Don’t Trust the Health Experts
The problem with many popular skeptics
Part 2 of 3.
Missed Part 1? Check it out here.
Most of the skeptic communities emerged due to a desire from the population to refute the bullshit the anti science communicators are spewing. I’ve noticed a trend over the last decade, that what started out as well thought out articles meticulously researched and written, has overwhelmingly become memes and mockery directed at the other side. Even the articles which are (mostly) accurate, are becoming increasingly worse in quality, and increasingly less frequent.
Memes work. Unfortunately, the quick and biting sarcasm or mockery gets more traction, more likes and more ‘shares’ on social media. Even the Facebook group I typically consider the cream of the crop (I Fucking Hate Pseudoscience) is utilizing more memes and screen shots the last few years (although I have not taken the time to do a statistical analysis, so this could very well be my altering subjective experience). IFHP has far less followers than some of the other ‘skeptic groups’, whose admin contributions amount to little more than sharing other articles with a witty, mocking preface, or sharing memes they did not create. Sometimes they post screen shots of conversations with followers of a group they are attacking, or take quotes, mistakes etc out of context to discredit the entirety of someone’s work. This type of trite posting is ironically driving the followers down the same path of the very groups they mock.
Many of these skeptic groups are nurturing a culture in the exact same way the alt and integrative health culture has. This culture promotes ideas and behaviours shielded from criticisms, with mentalities increasingly veering far from the truth. They share each others articles while not bothering to fact check (although some shares have been ‘retracted’). They stick up for each other. Many of them have started posting photos of themselves as friends, in solidarity. I’ve noticed the pages that trend towards this also have trended to knee jerk skeptical reactions. Rather than saying to themselves ‘this doesn’t sound right, perhaps I should spend some time researching it to debunk’, they gravitate to ‘this sounds like “woo”, I’m going to quickly slam it and have all my friends share. This is fucking dangerous. Sorry for my language, but it pisses me off. It is exactly what they have created a following pretending to criticize, and they have been corrupted by their own influence.
There are some well balanced skeptics groups. As mentioned, I try to read IFHP when I see articles come out, and while I have disagreed with the positions of writers on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, they typically do their due diligence in researching and referencing a topic. They also seem willing to engage in dialogue and retract or rewrite articles in the future when new evidence emerges. Some of the best articles I have read have been from less popular bloggers with less content, which lends to logic with what we know about expertise.
Regarding hydrogen water and hydrogen therapy, Dr Joe Schwarz, a PhD Chemistry and Science communicator from McGill University in Montreal Canada, shared a photo mocking H2 therapy he took at A4M in December, 2016. I wrote him a long email, which I am unsure he received, in January 2017 expressing gratitude for his skepticism while sharing a dozen or so H2 publications (showing research progression and replication) as well as a couple of reviews. He never responded, but DID write an article in the Montreal Gazette in July of 2018 in which he stated that he is surprised that there is a considerable amount of research in therapeutic H2 and animals. He remained skeptical regarding humans, while telling readers to ‘stay tuned’. In the article he only seemed aware of 2 human trials- I emailed him October of 2018 indicating (at that time) there were 61 published human trials with dozens more ongoing. I pointed him to some resources and offered a dialogue. While he did not respond, I am hopeful he read my emails and I do appreciate his work as a science communicator and skeptic. I also respect his ability to alter his views based on observed evidence.
Many skeptics default to the position that if someone is making money off an idea, then the idea is probably bunk. While conflict of interest is incredibly real, and needs to be considered and accounted for, the notion that a living cannot be made while remaining relatively objective is ridiculous. Everyone has a conflict of interest at some level. Researchers want their research to be fruitful, and influencers want their positions to be correct. Inward skepticism is a trait that is difficult to come by in virtually every area. I’ve noticed many of the “skeptics” who’ve used this argument have branched out, promoting different businesses, interests or ventures and leveraging their following to do it.
