Friday, 14 March 2014

Fear of flying: Why alternative medicine makes me see red.

A question I get asked a lot is why I do get so scrappy when it comes to alternative health? Why do I care what other choose to do with their bodies? Why have I turned myself into the living, breathing embodiment of Picture this.

One day, a friend tells you they can fly. You are slightly skeptical, but willing to find out more. After all, if they can, that would be pretty cool. The friend goes on to explain how it all works and it starts sounding pretty plausible; you're no aviation expert but you can see how it might be possible. You excitedly ask them to show you. Your friend, however, comes over all coy; 'I can't SHOW you, that's not how it works. You just have to believe me!' You're a little miffed, but you go about your day. After all, it's a free country. Your friend can do as they please. It's a shame they won't share this miraculous advancement in personal transportation with massive potential for the betterment of mankind, but okay. If it's possible, surely someone else will discover it, in the fullness of time. 

Things continue as normal but suddenly this friend starts popping up everywhere, giving you unsolicited advice about flying. 'DONT EAT THAT. Eating that will prevent you from EVER being able to fly.' 'STOP THE GOVERNMENT FROM TAINTING OUR WATER SUPPLY WITH ANTI-FLYING CHEMICALS'. 'This natural, pro-flying health supplement will help make your bones lighter, so that one day, you too can FLYYYYYY-that will be £10.99-YYYYYYY!' People start claiming that it can cure cancer, diabetes and dementia

Now you are starting to get annoyed. The friend can't or won't show you that they are able to fly, but is trying to scare you into changing your lifestyle and buying stuff on the back of their claim that flying is possible. You're frustrated; you'd like nothing more than to be able to fly. You'd also quite like to be able to help your relative who is suffering from dementia. You start noticing that other people are buying into it, posting statuses about the dangers of 'weighing yourself down with wheat products' 'blocking your in-flight capacitor with sodium compounds' 'FACT: cooked food is heavier than raw food!' 'Raw food helps you build the necessary gas reserves to achieve lift off!' 

You start looking into it. Surely there will be some proof somewhere? After all, people have been trying to fly for centuries, if all these people are suddenly able to fly, surely there is a youtube video at the very least? You scour the internet. There are plenty of websites and blogs by 'flyers' but nothing has been published in any of the medical, scientific or aviation journals. This is ridiculous, if so many people can fly, why isn't it being discussed by anyone with any expertise? You ask your friend, who insists it is because they are in the pay of 'big aviation!' Aha! you think. I've never trusted EasyJet and I once flew Ryanair and those bastards are capable of ANYTHING. Plus wasn't there a case back in the 80s when PanAm were caught stomping on people's model aeroplanes? That explains it. 


How would they do it? How are they paying off the hundreds of thousands of scientists, doctors and engineers? I mean, hidden fees and charges are pretty steep, but they surely can't be paying EVERYONE off on the back of excess luggage and £5 to use the toilet? And even if they are paying you or have the power to fire you, wouldn't you risk it? If you could be the person to discover the greatest scientific advance in the entire history of humanity, wouldn't you do it? This discovery could stop global warming in its tracks, save millions of lives AND think of the money you could make selling personalised super hero capes? 

And then you notice something else. In amongst the 'flyer' blogs, the 'Yoga to Promote Serenity at 50,000 feet' and the people selling 'Astral Lightness Waterat £10 per 50ml (contains hydrogen, the lightest of all the elements!) you start seeing disturbing news reports. People who jumped off buildings believing they could fly. People who starved to death because they thought that food was 'weighing them down'. Developing countries plunged into famine because a 'flyer' pressure group told them that 'heavy' staple crops were weighing down the population. Some people took it further, claiming that a lack of flying was causing autism, dementia, lupus, MS, cancer, ADHD, depression, anxiety. You see a spate of blogs from anxious mothers asking if they should have had an 'air birth' because the water birth might have caused their child's autism. You see that the government has allocated large amounts of money to fund 'fly therapy' in hospitals (people are blindfolded and placed in a wind tunnel whilst listening to 'The wind beneath my wings' and 'I believe I can fly', the theory being that mimicking the effects of true flying has a therapeutic effect. Meanwhile, the geriatric ward is outsourced to a private company who kicks them all out into the street in a bid to 'streamline'). 

