Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Religion of Alternative Health Cults

I have some friends who work in the medical field with whom I have shared a table with in think tanks in the past. Several of them have enlisted my help recently in writing material to help dispel dangerous myths about various alternative health cults and fads that have seriously sickened some of their patients. It came up in conversation over the weekend about what the cause of such misinformation gaining popularity might be, and I believe I may have some helpful insights to share.

To a medical doctor who clearly understands the basic scientific principles involved in an issue, it can be easy to forget that the average person has no benchmark (or, at best, a very weak one) by which to judge information (or even the source thereof) which tells them they can cure themselves by some of the most bizarre means imaginable.

As one who suffers from chronic health problems myself, I have endured an endless barrage of people for the past couple of decades telling me that everything from eating ground-up cockroaches to drinking urine will "cure" what ails me, even before I had a diagnosis. (These people often think a diagnosis is unimportant and claim that all symptoms stem from the same "imbalances" which whatever they are promoting will remedy.)

We have a world full of chronically ill people who are very sick, experiencing chronic pain, and terribly frightened. These people struggle to function on a daily basis and they often feel alienated by their health care providers who either condescend to them or speak in a language they do not understand. Some doctors are good at finding that middle ground, where they don't insult the intelligence of their patient but keep things understandable enough that it doesn't require an advanced degree to comprehend what they are saying, but many medical professionals who work with the public simply haven't mastered that skill.

I am convinced that when people feel powerless, they are willing to accept anything that gives them a feeling of control... Someone sells them an idea that claims to have "inside information" that the vast majority of the rest of the population doesn't have, and they will accept it, even though it flies in the face of everything science and medicine has worked so hard to achieve, even if it puts the life and health of themselves or others in jeopardy.

This misinformation is indistinguishable to them from that which is actually true, and the feeling of power in possibly having "secret" or "little known" information is so intoxicating to those who are suffering with a malady that medical science has not yet been able to cure (or even adequately treat), that it becomes much like a religion to them. That they are willing to isolate and/or insulate themselves from anyone who disagrees with them, shunning anyone who voices any dispute or labeling them as "argumentative" for persisting in discussing facts as strongly as the cultist is persisting in declaring false information only bolsters this view of the cultist as irrational, if not mentally unstable.

That's not to say that there aren't some safe, effective alternative health options out there. There are. However, they can easily be distinguished from the dangerous diet/health/lifestyle cults by the fact that they actually encourage you to discuss the matter with your health care provider before incorporating any of them into your treatment plan rather than accusing anyone who questions their authority or validity of being "out to get them" because they are "a threat to mainstream science or large corporate interests".

As in religion, where anyone who disputes "the gospel" is said to be working for "the devil", in conspiracy theory camps and various cults promoting dangerous health care options, anyone who disagrees is said to be part of a conspiracy or has become the victim of one. Both examples are elements in our world that hinder intelligent thought and progress toward solutions for the problems we face.

And, as anyone who has ever encountered an irrational cure-all cultist will tell you, cultists don't just question mainstream science, they attempt to invalidate it entirely in the minds of those they are attempting to win over, lest their claims be revealed under its scrutiny as being false.

Questioning mainstream science is fine. In fact, it's encouraged, which is why mainstream science will always be superior to pseudo-scientific cults, because mainstream science is always willing to back up claims with evidence... actual evidence from double-blind, detailed studies reviewed by their peers, not general stabs in the dark which merely appear to suggest something and are then reported as fact and repeated by fellow cultists.

There is plenty of information available to clearly reveal any dangerous information being promoted as bunk. Whether anyone bothers to read such information when they are told by the illusionary wizard selling them snake oil "do not pay attention to the man behind the curtain" is another matter...