MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

cult

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While working on yesterday’s post, I discovered another recent and remarkable article co-authored by Prof Harald Walach. It would surely be unforgivable not to show you the abstract:

The aim of this study is to explore experiences and perceived effects of the Rosary on issues around health and well-being, as well as on spirituality and religiosity. A qualitative study was conducted interviewing ten Roman Catholic German adults who regularly practiced the Rosary prayer. As a result of using a tangible prayer cord and from the rhythmic repetition of prayers, the participants described experiencing stability, peace and a contemplative connection with the Divine, with Mary as a guide and mediator before God. Praying the Rosary was described as helpful in coping with critical life events and in fostering an attitude of acceptance, humbleness and devotion.

The article impressed me so much that it prompted me to design a virtual study for which I borrowed Walach’s abstract. Here it is:

The aim of this study is to explore experiences and perceived effects of train-spotting on issues around health and well-being, as well as on spirituality. A qualitative study was conducted interviewing ten British adults who regularly practiced the art of train-spotting. As a result of using a tangible train-spotter diary and from the rhythmic repetition of the passing trains, the participants described experiencing stability, peace, and a contemplative connection with the Divine, with Mary as a guide and mediator before the almighty train-spotter in the sky. Train-spotting was described as helpful in coping with critical life events and in fostering an attitude of acceptance, humbleness, and devotion.

These virtual results are encouraging and encourage me to propose the hypothesis that Rosary use and train-spotting might be combined to create a new wellness program generating a maximum holistic effect. We are grateful to Walach et al for the inspiration and are currently applying for research funds to test our hypothesis in a controlled clinical trial.

 

Prince Charles has claimed that people struggling to return to full health after having the coronavirus should practice yoga. This is what the GUARDIAN reported about it on Friday:

In a video statement on Friday to the virtual yoga and healthcare symposium Wellness After Covid, the heir apparent said doctors should work together with “complementary healthcare specialists” to “build a roadmap to hope and healing” after Covid. “This pandemic has emphasised the importance of preparedness, resilience and the need for an approach which addresses the health and welfare of the whole person as part of society, and which does not merely focus on the symptoms alone,” Charles said. “As part of that approach, therapeutic, evidenced-informed yoga can contribute to health and healing. By its very nature, yoga is an accessible practice which provides practitioners with ways to manage stress, build resilience and promote healing…”

… Charles, who has previously espoused the benefits of yoga, is not the only fan in the royal family. His wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, has said “it makes you less stiff” and “more supple”, while Prince William has also been pictured doing yogic poses. In 2019, the Prince of Wales said yoga had “proven beneficial effects on both body and mind”, and delivered “tremendous social benefits” that help build “discipline, self-reliance and self-care”.

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END OF QUOTE

Yoga is a complex subject because it entails a host of different techniques, attitudes, and life-styles. There have been numerous clinical trials of various yoga techniques. They tend to suffer from poor study design as well as incomplete reporting and are thus no always reliable. Several systematic reviews have summarised the findings of these studies. A 2010 overview included 21 systematic reviews relating to a wide range of conditions. Nine systematic reviews arrived at positive conclusions, but many were associated with a high risk of bias. Unanimously positive evidence emerged only for depression and cardiovascular risk reduction.[1] There is no evidence that yoga speeds the recovery after COVID-19 or any other severe infectious disease, as Charles suggested.

Yoga is generally considered to be safe. However, a large-scale survey found that approximately 30% of yoga class attendees had experienced some type of adverse event. Although the majority had mild symptoms, the survey results indicated that patients with chronic diseases were more likely to experience adverse events.[2]  It, therefore, seems unlikely that yoga is suited for many patients recovering from a COVID-19 infection.

