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.