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Razer: Belle Gibson, the media and other snake oil salesmen

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In shocking news: science is not perfect. Then again, these days no one much, save for Richard Dawkins and a bunch of frothing tosspots on Facebook, claims it is perfect. Science is imperfect. If you don’t believe me, ask Einstein. Or, ask a scientist who is more conveniently alive. Perhaps a scientist currently being kicked out of her lab at CSIRO. She will tell you scientific study is undertaken in an imperfect world. She will tell you that the method can never be so pure that it outruns the worst prejudices of its age, the worst impulses of the market or the very worst neglect of Malcom Turnbull.

Due to this this worldly imperfection, and a bunch of other complicated reasons I’d have to consult an old uni textbook to remember, science is imperfect. But, this doesn’t mean it’s bollocks. To paraphrase something Winston Churchill once paraphrased: science is the worst way to explain the physical universe, except for every other way we’ve ever tried.

Science. What you gonna do? Pop on your mosquito repellent (thanks, CSIRO) take your life-saving antibiotics and relish your indoor plumbing is what.

This is not to say that science should get a free pass in your hall of ethics simply because it has done so much good. This is not to suggest that citizens remain silent when they fear that deployment of scientific discovery threatens their health or their liberty.

It is, however, to suggest that some of them pour a big old green smoothie in their kale-holes before they make another noise. This may give them time to think before they say occult and unscientific things like “climate change is a deception”, “vaccination causes autism” or “you can cure your cancer with all the yummy fruits and vegetables listed on Belle Gibson’s app”. And, plenty of putatively sane people, including my media colleagues, were saying that pseudo-scientific thing until the young entrepreneur was disgraced. But, we’ll get to that in a bit.

For the moment, let’s agree that science is imperfect and see how well we recover from there.

Increasingly, large numbers of people say that science is bollocks. They become convinced that there is a better, more perfect science… a more natural sort of science that they can really understand.

Science is imperfect. It has produced some fatal mistakes and has itself been mistaken. There is no doubt at all that some scientific findings have been formulated far less by method than by ideology. Western science has subjected homosexual men to medicalised torture and non-white persons to the brutalising charge of lower intelligence. Science will continue to produce flawed results and serve power just as surely as I will continue to break out in a rash every time I hear the phrase “quadratic equation”. My imperfect understanding of an imperfect method notwithstanding, I don’t get to say that science is bollocks. Especially not while I’m enjoying the benefits of Wi-Fi (thanks, CSIRO).

Increasingly, though, large numbers of people do say that science is bollocks. Or, more specifically, they say “There’s Things They Don’t Want You to Know” and they become convinced that there is a better and more perfect science concealed by those impure state and corporate kinds of science. A more natural sort of science that they can really understand.

This irrationalism brought us Belle Gibson. It brings us “nutrition experts” like Pete Evans, whose eyes of bright televangelist blue have many hypnotised into thinking that he is more a dependable source of dietary information than all of medical science. Pete recently told his 1.5 million Facebook followers they should not trust a discipline that tests its hypotheses on mice instead of people. This post received more than seven thousand “likes”—I propose these Facebook users function as laboratory animals for our most high-risk medical experiments forthwith. Seven thousand rats, one stone.

Such suspicion of science is as old as the widespread public knowledge that science exists. Which is to say, we have been looking sideways at science ever since the dawn of mass culture. Why shouldn’t we? Science is hard. But, we do so more instrumentally in certain eras. Private citizens tend to be encouraged to favour “natural” or “common-sense” pseudo-descriptions of the physical universe over science when the economy is in the lav.

Actually, people tend to accept all sorts of irrationally simple explanations when the economy is in the lav. Hatred for non-Christians is one such idiotic creed fostered by western state leaders in times of economic downturn. You’d really think that Europe might’ve scared itself straight after that whole “cruelly punish those of other faiths for our own stupid banking decisions” thing turned out so badly the first time. But, the cult of nationalism is now reborn in Europe and makes frequent guest appearances in our own nation, as it does in the poison gob of Donald Trump.

This is not to suggest that we in the west are currently minutes away from fascism. (I only entertain this fear on my bad days.) And, this is not to suggest that faith in a natural, pure and common-sense pseudo-science, such as that we accept from Pete Evans but now reject from Belle Gibson, has an inherent link to nationalistic stupidity. But, it is a very similarly structured stupidity with a very similar function. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) provides opaque explanation for problems so tricky, they appear to most of us as opaque in any case. Why try to understand the movement of capital or the progression of cancer when we know very well that we can’t?

The belief that an ill, whether cancer or catastrophic debt, can be set right by a “simple” and “natural” prescription is the kind of belief that serves fascism. And I’m not saying here that Paleo is Dachau’s gateway diet—although, it’s probably worth mentioning that some of those souls tortured in this horrific place were set to work on a medicinal herb garden for the homeopathic Third Reich. I am, however, saying that we must be wary of the “damn all the book learnin’” explanation for any problem we don’t, and can’t, fully grasp. Especially when this quickly becomes a mass explanation. Especially when this is delivered by a charismatic plain-talker who assumes an air of persecuted innocence. (“They’re trying to silence me!”). Especially when this has at its pseudo-scientific basis some imagined natural law.