The warning by the Vatican’s chief exorcist that yoga leads to ‘demonic possession’[3] might not be taken seriously by rational thinkers. Yet, experts have long warned that many yoga teachers try to recruit their clients into the more cult-like aspects of yoga.[4]

Perhaps the most remarkable expression in Charles’ quotes is the term ‘EVIDENCE-INFORMED‘. It crops up regularly when Charles (or his advisor Dr. Michael Dixon) speaks or writes about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). It is a clever term that sounds almost like ‘evidence-based’ but means something entirely different. If a SCAM is not evidence-based, it can still be legitimately put under the umbrella of ‘evidence-informed’: we know the evidence is not positive, we were well-informed of this fact, we nevertheless conclude that yoga (or any other SCAM) might be a good idea!

In my view, the regular use of the term ‘evidence-informed’ in the realm of SCAM discloses a lack of clarity that suits all snake-oil salesmen very well.

 

[1] Ernst E, Lee MS: Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 15(4) December 2010 274–27

[2] Matsushita T, Oka T. A large-scale survey of adverse events experienced in yoga classes. Biopsychosoc Med. 2015 Mar 18;9:9. doi: 10.1186/s13030-015-0037-1. PMID: 25844090; PMCID: PMC4384376.

[3] https://www.social-consciousness.com/2017/06/vaticans-chief-exorcist-warns-that-yoga-causes-demonic-possession.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jun/26/experience-my-yoga-class-turned-out-to-be-a-cult

 

I have not often seen a paper reporting a small case series with such an impressively long list of authors from so many different institutions:

  • Hospital of Lienz, Lienz, Austria.
  • WissHom: Scientific Society for Homeopathy, Koethen, Germany; Umbrella Organization for Medical Holistic Medicine, Vienna, Austria; Vienna International Academy for Holistic Medicine (GAMED), Otto Wagner Hospital Vienna, Austria; Professor Emeritus, Medical University of Vienna, Department of Medicine I, Vienna, Austria. Electronic address: office@ordination-frass.at.
  • Resident Specialist in Hygiene, Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Außervillgraten, Austria.
  • St Mary’s University, London, UK.
  • Umbrella Organization for Medical Holistic Medicine, Vienna, Austria.
  • Shaare Zedek Medical Center, The Center for Integrative Complementary Medicine, Jerusalem, Israel.
  • Apotheke Zum Weißen Engel – Homeocur, Retz, Austria.
  • Reeshabh Homeo Consultancy, Nagpur, India.
  • Umbrella Organization for Medical Holistic Medicine, Vienna, Austria; Vienna International Academy for Holistic Medicine (GAMED), Otto Wagner Hospital Vienna, Austria; Chair of Complementary Medicine, Medical Faculty, Sigmund Freud University Vienna, Austria; KLITM: Karl Landsteiner Institute for Traditional Medicine and Medical Anthropology, Vienna, Austria.
  • WissHom: Scientific Society for Homeopathy, Koethen, Germany.

In fact, there are 12 authors reporting about 13 patients! But that might be trivial – so, let’s look at the paper itself. The aim of this study was to describe the effect of adjunctive individualized homeopathic treatment delivered to hospitalized patients with confirmed symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Thirteen patients with COVID-19 were admitted. The mean age was 73.4 ± 15.0 (SD) years. The treating homeopathic doctor was instructed by the hospital on March 27, 2020, to adjunctively treat all inpatient COVID-19 patients homeopathically. The high potency homeopathic medicinal products were administered orally. Five globules were administered sublingually where they dissolved, three times a day. In ventilated patients in the ICU, medication was administered as a sip from a water beaker or 1 ml three times a day using a syringe. All ventilated patients exhibited dry cough resulting in respiratory failure. They were given Influenzinum, as were the patients at the general inpatient ward.

Twelve patients (92.3%) were speedily discharged without relevant sequelae after 14.4 ± 8.9 days. A single patient admitted in an advanced stage of septic disease died in the hospital. A time-dependent improvement of relevant clinical symptoms was observed in the 12 surviving patients. Six (46.2%) were critically ill and treated in the intensive care unit (ICU). The mean stay at the ICU of the 5 surviving patients was 18.8 ± 6.8 days. In six patients (46.2%) gastrointestinal disorders accompanied COVID-19.

