Pseudoscience: Can It Be Harming Your Skin?
This blog post is meant to be taken in the context of acne, skin care products, blogs and reviews, however the information put forth can and should be applied to all things in life, including politics, health, religion, etc.
Let's first set forth the difference between science, and pseudoscience; if you find yourself falling too far into the pseudoscience spectrum, you may want to re-evaluate your critical thinking skills and skepticism.
I love this explanation of the differences between science and pseudoscience, because it is right on the nose. Someone who aligns themselves with science is always open-minded, always willing to change their mind with the presentation of new evidence, is skeptical of all claims until evidence is presented, and avoids making blanket statements. Those who align themselves with (and sometimes pride themselves as being) anti-science tend to suggest that peer-reviewed evidence is inadmissable based on some conspiracy theory, they reject and block all criticism, and make blanket statements (notice that they do not actually link any studies) that something that has never been tested is useful for everything from the common cold to cancer. They will also take preliminary corrleational findings that apply only in one specific scenario to inform the larger picture and suggest causation. The anti-science/pseudoscience community is quick to misunderstand that correlation does not equal causation and there needs to be rigorous testing and concrete evidence of causation. They may also cherry pick data that they have deliberately sought out as evidence of veracity, despite new studies debunking earlier ones, or the fact that some studies are hindered by things like a lack of placebo contol, small sample size, etc.
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. The most important of its defects is usually the lack of the carefully controlled and interpreted experiments which provide the foundation of the natural sciences and which contribute to their advancement.
Aside from the fact that the term “pseudoscience” is subject to adjectival abuse against any claim one happens to dislike for any reason (this is seen very often in a community of people who claim to be for science, yet will cry "pseudoscience" any time anyone provides them with evidence that contradicts them), the boundaries separating science and pseudoscience are fuzzy.
Science, on the other hand, is a set of methods aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories. Science is defined as "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment." Let me quote Carl Sagan on science and pseudoscience,
"Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility [...] If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then, we are up for grabs for the next charlatan (political or religious) who comes rambling along.”
Science is not a grand conspiracy created by the government to dupe the public. As Stephen Hawking once said: “If governments are involved in a cover-up, they are doing a much better job of it than they seem to do at anything else." People who are anti-science tend to reject all scientific findings (unless it confirms their preconceived ideas). Science is merely a way of thinking and approaching a situation, it is not an idea, but a way of evaluating ideas. Science is the best and only method that we have for truth and understanding the world around us. Nobody has come up with a better method. And the proof of its veracity truly is all around us. Science might not be perfect but it is the best tool mankind has developed.
Now that we know what pseudoscience (and actual science) is, why is pseudoscience harmful? Why does "alternative" science (which isn't science - if it were, it would just be called science), matter?
Unfortunately, pseudoscience isn't a victimless crime - its victims can have very real faces.
Something is “pseudoscience” not because its proponents are doing bad science—they're not doing science at all—but because they threaten science education, and they confuse the public about how science is conducted, not to mention what is the truth or generally accepted as the truth by a field of experts.
This can lead to people becoming advocates for various kinds of health quackery. Worst of all, they can pressure political and educational circles to accept and adopt their ideologies, which then only serves to perpetuate these ideas without any evidence.
" [...] the cost of this kind of misinformation is too large to ignore. It is real. It is devastating. It is counted in billions of dollars wasted on junk cures, in billions spent on treating preventable diseases. It is measured in lifetimes shortened, bodies crippled, eyes blinded, and children lost."
If that sounds outlandish to you (certainly believing something that isn't true can't have any serious repercussions, right?), consider Belle Gibson and Jessica Ainscough. Gibson (pictured above, on the left) promoted her wholefood recipes and alternative therapies as a “natural” weapon in her fight against cancer – a cancer she later admitted she’d entirely fabricated for publicity and fame. She was taking advantage of a very real condition, one that she didn't have, and used it to promote claims that she didn't need to have any evidence for. She was a glowing ray of health - what more evidence did she need? But she wasn't really using any alternative "medicine", right?
