Our office’s mission is to separate sense from nonsense, which may well be a Sisyphean task. There is a lot of pseudoscience—meaning ideas and interventions that look scientific but that are not—especially around health. Having a mental map of what is trending right now can help us better understand the landscape so that we can intervene more effectively. I have been interested in health-related pseudoscience for over a decade now. Here is what I see being popular at the moment and who is pushing (and often profiting from) these narratives.
Trend #1: Scienceploitation
A term coined by Timothy Caulfield from the University of Alberta, scienceploitation is the abuse of real but preliminary findings in an emerging field of research in order to sell you a product or service that is not ready for primetime. It’s bundling hype into a package that can make money.
The microbiome, for example, fits squarely in this niche. The fact that our body has been colonized by a myriad of microorganisms is not pseudoscience; it is a scientific fact. These bacteria have a real impact on our health, and the effectiveness of fecal transplants for C. difficile infections shows that we can devise science-based treatments that modify the microbiome. But the fervour around this field of study has outpaced the evidence, and we can now buy probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics that carry little proof they do anything to our bodies, as well as testing kits that promise insight.
Likewise, scienceploitation has touched disciplines as diverse as stem cells, cannabis, and nutrigenomics, churning theoretical knowledge and laboratory data into profitable cure-alls. The people marketing scienceploitation tend not to be solo influencers on social media so much as companies built around these early scientific promises. Beware of products that leverage the hype around red light therapy, psychedelics, epigenetics, and cancer immunotherapy. There may be justified applications, and more to come in the future, but these concepts are rife for exploitation of both real science and consumers.
Trend #2: Body optimization
The epicentre of the body optimization movement seems to be Silicon Valley in California. In the land of the tech entrepreneur, science can be used to “hack” human biology and increase productivity and longevity. Two of the main ambassadors for body optimization are podcasters: Joe Rogan and Andrew Huberman.
With body optimization, the goal is to beat the lab mice to it and jump on early findings not to treat disease (as was the case for scienceploitation) but to fulfill the possibilities of the human body in day-to-day life. Nootropics (so-called smart drugs) are popular in this space: they are alleged to help you think faster and more clearly. The problem is that the evidence so far does not live up to the hype, and there are less sexy but more effective ways of improving your thinking, like getting a good night’s sleep.
Be cautious around the masculine certainty with which body optimization tools like intermittent fasting and assorted anti-aging interventions are endorsed. The interventions themselves are often based on in vitro or animal studies, and the certainty has not been earned.
Trend #3: Integrative medicine
Pushed by advocates like Andrew Weil and adopted by hospitals all over the world (and even by the World Health Organization), the latest rebranding of alternative medicine is alive and well. Its tenet is that conventional medicine is imperfect (which is true), but so are complementary and alternative medical practices like Reiki, homeopathy, and reflexology. To get the best of both worlds, they must be integrated. But as Dr. Mark Crislip of Science-Based Medicine famously wrote, “if you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.” The integration of disproven and unproven ideas to medicine does not make it stronger.
And yet, large medical institutions have fallen for the siren call of integrative medicine, often because patients clamour for it and wealthy donors who believe in it are willing to finance it. Many of these treatment modalities have been poorly studied and rely on pre-scientific ideas about how the human body works, often hinging on a single cause for all diseases and a miraculous panacea. When the intervention is convincingly shown in rigorous trials to be no better than placebo, this invalidation is reinterpreted in a positive light: it works through the placebo effect, which is redefined as the power of the mind to convince the body to heal itself. Don’t fall for this bit of magical thinking.
Trend #4: Wellness
As we make our way through these trends, you will notice our moving away from a very pro-science and pro-technology attitude to one that becomes more and more anti-science and anti-technology. With wellness, we see the embrace of a lifestyle which is sold as all-natural and which is meant to prevent disease in the first place. Wellness figures like Joe Mercola and Gwyneth Paltrow will tell you that if you fill your body with natural substances, you will never need a doctor.
The central dogma of wellness is that modernity has polluted our world with ill-defined toxins. To be healthy, we need to detox. This is a gross exaggeration, bordering on a falsehood, and the toxin-flushing remedies sold within this lucrative industry carry no real benefits but very disturbing risks, such as tearing the intestine during a colon cleanse.
Public health interventions are of very little interest to the wellness crowd; instead, wellness zeroes in on a hyper-individualized form of health, in which improvements are credited to a person’s adherence to the right wellness regime… and any health decline can similarly be blamed on them for not doing enough to keep themselves thriving.
While wellness authorities decry the pharmaceuticals pushed by physicians, they deceptively act similarly with dietary supplements, binders and adaptogens, piles of poorly regulated pills that are marketed as natural and therefore salutary.
Trend #5: The fear of genetic modifications
Anxieties over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been transposed over messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. The public in general has a poor understanding of genetics and molecular biology. This vulnerability can be exploited by people like Joe Mercola and Peter McCullough, who fuel the fear that these new technologies might violate the integrity and sanctity of a person’s DNA.
