How to support Free Fire Cider and the Fire Cider 3

Fire Cider

You may have heard recently about the fire cider trademark controversy. It’s a short but sad story: Back in the 1970s, Rosemary Gladstar coined the term “fire cider” for vinegar infused with garlic, onions, horseradish, and chili pepper. Like many of her recipes, she freely shares it with everyone so they can make their own at home and tweak it in any way they want. In the ’90s, she copyrighted the name, so that is her intellectual property–yet she still shares it with the rest of us.

Over the last 45 years, fire cider has become a commonplace, traditional name for a folk remedy. Unfortunately, one company–Shire City Herbals–decided to trademark the name so only they could use it. The trademark really should never have been granted, since there is ample evidence that the name has been in generic use for decades. Not to mention its inventor is still alive and well and can describe its original creation and use. But it was, and to make matters worse, Shire City Herbals are now suing three small herbal business owner/farmers for using the name fire cider. The owner of Shire City Herbals is on record saying that the boycott of their product has actually doubled their business (a claim I doubt), yet at the same time, they are suing Mary Blue of Farmacy Herbs, Kathi Langelier of Herbal Revolution, and Nicole Telkes of Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine–the “Fire Cider 3”–for $100,000 for supposedly harming Shire City Herbals’ business as well as trademark infringement. When people created a Facebook page to organize a boycott, Shire City’s owner complained to Facebook who forced the removal of the page; a subsequent page also had to be removed for the same reason. In spite of this blatant example of greed and legal skullduggery, Shire City continue to portray themselves as a grassroots company that cares about people’s health.

It is my belief that conventional medical care is only going to become more and more expensive, until the day comes when we don’t have enough fossil carbons left to fuel it and make the plastics it depends on. Medical expenses are now the number one reason for bankruptcy in America. There is, and there will continue to be, a need for health care that all people can afford and, as much as possible, make for themselves. Herbalism has filled that role from the time of Dioscorides, to Nicholas Culpeper, to my great-grandmother, to me. By sharing these methods within our communities, putting people before profit, we have kept the tradition of herbalism alive so that it can do the same for us.

However, it’s clear that some herbalists are more interested in money than medicine. In my opinion, they are a disgrace to this calling. Capitalism being what it is, it may be impossible to legally stop them. But as far as I am concerned, morally it is theft twice over–first they have stolen Rosemary Gladstar’s intellectual property, and secondly in their attempt to create a monopoly on fire cider, they are co-opting our collective herbal heritage. And because of bullying tactics like these (and by the way, Young Living have done the same by trademarking the name “Thieves” (read the comments at that link too) as in Four Thieves), all of herbalism may over time be brought under greater legal scrutiny and regulation which could ultimately make it impossible for us to practice at all.

If you feel similarly, I urge you to do the following:

  • Don’t even buy fire cider, make your own! It is so easy. Keep the tradition, skill, and knowledge alive and share it within your community. Here are some instructions, or watch the lovely Rosemary show you how.
  • Read more specifics about the situation here. Or check out this article.
  • If you prefer to buy fire cider, you can purchase some online from Herbal Revolution. If you want to financially support the Fire Cider 3, buy other herbal preparations from Farmacy Herbs or Nicole Telkes. Or donate to the legal defense fund.
  • If you are lucky enough to have co-ops in your area, you can encourage them to stock products from local herbalists and NOT Shire City.
  • Sign the petition.
  • Like the Tradition Not Trademark Facebook page.
  • Contact Shire City Herbals (the owner is Amy Huebler) and let them know what you think of their behavior. Refrain from actual harassment. A polite approach is likely to be most effective here…although truth be told I feel like if these people had any conscience we would have seen evidence of it by now.
  • Spread the word!

I guess recently there’s been a fair bit of ranting here, what with Etsy’s religious discrimination against pagan and “metaphysical” services (I still have not decided on an alternative platform for my preparations but will update when I do), and now this. But I feel I have to do my part to bring these things to everyone’s attention because they can so easily slip through the cracks. Herbalism is still around in large part because of mutual support among users and makers of herbal remedies. We are only as strong as our communities, and if we allow our traditions to be exploited for the benefit of the few instead of the many, if we stand by and let any member of our community be bullied and threatened, it weakens us all.