Well, Ainscough, the Wellness Warrior (pictured above, on the right), was. She had a very real case of rare sarcoma, and opted for the type of “natural healing” pseudoscience she advocated on her blog and even went so far as to lie that her treatment was working when it was actually progressing. But perhaps she did believe it was working. The placebo effect can be strong. But it's hard to deny that her condition was progressing rapidly, and it would be a far stretch to assume she wasn't aware of it. Ainscough lost her battle, and died in February of 2015. Her mother also died prior to this, following a similar treatment plan. It breaks my heart to hear stories like these, people dying needlessly when treatments are available to them. Yes, Ms. Ainscough had the freedom to pursue the treatment path she chose. But she chose poorly, and I don't think that can be argued, especially considering her chances of survival were extremely high had she followed traditional treatments. A young woman has died and that is a tragedy no matter the circumstance. However, by living her life as a crusader against traditional medicine and advocate for a "natural" cancer treatment with no basis in any evidence, it’s impossible to ignore the circumstances surrounding Ainscough’s death. She sold books and gained tens of thousands of followers who believed what she believed, and very likely would choose a similar path had they been in her shoes, resulting in needless deaths. Comedian Andy Kaufman was another victim of pseudoscience. Afflicted with lung cancer, he gave up on traditional medicine and instead flew to the Philippines, where he was given "psychic surgery", a New Age "procedure" bearing no scientific merit. Kaufman died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 16, 1984 of kidney failure caused by metastasized large-cell lung carcinoma. While Kaufman didn't specifically die from his "treatment", the fact that he sought it despite there being absolutely no evidence that it works, spells disaster. There are more and more people now choosing to avoid therapies that could save them in favour of untested and sometimes dangerous therapy options, despite the fact that these people are no likelier to survive following these methods (and in many cases, are actually virtually eliminating all chances of survival compared to their chances had they followed traditional treatments). Every time we hear stories of people doing miraculous things in miraculous ways (without evidence), we perpetuate the belief that these are viable therapies. And they're not.
Cancer is terrifying for everyone involved. What some of these "wellness" bloggers do, whether misguided, or for personal profit, is not only an insult to these people and those that have lost loved ones to the disease, but also an irresponsible act. The same goes for all illnesses and "alternative" treatments. Had my grandfather not sought traditional cancer treatment options, he surely would have died much sooner, and more painfully. I am thankful that modern medicine was able to extend his life so that we could spend every precious moment with him, and I am also thankful that he didn't simply buy into the belief that one can cure cancer with an "alkalized diet".
Think pseudoscience isn't mainstream enough to do any widespread damage? A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that almost half of the American public believes at least one medical conspiracy theory and 18% believe three or more. 37% believe the government and drug companies are suppressing “natural cures” for various diseases.
Because these "authorities", like Gibson and Ainscough, are pleasant, intelligent, and telegenic, they become more and more famous, to the point where they become idolized and untouchable. They are the "authorities" on these topics, experts despite citing no evidence except anecdotes. And the cult continues to grow because it has just enough basis in reality for a few people to benefit and then sing its praises. Some people see results, and these anecdotes are trumpeted as evidence that these things work, while the people who don't see benefits are stifled.
As outraged as we might have been over Ainscough’s promotion of the Gerson protocol we should also remember that Ainscough was also a victim of the pseudoscience that she promoted. The proponents of this pseudoscience helped create the Wellness Warrior, and Ainscough paid the price. This is how the story goes. Every time we allow pseudocience to continue to be perpetuated, we are feeding the fire that consumes innocent lives. And I am deeply saddened that people willingly allow this to continue.
In science, on the other hand, there are no authorities. There are experts at most, and even their opinions can be challenged so long as there’s evidence to back up one's argument. Nobody in the scientific community is untouchable. No fact or idea in science is untouchable, as long as there's evidence. In fact, in science it is expected that their studies and findings will be replicated and challenged by peers.
When people are taken as “authorities” and their claims believed despite a lack of evidence, then the subsequent decisions that millions of people may make could harm them and those around them. The fact of the matter is, the spread of pseudoscience can kill, and that’s exactly why we should be doing more to spread understanding of the scientific method, to equip others to apply skepticism in the face of extraordinary claims.
But why does pseudoscience spread like wildfire? Why don't more people see the harm in believing things without evidence, without biological plausibility? Why is it so easy for people to fall victim to pseudoscience, and so hard to pull them back into reality?
Despite the progress of education, the world can be a scary place for many people – full of chemicals in the sky and government and corporate conspiracies.
I have to admit, there are some things in science that are just plain difficult to understand, and unless you already have a decent amount of knowledge about a certain scientific field, you probably aren't going to understand what's going on if someone is discussing something about that scientific field. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, is usually much easier to understand than real science, and because pseudoscience tends to be much easier to understand, it can attract those who have become frustrated with real science and their inability to understand it. Not to mention, pseudoscience doesn't rely on any real pathways or mechanisms and so there's nothing to "understand", per se. Rather, just something to believe. And for some people that don't have a good understanding of both how science and logic works, a pseudoscientific explanation can actually sound a lot more logical than an actual scientific and/or logical explanation for certain things.
