Issue 172: 2018 10 04: Pseudoscience

04 October 2018

The Dark Side of Paltrow’s World

The real global danger of medical pseudoscience.

By Jack Wippell

As the storm of headlines generated by the conference season and Kavanaugh continues, you could be forgiven for missing the opening of a pop-up shop, Goop, in Notting Hill on Tuesday.  Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand has opened its doors to the UK, featuring everything from herbal remedies to handbags.

Not all of the products have met with unqualified admiration.  In September, the company reportedly paid £110,000 in a settlement over false claims made about three of its products.  Goop advertised that the Jade and Rose Quartz eggs could balance hormones…Goop advertised that the Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend could help prevent depression’, a statement from the Orange County District Attorney’s office read.

However, celebrity endorsed pseudoscience is just the tip of an iceberg, one that, unlike most of those around today, actually appears to be growing.  Last week, hundreds of Spanish scientists called for action against homeopathy (a largely untested system of ‘treatment’ in which minute doses of natural substances that in larger amounts would produce symptoms of the ailment are administered, generally once dissolved in water) for misleading vulnerable individuals seeking treatment.  This was a response to multiple cases of those afflicted turning away from standard medical treatments in favour of alternative remedies.  In some cases, such as cancer, these decisions proved fatal. But it is not just the celebrity world which is fuelling these fads, and it is not just a Spanish problem.  The UK is no less at risk and, indeed, Paltrow’s new shop demonstrates that a popular market continues for alternative treatments.

One has to ask why people see these unproven treatments as worth it?  The NHS has not helped by actively encouraging pseudoscience treatments, only recently withdrawing funding for homeopathic remedies.  Why this area was receiving funding in the first place is somewhat confusing as you would hope that a limited budget built on tax payer money would be used to fund proven medicines.  In defence of homeopathy, however, it must be made clear that an unproven cure is not equivalent to one that is disproven.  However, unproven is just as different to proven in this regard.

On top of the misdirected policy of our own medical institutions, we in the UK are currently living in a world in which life expectancy has stalled and belief in religion is falling.  Freud argued that people will go on believing in some kind of God for as long as they fear death.  In the modern era, we can perhaps rephrase and recognise that people will believe in almost anything as long as they fear death.  Alternative medicines exploit this fear today by marketing new cures.  Homeopathy draws an even greater parallel with religion given that is essentially a miracle holy water and, as with holy water, the effect of homeopathy seems to be at most placebo.  The difference is that whilst homeopathy claims to be a verified cure consistent with scientific methods, religion has always maintained that it is a belief and does not guarantee a cure: that is after all why religious cures are called miracles.  The hybrid nature of these belief based/supposedly medical cures makes their popularity arguably much more lethal than that of their religious counterparts.

The religiosity of belief in these cures has come to a climax in Switzerland, not typically in the news for populism, where democracy appears to have trumped science.  Alternative medicines (including homeopathy) were originally rejected in 2005 for a lack of scientific proof but this was overturned in 2009 when two thirds of Swiss voted for their inclusion on the constitutional list of paid health services.  Thankfully, the treatments are generally pretty cheap but that does not detract from the issue that belief can waste money on counterproductive policy.

The dominance of social media in our lives, and the severe lack of fact checking on platforms such as Facebook can only increase the chance that these medical fads catch on.  Homeopathy has been banded about on social media as a supposed cure for everything from headaches to rabies, a famously incurable and possibly deadly disease.  For now, at least, we are lucky the UK has not fallen to this genre of populism but we should stay well aware that current attitudes and technology have produced a perfect climate for its popularity.

Despite the risks they pose, however, the approach to limit the damage from alternative medicines has become misguidedly polar and needs addressing.  The picture painted of such cures is either one of support, or one of scorn and ridicule.  In this modern populist climate, we have seen time and time again, from Brexit to Trump, that these attitudes can so easily overshadow the scepticism we need in not just health but every aspect of policy.  Dismissing beliefs risks dangerously oversimplifying the issue; public perception matters as well as NHS policy.  The doctors cannot help the patients if no one sees the need to go in the first place.  As with Religion, telling someone their water is not holy will not stop them taking it in the hope of a cure; making sure these same people do not forget the proven benefits of conventional medicine is the more imperative aim.  Medication should simply be framed as a reinsurance on prayers and beliefs.  Furthermore, there is always the chance that one of the yet unproven medications may actually work, and in an age where so many of the health concerns are psychological such ‘treatments’ can still play an important role even if only as an unknown placebo, leading to a mental boost which in turn may improve symptoms.

However, as soon as alternative medicine professes to be something that it is not, that is on a proven standard equal to traditional medicine, it becomes extremely dangerous.  Paltrow’s new shop and others like it need to advertise without misleading their own clientele, and be clear that unofficial remedies should and can be used alongside conventional, proven ones.  Thankfully, Goop’s website makes clear that uses in conjunction are best, and not detrimental to the supposed ‘effectiveness’ of the alternative treatments on offer there.  The NHS made the right move in June by stopping funding for such ‘cures’ until proven, but attitudes to medicine are just as important to keeping people healthy and alive.  We should not neglect this aspect of the issue.


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