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.
Happy to see this new billboard by AHF (AIDS Healthcare Foundation) by the Denny’s on Sunset Blvd and Van Ness Ave in Hollywood, CA.
“On November 24, AIDS Healthcare Foundation will launch ‘AirheadCelebs.com,’ an advocacy campaign targeting the undue and oversized influence of Hollywood celebrities who are anti-childhood vaccinations.”
It was announced on September 1, 2014 that D.J. Grothe is no longer President of the James Randi Educational Foundation and that the Los Angeles office is closed.
Since then, I’ve seen claims that the revenue of the organization has suffered because of D.J. and then numbers are given comparing the revenue of certain years as supposed proof. But I noticed that all of the various posts I’ve seen with this information start with the year 2011. Since the organization was founded in 1996 and D.J. Grothe started his position in 2010, I wanted to know what the revenue of years prior were.
The green line shows total revenue per year, which are usually the numbers I’ve seen given. But when looking at the overall picture, 2011 was their highest year in revenue on this chart, which starts at 2001. The revenue for 2013, which is not shown in this graph, was $887,595. While it’s true that the revenue decreased in 2012 and 2013, a different impression can be given when showing years prior to 2011.
Even if the numbers really were lower only during D.J.’s presidency, it’s important to remember there are multiple factors to consider with revenue. As stated under the NCCS graph:
Important Advisory: A 990 is one snapshot in time. Although Form 990 ratio analysis provided here can be a useful tool, the information can be dated and cannot reflect current conditions of a nonprofit especially in turbulent economic times. It is important to consider current financial statements of any nonprofit for an accurate picture.
As an important side note, I want to thank both D.J. Grothe and Thomas Donnelly for the continuous hard work they had put in for the organization and the greater skeptical community overall. They encouraged me to keep being involved with the skeptical movement and I have learned a lot from them just from conversations. The workshops they put together at the Hollywood office with Ray Hyman and Sharon Hill and Barbara Drescher were not only fun things to attend but have been informative videos to share with others when talking about critical thinking concepts. And let’s not forget about The Amazing Meeting conferences I attended in 2012 and 2013, which were wonderful experiences I will remember for years to come.
Also, while I’ll most definitely miss D.J. Grothe as President, I encourage those who are unfamiliar with the org to check out the James Randi Educational Foundation. And I highly recommend following D.J. Grothe on facebook and twitter. He was a very prominent figure in skepticism prior to his time at the JREF and I expect that will continue.
Hat Tip to Ed Clint of Skeptic Ink for letting me know about National Center for Charitable Statistics. I’ve seen other sites with information on nonprofits, but this chart made it easier to show the overall picture. Check out his blog and blog network for interesting and informative posts related to science and critical thinking.
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.
Here is the new video for my song, “Faith is a Slippery Pig” featuring the spoken word of Peter Boghossian – philosophy professor at Portland State University – from his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists.
Stanislaw Burzynski is a physician based out of Houston who administers a chemotherapy called “antineoplastons.” They have never, in 36 years, demonstrated efficacy or safety. Nonetheless, Burzynski charges patients hundreds of thousands of dollars for this unproven treatment. The way that it is framed is that they are entering “clinical trials,” but the man has never, ever published the final results of a single clinical trial…
He is not a trained oncologist, but he is treating cancer. He posits a novel mechanism for cancer (a patient’s lack of antineoplastons) that is unrecognized in the medical literature as a cause. His ANP is marketed as an alternative to chemotherapy, but he gives patients chemo cocktails mixed with “terrifying” doses of sodium phenylbutyrate, mixtures that have not been adequately tested for safety and which causes hypernatremia in his patients. He has sold ANP not only as a cancer treatment, but also as an HIV treatment, an unjustified action for which he was severely disciplined by the Texas Medical Board. – TOBPG
If you caught his powerful talk at TAM 2013, his CFI talk covered some of the same information. However, much has happened since then. Notably, USA Today ran a critical piece on Burzynski in November 2013. Prior to this article, the media attention on the clinic was more on human interest stories and less on consumer protection pieces, which Professor Blaskiewicz mentioned in his CSI piece. Not only was this media attention a means to inform current or potential patients of the negative aspects of the unproven cancer treatments, it has helped skeptics and other activists in writing to legislators. The Houston Cancer Quack website had existed about a year prior to the USA Today article, but after the article was published, the call to action became stronger.
Also prior to USA Today was the professor’s website called The Other Burzynski Patient Group. The clinic’s own website features stories of a select few patients giving positive reviews. TOBPG site has instead given a voice to the many more who have been harmed by the unproven treatments and of avoiding science-based treatments at evidence-based clinics. This not only gives the victims and their loved ones a voice, but it is viewable to the public and can be found by potential patients wanting to look up information on the clinic.
