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.

The unpredictability of firm size and political clout: a case study in snakes.

The other day, Matt Yglesias disputed the idea that large corporations have too much political power, arguing instead about the disproportionate political clout of sectors made up of small firms which are geographically dispersed, like agriculture. Because of the over-representation of rural America in the Senate, that means rural priorities – like developing the ag industry – get special political attention.

In response, Mother Jones food and ag writer Tom Philpott pointed out that agriculture’s political over-representation is chiefly due to the American Farm Bureau, an agricultural trade group deeply connected with big agribusiness (think ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, and DuPont), and not so much with actual small firms (the family farms that the Farm Bureau purports to represent):

The Farm Bureau claims its 6.2 million “member families” make it the nation’s “largest and most influential general farm organization,” but there’s a math problem here: America has just 2 million farms, and 960,000 people who claim farming as their main occupation. “The vast majority of its members,” notes FWW, “are neither farmers nor necessarily advocates of the political platform that the Farm Bureau endorses on their behalf.” Instead, they’re just random insurance customers.

I don’t know if Philpott’s contention – based on a 2010 Food & Water Watch report – is an accurate characterization, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were – which would make it less surprising that politicians awarded such outsized influence to the interests of a powerful and monied national (or transnational) lobby, which may not be aligned with those of the legislators’ constituents. Of course, it’s also possible that legislators simply aren’t aware of how their constituents’ opinions might diverge from the interests of the large corporate lobbies.

In any case, this debate reminded me of the whole kerfuffle with regulating snakes, which I meant to blog about last month. When I was in law school, I interned for Senator Ben Cardin, working on matters related to the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. One of the bills that I helped prepare a hearing for was Senator Bill Nelson’s proposal to add the Burmese python, among other invasive snake species, to the list of species protected by the Lacey Act, thereby prohibiting their importation and interstate trafficking.

Not only is it absurd for the Republicans to mischaracterize the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed “injurious” finding as setting off a job-killing “regulatory tsunami,” it’s especially galling considering that Nelson’s bill would essentially have legislated that finding (and you’d think it ought to be uncontroversial even among today’s right-wing zealots that it is the role of Congress to skip the bureaucrats and legislate). Back when Nelson’s bill was percolating around the 111th Congress, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t a given that it would pass – I mean, how much influence could the exotic pet and reptile enthusiast lobby have? In what Congressional district(s) are snake-lovers clamoring for greater liberty in Burmese python trading? How big is the snakes-as-pets industry and how many people do they employ? (And how many people could instead be employed as customs inspectors and Lacey Act enforcement, with co-benefits for local ecosystems?)

The trouble is, as I found after a little recreational and fruitless research, this information is not readily available (because in whose interest is it to make that information available?) and so our hapless Congresscritters were not enabled to make the rational decision about adding the Burmese python to the Lacey Act. (On the other hand, the proposed rule notes [at 75 Fed. Reg. 11817] that local, state and federal entities along with universities have spent almost $3 million on studying and eradicating large constrictor snakes in Florida alone.) This information problem might be the root cause for the disproportionate influence of the fragmented and geographically disparate small firms who traffic in an uncharismatic and literally baby-killing invasive species.