such as tetanus and polio. Concerned parents, persuaded by online anti-vaccination groups, argue that immunization shots are the likely culprit of autism in children. But the evidence that many of these anti-vaccinators cite is a single, badly designed study denounced by most medical professionals.
Like the detoxers, anti-vaccinators rely on flawed methodology to support their belief system. Conversely, an acceptable scientific process must test a hypothesis by recording the results of repeated experimentation, and should aim to falsify the thesis rather than confirm it. Pseudoscience, as distinguished from mere misinformation or conspiracy theory, tends to emphasize confirmation while still working within a structure that appears validated by experts. Often, a pseudoscientific process will devise biased, poorly structured, or irrelevant experiments, or otherwise alter scientific procedure to produce a specific conclusion.
So, lacking the necessary empirical and structural validation, why do pseudoscientific claims maintain such prevalence in pop culture? Caulfield’s own thesis faults a long-term communication gap between researchers and the public. Pointing to a disparity between equivocal studies and article headlines that sensationalize research conclusions, Caulfield suggests that the confusion resulting from media exaggeration leads the public to find more certain avenues of information.
Nutrition science, he says, is often based on cohort studies, which operate by associating the diets of participants with diseases or disorders that they happen to accrue. However, since this type of study finds only correlation, not causation, it is difficult to establish truths. Caulfield speculates that when news reports portray these studies as dispensing certainties that are contradicted months later, it leads the public to find other sources of information.
To fix the problem, Caulfield suggests the founding of independent communication institutes. Here, researchers would better relay their findings, rather than allow reader-hungry journalists to misappropriate the conclusiveness of the evidence for their own ends. If there existed a trusted source of information, he believes, then the public’s propensity for irrational, mass media–guided behaviour may be mitigated.
Caulfield argues that pseudoscientific beliefs run deeper than a desire for a fix-all or denialistic refuge. Clinging to an ideology that glorifies green smoothies and colonic hydration — or perhaps one that condemns teaching about evolution in science class — is, at its heart, a means of self-identification. Because these beliefs are so firmly entrenched within a lifestyle type that is backed by outspoken cultural idols — and seemingly supported by science-based data — they are difficult to change.
Caulfield asserts that education — from the right people — is key to invigorating a healthy skepticism of pseudoscientific claims.
“Researchers need to jump in,” he says. “If we don’t, it will just be Gwyneth and the rest.”