The authors conclude that adjunctive homeopathic treatment may be helpful to treat patients with confirmed COVID-19 even in high-risk patients especially since there is no conventional treatment of COVID-19 available at present.

In the discussion section of the paper, the authors state this: “Given the extreme variability of pathology and clinical manifestations, a single universal preventive homeopathic medicinal product does not seem feasible. Yet homeopathy may have a relevant role to play precisely because of the number and diversity of its homeopathic medicinal products which can be matched with the diversity of the presentations. Patients with mild forms of disease can use homeopathic medicinal products at home using our simple algorithm. As this Case series suggests, adjunctive homeopathic treatment can play a valuable role in more serious presentations. For future pandemics, homeopathy agencies should be prepared by establishing rapid-response teams and efficacious lines of communication.”

There is nothing in this paper that would lead me to conclude that the homeopathic remedies had a positive effect on the natural history of the disease. All this article actually does do is this: it provides a near-perfect insight into the delusional megalomania of some homeopaths. These people are even more dangerous than I had feared.

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a form of paranormal or energy healing developed by Dora Kunz (1904-1999), a psychic and alternative practitioner, in collaboration with Dolores Krieger, a professor of nursing. According to Kunz, TT has its origins in ancient Yogic texts. TT is popular and practiced predominantly by US nurses; it is currently being taught in more than 80 colleges and universities in the U.S., and in more than seventy countries. According to one TT-organisation, TT is a holistic, evidence-based therapy that incorporates the intentional and compassionate use of universal energy to promote balance and well-being. It is a consciously directed process of energy exchange during which the practitioner uses the hands as a focus to facilitate the process.

The assumptions that form the basis for TT are not biologically plausible. But that does not necessarily mean it is ineffective.

This study was conducted to assess the effect of therapeutic touch on stress, daytime sleepiness, sleep quality, and fatigue among students of nursing and midwifery.

A total of 96 students were randomized into three groups: the therapeutic touch (TT) group, the sham therapeutic touch (STT) group, and the control group. The TT group was subjected to therapeutic touch twice a week for 4 weeks with each session lasting 20 min.

When the TT group was compared to the STT and control groups following the intervention, the decrease in the levels of stress, fatigue, and daytime sleepiness, as well as the increase in the sleep quality were found to be significant.

The authors concluded that TT, which is one form of complementary therapy, was relatively effective in decreasing the levels of stress, fatigue and daytime sleepiness, and in increasing the sleep quality of university students of nursing and midwifery.

Several previous trials and reviews of TT are available. However, many of them were conducted ardent proponents of TT, seriously flawed, and thus less than reliable. One rigorous pre-clinical study, co-designed by a 9-year-old girl, found that experienced TT practitioners were unable to detect the investigator’s “energy field.” Their failure to substantiate TT’s most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.

In my recent book, I concluded that there are no reasons to assume that TT causes any meaningful effects beyond placebo. One could, however, argue that, like all forms of paranormal healing, it undermines rational thinking.

Does the new study change my judgment?

I am afraid not!

I was reminded of an event that I had forgotten which, however, is so remarkable that we should remember it. It relates to nothing less than a homeopath’s attempt to save the world!

The homeopath’s name is Grace DaSilva-Hill. She has been a professional homeopath since 1997, with a clinic in Charing (Kent) and international on Zoom, Skype or WhatsApp video. She practises Sensation Homeopathy as refined by Drs Joshis (Mumbai), and Homeopathic Detox Therapy as developed by Dr Ton Jensen. She is also a practitioner of EFT-Tapping. In 2014, Grace very nearly saved the world with homeopathy – well, at least she gave it her very best try. Here is her original plan:

 

Ocean Remedy

Yes, I agree, that’s hilarious! And it’s hilarious in more than one way:

  1. It is funnier than any comedian’s attempt to ridicule homeopathy.
  2. It is a highly effective approach by homeopaths to discrediting themselves.

