Last week, Phil Plait wrote a piece on Slate defending his promotion of Mayim Bialik. I wrote a blog post disagreeing with it.
I’m pleasantly surprised that Phil Plait changed his mind and now understands that endorsing her as a science figure is harmful. When I started writing my blog post about it last week, Skeptical OB (Dr. Amy Tuteur) and The Neurologica Blog (Steven Novella) hadn’t yet posted their thoughts about it on their blogs. I mostly saw agreement at the time on social media, and I thought I’d get a lot more strong disagreement on this.
But because I know what it’s like to be an alt medder (formerly) and I remember why I believed in false things, along with having many friends who still are alt medders, I felt it important to share what I thought. Those outweighed the possibility of being unpopular or ridiculed for my former beliefs. It turns out that many felt similarly.
When I shared the link on social media, I said I respectfully disagreed. This is because I could see where Phil was coming from and that I knew he’d been a skeptic longer than I have – which is a good thing and something I hope he’s proud of – but can sometimes mean not fully seeing things from the views of alt medders and woo fence sitters.
I respect that Phil has publicly changed his mind on this. It’s not because I think everyone should have my exact same views. His former opinion wasn’t anything to make me like him any less or cancel out the good work he’s done. The reason I’m pleased is because he seems to have thought it through and taken others’ viewpoints and thought processes into consideration.
“I’ll admit I hadn’t considered that her credentials could be used by anti-vaxxers and the like to promote their incorrect (and dangerous) beliefs, and that gave me pause. Thinking that through, I have to say that does sway me; if she were promoting something like astrology, I’d probably just roll my eyes a bit and carry on. But these medical health issues are serious, and I’ve been very vocal for a very long time about vaccines and homeopathy.
Because of that, I’ll be clear: I’ve changed my mind; given the opportunity again, I’d say using her as a science role model is not a net benefit. I’d have left her off the picture.”
Thank you, Phil. And thanks to those of varying opinions who weighed in on this. As silly as it may seem on the surface, it’s an important conversation to have.
(Note: Links have been provided for reference and are not necessarily endorsements.)
This image was widely shared from the I Fucking Love Science twitter and facebook pages. It was posted in March, but Mayim Bialik is regularly praised by many skeptics as a great role model for young people or an entertainer who is something more.
When some people brought up the fact that Mayim Bialik promotes pseudoscience, many said that she still deserved to be on the image because none of us are perfect and we’re all wrong about certain things. Phil Plait just posted a Slate piece stating that it wasn’t so black-and-white and mentioned the pros of including her, even though he pointed out that she does promote harmful ideas.
But why is this a grey area, even with some of my fellow skeptics? Many of us regularly criticize Dr. Oz. He’s profited from promoting quackery. He also has a background in Cardiothoracic Surgery and has done good work helping others. Much of the advice he gives on his television show is based on real medicine and helpful, but because he’s done so much harm in introducing pseudoscience to the public, we don’t include him in lists of people who inspire others to get into the medical field. He doesn’t just have a few bad ideas, it’s many. Same with Mayim Bialik. Why do we say the good outweighs the bad with her but not others like Dr. Oz?
I agree that having some disagreeable opinions shouldn’t automatically dismiss the good work someone does. Most of us are wrong on some things and we have our weak spots. For example, I have a friend who is a scientist but believes in Astrology. But it’s a mostly private belief she doesn’t promote and doesn’t believe in it to the point of it controlling her life, so I don’t let it affect my high opinion of her. If she were strongly promoting that, I may still promote her but with a disclaimer. But if she had a blog about that plus other harmful ideas, I may still respect the good work she does, but not fully endorse her. I may share an individual act of good work she did, but not include her on any lists of influential scientists. I have another friend in STEM who is the same with Christianity. She’s a liberal Christian, mostly for cultural reasons, doesn’t promote it, and still chooses evidence over dogma for the majority of her beliefs. Not perfect, but not a disqualifier.
But these examples are not Mayim Bialik. She has a website and blog network with plenty of pseudoscience, and is a spokesperson for Holistic Moms, which promotes homeopathy and discourages vaccinating children. If she’s endorsing woo on such an extensive level, why should we endorse her? I do respect her intelligence, talent, and hard work. I was a huge Blossom fan as a kid and it was cool to later find out that an entertainer I liked as a kid went on to pursue science. But I also know what it’s like to not be a skeptic and fully understand critical thinking. As recently as five years ago, I still believed in alt med and other woo. So I know just how harmful promoting Mayim Bialik can be. When I was an alt-medder, I saw people with a science background promoting woo. One of two things happened. Either I thought, “See, this person who has a background in the field believes this. There must be something to it!” or I didn’t even know what they were promoting was considered an “alternative” opinion and thought that it was an evidence-based belief.
