“What’s the Harm”: The Body Count of Pseudoscience

Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease.
Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease.

A Holocaust of Ignorance

I’m often confronted by people who are outraged by skeptical criticism other people’s ideas about medicine, biotech, and science: “You ought to respect their beliefs!” Other people simply shrug off popular pseudoscience and say, “Why bother? What’s the harm?”

The answer is that 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.

The costs of medical conspiracy theories and baseless fear-mongering are immense and ghastly. Millions upon millions of people are hurt and killed because them every year. It is a veritable holocaust of ignorance. But it is a holocaust that is still happening, year after year, extinguishing countless of lives that could have been saved by good science, free markets, and sound policy.

What we are facing is nothing less than genocidal stupidity, on a worldwide scale. Here I show how widespread pseudoscientific conspiracy theories have become and document just a few cases of the damage they have wrought.

The Prevalence of Pseudoscientific Conspiracy Theories

In the United States, far from being a fringe phenomenon, conspiratorial beliefs about medicine are mainstream. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that half of the American public believes at least one medical conspiracy theory and 18% believe three or more. 20% believe that vaccines are linked to autism, and doctors are covering it up. 37% believe the government and drug companies are suppressing “natural cures” for various diseases.

Conspiratorial beliefs also help fuel the $28 billion organic food sector and $34 billion a year alternative medicine industry. For instance, people who believe three or more conspiracy theories are three times more likely to use herbal supplements, compared to those who believed none.

T1In the developing world, conspiracy theories about AIDS are rampant. AIDS denialism (the belief that AIDS doesn’t exist, or that HIV doesn’t cause it) has taken root in many African countries, often curiously accompanied by AIDS-origin conspiracy theories, such as that HIV is a US bioweapon to kill blacks.

In one study at a clinic in South Africa, where a fifth of 15–49-year-olds are HIV-positive, thirty percent of young adults believe witchcraft plays a role in transmitting HIV, 19% believe that “fresh fruits and vegetables can cure AIDS,” and another 21% think HIV was created by the CIA. People are about 1/3 less likely to use a condom if they believe AIDS conspiracy theories, controlling for location, socioeconomic status, and type of relationship.

Celebrities, politicians, activists, and community leaders have played a key role in promoting medical conspiracy theories. Lew Rockwell, founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, has been instrumental in helping promoting lies about HIV/AIDS, biotech crops, vaccines,  and other medical treatments in the libertarian community. Bill Maher, comedian and darling of the atheist left, has used his HBO show to stoke irrational fears of vaccines. And Oprah has of course long been the queen bee of alternative medicine quackery.

Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories

Large outbreaks of measles have hit the US in recent years, usually introduced by travelers to foreign countries and spread by unvaccinated individuals in the US.

3 million people die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases (though this number could potentially rise as new vaccines are developed for diseases such as malaria). 1.5 million are children under the age of five.

Conspiracy theorists in the developed world have stoked baseless fears about vaccines causing autism, leading to plummeting vaccination rates and driving a resurgence in the West of diseases like measles and whooping cough that were nearly stamped out a decade ago. The website JennyMcCarthyBodyCount.com keeps track of the number of vaccine preventable illnesses (128,044) and preventable deaths (1,336) in the United States since the former playboy model started her public compaign against vaccines in June 2007.

In Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, religious fanatics (among others) have spread lies about vaccines causing impotence and sterility, as part of an alleged conspiracy to destroy Islam. In Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, aid workers trying to vaccinate children against polio (and hopefully eradicate the disease) have been attacked and murdered by groups opposed to vaccination.

In February 2013, nine vaccinators were gunned down in Nigeria. In March 2014, a car bomb hit polio workers in Pakistan, killing 11 people, including a child, and wounding 12 others. In the last two years, at least 65 anti-polio workers have been murdered in Pakistan.

Conspiratorial beliefs about vaccines and distrust of public health organizations remain some of the biggest obstacles to eradicating polio and measles and stopping the spread of infectious disease.

Anti-Biotech Conspiracy Theories

A child blinded by vitamin A deficiency (VAD). He will likely within a year.
A child blinded by vitamin A deficiency (VAD) has a 50% chance of dying within a year.

