Sometimes a highly credentialed person steeped in the sciences has a misleading epiphany and makes a 90-degree course correction, building a large following of people who resonate with their new guru’s pseudoscientific ideas. Social media and our collective hunger for easy solutions allow these charismatic leaders to thrive. One can only imagine how double-Nobel-Prize-winner Linus Pauling would behave on the Internet of 2021 with his belief that megadoses of vitamin C could cure many illnesses: the podcasts he would guest on, the YouTube seminars he would give, the supplements he would sell on his website.
Dr. Zach Bush fits the above profile and given his religious upbringing and the spirituality in which he marinates his ideas, it makes sense to speak of a “road to Damascus” moment. On his way to the city of Damascus, the Bible alleges that a man named Paul was temporarily blinded by a divine manifestation, which turned him into a believer and preacher. Likewise Bush, a medical doctor who did a residency in internal medicine, a fellowship in endocrinology and metabolism, and an internship in palliative care, is now preaching to hundreds of thousands of Internet followers that viruses don’t really cause disease and that tapping into ecstasy will be our salvation. The foundation of his gospel is an old pseudoscientific trope that dates back to the days of Louis Pasteur, but because Bush is obviously smart and well-read, he peppers his speeches with modern scientific knowledge that is almost true. Almost.
Blinding with science on the road to Damascus
Dr. Zach Bush’s alternative theory of health goes something like this: life on Earth used to be balanced, with viruses acting merely as genetic software updates from Mother Nature, but we began to pollute our environment fifty years ago and this could lead to the collapse of fundamental health. The way back, according to him, is to use his interpretation of modern science to improve our food supply, abolish straight lines, embrace nature’s spiral shapes and dig our “churches” into the ground. “What happens,” he posits, “when we build prisons that are actually underground networks of tunnels that [prisoners] dwell in at night to be charged by Mother Earth [...] and they can’t ever go back to some recidivism because they are now in an ecstatic state of being alive?” Fear and guilt are bad; ecstasy will save us.
As I watched Bush sermonize on his grand health hypothesis in very long videos, it became apparent that many of the scientific facts he conjures up are true but distorted, cherry-picked to allow us to experience awe in the face of Mother Nature. He claims that human and pig DNA are identical: the bits have just been scrambled in different positions to yield different animals. “If you clip the human DNA,” he says in a recent video, “those 20,000 genes, if you clip them into 178 pieces and rearrange the puzzle, you can spell ‘pig’ from start to finish without a single basepair in the wrong spot.” This is actually a paraphrase from animal geneticist Lawrence Schook who, in 2005, was explaining what he and other scientists were seeing when comparing early versions of both the human and pig genomes.
But we now know that there are differences between our DNA and that of pigs, with pigs having twice the number of a certain type of immune system-related genes than we do, fewer retroviruses inserted into their genomes than we do, and many disparities when it comes to genes involved in coronary artery disease, for example. Bush uses this false idea that human DNA comes out of scrambling pig DNA to proclaim that Darwin was wrong: new species do not slowly transition out of older ones but miraculously appear overnight after genomic “Shake ’n Bake” events. We know Bush’s hypothesis is not true based on decades of accumulating evidence from the fields of palaeontology, genetics, anatomy, molecular biology and developmental biology and an impressive fossil record. Besides, if all it took for new species to emerge was shuffling the genetic card deck over night, every life form would have the exact same amount of DNA, which is absolutely not the case.
In Bush’s grand hypothesis, malfunction of the little energy factories in our cells called mitochondria is responsible for all chronic diseases. This statement is not complete hogwash: as we learn more about mitochondria, we realize they play significant roles in a myriad of human diseases. And this comes from the mouths of scientists reviewing the link between mitochondria and disease for prestigious journals like Cell, Science, and Nature. But while our little factories’ malfunction can be tied to many diseases, it does not mean they cause them. To cast only mitochondria in the role of chronic disease supervillain is to commit the fallacy of the boogeyman, disturbingly common in alternative medicine. There’s always one cause to every disease and your favourite influencer has the cure-all.
What makes our mitochondria malfunction according to Bush? He would barely qualify as a modern alternative health guru if he did not demonize the pesticide glyphosate, more commonly known as the active ingredient in Roundup. In an interview he gave to Salon, Bush claims the pesticide is destroying the entire ecosystem and endangering our health. In a slide he presented during a recent webinar, Bush called glyphosate “the most abundant antibiotic on Earth.” The problem, as Professor Alan McHughen who studies crop improvement and sustainability at the University of California Riverside told me via email, is that “glyphosate is not an antibiotic, although it can affect bacterial functions.” Glyphosate kills plants by inhibiting the enzyme EPSP synthase, which is not present in humans or other animals. Our own director has weighed before on the debate over the safety of glyphosate. The panic over glyphosate’s danger to human health has yet to be backed by good evidence.
While Dr. Bush’s appeals to modern science may make his grand theory sound novel, it actually rests on a very old foundation: germ theory denialism.
