It’s called the “naturalist fallacy”. Not “naturalist” in the philosophical sense, holding to the idea central to science that all phenomena have a natural basis, but naturalist in the sense of fearing technology. Believing that seeds or foods developed partly by laboratory scientists are “bad”, while all things found in nature are good, spurs millions of people to fear what they eat and screen what they buy at the supermarket.
Seeking to avoid GMOs and other “unnatural” ingredients, consumers spend more money on “organic” and GMO-free products marketed aggressively by a growing “health food” industry that critical writers have appropriately started to call “big organic“.
Consumers have become convinced–and marketers play on these beliefs–that “organic” is synonymous with “safer” or “healthier” or “more sustainable” although study after study has shown that’s more perception than reality. But, far worse than leading people into buying products they don’t need, the nature-is-best worldview in some cases can have deadly consequences.
Big organic: Hard to avoid for everyone, potentially deadly to those who seek it out
Even many of us, while unswayed by big organic marketing, often find ourselves forced sometimes to buy certain products that are labeled GMO-free, organic, and whatnot. Why? Because, some products are healthy for reasons unrelated to the organic or GMO status of the product. There are good, scientifically valid reasons for avoiding trans fats, for instance, and using olive oil instead of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but you’ll be hard pressed trying to find a spread product made without partially hydrogenated oil that doesn’t ALSO have a GMO-free label on it. Or, if you shop at a store that carries both conventional and organic produce, sometimes you buy organic, because they’re out of what you wanted in conventional, and you don’t feel like making another stop.
So, due to their beliefs in naturalism, many consumers are ripped off, and many nonbelievers end up paying the price too. That’s a problem, a pretty significant problem, but the problem goes beyond money. How far? Pretty far when we look into the realm of alternative medicine, which is where nature-is-best beliefs often take people. Looking at vaccine denial, for instance, we’re already seeing consequences in the form of the recent measles outbreak, and given the number of antivax families in certain geographic areas the problem is poised to get worse. At the same time, looking at cancer treatment and prevention, people are literally dying, because of their beliefs that all medicine must be “natural”.
Twisted understanding of health and other cancer risks
Just as the interaction of genes and the environment is complicated, so is the public’s understanding of chemistry and the risk for cancer. A recent survey by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has revealed that the main factor influencing Americans’ beliefs about cancer is fear. On one hand, Americans in 2015 understand the risk of certain products, tobacco in particular. After six decades of hearing health authorities say “we’re absolutely sure that smoking is bad..don’t do it”, 94 percent of Americans correctly identify smoking as a major cancer risk. They also mostly (84 percent) understand that exposure to sunlight causes skin cancer. At the same time, however, they’re far off when it comes to food products. Only 43 percent are aware that alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the breast, mouth, and esophagus, while only 35 percent know that red meat diets have been linked clearly to colon cancer. At the same time, 74 percent are worried about pesticide residues, 62 percent about additives, 56 percent about GMOs, and 54 about livestock hormones—all issues for which there is no definitive evidence of a harmful effect.
As for the reason for the misdirected concerns, according to Alice Bender, AICR’s associated director for nutrition, it comes from the perception of being able to control the cancer risk by controlling which food products one buys.
“The media confuse people with daily articles focused on individual studies, rather than the scientific consensus,” Bender said. By conducting this type of survey, however, AICR hopes to improve the public’s understanding of the issues, although “these latest numbers are chilling.”
Plethora of misinformation
While the media end up confusing people by highlighting individual studies for the sake of having a story, there also are forces actively at work in spreading misinformation. To this end, one of the biggest culprits is the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM). Its name makes it appear to be an impressive group of science minded medical practitioners. But strongly affected by what psychologists call a confirmation bias–citing as “proof” on one claim or another one-off studies and data while avoiding data and studies that show the opposite– AAEM is more a group of ideologues. The respected online site Quackwatch lists it as a questionable organization, primarily because it rejects one of the fundamental precepts of modern science and medicine–the primacy of empirical evidence and the reproducibility of data.
