What is the real danger of pseudoscience?

Yesterday, a Daily Beast story started popping up on my various feeds: “Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience.” The point made by the author, Michael Schulson, is this: we shouldn’t give creationists a hard time but give a pass to Whole Foods’ unsupported-by-science health claims. That’s a fair critique, and one that’s undoubtedly attractive to members of my contrarian-friendly social circles. But the article makes its point on a set of assumptions that deserve more critical attention: that the primary danger of pseudoscience lies in the entanglement of pseudoscientific ideas with political ideologies.

So, why do many of us perceive Whole Foods and the Creation Museum so differently? The most common liberal answer to that question isn’t quite correct: namely, that creationists harm society in a way that homeopaths don’t. I’m not saying that homeopathy is especially harmful; I’m saying that creationism may be relatively harmless. In isolation, unless you’re a biologist, your thoughts on creation don’t matter terribly much to your fellow citizens; and unless you’re a physician, your reliance on Sacred Healing Food to cure all ills is your own business.

The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.

It’s not clear to me how Whole Foods’ shtick promotes anti-vaccine zealotry – or even, really, what homeopathy is. But it seems to me that the most pressing danger posed by the public’s slippery grasp of science is not that they might get suckered into believing claims on an herbal supplement bottle that haven’t been evaluated by the FDA. Rather, it’s that, increasingly, people in general, and the Republican Party in particular, reject evidence-based analysis wholesale. To my mind, there’s a vast and critical gulf between “we don’t have sufficient evidence to make a conclusion, but we have a hypothesis or functional model based on preliminary results and observations” and “we don’t have any evidence or a hypothesis, we just have a gut feeling based on stories. Kind of old stories.”

Treating creationism as equal to the Whole Foods ethos just perpetuates the problem; i.e., it’s true that we don’t have data that certain chemical substances used in processed foods or consumer products cause adverse human health effects. The reason we don’t have that data is because there isn’t sufficient political demand for it: the regulatory system does not require it, and there is no funding to support public research in this area. Why? In my opinion, the chief reason is that the public doesn’t value science enough – in part because the public discourse assigns false equivalencies like the ones made by Michael Schulson. Creationism creates a positive feedback loop that is profoundly antiscientific; experimenting with plant-based health remedies, or promoting the precautionary principle, does not. The creationist outlook disseminates in society an attitude that devalues the resilience of the scientific method, to the public detriment; Whole Foods peddles some products and makes claims with questionable supporting evidence, but it at least appeals to your interest in evidence.

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