I speak about the position that a health product shouldn’t be marketed unless it’s been through the drug pipeline in my open letter regarding testimonials, here. It’s also of note that many leave other business’s, in my case one that was established, and more profitable at the time of this writing, to invest north of $1m USD into the project because I was passionate about it.
I’ve personally been accused of selling to others promoting quackery alongside my product, stating it discredits everything I do, by a once popular but now non existent skeptic page, and many others in private. It was something I knew was coming, feared, and originally even agreed with before perspective changed my mind. I speak about the dangers of this view point in my “100 voices” article, here.
Skeptic leaders need to do better and need to spread better messaging to their audience. Reading the comments in most skeptical pages on Facebook shows an overwhelming percentage simply parroting a mantra. This is seen on the “battlefield”, as the followers go to war against what they view as the enemy of truth.
These skeptical soldiers’ default into derision and skepticism, and usually anger and aggression. In responding to “skeptics” in our ads we’ve noted that when we are insulting or critical to their logic; even if they’ve made critical errors such as confusing a chemical compound and a solution, they often fly into anger and start citing increasingly less credible sources.
When we thank them for their inquiry, respond positively and offer to answer any questions they may have on the science, overwhelmingly they either 1. Do not respond, 2. Delete their comment so no one notices, or 3. Edit their comment to take out the criticism. Very rarely do they continue to engage.
“Skeptic armies” attacking the health influencers, encouraged by the skeptical admins, while conmen in the health industry tell the “health mavericks” easy and comforting words work in tandem to influence the health influencers away from the skeptical points. The skeptic armies are doing more damage than they are helping, because they are fighting the wrong war.
The problem with ‘health mavericks’
As mentioned above, a decade ago, even five years ago, I believed most natural and integrative practitioners were purposefully evil, calculating their lies and behaviours for profit. I viewed them as purveyors of fear and misinformation motivated by financial gain. In the last 10 years, my perspective has changed. I’ve thought deeply about this, reflected, and gotten to know many in this community. I’ve personally met with and engaged in dialogue with many of the biggest names and influencers. Most of these people are not evil. They truly believe what they are preaching and believe deep down that what they are doing is right and that nothing else is as important. Most of their intentions are noble, and much of their advice, learned from years or decades of passion coupled with an expertise, is practical, sensible and worth heeding.
Some of my friends in Academia have asked me not to sully hydrogen water research by providing product to integrative and alt health groups. In fact, certain skeptic groups I have privately engaged in debate with have insinuated by allowing these groups to promote hydrogen tablets, I have opened up the entire product line and research to mockery and it is ‘fair game’. This is dishonest. While I can appreciate the concerns of my friends in Academia and succumbed to this line of thought for the first year or so my technology was available, I have since had a quite substantial revelation that has completely changed my position.
Withholding only hurts
In the philosophical and ethical internal debate I had over supplying to companies where I disagreed with messaging, I was confronted with two truths, which seemed contradictory at first.
I will be profiting off something I disagree with: By selling to channels where I do not back the messaging, I am in effect “selling out”. Since I did not enter this for the money, this is a hard objection to overcome. This is at odds with:
Why did I decide to private label in the first place? Maintaining a sole brand and maximizing my own market share is substantially more profitable, provided I could get the funding to properly launch in this way (which I could, in fact I turned down multiple offers). I did not believe this was ethical. I could not in good faith limit something which I believe is as profound as my hydrogen tablets to a single channel. Or delay its messaging in order to maximize my personal gains. I could not choose this path and sleep at night.
So, if my intentions are to get hydrogen water out to the public, even for a dramatically reduced margin, and I believe division is only hurting society and the pursuit of truth, how could I possibly exclude an entire and massive segment? I couldn’t, and I can’t.
Besides, money is not evil at its’ core. Money is nothing but a tool, a tool which I believe I can use for good. To paraphrase Spinoza
“The acquisition of money, sensual pleasure and esteem is a hindrance(to happiness) only as long as they are sought on their own account, and not as a means to other things. If they are sought as a means, they will then be under some restrictions, and far from being hindrances, they will do much to further the end in which they are sought.
