I was a guest on HuffPost Live this afternoon, joining a panel to discuss the whole Dr. Oz imbroglio, and something struck me that I wound up mentioning at the end of the segment. I pointed out that we’ve suddenly found ourselves at a point in media and culture in which crap pseudoscience and the denial of reality are starting to get called out.
Think about it. Dr. Oz, a TV doctor whose influence and popularity are probably unmatched by any similar figure in modern history, is being taken to task for promoting “miracle” weight loss “cures,” garbage “natural” remedies meant to do everything from improve your sleep to stopping cancer, and other, even more brazen examples of pseudoscience like homeopathy and psychics. He’s “America’s doctor,” sporting the Oprah Seal of Infallibility™, and millions of Americans swear by his every utterance. Nonetheless, not only are major news outlets tracking and exposing his nonsense, but he was even hauled before a Senate committee and given the business by Claire McCaskill. (I got a little media hit for that one, too.) That’s a huge deal.
Earlier this week, the FDA held public hearings on the marketing and regulation of homeopathy, a branch of pseudoscience that is so blatantly fantastical that even calling it “pseudoscience” gives it way, way too much credit. And yet billions of dollars are spent on homeopathic products, and its adherents insist on its medicinal properties, despite its complete disconnection from, like, physics. It took some doing, but now by holding these hearings, whatever their result, the FDA is implying to the public that “there’s something fishy here,” something worth holding hearings about. My colleague Michael De Dora was even invited to give testimony near the beginning of the hearings (here’s video in some weird Adobe format), and articles are popping up left and right that quote what he said. (He also did two great public radio interviews.) More and more Americans are hearing the message that homeopathy, that branch of medicine that you heard was “natural” and “alternative” is actually a bunch of junk.
And of course this year we saw the fall of the anti-vaxxer, as a series of measles outbreaks, particularly in Disneyland, led to a serious backlash against the celebrity-championed war on immune systems. Even the pandering GOP politicians trying to make common cause with the anti-vax movement are finding themselves looking ridiculous, as the political press corps does a collective facepalm.
All of this has been taking place in just the last few months, and the seeds of it have been germinating for a few years now. Part of the reason, I think, is that more reality-accepting young journalists are on the ascent, and the current trend for reporting is the “wonkblog” or “data-driven news site,” where raw facts make more good, clickable web copy. I’m seeing it not just at Ezra Klein’s and Nate Silver’s sites, but sites as diverse as Boing Boing (quirky culture), The Verge (tech lifestyle), io9 (science fiction and fantasy), Raw Story (left-wing outrage-posts) and many others. My friend Ed Beck suggested that it really all began with Phil Plait’s move to Slate from Discovery in 2012, and he might well be on to something there.
Organizations like mine, the Center for Inquiry, have been a key part of this shift, I believe, as every day we chip away at bad assumptions, lazy thinking, and credulousness. Bit by bit, we make the case for the acceptance of science – science the process, as well as its products – and the critical examination of extraordinary claims. The ideas that vaccines cause autism, that water retains a “memory” of a substance it no longer contains, or that magic beans can burn your fat or kill your cancer, are all claims that require that kind of critical, skeptical eye.
Only today have I allowed myself the luxury to step back and think, holy shit, I think we might be getting somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve moved that sisyphean boulder only a couple milimeters, but even just having gotten that far, I’m telling you, the view is better.
Here’s my HuffPost appearance, with a bunch of smart people.
(Note: On the Dr. Oz thing in particular, you have to read the work of Michael Specter and Julia Belluz.)