I don’t really want to be that Godwin guy who says, “You know who else liked natural medicine?”, but, heck. Hitler really liked herbs a lot. There were several material reasons for the Nazi promotion of CAM, not the least of which is that “Aryan” doctors were sent to war, Jewish doctors were slaughtered or imprisoned and a state-endorsed “natural healing” practice emerged to appease sick Germans. But, there were cultural reasons as well.

As Edzard Ernst, who was the world’s only Professor in CAM right up until he pissed off His Royal Herbness Prince Charles last year, has said in a range of articles on the Third Reich and CAM, there were many reasons Hitler loved himself some natural hocus pocus. “The general belief is that (CAM) had nothing to do with the sickening atrocities of this period. I believe that this assumption is not entirely correct.”

Ernst goes on to cite many examples of Nazi quackery and urges for a more comprehensive academic study of the Things Natural Medicine Doesn’t Want You to Know. Which include the “advancement” of the study of homeopathy by the Third Reich and the fact that we all should be really, really suspicious of anyone whose premise is “let’s do things like they did in olden times”.

Pete “Kale” Evans brings us comfort. His urging toward an (entirely fictitious) past is mystic. His citation of (often discredited) one-off scientific studies passes as rational.

What Ernst doesn’t do is give us a satisfying account of how “simple” and “all natural” explanations of the world accommodate fascism. He can’t, because he’s a scientist, and therefore imperfect. But, there are other Germans who explain how these faith-based explanations of a complex world can control populations. Notable among them is Theodor Adorno who gave much of his life to comparing the imposition of stupid faith by the Third Reich to the apparently voluntary acquisition of similarly stupid faith in liberal democracies, such as the USA. This book is a good and (for him) very readable introduction to his thoughts on why we believe in dumb hocus pocus. The short version is: an easy way for us to deal with life in mass culture and the scientific Enlightenment that produced it is to choose whatever mystic-but-apparently-rational explanation is handy. It’s the Jews. It’s the Muslims. It’s that we’re not eating enough kale.

Pete “Kale” Evans brings us comfort. His urging toward an (entirely fictitious) past is mystic. His citation of (often discredited) one-off scientific studies passes as rational. While it is true that his message of “eat more vegetables” is good, it’s only good because it tallies with just about every single recommendation by any dietitian ever. The rest of the stuff that he emits is pseudo-scientific mystic fart which may compromise the physical health of its adherents and certainly does compromise the health of our public conversation. We cannot permit the presentation of mystic opinion as fact.

Which brings us, finally, back to La Gibson.

There’s really no point in me decrying this one-time media darling. Everyone and their dog has had a go at Belle and frankly, it’s far too easy to be fun. There is little left to say about an entrepreneur whose claims of multiple critical ailments felled by CAM and fuelled by medicine are presumed to be false. There are no insults remaining for this former friend of Apple who possibly fabricated every element of her Inspiring Personal Story, from her age to her intention to offer a part of her fantastic profits to charity.


Still. That doesn’t stop a hundred journalists from claiming their Woodstein moment and conveniently forgetting that they work for outlets that so recently used terms like “triumph”, “inspiring” and “brave” to describe Belle Gibson.

It certainly didn’t stop the Seven network last night from inviting Pete Evans, described as an “expert”, to trial his type 2 diabetes cure on an actual human person. It is unlikely to stop News Corp from printing the future opinions of Dr Kerryn Phelps, whose chief argument for the subsidised availability of CAM, including acupuncture and chiropractic, seems to be that health “consumers” deserve “choice”. We deserve to be medical experts! We deserve all those Things They Don’t Want Us to Know!

Honestly, we deserve a swift kick. And, by “we”, I chiefly mean my trade of intellectually infirm twits who continue to depict mysticism as fact even as they continue to attack Belle Gibson for the same misdeed. Sure, she, by her own admission, never had cancer and apparently, monies promised to charities were never delivered. But even if Gibson had succeeded in transferring funds and beating nonfiction cancer with her health consumer “choice”, she’d still have posed the same sort of mystic problem we continue to see in almost all media all the time. Activated almonds still don’t fix tumours.

We find ourselves in an era which prefers simple explanations of complex matters—and Belle Gibson may not be found to be honest, but she is certainly complex.

On Friday, Victoria’s Consumer Affairs Minister Jane Garrett announced to press that a state watchdog had concluded its year-long investigation into Gibson. Gibson, she said, would face Federal Court this month for her alleged contraventions of consumer law. Gibson, she said, was likely to face a range of injunctions that could include removal of her app from sale and future publication by her of any health claim. Gibson was likely to be fined. Gibson’s book publisher, Penguin, which had already offered refunds to consumers, agreed to pay a $30,000 sum to the Consumer Law Fund which funds investigations of the type and, significantly, to undertake a program of compliance for any materials making natural health claims. Now, Penguin will publish no statement about an individual’s medical condition without this being verified in writing by a medical practitioner. It will publish no work on CAM remedies without a prominent notice that these are not evidence-based. Finally, CAM gets the health warning it sorely needs.