If you watched my conversation with my founding partner Dr Holland, he alludes that one day he believes I will have a multi million dollar lab at my disposal. He’s actively encouraged me to go the ‘discovery’ route in the past, to utilize my talents for ideas and then pass them on to others with more resources. While I am not there ‘yet’, that idea does hold some weight to me. I simply want more control over the navigation, to keep the integrity intact. For that, I need better control of the very funds which I lack (in this amount, disposable)
While I am not comfortable mentioning some of the ‘natural leaders’ who I believe are perpetrating mass fraud, due to potential legal issues, I can say I will not be supplying to these groups. Some skeptics may be surprised at groups that will launch tablets based on this statement, and I will say that in the 2.5 years I have immersed myself into this community, met and spoken with most of the leaders while being informed of many going ons in backroom talks, some of the popular ‘targets’ of skeptics have noble intentions(not all), and some of the smaller players wield far more influence, and use it nefariously, than anyone realizes. The challenges in this community are far too complex to even write in this already quite lengthy blog post.
I previously mentioned that I believe I have perceived a few critical flaws in this community. At its’ core, many of the most influential Doctor’s and speakers in Integrative Medicine are incredibly passionate, full of fantastic advice on many subjects that they have researched thoroughly and have the noblest of intentions. Because of this, it is easy for them to unite under ‘threat of attack’ which many of the skeptic groups are fueling. Many of these Doctors are VERY open to dialogue! If they think they are being attacked, that is not the case.
That brings me to my next point, they are so open to dialogue they end up getting bad information. One of the key issues I have seen is a willingness to accept statements of fact as true without proper critical and analytical assessment, provided someone they already trust vouches for the person. The opposite trait of the skeptic army that disbelieves everything the haven’t heard of. This is dangerous, as several sociopaths with predetermined goals have charmed their way into the community. They’ve built followings and gained the trust of many. Meeting a few of these people, looking them eye to eye and engaging in brief, or even extended dialogue I have left with my skin crawling, unable to think of how to stop them. In a couple years of intense thought, I still do not know how to stop this. I have the ground work of a plan I spoke about in my “100 voices” article, and it goes a bit deeper, but I am not so naïve to believe it will be an easy task. Perhaps a complete revamping of our education system is in order, but that is a subject for a different time.
The very nature of the natural community operates much like any other competitive field. Every player in the field desires to continue their influence, more so when they truly believe they are on a mission for good. The result of the competitiveness comes out very, very different, that said. Science can be vicious and negative, full of peer attacks. As such, scientists must be very careful with their actions, thoughts and publications. In the natural community, there is tremendous support and back slapping. They view each other as allies, while still wanting to be relevant and highly thought of.
This encourages a behaviour of more readily accepting notions than they would even previously have accepted, due to both trusting the ally who told them, and a fear of not missing out on the trend. This leads to ever increasing escalation of outdoing each other, going down the same paths they’ve previously been and experienced good results in terms of influence and response, potentially becoming more and more dangerous and drifting further and further from the truth. This behaviour feels good, it’s easy, text book affect heuristics.
Often the more prominent the health leader, the more extreme their positions (and the more confident they are in declaring them). Canadian-American political science writer and University of Pennsylvania Professor Phillip Tetlock who has studied the positions and predictions of experts in the social sciences quite extensively noted that experts in areas such as Political Science and Economics are no better than attentive readers of the New York Times in following and predicting emerging situations. He goes on to argue that the more famous the “forecaster” the more flamboyant the forecast. He writes that “Experts in demand were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight.”
Prof. Tetlock also observed that experts were particularly averse to admitting they had been wrong, and when they were forced to admit error in prediction or judgement they tended to have an arsenal of excuses, that they had been wrong only because of an unforeseen event, or their justification was still correct, etc. As Daniel Kahneman notes on the subject “Experts are just human in the end. They are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong.” In the health industry this is compounded by the conmen frantically insisting that the mavericks “are not wrong” and that those deriding them are part of some massive conspiracy. Health mavericks rarely have to admit that they are wrong for this reason, so skeptics attacking them make it even easier, emotionally, to lean to the conmen.
