Overview

It's only natural for us to try to find certainty and protection from our fears. Pseudoscientists take advantage of this yearning.

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Two years ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He tried to get treatment immediately. Doctors recommended surgery, but there would be a delay of three months.

He was sick with worry.

Many people tried to comfort my father, and a few claimed that they could not only “cure” him, but even prevent the need for surgery. Some of these magical cures involved guanábana juice, baking soda, praying, or similar non-solutions. Happily, he didn’t fall for any of those “treatments.” But the fact that people can believe such things have magical properties—hidden by huge yet invisible, nefarious parties under the umbrella term “Big Pharma,” is baffling.

When the pandemic was just starting, and public knowledge about the virus was limited, US President Donald Trump appallingly recommended bleach injections. But even that wasn’t as breathtaking as President López Obrador of Mexico, my own country, who recommended having religious stamps with the text “Stop, enemy, that the heart of Jesus is with me!” in one’s own body to prevent the contagion. He further asked people not to lie or be corrupt to avoid contracting COVID-19.

I continually find myself astounded by the things people consider to be true, from ancient aliens and flat Earth to the belief that the muttered repetition of sentences can somehow make the universe provide safety or plenty for them.

It is only natural for us to try to find certainty in everything around us and protection from our fears. Pseudoscientists take advantage of this yearning, producing false certainty that is easy to digest. They don’t operate with facts but reach people through emotions, making them feel loved and accepted, even intelligent and capable; their livelihood depends on their social skills, so it is in their best interest to make people love and trust them so that their rationality is bypassed by their emotions.

Just like populist politicians who dumb down their platitudes so that the lowest common denominator can understand and relate to them, pseudoscientists offer the same comfort. Trump, Boris, Bolsonaro, Obrador, Maduro, and many other populist politicians, as well as pseudoscientists like “Food Babe” Vani Hari operate on the same field of human credulity.

Hari’s mantra was that if a third grader couldn’t pronounce the ingredient list, you shouldn’t eat it, conveying a fearmongering message that appeals to ignorance while trying to present herself as a trusted expert because she speaks the same language you do.

There are “chemtrail” believers who consider sprayed vinegar to be powerful enough to dissipate concentration trails 30,000 feet above the ground and reactive enough to neutralize the supposed aluminum said contrails contain.

On the other hand are marketing companies actively equating terms like “organic” with “healthy,” while David “Avocado” Wolfe and Gwyneth Paltrow claim that nothing natural can be bad for you—a delusion curable by a walk in the woods, sampling every mushroom.

So if they are so transparent and easily debunked, why are pseudosciences so appealing?

Science historian and critical thinking advocate Michael Shermer calls it “belief-dependent realism.” The brain is essentially a belief engine, he says, taking in sense-data and looking for patterns that can be embraced to alleviate fear and vulnerability. “Beliefs come first,” he says. “Explanations for beliefs follow.”

Pseudoscience tends to be easy to understand, provides a sense of security, and it something that the average headline reader can comprehend and support.

A 2012 study describing how chocolate interacts with your body’s biochemistry was widely misreported, generating headlines like “Chocolate ‘may help keep people slim’,” was remembered, embraced, and endlessly repeated, despite the study indicating nothing of the kind.

The appeal of that headline is easy to see: Something typically thought to yield only to difficult and unpleasant interventions like diet and exercise easy can actually be alleviated by something easy and desirable. That was enough to make multiple other outlets replicate the message and magnify its impact, convincing people, even to this day, that eating chocolate will help you lose weight—without considering the many factors and nuances and caveats the headline didn’t include.

Also common is the perception of laypeople that experts, whether scientists, physicians, psychologists, or science communicators, are out of touch, use difficult words to feel superior, or don’t care about the holistic experience a healing process involves.

Whenever someone feels mistreated by an expert, there will be 10 bioneuroemotion coaches with three-month certificates, 15 astrological therapists, 5 Reiki masters with their Udemy training, and three “Christian scientists” ready to pray the illness away, all prepared to comfort the desperate out of their hard-earned money.

Pseudoscientists will put the blame on the victim for the failure of their treatments, standing on a mountain of deceived people and dead bodies, but without changing their minds, as accepting their fallibility would be a hit to their credibility, so they prefer to say those who died weren’t worthy or didn’t try hard enough.

Unchanging and stubborn, the miracle seller will keep moving the goalposts and throwing their victims under the bus to protect the ideology or product.

Just like religions have been doing since their conception, shielding vacuous answers from criticism and making them unquestionable dogma, the homeopath keeps claiming their expensive water is the solution to every disease, while meta-analysis has demonstrated their treatments aren’t better than placebos, except at quenching one’s thirst.

Science is not a pile of facts, but a method to learn beyond what our senses can perceive and what our biases may make us believe, which is why it keeps producing new results, building on top of what was known, and discarding that which has become obsolete; hence why laypeople tend to be baffled by continuously having to adapt, change their way of thinking, and learn to forget to embrace new facts.

All of these are things this pandemic has shown people aren’t that willing to do, as it would involve accepting that one’s knowledge has limits, a realization that a fragile ego cannot withstand.

Go back to May 2020, when strong and fearless leaders all over the world recommended chlorine injections, drinking soap, having religious stamps around the neck, citric patches as necklaces, cow or camel dung, and many other solutions that contradicted the advice and recommendations of those who were studying the mechanisms through which the disease worked, and who constantly brought up new information.

But, why would I care that other people are deceived by charismatic snake-oil peddlers? Because these beliefs are not harmless, putting them into action cost people their lives, and basing public policies on feel-good measurements that involve treating cancer with baking soda and chanting next to a bonfire have consequences.

One person is free to believe guanábana juice will reduce the size of the tumors growing in their body, but to prevent someone else from receiving chemotherapy and instead treat them with guanábana juice is abhorrent.

I’m a human. I also look for certainty. But I strive to be less wrong than I was yesterday, as I want to have facts that can be put into practice and produce measurable results that objectively benefit me and those I care about, because I know that utter certainty might be unattainable, but that it is a great goal to keep moving forward; because I’m not satisfied with “that’s how God wanted it to be” or “the sick didn’t pray strongly enough.”

The embrace of pseudoscience is born out of the fear of the unknown, and easy answers will just make people feel a false sense of security that will endanger them and the people they love.

It is born from ego, from the unwillingness to accept a single person cannot know or understand everything in their environment.

It is born out of laziness, for not learning more about reality and feeling comfortable with that which we learned when we were young; by denying ourselves the pleasure of being curious and living the human experience of being amazed by those small things we discover when we decide to go outside our comfort zone and start exploring like we did when we were young.

It is OK to be afraid of the dark, of the sea, of what we don’t know; it is OK to not know, but to hold tight to a deflated floatie or a depleted candle because those once made you feel safe is to decide to sink, to be willingly ignorant while boasting to have non-existent knowledge.

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Andrés Martinez Vargas

Andrés Martinez Vargas is a data scientist with a master's degree in interactive multimedia, focused on media influence. He has been a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a regular...