The religion of quackery


Amy Tuteur authored a piece comparing the various commonalities between woo and organized religion:

4. Predestination

Just like the Calvinist belief in predestination allowed the spiritual elect to be identified by their wealth and success, quackery has its own version of predestination. In quackery, the spiritual elect can be identified by their good health.

Luck played no role in Calvinist predestination. You weren’t wealthy because you were lucky or even skillful. You were lucky because you had been chosen by God. Luck plays no role in pseudoscience. You aren’t healthy because you are lucky; you’re healthy because you are one of the health elect.

It goes without saying that people who get sick must have done something to deserve it or must have been damaged by demons.

7. Faith

Like all religions, quackery requires faith in the face of the inability to prove that it works or is true. Of course in quackery they call it “intuition.”

Like any religion, quackery has its own priests, the purveyors of quackery goods and services. Instead of offering rational prescriptions for health, quacks offer (for money) superstitions, affirmations, and support in rejecting rationality. They sell substances with no efficacy (herbs, homeopathy) and provide friendship and companionship as a substitute for knowledge.

Andrew Wakefield, the doctor deprived of his medical license because of research misconduct, is one such priest of pseudoscience, though there are many others.

The article seems on point. Many of my woo-soaked peers were/are extremely ableist, had a tendency to victim blame, and often defined themselves by their fitness (read: their skinniness). Intuition is one of those buzzwords that flies well past any conceivably explicable baggage from our evolutionary history, where we had a selection pressure to quickly assess whether something was a threat, and into supernatural “third eye” territory cultivated by… eating organic, apparently. And there’s certainly no shortage of woo hippies trying to make a living by commercializing and whitewashing Indian practices because they sound spiritual, but not in the Western way.

Approaching quackery as a secular religion has important implications for how we address belief in pseudoscience. It is very difficult to reason people out of beliefs that they didn’t reasons themselves into. Hence education in the sciences, or specific disciplines of immunology, oncology, etc. is doomed to be ineffective. That’s especially true when persisten faith in the face of evidence to the contrary is venerated as devotion.

Reminds me of horseshoe theory. That thing where the more extreme along a spectrum you are, the similar to the other end you are. Quacks and cranks have more in common than they’d like to admit.