I think it may be hard for some skeptics, including Phil Plait, to fully realize that at first. Plait has done a lot of great work and he’s helped me in my understanding of why Astrology is hogwash. Based on his history in the Science and Skepticism fields, he’s likely been a skeptic and had critical thinking skills for many years. I’m sure there are beliefs that he’s examined and questioned throughout his life, but he’s been working in the public understanding of science for a long time. But I have a somewhat recent memory of what it’s like to not understand how to decipher good info from the bad. This is a case for the promotion of critical thinking skills and skepticism in general, but since many people don’t understand this, seeing people like Mayim Bialik endorsed by science pages and skeptics – those who usually criticize people like her – can give the impression that her pseudoscience writings are actually science. Skeptics look at this and know the background behind it. But most of the people who follow IFLS, or who saw the image shared by a friend, do not.
The majority of my friends are not skeptics. Before I became involved in the skeptic community, I was mostly involved in the music scene. I love my artistic friends dearly and since most of them aren’t skeptics, I see how they view the promotion of science. I have several friends who are anti-vaxxers and have mentioned that even Mayim Bialik, who has a PhD in the medical field, does not believe in vaccinating. They then see IFLS promoting her as a shining example of someone to be admired. In their minds, this is further confirmation that she’s right. IFLS didn’t say not to vaccinate children, but they connect those dots. It’s not the fault of IFLS if some people aren’t thinking critically, but it does help people strongly hold onto these harmful beliefs. And it can cause further confusion in people who may be on the fence.
On one hand, I understand that many skeptics have mainly skeptic friends and colleagues. It may be hard for them to see how most people think. But I also don’t understand why they think Mayim Bialik gets a pass and Dr. Oz does not.
But I will say, as Phil Plait mentioned, that this has at least created a dialogue, since many skeptics brought up the hogwash she believes. I just hope that it’s not mostly skeptics seeing that commentary.
Update 12/23/14: Phil Plait has changed his mind and I wrote my thoughts about it.
As a former believer in alternative medicine who now speaks out against it, I’ve been asked by both believers and critics, “What harm did it actually do you? If most of it is just placebo, is it that bad?” So let me explain some of the ways in which it has affected me personally.
Homeopathic sleeping pills made me think I was losing my mind. I was going through some major sleeping problems, so I took homeopathic sleeping pills. I thought they would be safer and less habit-forming than over-the-counter pills, but they didn’t work. I took more. I still felt nothing. Scared to go over the recommended dosage but fed up with my insomnia, I took more and more. I realized I had taken much more than what was directed and was worried why I wasn’t feeling any drowsiness at all, let alone why I hadn’t overdosed and died. I didn’t know that I was taking sugar pills. Homeopathic remedies are diluted so much that there is little to no active ingredient. Even if there were, homeopathy is “like cures like,” so caffeine and other stimulants are used for insomnia. This is illogical. I went day after day with little to no sleep and I could barely function. This helped trigger some severe panic attacks. Long story short, I ended up going to the hospital. While talking to my doctor and explaining my problems, he abruptly left and I was sent to Psychiatric. While it wasn’t the fault of alternative medicine that I had sleeping problems in the first place, it likely wouldn’t have escalated to all that if I’d taken real medicine.
I didn’t get the HPV vaccine and now I can’t. I believed vaccines were these terrible things that gave people severe illnesses and caused autism in children. I was wrong. Very wrong. But now the age window in which I could get the HPV shot is gone for me and I cannot get it unless there is a future change in the age range. I am fine and I hope this won’t ever matter for me, but I would be upset if I ended up getting a disease that I would’ve prevented had I not believed false information.
I spent thousands of dollars on dental care and endured pain. I was convinced by Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About that I needed to find an alternative medicine dentist, which I had trouble finding, so I delayed making dental appointments. By the time I realized alternative dentistry was quackery, I had dental problems that had progressed. I had to get painful treatments that took multiple visits and cost me thousands of dollars, but would’ve been easily and more affordably treated had I not delayed care. Cavities would be treated with simple fillings, but I had to get root canals and extractions instead. My main concern was fluoride treatments, along with metal amalgam, both of which are safe and effective, and it turned out my dentist no longer used metal fillings anyway. I also bought bottled water because I thought tap water with fluoride was toxic and I spent extra money on toothpaste that was fluoride-free. My unfounded fluoride fear cost me more money and added unnecessary environmental waste. If I had avoided fluoride for a long enough period of time, my dental health could have gotten even worse.
I gained weight while I was trying to lose it and wasted time and money. As I have mentioned in a post about how I lost weight, it took me years before I figured out what worked for healthy weight loss because of diet fads and alternative medicine.
Cleanses made me sick and wasted my money. I did various cleanses, thinking that I would get to the root of my problems and that it would fix multiple issues. I did colon cleanses, candida cleanses, heavy metal detoxifications, etc. Most of these cleanses included taking herbal pills, and the detox kits typically cost me $25-$40 each and didn’t get rid of any “toxins”. And some of them actually made me feel sick, but they claim that’s proof it’s working and that the toxins are leaving your body. The cleanses also usually involved difficult-to-follow diets, which had me going to expensive health food stores to buy alternative versions of conventional foods. I’d have hundreds of extra dollars in my bank account from just the money wasted on cleanses. I also canceled social plans and barely got through my work days while I was sick from the effects of the herbal pills. Sorry, friends and former co-workers.
