Medical Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience and Asthma - Part 1: Pseudoscience
This morning while listening to The Big Story podcast, I heard a term that was new to me: medical conspiracy theories. This term goes well with another that is more familiar: pseudoscience. What are they, where do they come from, and how do they affect our health? In a three part mini-series, I'll be looking into what pseudoscience and medical conspiracy theories are, and how they may affect those of us with chronic health conditions like asthma.
Let’s start with the more familiar term—pseudoscience.
Defining the term: Pseudoscience.
Pseudo means fake. The most familiar example of this may be a pseudonym—a fake name. Pseudoscience, therefore, is “fake science”, but it’s a bit more complex than that. One of the best definitions I found explains pseudoscience as the following, written by Stephen Lower—a retired Simon Fraser University faculty member in the Department of Chemistry.
“A pseudoscience is a belief or process which masquerades as science in an attempt to claim a legitimacy which it would not otherwise be able to achieve on its own terms.”1
Pseudoscience may also be called alternative science or fringe science1, as it lies "on the fringes" of what is deemed scientifically accepted. Scientific American notes there is a “boundary problem” between science and pseudoscience2—or, there can be. In this way, some things are not simply provable: "[...] short of searching every planet around every star in every galaxy in the cosmos, can we ever say with certainty that [extraterrestrials] do not exist?”2
Differentiating science and pseudoscience.
Science is much about the process: science takes hypotheses (perceived expectation), tests them, and builds theories of what is.2 Science uses careful experimentation and observation to confirm or reject a hypothesis3—science can take no for an answer! Science relies on consistency, repetition, and reproducibility of results, and relies on previous information gained.3Evidence—logic, mathematical reasoning—is presented as gained by experiments; there is a language of science widely adopted understandable by peers.3It is also by nature scrutinized by scientific peers and where valid, accepted and built upon.3 Science is about progress.
Pseudoscience, conversely, involves the opposite of the points above. It begins with a hypothesis, but seeks only what will support that theory—experiments are minimal or nonexistent, “conflicting evidence is ignored, excused, or hidden.” Even with an absence of evidence, the original idea stands as claimed truth.3 Results are not reproducible: the “evidence" is in personal stories or testimony—appeals are often made to emotion, faith/religion, sentiment, or "distrust of established fact”.3 There is no peer review, and words may be invented or vague, with no verifiability.3 Pseudoscience is unreviewed, meant to satiate or sway only the general public3—claims/theories are written in plain language or advertisements, with no ability to verify or fact check, such as citations or building on previous work. There is “no progress; nothing new is learned as time passes. There is only a succession of fads.”3
How pseudoscience affects those of us with asthma
Pseudoscience can sound pretty convincing—it’s one of those areas where “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” As someone who has been writing online about asthma for nearly a decade now, the number of e-mails I’ve received about pseudoscience “cures" is unquantifiable: the Buteyko breathing technique, a lady forcefully trying to sell me useless multi-level marketing salt water, and more—with many others in the world of “treatment”. Chiropractic care has more research conducted, however, peer-reviewed research is usually on a small study population, conducted by chiropractors and peer-reviewed by chiropractors, thus the degree of bias must be noted. The foundation chiropractic care is built upon is comprised of much pseudoscience—including “mystical concepts".4,5
Much of the time, pseudoscience will not hurt you, per se, but it certainly will not help beyond a placebo effect and may cost a lot of money. Both medical and alternative treatments have some risks involved. If you are thinking of trying an “alternative” asthma treatment, do your research in reputable online sources such as reading scientific journals, and speak with your physician or asthma specialist first to ensure it is safe for you.
In the next article, we’ll look at medical conspiracy theories and how they, like pseudoscience, can impact our health.
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