But, at the same time, it is also worrying. Homeopaths are taken seriously by many influential people. Think of Prince Charles, for instance, or consider the way German homeopaths have convinced the government of Bavaria to invest in research into the question of how homeopathy can be used to reduce antibiotic resistance.

At the time, the formidable Andy Lewis on his QUACKOMETER commented as follows:

We might dismiss this as the fantasies of a small group of homeopaths. However, such thinking is widespread in homeopathic circles and has consequences. Grace is a well known homeopath in the UK, and in the past, has been a trustee and treasurer for the Ghana Homeopathy Project – an organisation that has been exporting this European form of quackery to West Africa. Grace believes that serious illnesses can be treated by a homeopath. For an article in the journal of the Alliance of Registered Homeoapths, Grace discusses treating such conditions as menigitis, malaria and stroke.

Homeopaths in West Africa have hit the news this week as a group tried to enter Liberia in order to use their spells on people with Ebola. The WHO fortunately tried not let them near any actual sick people and they have been kicking and screaming since. The Daily Mail’s rather dreadful article reported that they

“had used homeopathic treatments on patients, despite the instructions from health officials in the capital Monrovia not to do so. She said she had not felt the need to quarantine herself after returning to India but was monitoring her own condition for any signs of the disease.”

The homeopaths appear to have absolutely no understanding how dangerous and irresponsible their actions have been….

Homeopathy is stupid. Magical thinking. A nonsense. Anything goes. And whilst those doctors in the NHS who insist on spending public money on it without taking a responsible stand against the common and dangerous excesses, they can expect to remain under constant fire from those who think they are doing a great deal of harm.

Meanwhile, the public funding of homeopathy in England has stopped; France followed suit. Surely Grace’s invaluable help in these achievements needs to be acknowledged! If we regularly remind decision-makers and the general public of Grace’s attempt to save the world and similarly barmy things homeopaths are up to, perhaps the rest of the world will speed up the process of realizing the truth about homeopathy!?

In March 2020, ITV reported that a faith healer has been accused of “exploiting” people’s anxiety about the coronavirus crisis by selling a “plague protection kit” for £91. Bishop Climate Wiseman, head of the Kingdom Church in Camberwell, south London, has promised his followers the small bottle of oil and piece of red yarn will protect them from Covid-19. In a blog post, Bishop Wiseman claimed his concoction of cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet yarn acts as “an invisible barrier to the powers of darkness”. He wrote: “It is by faith that you can be saved from the coronavirus pandemic by covering yourself with the divine plague protection oil and wearing the scarlet yarn on your body. That is why I want to encourage you, if you haven’t done so already, to get your divine plague protection kit today!”

He claimed that the remedy was based on a passage from chapter 14 of the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. It reads: “Then he is to take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the scarlet yarn, and the live bird, dip them into the blood of the dead bird and the fresh water, and sprinkle the house seven times. In this way, he will make atonement for the house, and it will be clean.”

Bishop Wiseman told the PA news agency the church had sold more than 1,000 of the kits. “This is based on the Bible – I’m a Christian and there is a way that the Bible says to protect us from plagues.” One can also buy miracle money house blessing oil and anointed oil for court cases. On the Kingdom Church’s website, it claims thousands of people have been healed from “all sorts” of sickness and disease since it was founded in 2005.

Now, the Charity Commission has appointed an interim manager to the church following concerns raised by the National Secular Society about ‘plague protection kits’ sold by its bishop. England and Wales’s charity regulator announced that it appointed an interim manager to The Kingdom Church GB in February, who will “consider the charity’s future operation and viability”.

Elsewhere, the oil is advertised as follows:

Plagues Divine Protection Anointing Oil Have you been battling with countless amount of fear due to an economical wide spread of plaques and viruses? Then this Anointing Oil is for you.