People also hold faith in, or accept as fact, what seems to support their present comfort, for so long as it seems plausible enough or necessary to do so. For some, it's a choice; for most, it's training; and for many, they've just never considered another way. There has been a widespread conception of mistrust. People feel like they can't trust anyone - doctors, teachers, scientists, politicians, etc. This, on top of the fact that everyone is constantly coming out with new and conflicting findings and information (doctor's used to suggest smoking, and now we know it is bad for us). Recent research even suggests that modern medicine can sometimes be the CAUSE of common health problems. Does this mean modern health practices are inadmissable? No, but it does mean you should not blindly trust something just because the research is funded or attached to someone with an education. People tend to prefer alternative "natural" medicine because they seem more human to us. Western medicine is still fairly new, and many mistakes are made in the process of learning. A lot of the "alternative" ways of healing are very old, but this is not to say that a method is better simply because it's older, as many methods that are quite ancient are also quite useless (verified by observable testing). Homeopathy, for instance, is in complete conflict with both reason and knowledge. Not to mention, when people are suffering a lot, when they have tried everything for their illness but nothing works, when the frustration crosses the limit - at that time even a small ray of hope energizes them. In such situations people start looking for any alternative that can change their situation. I'll admit I followed this path several times in a desperate attempt to help myself, even though I knew better.
People will also sometimes believe in pseudoscience because a popular public figure believe in and endorses it (such is the case with Ainscough). Celebrities, much like the rest of us, are however only human, and may also fall victim to pseudoscience (or worse, are coerced to endorse something dishonest). Because celebrities can also be so influential to certain people, and can give off the misconception that they know the ins and outs, it can make some people believe that it's okay to believe in that pseudoscience. Most of the time this turns out to be harmless because the pseudoscience the celebrity believes in is harmless. Sometimes it's not, as we saw with Ainscough. Much like celebrities, scientists are also humans as well. Because of this, sometimes scientists will endorse pseudoscience, too. Some popular celebrity doctors come to mnd. Because an actual scientist, or doctor, or engineer officially endorses pseudoscience, it can cause some people to not only believe in that pseudoscience, but even refuse to believe otherwise despite a majority of scientists, or doctors, or engineers who say disagree and can back up their reasons with evidence.
Another problem is the fact that, instead of teaching children how to critically analyse the world around them for themselves through a lens of healthy skepticism, the educational system is based on arguments from authority, encouraging them to accept what they’re told and they are penalized when they question it (I endured this in an argument with my six-year-old niece who couldn't fathom that her teacher would possibly wrong, or misguided about something). Over time, this requirement that children shut up and listen without question may develop into a deep ignorance of a scientific approach resulting in a huge difference in outlook and approach to the world between the scientifically trained and everyone else. Into that gap steps mistrust, charlatans and conspiracy theories. It is healthy for us to question those in authority, and ideas in authority. Even if we are wrong, we must accept that questioning the status quo is healthy - but when evidence shows us that we are wrong, we must also accept that. And dismissing evidence as non-evidence just because it is something we don't want to hear, or doesn't suit our ideas, doesn't qualify as healthy skepticism. It qualifies as ignorance.
It is for these reasons, and perhaps other personal reasons, that people easily fall victim to pseudoscience.
The thing is that in the "health" community (skin care included) there is a lot of pseudoscience around. And I mean a lot. I have been publicly shamed and slandered for asking for citations and references and evidence. I've been blocked and attacked in a group of peers by big bloggers for simply asking how they know these things work when all evidence suggests they don't. And any time I post about something perhaps not being as great as people claim it to be, I can expect a whole onslaught of proponents for the "cause" to step up and tell me why I'm wrong (while not providing any real evidence to show me that I am wrong). Let's just say that I expect some angry e-mails and messages and comments after this post, too. I'm just wrong, and that's that, end of conversation. And then I'm called a shill when I request some evidence. If I were indeed a shill for all the "big conspiracy companies" I've been accused of being, I would be rich and I certainly wouldn't still be paying off my student loans. But I'm a nobody, and I'm not being paid.
This is not to say that certain health-based or natural-based websites or people are not reputable sources of information, so long as they convey cited facts to back up their opinions. I consider my website health and "natural" based, but I always back things up with evidence. Some people suggest, though, that if you aren't a specialist in the field, then you're not allowed to have an opinion (notably, they only require that people of an opposing opinion have these qualifications; the same is not true of those who agree with them). But this isn't true. As long as someone has evidence to back up their opinions, and are willing to change their opinion based on the presentation of new facts, there's nothing to suggest that these people aren't allowed to have an opinion or weigh in on the matter.
