In the fifth episode of his 2017 Canadian series, A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, now streaming on Netflix, law professor and skeptic Timothy Caulfield considers the powerful allure of “The Natural Way” and how it wields such influence in so many aspects of popular culture. Though he has taken on other broad subjects in his series on the lengths society has gone to to “cheat death,” unpacking the concept of “natural,” in all its uncountable manifestations, may be his boldest, and perhaps most Sisyphean, project.
Caulfield notes the almost religious level of conviction that can be found about the value of “natural” in healing practices and medicine. He interviews a “holistic nutritionist” who says she practices by reviewing a person’s entire life back, “almost in utero,” and then uses herbs and nutritional supplements for “healing them” on the assumption – much like that of the “toxin” phobics in an earlier episode – that everyone in modern society is just inescapably in need of “natural” rejuvenation.
“The phrase ‘root cause’ is one that is often used by those who embrace natural approaches,” Caulfield says, “but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of science-based healthcare … It takes for granted that these natural approaches are actually treating these alleged root causes [of illness].”
Caulfield quotes a woman saying she and her husband had both been diagnosed with different forms of cancer; he underwent conventional therapy, and she resorted to chemotherapy, scientifically-based stem-cell therapy, yoga, “detox” juices, and a vegan diet. He died; she is still alive. She is convinced she survived because “I healed myself” with “complementary” therapies, not that her juice and yoga were accompanied by a full range of modern, mainstream cancer treatments.
“I can’t endorse this holistic nutritional approach to cancer treatment,” Caulfield says. “There’s no evidence that links juicing or other holistic diets to the curing of cancer.” He adds, reciting the watchwords of the scientific skeptic, “Anecdotal experiences, no matter how compelling, should not be given the same weight as science-based analysis, especially when discussing serious diseases.”
This interest in natural healing is bolstered by widespread distrust of large for-profit pharmaceutical companies.There are pharmaceutical companies with histories of very abusive and dishonest behavior,and drug development is a harshly profit-driven industry. The suspicion that the public cannot rely on the altruistic impulses of Big Pharma is, well, probably true.
But that the companies have possibly questionable motives and behavior does not mean their products are not in fact effective. Jumping to that conclusion takes us into the territory of conspiracy theory.
Ubaka Ogbogu, Professor of Law and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta, points out the difference between suspicion of motives and dismissal of actual science. “Even if you blame Big Pharma, there’s some solid research [behind drug development]; there’s a process for regulating it; there’s clinical trials,” he says. “For these other guys [‘natural’ medicines], there’s none of that stuff.”
The great benefit of the corporatized, laboratory development of synthetic drugs is precisely that they are subject to scientific testing, and it must be demonstrated that they are safe and at least somewhat effective before they’re allowed on the market. Ironically, the distrust of the scientific process that drives some people to unproved and untested medicine also leads them to ignore actual observed evidence that would tell them whether their fears, regarding synthetic drugs, were valid or not.
One of the most popular arenas of the “natural” movement involves food: health foods, organic foods, and vitamins and supplements. Professor Alan Levinovitz of James Madison University, Caulfield’s go-to expert on religion and science, suggests that interest in “natural” foods arises from discomfort with technology and synthetic products, a feeling that they are too complicated to understand or control.
“The belief seems to be that by pushing aside elements of our modern world and adopting a more natural lifestyle,” Levinovitz says, “we may be able to, perhaps, just a bit, cheat death.” But Professor Joe Schwarz, a chemist and Director of the McGill University Office for Science and Society, points out that, “Nature is not benign .. We spend much of our life trying to overcome the ravages of nature, very often by using synthetic substances … I think this idea of ‘natural’ speaks to our anxiety about toxins and chemicals in our food.”
Schwarz points out that the nutritional content of organic foods is no greater than that of non-organic ones, and that “organic” farming, contrary to many people’s assumptions, does involve the use of pesticides, some of which are more toxic than synthetic ones. An unexamined intuition that “natural” or “organic” means “healthy” is not grounded on fact, and may be counterproductive.
Caulfield also touches on the anti-vaccine movement. There’s too much there to cover in this episode, but he notes the connection of that trend to the “natural” movement.
As with organic foods, it’s the very fact that vaccines are effective that makes it possible for complacent people in affluent countries to indulge in fantasies of dangers that don’t actually exist. And as with synthetic pharmaceuticals, fleeing from those imaginary dangers simply puts them at risk of other dangers that the medications they fear would have easily prevented.
One feature of this trend – as with so many of the other fads and frauds Caulfield covers – is our inability as a society to grapple with scientific truth and uncertainty. The laziness of false balance in media coverage of disputed issues leads to events like a highly-touted “debate” Caulfield describes, between former model Jenny McCarthy, who was a significant influence behind the anti-vax movement, and a panel of epidemiologists; it was McCarthy who was best remembered by the public.
Caulfield also mentions Katy Perry, the pop singer who is widely noted for her massive intake of health supplements and vitamins. Perry has 100 million online followers, while the World Health Organization has fewer than 4 million.
In this episode of “Cheating Death,” Caulfield is clearly concerned with the dangers of the misbeliefs and misinformation he profiles; he includes many more examples than the above.
He emphasizes, as he often does, the way “celebrity culture” overwhelms factual information and scientific knowledge. He also seems fascinated by the fact that “natural” products and medicines are large industries in themselves, in some cases bigger than the mainstream industries they are marketed against, and often facing less regulation or supervision. This undercuts the suspicion of corporate profiteering that drives some of the demand for “natural” products.
As Caulfield notes, “One of the reasons that it’s so difficult to change people’s minds about a topic like … the role of the concept of ‘natural’ in how we live our lives, is because they’ve adopted those concepts as part of their own personal worldview, as part of who they are … [A]nd once it becomes part of how you identify yourself, it becomes very hard to change your views on the topic.”
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.