The Plagues Divine Protection Anointing Oil was created by Master Prophet, Prophet Climate Wiseman through divine guidance and instruction from the Holy Spirit. This oil contains two biblical integrant which is biblically proven to remove plagues of all kind. These two Integrants are Hyssop and Cedar wood. The Bible clearly tells us in the book of Leviticus 14:51-53 “Then he is to take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the scarlet yarn and the live bird, dip them into the blood of the dead bird and the fresh water, and sprinkle the house seven times. He shall purify the house with the bird’s blood, the fresh water, the live bird, the cedar wood, the hyssop and the scarlet yarn. Then he is to release the live bird in the open fields outside the town. In this way he will make atonement for anointedoils

The commission said it had “serious ongoing concerns” about the charity’s administration and the financial relationship with its two subsidiary companies. It found the charity does not have a bank account and charity funds have instead been deposited into the charity’s subsidiaries’ bank accounts. It is investigating the legality of this relationship. The commission only appoints interim managers to charities “after very careful consideration” if there is misconduct or mismanagement in the administration of a charity, or if it is necessary or desirable to protect the charity’s property.

The post originally included claims that “every coronavirus and any other deadly thing” would “pass over” those using the oil and yarn. It was later edited to remove some specific references to coronavirus, but continued to claim people could “be saved from every pandemic” by using the oil and string.

I was alerted to an interview published in an anthroposophical journal with Prof. Dr. med. Harald Matthes. He is the clinical director of the ‘Gemeinschaftskrankenhauses Havelhöhe‘, a hospital of anthroposophic medicine in Berlin where apparently some COVID-19 patients are presently being treated. Anthroposophic medicine is a medical cult created by the mystic, Rudolf Steiner, about 100 years ago that lacks a basis in science, facts or common sense. Here is the two passages from that interview that I find most interesting (my translation/explanation is below):

Es gibt bisher kein spezifisches Covid-19 Medikament aus der konventionellen Medizin. Remdesivir führt in Studien zu keinem signifikant verbesserten Überleben, sondern lediglich zu einer milden Symptomreduktion. Die anfänglich große Studie vor allem an Universitätskliniken mit Hydrochloroquin und Azithromycin erbrachte sogar eine Steigerung der Todesrate. Daher haben anthroposophische Therapiekonzepte mit Steigerung der Selbstheilungskräfte eine große Bedeutung erfahren. Wichtige anthroposophische Arzneimittel waren dabei das Eisen als Meteoreisen oder als Ferrum metallicum praep., der Phosphor, das Stibium sowie das Cardiodoron® und Pneumodoron®, aber auch Bryonia (Zaunrübe) und Tartarus stibiatus (Brechweinstein). Die Erfolge waren sehr gut, da in Havelhöhe bisher kein Covid-19 Patient verstorben ist, bei einer sonstigen Sterblichkeit von ca. 30% aller Covid-19-Intensivpatienten…

100 Jahre Bazillentheorie und die Dominanz eines pathogenetischen Medizinkonzeptes haben zu der von Rudolf Steiner bereits 1909 vorausgesagten Tyrannei im Sozialen geführt. Der Mensch hat ein Mikrobiom und Virom, das unverzichtbar für seine Immunität ist und von der Quantität mächtiger als der Mensch selbst (Mikrobiom 1014 Bakterien mit ca. 1200 Spezies z.B. im Darm bei nur 1012 Körperzellen).

Matthes explains that, so far, no medication has been demonstrated to be effective against COVID-19 infections. Then he continues: “This is the reason why anthroposophic therapies which increase the self-healing powers have gained great importance”, and names the treatments used in his hospital:

  • Meteoric Iron (a highly diluted anthroposophic remedy based on iron from meteors),
  • Ferrum metallicum praep. (a homeopathic/anthroposophic remedy based on iron),
  • Phosphor (a homeopathic remedy based on phosphor),
  • Stibium (a homeopathic remedy based on antimony),
  • Cardiodoron (a herbal mixture used in anthroposophical medicine),
  • Pneumodoron (a herbal mixture used in anthroposophical medicine containing).