You might expect Friday’s announcements by Garrett and Simon Cohen, director at Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) would be warmly received by journalists so newly eager to reveal the duplicity inherent in CAM. Nah. They don’t want to reform the problem of widespread mysticism. They just want individual vengeance.

This purple piece in The Age gives a good indication of how the announcements were received by press. It’s just not good enough! Why isn’t she going to jail? Why was the investigation so “glacial”?

One reporter asks why CAV took so long to investigate Gibson, adding that “social media” knew that she was probably guilty ages ago. She seems to be suggesting that we should just outsource justice to Twitter.

Questions about CAV’s failure to pursue a criminal action against Gibson were asked. The Minister explains several times how the investigation found that civil proceedings were not only in this case likely to be more successful, but that the possible injunctions and the active undertaking by Penguin were in the public interest. “Selling people snake oil is as old as the hills,” says the Minister, attempting again to make the point that CAV has prevented the future consumption of unlabelled snake oil. Perhaps it’s because snake oil continues to lubricate the engine of media outlets, some journalists were confused into naming clear government action inaction.

Or, perhaps it’s because we find ourselves in an era which prefers simple explanations of complex matters—and Belle Gibson may not be found to be honest, but she is certainly complex. I mean, have you seen the 60 Minutes interview? I’m surprised that CAV was able to make sense of this convoluted story inside a year.

I’m not surprised one bit that media has largely made the decision to focus not on its own habit of giving space to health irrationalism and much more on the destruction of an individual they so recently found inspiring and triumphant.

Belle Gibson was not suffering a critical disease. Would that we could say the same for our public conversation.

53 responses to “Razer: Belle Gibson, the media and other snake oil salesmen

  1. The Penguin decision sets a wonderful precedent, we can finally move Pete Evans’ books to the fiction section.

      1. Your article Helen, is the first I’ve heard of CAV’s decision Penguin – and it’s very interesting. How to spread the news?

  2. Bravo. I have no idea who Pete Evans is, but I get the idea. We need a lot more articles like this if the Enlightenment project is not going to go to oblivion in a handcart.

    If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy Francis Wheen’s “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World”. (Harper Perennial, 2004)

    To state the bleeding obvious, what’s most needed is better science education in our schools – not the gee-wiz stuff but the philosophy and methodology of it.

  3. I was surprised and pleased at the statement that Penguin was responsible for fact-checking claims in a book they published. I wonder if the money to Consumer Law can be used to bring a case to apply this precedent to a television program?

  4. Interesting how “natural” claims tend to focus on womens experience. From terms like “natural childbirth” to the myth that pain relief during labour diminishes the experience or your bona fide as a mother, to people who still tell women with mastitis to use cabbage leave (its a highly painful and debilitating staf infection that afflects women who still have to care for an infant while pushing through that fever – personally I’d go with the antibiotics.).
    These attacks on science at the expense of women’s health and comfort are appallingly and belong back in the century they came from.
    You don’t see men clamoring for “authentic” vasectomies. And I’m pretty sure if their balls were inflamed the last thing theyd reach for is a cabbage leaf.
    Science offers pretty awesome solutions.

    1. Huh? How can you equate “natural birth” to an “authentic vasectomy”? Surely you understand that some women prefer to attempt to deliver a baby without drugs as they believe it might make them less likely to need medical intervention. Anyway.. I’m pretty sure birth IS a natural process and vasectomy is clearly not. Ridiculous argument..

    2. Hi, Cate. I would say that your statement is interesting and merits further thought. I would also say two things, which don’t diminish your statement but (again!) complicate it (1) the scourge of fascist “natural” thought is afflicting people other than women, these days. The Paleo or “caveman” diet has been very successfully marketed to millions of men, for example (2) “natural” creeds, and you don’t get much more horrifically and falsely “natural” than the pseudo-science of the Third Reich who wanted society to reflect their imaginary natural order, afflict everyone when they are popular or enforced. But, they tend to negatively afflict whoever it is who is at the bottom.
      Also, there is a reason for feminist action against the medicalisation of birth. My understanding is that in its early history, obstetrics actually killed more women than it saved. Science, as I was at pains to say, produces its problems. And like any one-size-fits-most solution, medicalisation (it’s a term of sociology, look it up if you’re not familiar with its use) has its own horrors.
      Mass or bureaucratic practice will always have its problems. Even if there is good science at the foundation of these practices, they will screw up sometimes. This is a problem of civilisation against which we must guard. However, the point is, for the purposes of argument, to separate the mass practice from the theory itself. It’s not the fault of scientific method that women have undergone terror where their reproductive health is concerned. But, this is how many people respond. They say “science is evil”. They look for a simple way to explain complex problems, as per the very frequent “look at how they got it wrong on low fat” argument. Actually, what happened here was a series of things, not all of which had to do with science. The cheapness of sugar. The profit motive. The fact that sugar tastes awesome. The wilful misinterpretation by consumers and producers of science. The refusal by many “natural” health advocates to look at the many reasons, other than refined sugar which certainly played its part, that people acquire type 2 diabetes.
      In short, I am saying that this stuff is complex. A bit like the liver is complex. I spent two days trying to understand how the liver converts fat for a previous piece I wrote for Crikey. I also called a biochemist. I still don’t get it. What I do understand, however, is that Evans’ claim that fat never turns to harmful sugars in the human body is misguided.