Over the weekend, during the wee hours of the morning, I came across a rather concerning infomercial from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God for viewers in the Los Angeles area. Religious infomercials are not uncommon and some others also spread misinformation, but this was especially troubling. I started watching around the 10-minute mark of this half-hour infomercial.
During one part of the ad, they talked about people – particularly children – with problems such as self-harm and auditory hallucinations. They said that scientists believe this is schizophrenia but that it’s actually paranormal activity and the way to get this treated is to come to the church. They even claimed that when children were untreated by the church, they would sometimes be swept away by the ocean by spirits who would suck them in.
They then showed a testimonial from a girl (I’m guessing preteen) who explained how she stabbed herself, saw and heard her dead father, and was incredibly angry at her living mother. She also mentioned how she almost got sucked up by the ocean while at the beach. At the end of her story, she said she then started going to church and everything is great now. This is dangerous misinformation to give and it breaks my heart that they would put such a young person on television to talk about this for their gain. She is very young and still possibly not in the right state of mind to fully realize everything that is happening to her right now. I am not against putting children on television per se, but it felt like they were exploiting her, and there was no mention of her getting any legitimate medical treatment. I am concerned about her wellbeing.
After that, there was a segment of one of the two pastors. He said the names of people who were dealing with hardships. He then put cards with their names on them into a tank of holy oil. He asked people to call in so they could receive the benefits of the oil. I believe part of the reason for this segment may have been to get people on the phone to convince them to visit the church and eventually give them money.
Later on, there was a woman who explained that she was dealing with severe addiction, including crack cocaine use, but isn’t doing any of that anymore thanks to the church. Again, there was no mention of getting any treatment from a qualified medical professional.
I noticed in the testimonials of the girl and the woman that neither of them mentioned how the church helped them. They said they got better after going to the church, but they didn’t say how or what they experienced to go through this transformation. I also thought it was peculiar that the pastors only briefly mentioned that they were The Universal Church. I kept seeing “Stop Suffering” on the screen, as if that were the name of the organization. It was only after I searched for them online to see what they were about that I learned the full name of the church is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. I then read some highly negative reports about them, which makes me wonder if they intentionally shortened and barely featured the name because they wanted to make it harder for the viewers to find out what they were really about.
It turns out that this a Pentecostal church that believes in faith healing. This is a dangerous charade. There have been allegations and charges of fraud and money laundering. They have also been known in their locations throughout the world to scam people out of thousands of dollars. One scam is that they advise a member going through a hardship to buy expensive holy oil. There is no evidence that this has healing properties and there have been rumors that the oil is just olive oil bought from the local supermarket. On top of scamming people out of money, they are prolonging their congregants from getting any legitimate help, which could worsen their situations. By the time the victims realize this, their money may have been depleted, making it more difficult to get any real help.
When I share stories like this one with friends, most agree with me that there is something unethical going on. But some of them believe that the victims get what they deserve. I do not agree with this. It’s easy for some of us to spot these charlatans, but I try to imagine how I would view this ad if some things in my life were different.
In the case of the young girl, her father died when she was very young and she explained how hard that hit her. Not only is she young and going through a hardship, but she might have difficulty seeing a qualified doctor even if she demanded it, as she’s in the care of her parent. It is possible that her mother is also not in the clearest state of mind while dealing with this loss. The emotional pain of losing a spouse combined with probable added stress and financial hardships of now being a single parent might be making it hard for her to spot the harm the church is doing.
Even if I were an adult able to make my own decisions, it could still affect me. If I had a severe mental illness, I may not think as rationally as I normally would about how to get help. If my illness made me think there were evil spirits controlling my life and I saw an ad that said this was really happening and claimed to offer help, it’s not far-fetched that I would come to them to rid me of this life-altering problem.
Some of their congregants may not have proper access to medical care and/or educational resources. Imagine if you were dealing with severe drug addiction and couldn’t think as clearly because of this. You may not have a supportive family. Your friends might all be other addicts. You see an ad of a church that is walkable from where you are. On top of them supposedly offering help, there is a built-in community. It isn’t hard to see how someone could possibly be a victim. With worldwide membership estimated in the millions, this is a reality for many.
Here’s another barrier: In the case of the UCKG, many of the reputable sources reporting their scams are published in Portuguese, as the church started in Brazil and is most popular there. Some people may be unaware of tools like Google Translate, which isn’t perfect, but is helpful. This is another reason someone may be easier to scam, as the ad was aimed at English speakers in the Los Angeles area.
If you or someone you know is going through a mental health issue, please understand that it is an illness and can be treated medically. Please do not listen to the false information that it’s not a real illness because it’s “in the head” or that it’s actually something supernatural. Faith healing does not cure diseases and can be harmful when used instead of real treatment. Please consult a medical professional practicing science-based medicine. Like many other types of illnesses, there may be ups and downs to the treatment. You might have to try different things before you find what works best for you. It can sometimes be a long, frustrating process. But science-based medicine is the best method we currently have and it has saved and improved countless lives.