Bad science, Part III: implications

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Roman_ruins_(State_1)In this final Bad Science post I want to talk about the implications of all this and what it means for those of us interested in herbalism. I have wrestled with this post for weeks now, but it was always either too long and rambling, or too lacking in context to be worth writing at all. So let this be the tl;dr version:

  • “Bad science” is a combination of (1) scientistic materialism that has gone from the normative worldview of industrial civilization to a more-or-less religious orthodoxy (atheism notwithstanding); (2) scientific method that has been subverted by corruption and ego; and (3) the abuse of science’s intellectual authority (in the service of Numbers 1 and 2), leading to the demise of that authority as discussed in Part I and Part II of this series.
  • These changes arise in the philosophical domain, but have material effects.
  • This is all part of the larger process of the decline of industrial civilization. I picked this particular facet because our medical and food-production systems are strongly effected by changes in the arena of science. Presumably, this matters to those of us interested in herbalism.
  • One of the symptoms of this is a lot of nasty infighting among different social interest groups, each trying to defend its turf against all the others.

And now my reasoning.

I was originally thinking of having a post about the various rhetorical dirty tricks employed by the materialist true-believers against their many perceived foes (including us). But it was depressing me, and it was also boring. And you are probably familiar with all of them anyway. I decided to move straight to the wider implications of that behavior, which was the ultimate point anyway.

I have become quite a fan of John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report blog. In spite of the title, it’s not about archdruiding so much as it’s about the process of decline and fall of our civilization. This is not a bunch of doomsday prophesying. Greer knows his history, and recognizes the repeating patterns. Not that Greer is the only one talking about this, but his writing is possibly the most prolific. I won’t delve into this; if it’s of interest to you, check out his blog. The central point is that we have a civilization that was built on non-renewable resources which are now running out.

Roman Ruins null Jacob More circa 1740-1793 Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T08193One of the first things to be abandoned as the resource-base of a civilization begins to contract are what Greer terms its intellectual and cultural projects:

“Every human society likes to think that its core cultural and intellectual projects, whatever those happen to be, are the be-all and end-all of human existence….It’s important not to underestimate the shattering force of this experience. The plays of Euripides offer cogent testimony of the despair felt by ancient Greek thinkers as their grand project of reducing the world to rational order dissolved in a chaos of competing ideologies and brutal warfare. Fast forward most of a millennium, and Augustine’s The City of God anatomized the comparable despair of Roman intellectuals at the failure of their dream of a civilized world at peace under the rule of law.”

Science has been the big intellectual project of modernity. Intellectual projects need a lot of resources, and when those are in short supply, and society is losing its organizational ability to distribute those resources, priorities shift away from “progress” and toward survival. Therefore, we can’t expect to see science replaced by a similar project or coherent worldview–“when the barbarians are at the gates, one might say, funds that might otherwise be used to pay for schools of philosophy tend to get spent hiring soldiers instead.”

offensive potatoIt’s not just a matter of resources and where they are directed. It’s also that as science’s authority has started to crack, the discontented turn literally almost anywhere else for an alternative. There are a lot of alternatives out there, and there’s also a lot of fear. And so people invest a huge amount of their personal energy in drawing lines in the sand, finding their co-believers, and attacking the “enemy.” It’s about ideology, and it’s about identity. People latch onto any ideology that promises salvation–or in modern terminology, “progress”–like the drowning latch onto a life preserver. A huge amount of personal energy is poured into being offended by anything and everything. Professors are even starting to notice this combination of ideological fragmentation and belligerence among students. Under the current corporate model of university management, instructors are discouraged from presenting any material that makes the customers students uncomfortable, and students are quick to complain, loudly, when that happens. The problem is that there are so many identities and interest groups represented among the student body that it’s impossible not to offend somebody, especially when everybody’s looking for a reason to get offended. Every perceived offense is an opportunity to bang the drum for whatever identity/ideology the offended party belongs to.