  5. helen, as much as I like your rants, you dont know a thing about nutritional science. The only people who get it wrong as regularly as nutritionists are economists…get the parallel?…they are both actually pseudo-science….as the recent unmasking of the low-fat “science” has shown….we have had a scientifically imprimatured low fat era for 40 years now…only to be found out through meta-studies that THEY GOT IT WRONG FOR 40 years…handing out advice which led to the obesity era…all founded on supposedly reputable science…this is why people are voting with their gluten allergies, because nutritional science is a disaster and has no idea besides excess calories will make you fat….science is a work in progress and to base ones diet/lifestyle on science is just stupid..

    1. I would suggest that Helen is as qualified to call herself a nutritionist as anyone. Me, you, Belle Gibson. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, because that’s not actually a real thing. A dietitian on the other hand is a qualified paramedical professional. But you know, who cares, man. It’s all just labels. Which nobody reads anyway.

      1. well, “man” i was talking about nutritional science. In an oncology ward years ago, I listened to a dietician telling a sick patient that yes Mc Donalds food was fine….i rest my case…..and I do care that we are being misinformed by incomplete and shoddy science which verges on scientism.

        1. You can’t just drop the mic like that and have this stand in for argument.
          Was the dietitian recommending McDonald’s for every meal? Or, was the dietitian answering a particular question about whether or not occasional consumption of McDonald’s was likely to impact the patient’s prognosis? These are two very different things.
          Please think a bit before using anecdata to make a point that “science is bad” or “the folk know better”.
          We all know that science as it is practiced and marketed and even studied makes mistakes. Also, we know that some people are idiots. And some of these idiots are employed by medical science. But, as I spent some time saying anticipating comments of the type, this doesn’t mean we can say “My uncle is a mystic farmer who drinks raw milk and has lived ’til 100” and have this mean anything at all.
          You can believe that you know better than science if you wish. You might want to think before airing this view publicly, however.

          1. To which science are you referring…that I evidently think I know better than?….the science which says all sugar in all forms is bad, including fruit an apple=2teaspoons white refined cane sugar and dangerous levels of fructose…..or the science which says that the complex sugars in fruit etc are largely buffered by nutritional matrixes and fibre, and do not cause insulin resistance of bloodsugar spikes, and Australian research which shows that evil honey encourages the growth of favourable intestinal flora….we are all victims of suffocation of information…even the scientists dont know what each other is doing, there is no correspondence of research or integration at all, so that theories based on flimsy evidence float around and are taken as gospel even by experts…as the meta data research is now showing. Your idea of science is somewhat naive.
            The dietician in question regularly advised all the patients not to worry about diet at all and they could eat what they liked, despite the incredible depletion of intestnal flora which accompanies most chemotherapy…which doesnt come back, leaving impaired digestion and nutrition…all which is helped remarkably by digestive enzymes bought from the health food shop, no t the hospital…because the dietician in question just hadnt kept up with evidence-based best practice and wasnt fulfilling the professional function as a dietary consultant. So in this case I did know more than that scientist, as my son who was having no digestive capacity at all, recovered his digestion in a day with clinical nutrition (produced by a different scientist, a PHd, one who knew) from the dreaded health food store….so I did think before airing the view and it was evidence based, not anecdotal, as the evidence for nutritional enzyme supplementation came from a different scientist, as i said….so which science are you talking abvout Helen?

        2. I see from your further comments that the dietitian was advising a cancer patient to eat as many calories as possible to avoid getting wasting sickness, a side effect of cancer which has very little to do with digestion and everything to do with having advanced cancer. Also called cachexia, scientists at Latrobe have recently made a breakthrough in understanding the cause, and in future, patients may survive it to continue treating their cancer in other ways. The reason they were likely to have told this patient to not worry about diet is that rapid weight loss made worse by inability to keep food down due to nausea caused by chemotherapy treatment is a far more serious threat to their life than losing a few bacteria from their gut. Keep the gut intact, then worry about the floristic composition. You may have heard of the concept of “first do no harm”, which is pretty clearly what this anecdotal health worker was doing. Glad you liked my joke.

    2. So your argument is: science is an ongoing and imperfect study. Therefore, we should ignore it completely. And trust our “consumer choices” and instinct.
      I think I sort of covered this irrationalism in the article.

      1. I said “science is a work in progress” and offered the example that we have been completely misled by the low-fat phurphy which was supposedly science….disproved by better science…..something which is not at all irrational, but easy to label as such if you dont check up but just blurt out reactions. I did not say we should ignore it completely, you put that interpretation which is a strawman type argument, unworthy of rational debate….what is clearly obvious is that if one followed the “scientific” advice about eating fat, it would have no impact on CHD or CVD as they claimed it would.actually be physically detrimental, as better science has now shown. Disappointing response Helen, but what I said was in no way irrational….it is your response to me which is irrational…and actually, the science agrees with me..