With GMOs, fearmongers were quick to spread Frankenstein-inspired imagery online, as genetically-engineered food products (real and imagined) were painted as unnatural and potentially harmful. The mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, meanwhile, were vilified as potentially introducing mutations in our DNA (an event with such low probability as to be practically impossible). Now, it’s the mRNA vaccines used on livestock, like pigs (and soon in shrimps too), that provide fodder for food anxieties: will eating pork damage our own DNA? The answer is no, and the safety of these technologies has been well documented. Activists fanning the flames of this genetic anxiety, however, remain mum on this documentation, preferring to point to the long shadow of potential long-term side effects. Within these communities, gene-based technologies have never been studied long enough and will never be safe.
We should be ready for similar arguments to be made if/when self-amplifying RNA vaccines, in which the gene introduced by the vaccine comes with its own replication machinery that can make copies of it for weeks, are rolled out.
Trend #6: Anti-vaccination
The COVID-19 pandemic could have been a stark reminder to anti-vaccine activists and to people who are vaccine hesitant of the importance of vaccines: the threat was significant in both scope and severity. Vaccines can be victims of their own success when the diseases they prevent are no longer on people’s minds. COVID-19 was much harder to ignore.
Despite the reality of the pandemic, the anti-vaccine movement was reenergized. The creed of its adherents is that vaccines are dangerous and ineffective, while the diseases they prevent are mild. The movement has many prominent and vocal figures, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Del Bigtree, Stew Peters, and Steve Kirsch, and has enticed new recruits during the pandemic, such as the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein and the oncologist Vinay Prasad. The playbook is simple: deny official statistics on safety and efficacy and trawl vaccine safety databases like VAERS to extract so-called vaccine injuries like myocarditis in order to delineate a conspiracy by authorities to suppress the truth.
Some anti-vaxxers oppose all vaccines, while newer acolytes in the movement simply draw the line at the COVID-19 vaccines. Once they start networking with others in the movement and the distrust in institutions builds up, however, the leap from COVID anti-vaxxer to general anti-vaxxer becomes very tempting.
As an alternative to vaccines, supplements and off-patent drugs (like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine) are often promoted as safer treatments and preventatives. The flawed argument here is that because a pharmaceutical company cannot rake in the profits with these older drugs, the drugs must be effective. Pharma then suppresses this knowledge in order to market more profitable and more toxic drugs to the masses.
From pseudoscience to science denial to conspiracy thinking
Believing in a pseudoscience often goes hand-in-hand with denying actual science. If homeopathy, the absurd dilution of natural substances to make them stronger and cure disease, is real, then there is little need for modern medicine. If this is true, then how can we explain why mainstream experts disagree with us on this? The answer often found within these communities is that the experts know that homeopathy works. They are silencing the truth because corporate interests cannot make money off of it, or because they want to cause harm to the world at large and keep us all sick. Therefore, as we scratch the surface of a pseudoscience, we commonly find conspiracy theories thriving in the dark.
Which conspiracy theories are blooming right now under the veneer of pseudoscience? The Great Reset Initiative (a plan put forth by the World Economic Forum and interpreted by conspiracists as the arrival of a world government that will take away ownership of goods and currency), the Great Replacement Theory (the idea that white people are being replaced by immigrants of colour), the concept of 15-minute cities (in which improved urban planning is framed as a totalitarian restriction on movements), transhumanism (the fear that powerful people want to fuse us with machines so that we lose our soul), the fiction that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned by governments, the panic around fake meat and edible insects and what it means for our future dietary choices, and of course Big Pharma (the accusation that the pharmaceutical industry is so big and powerful, it now controls academia, governments, and the media).
Within this conspiracy-mongering discourse, you will hear mentions of “medical freedom” (the idea that the institutionalized practice of medicine is hopelessly corrupt and that doctors must be sought outside the pharmaceutical and health insurance system) and of “sovereign citizenship” (the claim that human laws do not really exist and that we should only obey God’s laws). The echoes of the QAnon political movement can still be heard, especially its more feminine, pastel-coloured version’s slogan of “Save the Children,” which dovetails with the current wave of transphobia. And, as with most conspiracy theories, when we dig all the way to the bottom, what we often find is old-fashioned antisemitism.
It is important to note that the above trends are not discrete entities: they often overlap. The fear of genetic modifications feeds our contemporary anti-vaccine movement, and dietary supplements are endorsed in most of these trends. Yet as we go down the list, we do observe worsening attitudes toward science and technology and a wider embrace of conspiratorial thinking. This inventory is also not comprehensive: there is a lot of pseudoscience out there, but these six trends represent particularly popular types of health-related pseudoscientific beliefs and interventions at the moment.
We could devise an entirely different classification based on activity: food pseudoscience, sleep pseudoscience, fitness pseudoscience, etc. I chose instead to highlight trends based on their underlying philosophy, because I think it better exposes the beliefs that spread within these communities and it helps us understand why people gravitate toward them.
The good news is that many of those who fall under the spell of these pseudoscientific trends have simply been misinformed. Explaining to them why these interventions are not based on good evidence, why they are implausible, and why they may appear to work (through placebo effects, for example, or through a reliance on carefully curated testimonials) can often lead them to change their mind and to make better-informed decisions about their health.
But there are those who strongly identify with these trends and who may fully buy into their underlying conspiracy theories. Facts, in these cases, will not be enough. If these people are close to you, try to keep the lines of communication open if you can in case they ever feel ready to question their beliefs.
With any criticism of pseudoscientific activities, being kind is more likely to be productive than calling people “idiots.”
I hope that this survey is more instructive than overwhelming. The first step in addressing pseudoscience is making sure we have a good lay of the land.