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Anomaly 2022  •  02 October 2022

Falling Prey to the Pitfalls of Pseudoscience

By Rosa Gharibi
Falling Prey to the Pitfalls of Pseudoscience

Asking people about their pet-peeves has become my go-to icebreaker. The more specific, the better. It’s in our nature to complain, rant, and moan about anything and everything. What better way to strike up a discussion than by sharing mutual annoyances? This includes online pet peeves, because co-existing with millions of people in a crowded environment is always bound to become claustrophobic. When that environment is the bustling online infosphere we call the internet, there are bound to be peeves — Instagram’s shitty algorithm, six sunset pics in a row, and couples who insist on proclaiming their love via Facebook comments are among the most common replies I’ve received after posing the question. I hadn't even considered my online pet peeve until a friend asked me, but, after a little thinking, it finally dawned on me: wellness influencers.

You know who I’m talking about. Recently, it seems like a large number of online content producers have taken it upon themselves to provide consumers with a variety of health, dietary, and exercise recommendations, even though they lack the necessary credentials to do so. 

We seldom stop to think about what is meant by online posts that indiscriminately throw around words like ‘detoxify your kidney’, ’balance your gut’, or ‘repair your hormones’. 

These are some of the deceptive buzzwords that lure individuals in with the promise of resolving their health problems — and they serve their purpose well! You'll watch the brief 30-second TikTok on "how I cured my gut", and you'll stick around for the vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, carb-free, joyless recipes, and monochromatic capsule wardrobe. Even now, a simple search for ‘juice detox’ produces an endless stream of slender, blonde twenty-somethings explaining how they lost weight simply by realising they’re either a) lactose intolerant, b) not drinking enough celery juice, or c) promoting a diet that was made for epileptic children (keto, anyone?).

And what’s more, people will believe it! Now that you’ve liked the video and followed the creator, the brainwashing is officially underway. All cults have an initiation ritual. In this case, it’s being conditioned into buying the cutest sage-green activewear set that you ever saw. Don’t forget to use INFLUENCED20 at checkout for $$ off your first purchase!

There is a special term used to refer to false and misleading claims that hide under the guise of science but lack sufficient evidence to hold up in court: pseudoscience. The promotion of seemingly harmless diet fads and nutritional advice that seems to be the craze right now is just the tip of the iceberg. Instead, what interests me is the culture that has allowed the persistence of unsupported scientific evidence and facilitated its widespread acceptance. Diving down and exploring the rest of this iceberg concealed by murky waters reveals the extent of the issue, most of which can be narrowed down to one notion: trust in communication. 

We start learning how to communicate at a young age. Babies are aware of the precise pitch and frequency of screams and whines that will best get their parents' attention. In fact, it's believed that modern humans' ability to advance so far, defeating our distant ancestors and taking control of the planet during the Anthropocene, is the result of this very evolutionary advantage. To a certain extent, all social species have mastered communication; and while birds and insects have stuck with their song and dance, we’ve somehow arrived at Tinder dates. But the diversity of our languages and the development of social media have taken communication to a level incomparable to any other social animal. We talk, read, listen, and write. Not only that, but we also have cognitive development that allows us to avoid misinformation and deceit. However, communication itself is not enough to avoid falling victim to lies and misinformation. Only when communication is accurate and sincere does it have any real value. That’s where trust comes in: a protective mechanism to allow us to take full benefit of communication and learning, safeguarding us from deception and manipulation.

Authority is a big part of trust. Studies demonstrate that we have a propensity to believe people's communication based on how much we trust them as early as infancy. Fame also has a significant advantage of giving you authority, which explains the widespread prevalence of influencers, celebrity endorsements, and product placements. The problem is that the authority of these celebrities is a weak form of evidence to support the claims they’re making, the practices they’re encouraging, or the products they’re advertising. I think this is best illustrated by everyone’s favourite wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow. I can still clearly recall the momentous day in 2018 when I came across the infamous ELLE piece, which first opened my eyes to how much bullshit celebrities can get away with when promoting to their evergrowing cult of health and wellness. If you’re not familiar (and it’s a good thing if you aren’t), the saga started when Paltrow’s ‘health’ and beauty brand GOOP released an egg-shaped "wellness" jade stone that was made specifically for vaginal insertion to help you "experience the connection with your body". At least, this is how their website currently describes it after the lawsuit that forced them to retract their claims that the egg could help balance hormones, which is, quite plainly, not biologically possible. 

It should go without saying that it is not a good idea to place a porous stone in a body cavity that is prone to infection, but that is not the point of this. The key point is that celebrities have no trouble using their influence to make wealthy groups of people even wealthier. The true health and wellness of impressionable consumers is rarely treated as little more than an afterthought and is only considered when facing a costly lawsuit.

By this point, you might be thinking that you’re immune to such information because you believe in science, you’re up to date with your vaccinations, and you’ve practised social distancing ever since March 2020. 

I have bad news: ironically, ‘believing in science’ isn’t enough to save you from the pitfalls of pseudoscience. 

Those who believe in science are more likely to be fooled. You would believe that avoiding misinformation is simple — after all, if there isn't any scientific evidence, it must be untrue, right? However, those who believe in science are susceptible to falling for false claims, given that their source has an equally false scientific reason they’ve conjured to support their claim. This is deception "pretending to be scientific", according to Dolores Albarracin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. This means that "those who are educated to accept science and generally do trust science can be tricked as well"

Dissecting the manufactured evidence behind dodgy claims or recognising the lack of evidence is not easy. It takes skill, vigilance, and practise to ensure mindful consumption of media. When you throw scientific misinformation into a fiery cauldron and add in a sprinkle of 21st century media access, online communities become echo chambers of mirrored ideologies that are difficult to penetrate with logic or reason. 

Unlike Gwyneth, real scientists and clinicians can’t pull claims out of thin air and reap the benefits because the truth is: even scientists don’t trust science. It is an ever-changing field, and that’s why in science academia, claims are discounted unless backed by observations, experiments, and other forms of evidence, and even then, they are subjected to rigorous and harsh critical appraisal of their research by their peers, and what’s more, they welcome it! Epidemiologist Ben Goldacre accurately denotes this as a “consenting, intellectual S&M activity”. In contrast, pseudoscientific claims are webs of dodgy claims posing as real science, woven to trap and draw you in. Want to avoid becoming the bait stuck in this web? Next time you’re reading an article, watching a video or scrolling through your feed and an infographic pops up, stop and consider who the author is, what their accreditations are, and what they stand to gain by communicating this information with you. If that doesn’t pan out and you’re still having doubts, just ask yourself, do they look like the type of person to purchase a jade egg?


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