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Crank Magnetism at the Weston A. Price Foundation

The dentist who thought root canals were bad got a foundation in his name. Even he couldn’t guess the lunacy it would attract.

In June 2007, Mark Hoofnagle and Chris Hoofnagle published an article on ScienceBlogs entitled “Crank Magnetism.” As far as I can tell, this is the first appearance of this phrase online.

Crank magnetism is the idea that cranks—science denialists, conspiracy theorists, and contrarians—do not simply believe one wrong thing: they tend to believe many wrong things, even when these beliefs contradict each other. As the Hoofnagle brothers put it, “cranks are magnetically attracted to other crank arguments, and in the process show how shallow their understanding of science and nature truly is.”

The Weston A. Price Foundation is an unmistakable example of crank magnetism. Named after a crank dentistry idol, this nonprofit has strange ideas about what causes diseases, how to treat them, and whether or not viruses cause infections. And they have a lot to say about the kind of food you should be eating.

Buried on its website is this get-out-of-jail-free card: “Neither the Weston A. Price Foundation nor any of its affiliates or their respective stockholders, members, directors, officers, employees or agents guarantees the accuracy […] or usefulness of any of the content of this website.” Reader beware. Here be nonsense.

The root of all diseases

Like a bad tooth rotting in the mouth, the “documentary” Root Cause was pulled by Netflix after it started to cause symptoms. The movie was denounced by a number of dental associations for promoting misinformation and causing unwarranted fear. You may have seen it. It followed the time-honoured formula of pointing the finger at a universal boogeyman, in this case root canals, as the one true cause of all diseases.

Why am I mentioning Root Cause in an article about the Weston A. Price Foundation? Because the scary theory amplified by the movie has its roots in Weston A. Price himself.

Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1870, Weston Price was a dentist who is now known in biological and holistic dentistry circles for two books he wrote. In 1923, he published Dental Infections, Oral and Systemic, in which he argued against root canals, which he believed caused infections and triggered disease, and for the extraction of the tooth instead. This was in keeping with the focal infection theory, which was the idea that local infections were responsible for all sorts of chronic diseases. In order to prevent these issues, a dentist should thus extract an infected tooth instead of emptying out the root canal and filling it out. The focal infection theory would be proven wrong and abandoned, and root canals have been shown to be safe. But in 1923, Price was arguing for going back to cruder ways of taking care of people’s teeth.

In 1939, after travelling the world and doubling down on his nostalgic attitude, Price released Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. His approach in this second book was qualified in the Journal of the American Medical Association as “evangelistic rather than scientific:” “Above all,” the reviewer wrote in 1940, “it is the story of an observant, but not wholly unbiased, traveler who relates entertainingly what he discovered during vacation trips to primitive peoples in Switzerland, the Hebrides, North America, Melanesia, Polynesia, Africa and South America.” In Price’s account, the Western diet of his time was bad for both health and morals, and his contemporaries needed to eat the way traditional cultures did. After all, the people subsisting on so-called “tribal diets” didn’t have many cavities. As Dr. Stephen Barrett pointed out in a commentary, “malnourished people don’t usually get many cavities.” This is not to defend a sugar-filled Western diet but merely to point out that Price’s conclusions were overly simplistic.

Price’s ideas around dentistry were rediscovered in the 1990s. Dentist George Meinig released a book called Root Canal Cover-Up Exposed which breathed new life into Price’s bugbear. A few years later, in 1999, a nonprofit, tax-exempt charity would see the light of day: the Weston A. Price Foundation or WAPF. This foundation, much like in Isaac Asimov’s famous work, should not be confused with a second foundation, the Weston A. Price Memorial Foundation, which was established in 1952 and has since been renamed the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation. (As an aside, it also has ill-informed advice, such as advocating for organic food and the consumption of raw milk.)

Price’s dread over root canals is only the starting point for WAPF. Its mission statement proclaims a focus on “nontoxic therapies” and it promotes 11 dietary principles of varying scientific validity. It says a healthy diet needs to include animal products (whereas well-planned vegetarian and/or vegan diets do provide all the nutrients we need); that salt is inherently good for you (whereas diets high in salt are not good for you); and that bone broth is some sort of miracle ingredient (it is no such thing).

The WAPF’s president is Sally Fallon Morell, who studied English and owns a farm that does not use corn, soy, GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, or antibiotics, leaning heavily into the appeal to nature fallacy. Her vice-president is Thomas Cowan, an adept of anthroposophic medicine in which esoteric concepts such as cosmic forces and vegetabilized metals are woven into a health framework.

You may think you have witnessed crank magnetism before, but unless you have browsed the WAPF website, you may not realize how powerful magnets can get.

At once delirious and dangerous

There is a lot wrong with the WAPF, starting with its obsession with raw milk.