    3. Actually, I don’t get the parallel except that there are many branches of science and some are more complicated and less well understood than others.If the answer is unknown it doesn’t mean there is no answer.

      1. I *think* the point John was making is that there are some things that pretend to be a science. I agree (as does the game theorist Yanis Varoufakis and others) that the study of economics should not claim to be based in some set of irrefutable laws. Economics is not just a “dismal science”. It’s a non-science.
        But, like you, I don’t get why we need to apply this dismissal to dietary science. Just because dietary science is in its infancy doesn’t mean it’s not a science. I mean, we can suppose that the human gastrointestinal tract does particular things, right? And that it might be good to find out what these things are? Just because economics tends to be pretty lawless, we can’t conclude that livers are as well.

        1. At the risk of going off on a tangent, I did consider whether economics is a science and decided that it is was on the fuzzy fringes of psychology and mathematics where it is impossible to accurately quantify the data.
          I see the human instinct to slot things into categories with names but perhaps it doesn’t matter.

        2. You luuuurve Yanis.

          In all seriousness though I agree that both nutritional science and economics are in their infancy. Economics, to its credit, is trying very hard to borrow from “hard” theories like pure maths to see if it’s got anything to offer.

          Also, the ANGER that people display over changing nutritional science is hilarious. “They were WRONG!!! They changed their MINDS!” Isn’t that preferable? All science students (even the fake science students like me who got stuck with psychology and sociology) are taught that you are looking to poke holes in theory, and data backing it up is just lucky.

          1. Yes! How very DARE science evolve and overturn its own findings?! Obviously, there’s a single, stable truth and only Pete Evans knows it. Those fascists. With their methodical doubt! Why won’t they just shut up until they are sure they have a theory for everything. Which, by the way, plain-talkin’ people who drink green smoothies already do.
            And. Yes. I luuuurve Yanis. Largely.

      2. The parallel was made by an American professor who is a specialist in meta data and basically fraud in scientific research, of which there is an astonishing amount. He was making a jokey comment which clearly relates to the way we defer to economists as experts who are the masters of a data set which gives them special insight. Obviously,not at all correct. He regarded nutritionists, and they do exist, and dieticians et al as similarly untrustworthy, based on the clear data and meta data analyses he did on the low fat “science”.. There was no science to support the assertions that saturated fat is correlated with coronary and vascular disease disease…..NONE, yet the last 40 years has been medically and economically based on this false science, which was simply assumed to be true by medical experts…how unscientific is that? If you deep-read nutrition, you will find polar disagreement about nearly everything, and most research is based on self-reporting now shown to be fallacious…think about it, to actually study human nutrition, to apply the scientific method, people have to be locked in controlled atmospheres for generations in order to understand epigenetic effects….it is a farce, and most dietary recommendations quesionable….as questionable as a kale juice, while the really valuable cultural knowledge about food, which has kept us alive long before “science” is ignored…our dietary requirements have not changed for a long time, but in the last 60 yeasr we have been subject to almost a reversal in traditional eating patterns to the extent that 1 in 3, 60 year olds in the West are now diabetic. blah blah blah…

    4. Here’s a tip for players. DIY sentence structure and inconsistent use of capitals and grammatical rules tends to undermine your argument and leads a reader to believe you might be one of those types camped out at an altavista site publishing about Big Pharma and chemtrails.

  6. \
    I am finding it a bad joke at present – these narcissist me-generation parents intent on finding and sharing the next “I will be fabulous and live forever” celebrity fad diet for themselves – and meanwhile their kids’ teeth and general well-being is being ravaged by sugar that comes in all sorts of guises like ” fruit based drinks” , ‘health-bars’ , honey, the wonderstuff (which is pure sugar – and sticky !!), sugar laden breakfast cereals and so on – all dressed up as ‘healthy living’. . It ain’t rocket science – in fact it is quite simple – lay off the sugar in all its forms – and start practising saying NO, NO, NO to your kids – but so many parents are so intent on finding their own inner salvation with fad-driven diets and lifestyles, while sorely neglecting their kids. I see it every day where I work. Quite sad and bad.

    1. I’m no biochemist. But I think the advice to “lay off sugar in all its forms” would probably lead to the end of the species.

      1. Indeed it would lead to the end of the species, but would that be due to malnutrition or mass suicide over the loss of chocolate and the resulting meaningless life without it?