I wasted time and money on food, toiletries, and beauty products. I thought I needed to buy organic food and avoid all artificial ingredients. Instead of shopping at the neighborhood grocery, I drove out of my way to the closest health food store, since this unfounded diet wouldn’t be possible to stick to at conventional supermarkets. I thought I had to avoid conventional skin and beauty products, such as lotion and cosmetics. The alt-med advice was not to trust certain ingredients in these products, even though they were approved by the FDA. The belief was that, since those ingredients are approved for external use only, they must still be dangerous because the skin is the largest organ of the body and it still gets absorbed. But there are natural oils that alt medders use that are for external use only but they don’t seem to think that’s dangerous, so this doesn’t make sense. I didn’t think critically about this claim, so I stopped buying cheap and effective products from conventional stores and bought their expensive alternatives at health food stores. What a waste of time and money.
I have increased my risk for skin cancer. Medical conspiracy theorists not only claim that sunscreen is toxic, but that sun exposure isn’t what actually causes skin cancer – it’s that the sun draws out toxins from inside your body and brings them to your skin – so you need to focus on cleanses and “clean eating” instead of limiting sun exposure. It turns out that skin cancer runs in my family, putting myself at an even higher risk of developing the disease. I now apply sunscreen when necessary, but I think about all the times I didn’t due to terrible advice and unfounded information. A family member recently went through treatments for skin cancer and I think of how foolish I was to not protect myself.
I wasted money on dud devices. Many people – from college professors to Dr. Oz – were saying that cell phone rays may cause cancerous tumors. There is no established link, but I believed there was. I took the advice of some alt-med advocates and bought anti-radiation shields, which were worthless items. Even if it turns out cell phones do cause cancer, these shields would not have helped.
I endured unnecessary stress. Being an alternative medicine consumer is often caused in part by belief in medical conspiracies. There was a time when I believed so many things in the world were harmful that it made my daily routines difficult for no good reason. I tried to take the quickest shower possible because I was scared of absorbing the supposed toxins in tap water. I wouldn’t microwave anything because I thought it increased my risk of cancer, so I cooked everything the slower way. Before I learned how to tell which websites related to health were valid, I became paranoid about which doctors, journalists, authors, scientists, universities, organizations, news sources, etc. were trustworthy. Now I have a much better understanding of credible sources.
I thought allergies were my fault. I have multiple allergies, some of which are severe. I thought they were exacerbated, if not caused by, eating certain foods, living a “toxic lifestyle,” having a candida problem, etc. I did difficult diets and when they didn’t help my allergies, I just thought I wasn’t strict enough on myself, wasting more time and money and causing unnecessary stress. Although OTC and prescription medications don’t make my allergies disappear completely, they do provide some relief and are better than doing a bunch of things that don’t improve my condition at all.
I wasted money on colonics. Yes, that’s right. I paid someone to put a tube up my butt and shoot water into my colon. This wasn’t something I looked forward to, but I truly thought it would benefit me. I thought the root cause of many illnesses were in the intestines. Acne, obesity, allergies, sinus pressure, lack of mental alertness, lack of energy, and more could all be helped by colonics, so I was told. This was not cheap. This procedure can also be harmful. When I went to the “health spa” to get this done, I was introduced to other woo I didn’t know about before, which led to more money wasted and possible harm caused. I got B-12 shots, which do have legitimate purposes but was used in a sham way. I had not been tested for any vitamin deficiencies and they made unfounded claims that it would give me energy and promote weight loss. There were other procedures I would’ve gotten done if I had the money and it would’ve been a waste. Once you go to a woo facility to get something done, it’s easy to get sucked into the alternative medicine lifestyle and to keep doing more unproven things.
As you can see, these things aren’t harmless. Even though I was a believer in “complementary medicine” – combining alternative medicine with conventional medicine – this is still junk and still causes harm. Many people believe that complementary is the best of both worlds and the reasonable middle-ground approach. But the fact is that these methods still don’t work, so it can still cause harm, even if combined with real medicine. Even though I no longer partake in alt med, it still has negative consequences in my life. While it’s true that science-based medicine can have side effects and be costly, at least it’s tested and peer reviewed for efficacy and safety. And it works. The things I endured with alt med were all for nothing.
When I argue with my friends about alternative medicine, I don’t do it for malicious reasons. I speak out because I don’t want others to go through what I did. And I do it because I understand why people believe these things, so I hope it will help to speak from experience.
And this is just how it affected me. There are others it has caused much greater harm to, and you can read more examples at The Other Burzynski Patient Group and WhatsTheHarm.net.
Some good sources for evidence-based medicine, including quackery to avoid:
• Science-Based Medicine
• Quack Watch
• The SkepDoc
Please feel free to list any other credible sources I may have missed and to share your own experiences in the comments. Thank you.