You get angry. You confront your friend and demand, once and for all, for them to demonstrate their flying ability. They smile beatifically and say 'It's not like, flying, flying. It's a more a state of mind, you know? It makes me feel better, and happy people don't get sick!' You resist the urge to throw a drink in their face to see if being unhappy makes them catch a cold and present a meticulously researched and  referenced dossier proving that people can't fly. They scan it and say 'Well, it's just what I believe. I saw this guy speaking once and he was pretty convincing. It's all just opinion, isn't it? I have mine and you have yours.' 

And then you wake up, and it was all a dream...

This is obviously a convoluted and ridiculous metaphor, but not substantially more ridiculous than many health claims made in the alternative community. If you click the highlighted links, they will take you to relevant sources. While I am loathe to direct people to mercola and natural news, it is proof that I'm not just pulling this out of thin air. You can actually buy expensive water to 'detox' your body of any MSG you may have inadvertently consumed; perhaps from consuming tomatoes or breast milk. You can buy kits for removing fluoride from your drinking water, and the NHS in some areas pays for homeopathic treatments. 

And it pisses me off. I'm not annoyed at the people who believe it; I used to be one of them. Alternative medicine is wonderfully comforting. It gives you control over every single aspect of your life. Scared of getting cancer? Eat more garlic. Worried about the future? Take some clematis extract. Someone in your family has a chronic illness? Make sure they don't drink any diet drinks. Most alternative health practices are pretty harmless, but they feed into a collective ignorance and a destructive stubbornness. 

I get pissy when people post/promote/use public money to fund alternative medicine and health practices for many reasons. Some are intellectual; I don't like seeing lies packaged up and disguised as truths in the same way you'd probably get pretty annoyed if a bunch of your friends suddenly started insisting they could fly; it's obviously not true, and is therefore annoying. You'd like to dismiss it as a personal quirk, but other people are joining in. It concerns me deeply that people don't stop for thirty seconds and question what they have just read. I am a good example of this. I owe a lot to patient (most of the time), rigorous friends who taught me to fact check and analyse before posting and I hope to do the same for others. 

Another big reason is that I care about people's health. I care that people think they can cure cancer with a raw food diet. I care that mothers of children with developmental disorders suffer massive anxiety that they might be to blame. I care that people give millions of pounds a year to charlatans and snake oil salesmen for books, supplements and gizmos that often do more harm than good.

Governments and large corporations do not always act in our best interest. They suppress studies, they keep promoting drugs that are useless and sometimes harmful and they undoubtedly want to make money from us. The answer is not to jump on the nearest organic, aspartame free, non GMO bandwagon. The Internet makes ignorance a deliberate rather than accidental state. If you care so deeply about aspartame, or GMO, or vaccines- look it up. If someone makes a claim about it, check it out. If someone tells you that fluoride causes autism, question where they got that information. How did they find this out? If the answer is 'there is lots of autism and lots of fluoride' that's not good enough. How? Why? Who says? If GMO worries you, read up on it. Are you worried about the technology itself or just the shady companies exploiting it? Do you know anything about the process? What safety checks does it go through?

You don't need to be a scientist or an expert to have an informed opinion, all you need is a question and a search engine. If everyone who abandoned conventional medicine put all that money and energy into changing the system instead of undermining it, we could all live in a safer, more comfortable and better informed world.The system is in no way perfect, but it's the best we have. 

When you post a link to an article about aspartame, or a status update about the dangers of GMOs, you are attempting to educate those around you in your world view. Don't act all surprised when people try and educate right backatcha. Check yo' sources before yo' sources reveal themselves to be unqualified, misinformed charlatans who subsequently wreck themselves. As Jerry would say.

Don't trust anybody? Absolutely. Just as long as that also applies to people like Joseph Mercola, who makes millions of dollars per year marketing highly dubious and sometimes illegal 'natural' health products.