        1. Ok – make a joke of it …. but give it a while and we will finally wake up that sugar is causing people poor health and costing the health systems a fortune in trying to clean up the problems that sugar, in all its forms, is causing. Please don’t whinge about the high costs of dentistry – or the long waiting lists in the public health systems, or wring your hands when someone decries the increasing episodes of childhood obesity and early onset diabetes … I see it every day – Mum saying the kid only has “a little bit of sugar” (that usually means a lot) – and begrudging their dentist for making a fortune out of them, or their precious cargo traumatised by preventable fillings and extractions – or those, that with a bit of prevention NOW, in the future will have to run the gauntlet of the health systems trying to get fixed from sugar-overload repercussions that rarely can be fixed … sugar today is where tobacco once was – also considered one of life’s necessary pleasures, like you infer sugar is, but insidiously killing or making people really crook – and all of us left to pay for its damage in one way or another.… the sugar-problem is far worse than a generation ago, and it is getting worse. Hrrmp. – your glib dismissal of my comment makes me want to reach out for a cup of sweet tea and an Arnotts biscuit. Habits are hard to break I know. But let’s at least try and keep all those gorgeous kids from consuming too much sugar, often dressed up as ” natural and healthy foods”, spruiked by those ubiquitous ‘healthy living evangelists’, whom too many people all too readily unquestioningly believe . More articles like yours are sorely needed to hold out the cautionary signs. There is a sucker born every minute to swallow someone else’s snake oil.

          1. Sugar. In all its forms.
            “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

          2. Your DNA is held together on a backbone of sugar (glucose). And your liver is making sugar (glucose) from protein and storing it away for when you need it (glycogen).

  7. Magic Helen, as you so often manage albeit in an imperfect way. As an engineer I would happily make all science deniers walk naked barefoot to the nearest river to drink, as I’m heartily pissed off with the care we take to keep all these fuckers safe. Why can’t they all die in agony of horrible diseases if science is so much shite?

    Sadly I’m convinced that Conservative thinking in its various guises is built in evolutionary baggage, and until the Androids take over humanity will have to put up with the shrill brigade sprouting nonsense of all sorts.

  8. Hi Helen,

    Love the column. Thank you. Couple of thoughts towards topic:

    I grew up in Germany and just want to offer some cultural perspective. Hitler was interested in CAM not insofar as he was a Nazi, but simply because he was German. Germans pretty much invented CAM in the West. Bach flowers, homeopathy: all German. Goethe embraced it just as much as Hitler. My parents, who were total believers in Western science (plus Holocaust survivors FWIW) pumped us with antibiotics at the first sniffle – it was the 70’s – but, on the advice of the family GP, also made us take “Meditonsin”, which I only realised recently is a homeopathic remedy. That was totally mainstream and they wouldn’t even have known what homeopathy was. The Germans just love that stuff, but not in an Evangelical way like us English speakers. It has a different cultural value on the Continent.

    Secondly: why do all hip lefty journos rant about the unstoppable progress of capitalism and then go right ahead and link book references (Adorno of all things) to Amazon?? To clarify: I love hip lefty journos, you especially, but isn’t that kind of delicious? Do you get 5c per click or what?

    Would love to know your thoughts. Thanks again for all the laughs.

    1. Hey, Uri. First, I am not “hip” 🙂 But, I am a material leftist and I do take your point about Amazon. I did want to link to the sale of the book, though, rather than get someone in trouble for sharing it freely online. This was the only place where I could find it available. I really do think Adorno has a lot of stuff to say that is peculiarly relevant for our era. I wish people would read him. I wish Amazon wouldn’t screw people over. But, also, I would like the Adorno Prize to continue to be funded! Such are the impossible problems capitalism poses!
      But. Yes. You’re quite right. I always feel funny about linking to a commercial site, but I don’t know what else to do in the case of hard-to-get books. Especially after so many of them have been taken down from Where, fortunately, you can still read Capital which, as we know, uses the problem of the commodity to help us understand how things are so crap!
      The German CAM stuff is so interesting. I am aware that the 19th Century provided the conditions for its popularity. But, I would also say that there are a bunch of other reasons that “natural” approaches to science become more popular in particular times. As mentioned, one of the reasons was the critically reduced availability of doctors. Many of whom were killed, as you know. The “Heilpraktiker” was a cynical invention of Goebbels which worked to appease German citizens who couldn’t otherwise get healthcare. So, there’s a material reason that natural health is embraced, just as we see happening in the US of the present. Many right wing commentators there endorse colloidal silver and other such rot and, as we see happening here increasingly, many pharmacies make the bulk of their money by sale of “natural” remedies. (Have you seen what has been happening to Blackmores’ share price?!) IN the US where many people simply cannot access medical advice or medication, it makes (evil) sense for the crazy libertarians to say “don’t listen to orthodoxy! The Folk know better!” If you are unable to get actual health care, then the belief that the accessible “natural” kind is better anyway is a great comfort.
      Of course, this doesn’t explain the monumental fetish many well-to-do persons in Australia have for “natural” living. How do we explain the fact of the poshest suburbs also having the highest rate of conscientious objection to vaccination?
      I have my ideas about this, as do others, but I realise that I have been banging on for far too long and should probably consider these thoughts in greater depth for a different piece. But, I would say, that the whole “wisdom of the good people” thing serves fascism very well. And I do hope that Edxard’s pleas for a good study of CAM and the Third Reich are taken on by both scientists and left-wing intellectuals. Because, someone needs to be clear about how terrible all this “natural is best” and “the universe just needs to get back to its state of harmony” crap is!

      1. Hi Helen,

        I can’t believe you (a) replied to me and (b) didn’t yell at me! Thank you 🙂

        I do occasionally read Adorno (when someone like yourself references him), although I feel it’s kind of like watching black and white compared to the HDTV of more contemporary philosophy in the same channel (Baudrillard, Agamben, etc).

