We have a growing problem on the Left end of the political spectrum. Otherwise politically active and progressively-minded people and media outlets are failing to speak out against, or sometimes even endorsing, dangerously anti-scientific beliefs. These beliefs spring out of New Age spiritualism, or a (perhaps justified) suspicion of government and big business that has grown to include any large organization, or from a liberal respect for alternative beliefs taken a step too far. And these anti-science messages are far-too-frequently targeted to women.
This is a problem. Every person who doesn’t have a basic interest in or understanding of how to look at the world scientifically or think critically is less than fully equipped for democratic citizenship. And every citizen with this problem weakens their democracy in turn. I’ll let one of my heroes, Neil Degrasse Tyson, explain in this short clip.
“If you’re not scientifically literate, you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process.” That about sums it up. Certainly this is advantageous to some individuals and groups who would like nothing more than to circumvent the democratic process (big oil, creationists). But it’s bad news for the rest of us.
The problem is getting out of control because certain influential personages are making their individual ignorance everyone else’s problem. The pseudoscience I’m focusing on today comes from the Far Left rather than the Right. But don’t expect me to pull any punches. Bunk science is bunk science.
This 2009 Newsweek article talks about dangerous, unregulated miracle drugs certain vain celebrities, like Suzanne Somers, swear by. Somers went on talk shows claiming that the hormones she was rubbing into her skin were harmless and “natural,” a word left-leaning people are suckers for. Yet any trained doctor will tell you that Somers is wrong. Following her medical advice (because self-administered hormone therapy definitely crosses the line into medical, rather than cosmetic advice) could be downright dangerous.
What about “The Secret,” by Rhonda Byrne? A runaway bestseller, its feel-good philosophy is all about personal empowerment and positive thinking, and claims that good things will be naturally attracted to you if you have the right frame of mind. It’s based on not one lick of real evidence. Still, if it makes people feel like they have more control over their lives, how could it do any harm?
Ask Kim Tinkham. This poor, misinformed woman had breast cancer and a decent medical chance of beating it, but publicly claimed her intention to forgo traditional treatment and rely on “The Secret” and dietary changes. She had her 15 minutes of fame and then died needlessly.
What’s disgusting is how heavily this garbage is targeted specifically to women. Daytime talk shows are amazingly credulous about pseudoscience; amongst the legions of researchers and show assistants, it seems no one has any scientific background, or else they just don’t care. Rebecca Watson, contributor to Skepchick and a prominent voice in both the skeptic and feminist movements, has frequently been critical of Oprah for not better vetting the claims of its guests.
But certainly the worst offender must be Jenny McCarthy, who has been a major factor in the American anti-vaccination movement based on the false premise from a disbarred UK doctor that vaccines cause autism. She did the talk show circuit, gave interviews and was even in talks for her own talk show before the deal fell through.
Since McCarthy’s message first began to spread, each year a few more children have died of preventable diseases (like measles and whopping cough) in the US, Australia, Canada and the UK, due to the misinformed decisions of parents not to vaccinate.
With a little bit of critical thinking and some more discrimination in their endorsements, perhaps these talk shows, magazines and other media would be a less ambiguous source of good in the world. But even if no one had died as a result of the slew of bad medical advice women have been particularly subjected to, we have a big problem here. The implication of every interview that accepts, at face value, scientifically contested claims based on superstitious fads, is that scientific reasoning in women is neither possible nor desirable.
The same magazines and talk show hosts that, one minute, cover a hard-hitting story on child brides in the Middle East, will, the very next minute, feature a conman who pretends to speak to the dead. The very same channels that are rallying points for women’s rights in the developing world, are paradoxically disenfranchising women from science in the West.
The unspoken argument is that emotion-based decision making and “women’s intuition” are the domain of the “fairer sex,” while critically evaluating technical information is, I suppose, left to the men. The unspoken argument is that women don’t get to engage meaningfully with the issues that arise in a scientific society.
The unspoken argument is that women aren’t full citizens.
No doubt, in many cases, sending such a message is not the intention. But it is unquestionably the result whenever anyone with a large female audience features these kinds of guests without holding them accountable for the truth of their claims. The people providing platforms for such garbage have a responsibility to their public; they cannot claim ignorance as an excuse.
For the women reading this, I’m at least happy to inform you that there are better news sources for women’s issues out there. As a starting point, consider checking out some of the brilliant women on the Skepchick network.
Image credit: Library of Congress