Why Do We Tolerate Whole Foods-ian Pseudoscience?

Michael Schulson writes for the Daily Beast, questioning why many of us are eager to dismiss the pseudoscience of Creationism but politely tolerate, or even choose to passively half-believe, all the dietary pseudoscience around health food and products sold in places like Whole Foods.

You can buy chocolate with “a meld of rich goji berries and ashwagandha root to strengthen your immune system,” and bottles of ChlorOxygen chlorophyll concentrate, which “builds better blood.” There’s cereal with the kind of ingredients that are “made in a kitchen—not in a lab,” and tea designed to heal the human heart.

Nearby are eight full shelves of probiotics—live bacteria intended to improve general health. I invited a biologist friend who studies human gut bacteria to come take a look with me. She read the healing claims printed on a handful of bottles and frowned. “This is bullshit,” she said, and went off to buy some vegetables.

I have my fair share of vegan yogi friends, or friends who go to acupuncturists, or do juice cleanses, or oil-pulling (um, can we talk about this?), or are into any number of homeopathic-like things. I have certainly chugged a bottle of chlorophyll in my day and hoped for the best. I guess I treat it kind of like astrology — as long as it’s not too expensive and not harmful, I am willing to kind of passively half-believe in it for fun, if it makes me feel better. Like, not only is this poop yogurt delicious, I am actively supporting my digestive “flora” or something. It’s like TOM’s shoes but with health benefits, and I sure do love feeling like I’m accomplishing something via buying things!!

Okay it’s ridiculous. Possibly as ridiculous as my friends in Evolution class at Notre Dame who were like, “Okay but obviously we don’t BELIEVE any of this because Adam and Eve.” But at the end of the day is my friend swishing olive oil in her mouth for 10 minutes every morning any different? I want to say yes! And that’s not really harming anyone. Plus her teeth look so clean and she feels really great about it.

Schulson makes a good point:

The most common liberal answer to that question isn’t quite correct: namely, that creationists harm society in a way that homeopaths don’t. I’m not saying that homeopathy is especially harmful; I’m saying that creationism may be relatively harmless. In isolation, unless you’re a biologist, your thoughts on creation don’t matter terribly much to your fellow citizens; and unless you’re a physician, your reliance on Sacred Healing Food to cure all ills is your own business.

The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.

Also that, at the end of the day, “whenever we talk about science and society, it helps to keep two rather humbling premises in mind: very few of us are anywhere near rational. And pretty much all of us are hypocrites.”

*brews cup of raspberry leaf tea to strengthen my uterus or some shit*

Photo: ideowl



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