Matthes also affirms (my translation):

“The success has so far been very good, since no COVID-19-patient has died in Havelhöhe – with a normal mortality of about 30% of COID_19 patients in intensive care…

100 years of germ theory and the dominance of a pathogenetic concept of medicine have led to the tyranny in the social sphere predicted by Rudolf Steiner as early as 1909. Humans have a microbiome and virom that is indispensable for their immunity and more powerful in quantity than humans themselves (microbiome 1014 bacteria with about 1200 species e.g. in the intestine with only 1012 somatic cells)…”

_________________

The first 4 remedies listed above are highly diluted and contain no active molecules. The last two are less diluted and might therefore contain a few active molecules but in sub-therapeutic doses. Crucially, none of the remedies have been shown to be effective for any condition.

The germ theory of disease which Matthes mentions is, of course, a bit more than a ‘theory’; it is the accepted scientific explanation for many diseases, including COVID-19.

I have cold sweats when I think of anthroposophical doctors who seem to take it less than seriously, while treating desperately ill COVID-19 patients. If I were allowed to ask just three questions to Matthes, I think, it would be these:

  1. How did you obtain fully informed consent from your patients, including the fact that your remedies are unproven and implausible?
  2. If you think your results are so good, are you monitoring them closely to publish them urgently, so that other centres might learn from them?
  3. Do you feel it is ethical to promote unprovn treatments during a health crisis via a publicly available interview before your results have been formally assessed and published?

Governments and key institutions have had to implement decisive responses to the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Imposed change will increase the likelihood that alternative explanations take hold. In a proportion of the general population there may be strong scepticism, fear of being misled, and false conspiracy theories.

The objectives of this survey were to estimate the prevalence of conspiracy thinking about the pandemic and test associations with reduced adherence to government guidelines. The survey was conducted in May 2020 as a non-probability online survey with 2501 adults in England, quota sampled to match the population for age, gender, income, and region.

Approximately 50% of this population showed little evidence of conspiracy thinking, 25% showed a degree of endorsement, 15% showed a consistent pattern of endorsement, and 10% had very high levels of endorsement. Higher levels of coronavirus conspiracy thinking were associated with less adherence to all government guidelines and less willingness to take diagnostic or antibody tests or to be vaccinated. Such ideas were also associated with

  • paranoia,
  • general vaccination conspiracy beliefs,
  • climate change conspiracy belief,
  • a conspiracy mentality, and distrust in institutions and professions.

Holding coronavirus conspiracy beliefs was also associated with being more likely to share opinions.

The authors concluded that, in England, there is appreciable endorsement of conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus. Such ideas do not appear confined to the fringes. The conspiracy beliefs connect to other forms of mistrust and are associated with less compliance with government guidelines and greater unwillingness to take up future tests and treatment.

The authors also state that the coronavirus conspiracy ideas ascribe malevolent intent to individuals, groups, and organisations based on what are likely to be long-standing prejudices. For instance, almost half of participants endorsed to some degree the idea that ‘Coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by China to destroy the West’ and around one-fifth endorsed to some degree that ‘Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain’.

The survey did not include questions about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). This is a great shame, in my view. We know from previous research that people who adhere to conspiracy theories feel strongly that SCAM is being suppressed via some sinister complot by the establishment. Moreover, we know that SCAM enthusiasts tend to believe in vaccination conspiracy theories. One might therefore expect that proponents of SCAM are also prone to conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus.

When reading some of the comments on this blog, I have little doubt that this is, in fact, the case.

Many people have pointed out that the US election was disappointing because, after Trump’s four years in office, people must have realised that he is a vile and dangerous president. Yet, a very large proportion of Americans voted for him. Some commentators even speak of a cult-like movement supporting Trump.

Many people have also pointed out that some forms of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are irrational and even harmful. Yet, a sizable proportion of the population continue to use them. Some experts even speak of a cult-like movement supporting SCAM.

WHY?

Why do so many people make irrational choices?

Are they all stupid?

I don’t think so!