The Foundation advocates for the drinking of raw milk through its “campaign for real milk.” On its website, there is an image that apparently counts the number of deaths from drinking milk: 73 for pasteurized milk and 0 for raw milk, we learn. Is this in the last year? Some other year? Since the beginning of time? Where does the data come from? None of these questions are answered. The numbers are there to give the barest patina of scientific legitimacy to confirmation bias.

In reality, the consumption of raw milk, though rare in the United States, has led to 202 distinct outbreaks of illness in that country between 1998 and 2018, with thousands of people getting sick and over 200 having to be hospitalized. Pasteurized milk, which is heated to kill disease-causing microorganisms, can make people sick, especially if it becomes contaminated after pasteurization by a bacterium called Listeria, but it’s important to put numbers in context. When taking into consideration how many people consume raw milk (few) versus pasteurized milk (many), the risk of disease outbreaks with drinking raw milk is at least 150 times greater than the same risk with drinking pasteurized milk.

These numbers don’t matter to the raw milk proponents and the WAPF, though. They claim that raw milk can treat diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, cancer, and that it will give you glowing skin (citing the myth of the beautiful milkmaids as evidence). There are so many misconceptions about the health benefits of drinking raw milk that the FDA has published an extensive list debunking them.

The crank magnet of the WAPF has attracted a smorgasbord of bad science takes that are at once delirious and dangerous. According to the Foundation, tuberculosis is actually caused by excess iron in the body; PTSD can be cured with cod liver and butter oil; magnets can help stroke victims; and a speaker it hosted at its 2023 Wise Traditions Conference claims that root canals block dental meridians. Meridians are the fictional canals in the body that are meant to conduct the nonexisting life force known as qi. Next time your dentist suggests a root canal, be sure to ask them to steer clear of your life force meridians.

Of course, no serving of medical misinformation would be complete without your run-of-the-mill pseudosciences and conspiracy theories. The WAPF website publishes many articles endorsing homeopathy, the unscientific practice that consists in picking an ingredient that gives the symptom you have and diluting it often out of existence, resulting in customers popping sugar pills and thinking they are feeling a bit better. I learned that there is such a thing as homeopathic cannabis and that Anke Zimmermann, the B.C.-based naturopath who surrendered her license after treating a child with rabies-infected saliva, recommends the product for paranoia and delusions of all kinds. You can find this barking mad advice on the WAPF website, alongside the equally inane suggestion that brain tumours can be cured by homeopathy.

Then there is the anti-vaccine material, where the Foundation wastes no time stating that “vaccination as practiced today is a two-hundred-year mistake.” Indeed, why would we need vaccines if viruses don’t even cause disease? The Foundation’s president co-authored a book titled The Contagion Myth: Why Viruses (including “Coronavirus”) Are Not the Cause of Disease. She thinks COVID-19 was actually caused by radiation poisoning from 5G telecommunications towers, a myth that flared up at the beginning of the pandemic and that simply makes no sense.

The magnetism at play here applies not only to ideas but to people. Cranks platform other cranks and form alliances, even when their beliefs contradict each other. As long as they denounce mainstream medicine, they will have a home at the WAPF, it seems. Through its conferences and website, the Foundation has aligned itself with disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who fraudulently linked autism with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine; Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., one of the leading voices of the modern anti-vaccine movement; Del Bigtree, the TV producer who compared the treatment of anti-vaxxers to Jews during the Holocaust; Stephanie Seneff, an honorary board member who studied computer science and somehow developed “expertise” in pesticides; and Andrew Kaufman, a psychiatrist who became infamous during the pandemic for claiming the coronavirus was actually misidentified exosomes.

Wading through these mad waters is exhausting. Just when you think you’ve found the most ludicrous claim possible—“sunlight may be the best thing for melanoma” instead of the reality that UV radiation in sunlight causes melanoma—each new click acts as a manifestation of the “hold my beer” meme. Cranks must always outdo themselves.

And they seem surprised when somebody goes even further than they’re ready to go. In an ironic blog post, Foundation president Sally Morell decries the presence of Flat-Earthers within her community. She then gets roasted by Flat-Earthers in the comment section to her own blog post. She seems to think this is an undercover operation to plant truly outlandish conspiracy theories within the natural health movement so that it can be more easily discredited.

It really isn’t, Sally. You and your friends are doing a good enough job discrediting the movement all on your own.

Take-home message:
- The Weston A. Price Foundation promotes many pseudoscientific beliefs, including that homeopathy can cure cancer, that diseases are not caused by viruses, and that drinking raw milk is both safe and beneficial
- Weston Price was a dentist who believed root canals caused infections that led to chronic diseases, and he made overly simplistic observations of traditional cultures, claiming that their eating habits were superior to people eating a more modern diet


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