This tumble down the rabbit hole of flawed logic leads to irrational fears, and proposed magical benefits, neither having the evidence to support. Often, there is some legitimate evidence to support an argument much less intense or extreme. By overstating the evidence to such a degree, it in a sense invalidates the existing evidence and discredits the legitimate researchers raising the questions. Researchers will get caught up in the insanity, they believe in their work and want to continue it. The extreme support from the natural health community will discredit them to many allies, but act as a strong driver in the research they want to pursue, so long as they do not alienate their only allies. I touch on this in my open letter regarding testimonials, here.
Even if the supposed dangers exist in many of the topics of fear mongering, in many cases they are presented as the ‘greatest threat’ to humanity, when they are possibly inconsequential and less hazardous than many other stresses to our health we view as innocuous. When complementary practices have evidence to support them, and could be endorsed as complementary, a strong message to replace existing procedures only hurts the much needed recruitment of legitimate researchers to spend their careers furthering study.
Both over reactions, in fear and endorsement, cause an equal and opposite reaction to discredit. This plays right into the hands of the conmen whispering “conspiracy”, confirming to the natural health mavericks the extreme positions they had taken were in fact not extreme enough.
Many of these leaders surround themselves with experts, and them give them a specific M.O. As I have stated, we cannot seek to prove what we already believe. We need to search to falsify our inclinations, and in this we will suss out the truth. We will coax it out by accident, through dedicated work and systematic and thorough investigation. Having a team of PhD’s at ones disposal is useless for the truth if they are not properly allowed to seek that very truth. We cannot cherry pick our direction, our data and our conclusions. We cannot go into an idea with an intent. This is where natural leaders often get it wrong, and where I implore them to do better. Those of you, my friends and acquaintances, use your resources to seek truth. I know many of your intentions are noble. Show us. Do not take my words as a slight, remember I am writing them to seek the truth.
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”
— Isaac Asimov
Respectful and fair dialogue works.
To the friends and acquaintances I have in the natural community do not take my words as a slight, remember I am writing them to seek the truth. We are not enemies because of a difference in philosophy. We share the same goals, and our differences only make us stronger.
Of friends. — Only reflect to yourself how various are the feelings, how divided the opinions, even among your closest acquaintances, how even the same opinions are of a quite different rank or intensity in the heads of your friends than they are in yours; how manifold are the occasions for misunderstanding, for hostility and rupture. After reflecting on all this you must tell yourself: how uncertain is the ground upon which all our alliances and friendships rest, how close at hand are icy downpours or stormy weather, how isolated each man is! When one realizes this, and realizes in addition that all the opinions of one’s fellow men, of whatever kind they are and with whatever intensity they are held, are just as necessary and unaccountable as their actions; if one comes to understand this inner necessity of opinions originating in the inextricable interweaving of character, occupation, talent, environment — perhaps one will then get free of the bitterness of feeling with which the sage cried: ‘Friends, there are no friends!’ One will, rather, avow to oneself: yes, there are friends, but it is error and deception regarding yourself that led them to you; and they must have learned how to keep silent in order to remain your friend; for such human relationships almost always depend upon the fact that two or three things are never said or even so much as touched upon: if these little boulders do start to roll, however, friendship follows after them and shatters. Are there not people who would be mortally wounded if they discovered what their dearest friends actually know about them? — Through knowing ourselves, and regarding our own nature as a moving sphere of moods and opinions, and thus learning to despise ourselves a little, we restore our proper equilibrium with others. It is true we have good reason to think little of each of our acquaintances, even the greatest of them; but equally good reason to direct this feeling back on to ourself. — And so, since we can endure ourself, let us also endure other people; and perhaps to each of us there will come the more joyful hour when we exclaim:
‘Friends, there are no friends!’ thus said the dying sage;
‘Foes, there are no foes!’ say I, the living fool.
Nietzsche 376 'on friends', human, all too human
Check out part 1 here.