Golden Rice

668,000 children die from vitamin A deficiency every year, and between 250,000 and 500,000 go blind from it annually. 250 million people are at risk for vitamin A deficiency, and because vitamin A deficiency compromises the immune system, another 1 million children die each year from other diseases resulting from VAD.

But since its invention in 2000, anti-GMO fanatics have been violently opposing approval of “golden rice,” a strain of rice genetically engineered to include vitamin A. Just three ounces will give a child their recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. When the Philippines finally allowed its cultivation last year, activists working with Greenpeace destroyed the crops. Thanks in large part to such opposition, at least 8,000,000 children under the age of five have died from VAD in the last 12 years.

GM Crops and Food Aid

lisutuagdeadfarmfieldIn 2002, droughts and crop failures swept southern Africa. A massive famine was imminent, and nearly 13 million people were at risk of starvation. In Malawi, child malnutrition grew from 6% to 19% in three months, and infant mortality spiked by 71%.

The World Health Organization mobilized the largest relief mission in its history, distributing 650,000 metric tons of food to 10 million people, averting a major catastrophe. But at the urging of anti-GMO activists, the government of Zambia, ignoring the pleas of millions on the brink of starvation, rejected 35,000 tons of food aid because it was potentially genetically modified.

Since then, dozens of countries have caved to illiterate fear-mongering by banning GM crops, despite the overwhelming evidence they are safe and can greatly increase crop yields. Meanwhile, 870 million people worldwide suffer from chronic undernourishment, including a third of children in developing countries.

AIDS Conspiracy Theories

Since the 1980s, the AIDS pandemic has killed over 30 million people. Globally, 35 million people are infected with HIV. There are 2.6 million new infections and 1.8 million deaths annually. But there are some people who deny that AIDS even exists–or if it exists, claim that the human immunodeficiency virus isn’t responsible.

Instead, these modern holocaust deniers say that HIV/AIDS is a myth, and the only danger is from the antiretroviral drugs which treat HIV, claiming that they are part of a conspiracy by the FDA and health organizations to poison people for profit. Don’t worry about condoms, they say, just shower after sex and you’ll be safe from STDs.

These lunatic ideas do not merely spread lethal confusion among the public; they got a chance to directly shape health policy in at least one country. An estimated 343,000 people died between 1999 and 2007 because of the South African government’s embrace of AIDS denialism. Over 170,000 additional HIV infections, including 35,000 vertical transmissions from mother to child, also resulted.

Losing Ground to Our Oldest Enemy

While the problem in these examples is hunger and disease, in case after case, we have already discovered the solution–and rejected it. Our propensity to superstition and willful ignorance drags us back. But when we know better, ignorance is no longer morally neutral. It is humanity’s original enemy. And from the 340,000 dead from AIDS in South Africa to the 8 million dead from VAD, its effects have been devastating.

Hilleman (left) and Borlaug (right) together have saved more lives than anyone else in human history.
Hilleman (left) and Borlaug (right) together have saved more lives than anyone else in human history.

Ignorance lies at the root of poverty, disease, and death–and it is all-natural. You are healthy and alive today because of the determined efforts of a few heroic men and women, like Maurice Hilleman (who developed 14 different vaccines that combined have saved an estimated one billion lives) and Norman Borlaug (whose advances in genetically modified crops are estimated to have saved a billion people from starvation), to defy nature’s intentions.

Their work was deeply embedded in the context of scientific institutions that have led the charge against our ignorance of disease and biology. In the West, we have benefited tremendously from having institutions that are wiser than we are. Science and markets, and global health campaigns utilizing both, have helped eradicate smallpox, feed 7 billion people, and batter infectious disease to the edges of civilization. Yet our institutions are under relentless attack, and we are losing ground to the forces of paranoia and irrationality.

You may live comfortably on the benefits of scientific and economic progress you do not understand–no one insists you comprehend the technology that moves your voice around the globe and daily saves your life in innumerable, unnoticed ways–but you may not assail the foundations of modernity uncontested. We will not sanctify ideas that poses a direct threat to the survival of millions, merely because it would be “divisive” to oppose them. We will not sit quietly while the world is hanged on a cross of benighted superstition and smug ignorance.

As Carl Sagan once wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, “I worry that … pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. …Habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

In the minds of millions of people, darkness has fallen, and the demons are loose. And with respect to Robert Ingersoll, it is our responsibility “to grasp the torch of reason and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness–still.”