        The comment system must’ve automatically deleted my link to the Readings bookstore with the same title available online… That was my point – that there is an alternative, not just to hurl abuse at you.

        Thanks again for your reply and your column, which I adore.

    2. Given the horrible crappy diet Germans have (over cooked foods & sugary deserts) I am not surprised they believe in CAM and possibly Pagan or Goth mystic forest bark as they need as much help as they can get.

      1. Yeah, we don’t eat the stuff you see in Australian ‘German’ themed restaurants and bakeries every day. Also willowbark, thats known as aspirin to you.

  9. While so much of what you say Helen is right, there is an historical amnesia going on here. So much of the criticism of medicine (which is what is generally talked about in the article) is based on historical accuracy. Much of medicine (particularly surgery) is not based on the scientific method- whether that is for good or ill is another matter. When people criticise the woman who wants a natural birth, perhaps they have not read the horrors women were forced to endure in hospitals to give birth, traditions which were not changed until feminist critics pointed out that more women died giving birth in hospitals than at home at the turn of the 20th century.
    Much of what we know about nutrition was known for hundreds of years but conveniently ignored because women were the keepers of the knowledge and of course, the doctors were not interested.
    Perhaps people should look at the medical research literature which clearly shows that most back surgery is useless but since the only people who were pointing this out were chiropractors- they must be liars.
    This area is very complex, so why are the comments so simplistic? Is it easier just to troll online than consider complexity?
    Oh, and I don’t believe that food can cure cancer, but I do believe that a good diet produces a healthier person.

    1. I agree completely that scientific method can be compromised both in its study and in its deployment. I also agree that there are historical examples of this, which is why I tried to guard against amnesia by mentioning a couple of them.
      This does not produce the conclusion that the Folk know better than science. (This is not the same thing as saying that observations by the Folk should be discounted by science. And, in many cases, it’s not. I recall that the BoM have advanced their study of weather patterns by working closely with Aboriginal communities whose oral history and cultural understanding of Australia’s “seasons” have produced useful results. Another case where Folk science worked well was in the informal study of HIV treatments, a process glossed over in the film Dallas Buyers’ Club.)
      Yes. Science can be better. No, its imperfections do not give you licence to say “natural is better” or “common-sense is best”.

  10. Ms Razor,
    I implore you to read “Death by Rubber Ducky”. Your impressions/opinion would be much appreciated.

  11. Equally as insidious is the appalling ‘fitness’ industry, where fitness is a concoction of the modern Olympic movement, which in turn was a product of eugenics and Nazism. ‘Fitness’ to live is what they meant. Jews, homos, blacks, disabled etc were not ‘fit’ to lve. Now, just like in scientology, or freudian psychology, or the wellness industry, or the weight loss industry, or much of the pharmaceutical industry, you cant ever reach that unattainable goal of ‘wellness’, ‘fitness’, the ‘clear’, to be thin enough, or happy enough – but you have to keep spending the money to try to reach the unattainable goal.
    Fear is used as a marketing tool. Scientific medicine does it too.
    And I’m an osteopath.

    1. I have a theory – that I hope some PhD student takes up for a serious study – that the ‘wellness industry’, in all its forms – causes more costs to people and the public health systems, than all the bad habits that chronically get blamed for people’s downfalls. Broken bones, strained muscles, dislocated spines, done-in knees and shoulders, et al – the psychological trauma of seeking to be the perfect person, or the effects of failure some people just cannot cope with striving for goals that can never be attained by some people, or the damage done by improperly supervised fitness centres or instructors who fail to recognise the damage they are pushing some people to do to their bodies, or their minds, or the medical implications of swallowing countless pills and potions – often counter productive, pushed on to all and everyone by the ‘drug-barons’ of the ‘natural-wellness’ industry.

      1. Yeah right, Maryann. Pursuing a healthy lifestyle clearly must cost the health system way more than the heart disease, diabetes, bowel disease and god knows how many more ailments that anyone with half a brain (oh and studies have proven, if you must) can see are caused by an unhealthy lifestyle. sounds great. Think I’ll have another drink, smoke a packet of cigarettes, stuff my face with junk food and not move off my arse for the rest of my life. Great advice, you’re a genius.

  12. Loved you rave Helen, maybe you could include the ;science’ of ‘organic’ infant formulas. Though I think science would say breastmilk is more organic than what comes out of a can…..this has not prevented a huge industry targeting vulnerable women.

  13. Great piece. Whilst a good diet definitely won’t cure cancer, it may help you to get through it in better condition, and it may also be preventative, may stop you getting some types of cancers (bowel cancer being a key one here).
    For this reason – the fact that there is some benefit to what they espouse, if not the magical cure-all that they promise – these health-junkie salesmen are not getting the scrutiny some of them deserve – and many are crossing the line.

  14. Yours is the first article on the matter that has mentioned the CAV Penguin order. And I agree, its probably the most useful part of the legal action. $30K is unlikely to hurt Penguin but that rider on future work will have a host of implications for the future and may impact on other publishers as well.