Separating the germ from the chaff
In an era where we regularly hear about hospital-acquired infections, antibiotic resistance, and pandemic viruses, it may boggle the mind that there are still people--including Dr. Zach Bush--who deny that germs cause disease. Yet, when we scratch the surface of a health guru who defies modern medicine, we often find a denier who draws their inspiration from a Frenchman named Antoine Béchamp.
Béchamp disagreed with Louis Pasteur’s idea that microorganisms could cause disease. He believed the arrow of causation was reversed: that it was the diseased parts of our bodies that attracted microorganisms. Some very erudite people at the time were fans of Béchamp’s hypothesis, including the father of pathology himself.
You may have come across Béchamp’s idea under the name “terrain theory,” in reference to the false generalization that a weak body (or terrain) attracts illness while a strong body is immune to it. It continues to be appealing to a section of the population who feels empowered by it. By simply eating carefully curated foods, buying the right kind of water and avoiding “chemicals,” they may feel like they are now in full control of their health. While the terrain of our body does play a role in how susceptible we can be to infections, the problem is that viruses, bacteria and parasites of all sorts are very real and can very much cause disease. Pasteur himself provided good evidence in support of his germ theory, and so did Koch after him, and leagues of microbiologists after him, to the point where the germ theory of disease is a “capital T” scientific theory alongside the theory of evolution and the theory of plate tectonics. But according to Dr. Zach Bush, viruses are simply ways for Mother Nature to update our genetic software. They don’t cause disease in healthy individuals, he thinks.
One of his arguments is his claim that the faeces excreted by newborns during their first week contain hundreds of millions of viruses, and since babies at that point have no adaptive immunity, their body must be “in perfect balance with these viruses.” I reached out to Dr. Clay Jones, a paediatrician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts, to shed light on newborns’ relationship with viruses. “Protective antibodies developed by the mother (AKA the products of the mother’s adaptive immunity) cross the placenta and last for months [inside the baby],” he wrote to me via email. These antibodies can help a newborn fight off infection, but newborns are not impervious to viral illnesses. While many viruses do not cause harm in humans, newborns can get infected with cytomegalovirus, HIV, rubella, hepatitis B, and RSV. “Respiratory syncytial virus is one of the most common reasons why young infants are admitted to the hospital every winter,” he told me.
Bush’s understanding of paediatric medicine, Jones continued, falls short of competence. “Whenever people say that it’s our own fault when we get sick and not the fault of an innocent pathogen that is merely minding its own business, they are usually selling something.”
Answering the call of nature
Zach Bush is selling something. His official website has a shop that lists “a few of [his] favourite things for optimal health and self care:” products alleged to help with gut health, immune health, and sleep, including a mineral supplement that is claimed to help with “damage from toxins such as glyphosate.” (There’s even a version for your pets!) When I tried to book him for a made-up podcast, I was asked if I wished to talk about this mineral supplement on the show and if I would like information on becoming an affiliate. The email notification contained plenty of links to his products and projects. One of them is his Intrinsic Health Series, a month-long immersion program into his alternative beliefs for the low, low price of USD 495. If you want the premium, eight-week experience package, you need to add a “1” in front of that quote.
It should not come as a shock that Bush is a COVID denialist. He claims the media has usurped science these past few months like never before, fomenting a climate of fear. He asserts, wrongly, that “the science is already there to prove the damage” from vaccines. How can COVID be real when you don’t believe viruses can make you sick? He denounces the word “anti-vaccine” and any “anti” platform and says he is more interested in the bright potential for change that our current pandemic calls for. I guess you could call him pro-“no vaccine.”
It would not surprise me if Bush’s upbringing--a mixture of counterculture from his hippie parents and of old religious archetypes from his dad who became a preaching church elder--had a strong influence on how he now talks about health. His droning voice, punctuated with vocal fries, crawls from one big idea to another in a seemingly endless stream of muted awe. In his pseudoscientific homilies, Mother Nature is a miraculous hyper-intelligence that we have betrayed, and if we could only revel in the ecstasy--the orgasm!--of biting into a fresh tomato, our hormonal surge would give us “the opposite of cancer.” The epiphanies that steered him away from scientific medicine are many: an acupuncturist that allegedly cured him of suicidal ideation; his studies of the soil and the link he made with cancer; his assistance in helping deliver a baby in the Philippines.
When formally trained science and medicine experts claim they had a “road to Damascus” moment that led them to abandon their training and cobble together a grand theory of the world, we have every right to have our own Biblical moment: a “doubting Thomas” moment.
- Dr. Zach Bush is a medical doctor turned health guru who falsely claims that the theory of evolution and the germ theory of disease are wrong
- His grand theory of health is based on the assumption that Mother Nature is a hyper-intelligence and on Bush’s spiritual desire to reconnect with her
- He sells expensive immersion programs and supplements based on unproven and disproven claims about pesticides and health