The way I see it, a key here must be critical thinking. Critical thinking means making decisions and judgements based on (often confusing) evidence. According to the ‘National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking’ it is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Critical thinking is not something one is born with; but most people can learn this skill. In one study, researchers measured the relationship between student’s religion, gender, and propensity for fantasy thinking with the change in belief for paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects following a science and critical thinking course. Following the course, overall beliefs in paranormal and pseudo-scientific subcategories were lower by 6.8–28.9%.

Though easily confused with intelligence, critical thinking has little to do with it. Critical thinking is a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to rationalise. Critical thinkers are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to mislead them. Critical thinking is the skill of minimising cognitive biases.

If I am correct, those people who voted for Trump in the US (or similar politicians, such as Boris Johnson in the UK) and those consumers who spend their money on bogus SCAMs both are deficient in their ability to think critically. This does not mean that they are the same individuals. I merely suggest they have one characteristic in common.

It is crucial, I think, to realise that critical thinking can be improved with education. In the final analysis, disappointing results of any election in which (far too many) people voted for a dishonest, corrupt politician, and the disappointingly high usage of bogus SCAMs have, I believe, their roots in poor education. This means that, if we want to reduce the risk of the Trump disaster repeating itself, we need to invest effectively and generously in better educating our children (and adults). And if we want to minimise the risk of consumers wasting their money or damaging their health with bogus SCAMs, we need to make sure the public has a sufficient understanding of logic, reason, evidence and science.

A study from the US found that belief in conspiracy theories is rife in health care. The investigators presented people with 6 different conspiracy theories, and the one that was most widely believed was the following:

THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION IS DELIBERATELY PREVENTING THE PUBLIC FROM GETTING NATURAL CURES FOR CANCER AND OTHER DISEASES BECAUSE OF PRESSURE FROM DRUG COMPANIES.

A total of 37% agreed with this statement, 31% had no opinion on the matter, and just 32% disagreed. What is more, the belief in this particular conspiracy correlated positively with the usage of alternative medicine.

The current popularity of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is at least partly driven by the conviction that there is a sinister plot by the FDA or more generally speaking ‘the establishment’ that prevents people from benefitting from the wonders of SCAM.

But where do those conspiracy theories come from?

How do they evolve?

A new article investigates these questions. Here is its abstract:

Although conspiracy theories are endorsed by about half the population and occasionally turn out to be true, they are more typically false beliefs that, by definition, have a paranoid theme. Consequently, psychological research to date has focused on determining whether there are traits that account for belief in conspiracy theories (BCT) within a deficit model. Alternatively, a two-component, socio-epistemic model of BCT is proposed that seeks to account for the ubiquity of conspiracy theories, their variance along a continuum, and the inconsistency of research findings likening them to psychopathology. Within this model, epistemic mistrust is the core component underlying conspiracist ideation that manifests as the rejection of authoritative information, focuses the specificity of conspiracy theory beliefs, and can sometimes be understood as a sociocultural response to breaches of trust, inequities of power, and existing racial prejudices. Once voices of authority are negated due to mistrust, the resulting epistemic vacuum can send individuals “down the rabbit hole” looking for answers where they are vulnerable to the biased processing of information and misinformation within an increasingly “post-truth” world. The two-component, socio-epistemic model of BCT argues for mitigation strategies that address both mistrust and misinformation processing, with interventions for individuals, institutions of authority, and society as a whole.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and it seems to apply well to the BCT in SCAM.

To mitigate BCT, the authors advocate asking:

  • Who do you trust or mistrust and why?
  • How do you decide what to believe?

Effective mitigation strategies, they state, may necessitate wholescale approaches that:

  1. confer resistance against BCT by utilizing inoculation strategies that counter misinformation where it occurs (e.g. online),
  2. teach analytic thinking within educational systems at an early age,
  3. restructure or otherwise impose restrictions on the digital architectures that distribute information in order to label or curb misinformation and promote “technocognition”.

These are no small challenges, and I am proud to say that, in the realm of SCAM, I am doing what I can to tackle them.

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