    I do suspect that given the rise of ‘lifestyle’ and ‘health’ sections in newspapers (and the critical revenue that they bring in through advertorials and the like) is a reason why the action hasn’t been greeted with wild enthusiasm by newspapers. Belle, Evans et al get page views / sell papers and until that trend stops, there will be another snake oil salesperson in your Sunday lift out every week.

  15. Love your work, Helen. Always gets me ( and others, it appears) thinking….
    On the sugar thing….a great case of a scientist being harassed by dietitians is South Africa’s Tim Noakes. He is someone who has been able to change his mind about the whole low fat advice, which he used to live by and promote ( as did so many of us in the health professions) and then swinging all the way to promoting low carb and high saturated fat, with evidence to back things up. Yet, more or less ostracised by some mainstream medical and scientific community. It seems that for some, career matters more than information. Lots of issues around it all, v hard to summarise! Like a lot of science, needs a couple of textbooks to explain….would love it if you followed up and wrote a bit about him and the sugar industry/coke/ American dietician wars….

  16. My thanks really goes to John who answered earlier trying to clarify issues on science and nutrition. It has given me courage to at least present something I had read. I have read for some years and tried to understand the nature of science and whether it is always trustworthy. I’m not sure it is in all cases. For example vaccines was mentioned. Take one manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, of Swiftwater, Pennsylvania.
    The vaccine is Tripedia. It’s a combo vaccine for Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis. Generic name: DTaP.
    Quoting from the company’s own product information sheet, dated December 2005. (Upper case caps are copied exactly from the product sheet.)
    Page 11: “Adverse events reported during post-[FDA] approval use of Tripedia vaccine include idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura [bleeding disorder], SIDS, anaphylactic reaction, cellulitis [potentially serious bacterial skin infection], autism, convulsion/grandmal convulsion, encephalopathy [‘global brain dysfunction’], hypotonia [decreased muscle tone—‘rag-doll’ infants], neuropathy [peripheral nerve damage], somnolence and apnea.”
    I understand that the accepted dogma surrounding vaccines is that they don’t cause autism but here autism is one of the lesser adverse effects included by the manufacturer.
    Dr Thompson previously of the CDC head of research into vacines, now a whistle-blower claims that the results were falsified and there was definitely a link with autism. Good science?
    So a person frauded the public with regards to claiming natural foods cure cancer. Is the lesson here her greed and not what she was selling? An oncologist was prosecuted in the USA last year for fraudulently taking $150 million from prescribing chemotherapy to patients who would not benefit or worse, did not have cancer. Was the science of chemo good? Personally I don’t think so as I am lead to believe it is only 3% effective. That figure was quoted by the Oncologists profession. Another interesting figure was from the survey conducted by the same profession was that only 17% said that they would administer chemotherapy drugs to members of their family if they were diagnosed with cancer. However the oncologist mentioned above was also greedy. He pleaded guilty.
    Could it not be called the application of science prompting Hipocrates to say “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”? So possibly nutritioalists just may eventually be accepted within the allied health domain. My timidity usually prevents me contributing to posts and in this case I tremble in anticipation of reaction of the ‘Razor gang’!

    1. Bernard,
      The adverse events database for vaccines is inclusive of ALL events that occur following administration of a vaccine. For example, if your child got run over by a car the day after receiving the vaccine, then a death would be reported as an adverse event.
      Adverse EVENT is not the same as adverse EFFECT. Correlation vs causation etc etc.
      As autism is diagnosed around 12-18mo, and DTPa is given at 2, 4, 6, 18mo and 4 years, it’s almost inevitable that some vaccinated children will exhibit signs of autism during this period.

    2. Clever! Here is the complete paragraph: Adverse events reported during post-approval use of Tripedia vaccine include idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, SIDS,
      anaphylactic reaction, cellulitis, autism, convulsion/grand mal convulsion, encephalopathy, hypotonia, neuropathy, somnolence
      and apnea. Events were included in this list because of the seriousness or frequency of reporting. Because these events are
      reported voluntarily from a population of uncertain size, it is not always possible to reliably estimate their frequencies or to
      establish a causal relationship to components of Tripedia vaccine.2

  17. My gripe with the Gibson story is that it was always nonsense and, I would venture to say, nearly every person with a grounding in science knew it. There were plenty of journalists who knew about Gibson but did any of them question the phenomenon or write anything critical at the time? Rhetorical questions of course and it raises the lack of scientific literacy in the community generally, and in journalists particularly. Gibson should have been exposed within weeks of her trying to sell her ridiculous story but, no, many journos fell over themselves to tell the story, despite it being complete and total crap.

    Where were you then, Helen?

    1. This doesn’t seem a particularly fair comment to me . It’s the responsibility of the original journalists to verify the accuracy of the information I think it might have once been their job ? . Good article actually this topic is has become my litmus test for responsible government. I am going to vote for the mob with the best response to the 100 CAM courses currently funded by our taxes via vocational groups and some poor quality universitys . I will then give extra points if they stop using my taxes to preference access to CAM over actual medicine via private health extras

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