The Health Movement’s Fondness for Conspiracy

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I once worked with a guy who was a health nut. He was 44 and didn’t look a day over 30, so he must have been doing something right, but when I picked his brain a bit, I was bewildered by the dizzying array of dubious health advice I received. Concerns about fluoride and oxidation, GMOs and toxic compounds on the the skin of apples.

-“Don’t drink tap water. All that fluoride is disastrous to your health.”

-“If you make a smoothie you must drink it immediately. Once it oxidizes you may as well pour it down the drain.”

-“Don’t eat the skin of the apple unless you soak it in a weak acid solution.”

This sort of advice is rampant on the internet. Websites on health often have a dangerous amount of fear mongering, pseudo-science and sensationalism. There’s a close connection to conspiracy theories within the online health community as well. There’s a reason that Alex Jones makes a substantial income selling supplements.

Health is complex and fraught with ideological battlegrounds. Within the more conspiracy oriented community, many of the conclusions rest on a deep distrust of government, large corporations and even scientists. There exists a common view that powerful forces are out to get the common people. They want to reduce our fertility, make us feminine “soy boys,” and generally wreak havoc for the purpose of social control. This is not a new contention. The film Dr. Strangelove parodied this thinking in 1966, with general Mandrake’s claim that “fluoridated water is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we’ve ever had to face.” At the time, it was the communists that wanted to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.” Today the enemy is everywhere. No one is safe.

While veganism is not mainstream in the conspiracy theory world, especially since the decline of masculinity is a major topic for the Alex Jones crowd, there is are plenty of vegans that adopt the same neurotic, paranoid view of reality. Many ideologies share the view that large scale institutions, even if they have peer review and serious scholarship behind them, are not to be trusted. Only small blogs are to be trusted as they remain untainted by the influence of powerful agents.

What makes this so difficult to untangle is that there is often a grain of truth in even the most outrageous of claims. Of course, there has been scientific racism, government overreach and amoral corporate policy. Vegans are no strangers to this. The lifestyle primes you to be uniquely aware of what you put in your body. In the case of meat and dairy it is true that powerful corporate forces would rather the public didn’t know what they are eating. It isn’t crazy to worry about the effects of hormones and antibiotics that trickle down to the meat and dairy consuming public.

On a political level, Evan has reviewed the government’s unfair attempts to characterize eco-activism as terrorism. Ag-gag laws also protect the powerful interests of the animal agriculture to stifle the efforts of activists to shine light on the realities of factory farming.

On the more dubious side of the spectrum, “What the Health” provides examples of conspiracy thinking from a vegan point of view. Sometimes they see evidence of conspiracy where there are none (e.g. of course call center reps aren’t going to get into a contentious scientific debate about the wisdom of their organization’s food recommendations) and at other times doing genuinely good work exposing the underbelly of factory farming industries (e.g. pollution from pig farms affecting the health of poor rural communities).

But whenever I’m confronted with grand scale conspiracies I always like to point out Occam’s razor. The simplest explanations are usually correct. It’s more plausible that greed, short-shortsightedness or moral confusion produce the results we see today. Grand conspiracy assume a level of competence on the part of large entities that no institution has ever shown. A corrolary to Occam’s razor that is relevant here is Hanlon’s razor, which is often stated as “Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.” And here “stupidity” can be “coincidence” or “accident” or other unintentional chain reactions. Most of the bad things in this world are not caused by malevolent forces out to get us, but by imperfect people, many of whom are doing their best, but failing.

We need data and science to be our guiding light to resolve the most pressing matters threatening our health. The system is not perfect, but peer review does present a compelling way of encouraging truth to rise to the top. I only hope that we can trust the data that guides us to the truth and ignore those telling us that shadowy figures have blocked out path to ever arriving at the truth.

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