I have come across people who literally would not even read a blog post (despite the fact that it was ALL science- and evidence-based) simply because they had a personal bias against the term "vegan" in the title. Another instance saw someone refusing to acknowledge the studies presented on PubMed because it had .gov in the URL. How silly! To write off potentially useful information, to not even give factual data the time of day simply because it comes from a source you assume you will disagree with. Unfortunately this comes from both sides - people who pride themselves on being science-based will shun information that challenges their belief system, and people who believe in a "holistic" way of living also shun information coming from a source they may know nothing about, but have already developed an opinion on.
While I generally disagree with certain sources of "information" (like Mercola), when someone sends me a link, I will always evaluate it before commenting on its legitimacy. I would never write something off because of personal biases. The evidence needs to be taken into account. Sometimes you can be surprised, and an unlikely source will provide real data that backs up their claims and opinions. These are pleasant surprises, usually, though, as most stereotypical pseudoscience sites will rely on the ol' "ancient remedies" argument, which somehow alleviates the claim of all need for corroboration. Look out for this. Just because something is ancient doesn't mean it isn't required to stand up to our testing.
So, how can you spot pseudoscience? Clearly the internet is a wealth of varying opinions, how do you determine what is right and what is wrong?
It can be hard for someone without a scientific degree or basic understanding to comprehend and interpret scientific results. Even those working in one scientific field can struggle to understand developments in others (I wrote about this in my ebook, my gynecologist reading into cardiology), due to the extent of specialization required. Thankfully we aren't required to know it all. We cannot possibly. All we need to do is apply the scientific method to what we encounter in our daily lives, and even to things we may hold a personal bias against.
I think that this is a good example of how we can apply healthy skepticism to what we read or hear.
For example, if we read a website that claims that taking apple cider vinegar daily will help clear your acne through the removal of toxins - ask, what is the definition of toxins; is the term being misused to confuse people?; what toxins?; how are the toxins removed?; is there any evidence outside of anecdotes?; are there any studies proving/disproving this claim?
As Phil Plait once said, "Give a man truth and he will think for a day. Teach a man to reason, and he will think for a lifetime."
And how can we apply this to skin care?
Like the situation with Ainscough, though to a lesser degree of severity, believing things without evidence or because it is a popular opinion in a certain community, can have real implications for your skin and your health. While many things are generally harmless (like putting toothpaste on your skin) in the larger picture, some "treatments" can cause real damage. I talk about this more in my post on the Detox Scam. All of these stories we hear from celebrities or popular bloggers about their skin care "miracle" products are almost completely devoid of any reference to credible evidence. Beauty advice is a literally a science-free zone. Anything goes. And I want to change that. While there are products I swear by, they are backed by some kind of evidence of their efficacy far past that of anecdotes. I'm not just another blogger who goes with popular opinion. I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty and make a few enemies in the quest for the truth. Such is life. I would rather make a few frenemies than lie to you all.
When it comes to our skin care (and everything, really), we should always bring a furiously critical eye to the assessment of any claim made by the beauty industry because it isn't NASA and it isn't fueled by science or a desire to know and learn, but instead by a desire to make money. This is why every time a new ingredient is discovered companies will jump all over it to start adding it into their products in a desperate attempt to sell what is new and exciting. Phrases such as “clinically proven” or “dermatologist approved” have little meaning because they could refer to almost anything. For example, what kind of study led to the representation that a given product was clinically proven? Did the manufacturers simply ask a couple of buyers? Do not be fooled by this kind of language, and always contact companies for their "studies" that show clinical efficacy. Several of the products I mentioned in my book actually cite independent studies to justify the inclusion of ingredients in their products. A far cry from most companies.
Aside from the harm to science education mentioned above, what harm can believing in pseudoscience in the field of beauty actually do?
While skipping the prescription medication in favour of something "natural" isn't always bad, and it is unlikely (although I suppose not impossible) to result in one's untimely death or morbidity, it can prolong one's physical and mental suffering first and foremost. It's already been established that people with acne tend to also suffer from serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety; not to mention the physical pain that comes with acne and the scarring that it can leave behind when it is left untreated, or treated improperly. Believing in pseudoscientific claims about beauty and skin care and acne is what made my acne go from bad to worse. Using things that are not tested or proven can worsen acne or skin health, and can prolong the amount of time that we live with it. I'm sure none of you want this.
Leave me your thoughts and comments below!