AAEM has a loud voice, however, because its membership includes MDs, rather than just naturalistic physicians (NDs) and other alternative health practitioners. AAEM doctors make regular appearances in the media, and are favorites of Dr. Oz. This opens the door for anti-GMO activists, such as Jeffrey Smith, the Maharishi cult member who has become a spokesperson for fringe anti-biotech activists, to post article after article with authoritative sounding titles, such as “Doctors Warn: Avoid Genetically Modified Food“.
[T]he American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) called on “Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community, and the public to avoid GM (genetically modified) foods when possible and provide educational materials concerning GM foods and health risks.” They called for a moratorium on GM foods, long-term independent studies, and labeling. AAEM’s position paper stated, “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. They conclude, “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation,” as defined by recognized scientific criteria. “The strength of association and consistency between GM foods and disease is confirmed in several animal studies.”
Will the public move from fear to science?
AAEM is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties, and its physician members amount to just a tiny percentage of all physicians. Whether in the general public, or among doctors, confusion about GM food is fueled by a lack of understanding of genetics. However, a recent study conducted at Boston University Medical College reveals that instruction in, and understanding of, genetics in medical school curricula has improved sharply over the last few years, raising hope that unwarranted fears of genetic technology and genetic rejection-ism may fade.
Still, AAEM’s supporters are able to quote doctors, so the organization has been influential, not only in the area of GMOs, but also on other fringy “science debates”, such as the alleged dangers of vaccines. AAEM has been protesting the presence of small amounts of mercury (thimerosal) in certain vaccines. It is not organic mercury (which is far more dangerous than inorganic mercury) and while the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) once supported a ban on thimerosal-containing vaccines, AAP no longer supports such a ban, as the science shows it is not a danger–while the presence of unvaccinated people around the planet certainly is extremely dangerous.
Dying for one’s beliefs
Cancer patients who use alternative medicine have shorter survival compared with those who don’t, although it is not clear why. It’s possible that being more sick leads to more desperate acts, in which case the alternative therapy itself would not be the direct cause. On the other hand, patients may use alternative medicine products that actively interfere with their anti-cancer treatments. Finally, believing in alternative treatments, some patients refuse treatments recommended by oncologists, shortening their survival time, and often also the quality of life, because they’re getting only ineffective treatment instead of treatment that can help.
The latter scenario can manifest most dramatically when a patient is diagnosed early with a type of cancer that is unquestionably treatable and curable with state of the art medicine. While we have a long way to go in the war on cancer, the last few decades have seen dramatic improvement in survival for certain cancers. The most common type of childhood malignancy, for instance, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) now has a cure rate of approximately 90 percent in children under 15 years of age, and 75 percent for older teens. The success rate in curing Hodgkin lymphoma, various types of bone cancer, and many types of breast cancer has also gone way up in the last several decades, and when malignant melanoma of the skin is detected in an early stage it too can be cured. The survival contrasts sharply with the situation in the early 20th century, when home remedies -naturalistic medicine- were the only option and the patients simply all died. By rejecting available modern medicine, followers of alternative medicine are effectively going back 100 years, but many do it anyway.
To use an example of how this works that’s extreme, but sadly not limited to just one case, one medical blogger recounts the story of a patient who was found with imaging and biopsy to have a tiny, malignant breast tumor. Based on the staging of the tumor and the pathology, surgical removal of the tumor followed by what’s called adjuvant chemotherapy would have given her a 93 percent chance of surviving. But she refused, seeking in alternative treatment from a naturalist practitioner instead. Regardless of what sort of alternative treatment she ended up getting, refusing the surgery pretty much modified her chance of survival to something like zero percent.
So, the effect that heath misinformation campaigns can have on people really does go way beyond the supermarket.
David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician, and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.