Yet we still carry on under the pretense that everything’s ok, and will be even better soon. So actually doing something to remedy whatever offends us is both difficult to imagine and unnecessary. So much of what started out as well-intentioned reform and sensitivity devolved into politically correct thought- and speech-policing, whereby all that’s needed to prove one’s goodness and righteousness is to swiftly dogpile anyone who uses the wrong terminology or asks uncomfortable questions.

Some have claimed that this is because feelings now trump objectivity. I think that’s a very superficial reading of the situation. If that were all that’s happening, I am not sure I would have a problem with prioritizing people’s feelings and subjective experiences. But if people’s feelings and social justice really mattered as much as well-meaning young liberals like to claim, then our first order of business would be to change the social conditions that create suffering and injustice. But that would require admitting that the faith in progress, scientific materialism, technoutopianism, and neoliberal economic models which we trusted would save us was just smoke and mirrors. It’s so much easier just to shout about it.

19th century pencil drawing of Roman temple/ruinsI have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as science loses the right to be the sole arbiter of truth and reality, the things that have been consigned to the “fake” category–like herbalism–have a chance to regain the legitimacy and authority they once had. On the other hand, there are some major drawbacks. First among them is that as a system burns itself out, those invested in it double down. The reaction can get nasty, and you never know which end of the pitchfork you’ll be on. It’s very likely that I will not live to see a day (if family history is any indicator, I can expect to live as much as 60 more years) when we are fully free to do our thing as makers and users of herbal medicine, but that we will be increasingly constrained by bureaucratic red tape put in place to protect corporate and oligarchic interests. Still, I will keep on growing my own food and making my own medicine and sharing them with my community. We dandelions somehow manage to thrive.

Shame on you, Etsy

etsy sweatshopsI have been thinking about leaving Etsy as a platform for my business (small though it is) since it went public in April, and now I am considering not shopping there either. That makes me sad, because there are so many awesome things available there, and it’s the best-known platform for handmade goods so as a seller, you have a better chance of having your products seen.

But Etsy ain’t what it used to be.

I first got concerned when I read this piece by April Winchell, the author of Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF. Regretsy is hilarious, but Winchell is dead serious when she writes,

“Etsy’s “handmade-only” rule went down the drain faster than a cold soy latte. For all its chest thumping about conscious consumerism and the handmade ethos, Etsy had to face the fact that it was never going to be a billion dollar company selling potholders and bedazzled tampon cozies. Especially since most of its “sellers” were not, in fact, selling. All they were contributing to Etsy’s coffers were 20¢ listing fees. That’s not going to take you from Williamsburg to Wall Street.

Clearly, Etsy had to add some other kind of merchandise to its marketplace. It couldn’t be handmade, but it had to jibe with the Etsy culture. In another masterstroke, it hit on the idea of allowing  crafting supplies and vintage goods on the site.

It was a smart move. But even with these additional revenue streams, Etsy wasn’t moving fast enough. It was going to have to show some spectacular growth to lure investors to the table.

And that’s when Etsy decided to allow factory-made goods into its vibrant handmade marketplace.”

Do you think actual handmade stuff can compete with stuff made in sweatshops in Southeast Asia and falsely marketed as handmade? Me neither. As Winchell puts it, nowadays “Etsy is Walmart with better fonts.”

I immediately looked into alternatives to Etsy, but to be honest, I got lazy. I had a lot of other stuff on my plate, I hadn’t made any new stuff to sell, and I was admittedly worried about losing potential customers if I went to some more obscure platform. I mean, I’m not making a living off selling a bottle of tincture every three months. I have made zero attempt at marketing at this point, in part because I’m more interested in ultimately becoming a clinical herbalist as opposed to an herbal products creator (not that those two are mutually exclusive). But being squeamish about marketing is one thing; voluntarily ditching your customers is actively shooting yourself in the foot. I’m not proud of that, I’m just being honest. (Too bad Etsy isn’t that scrupulous.)

But I think the time has finally come to make the break. Now comes news that Etsy is no longer allowing the sale of magical spells and metaphysical goods and services marketed as such. I don’t sell spells, nor do I buy them. (I don’t have a problem with them, I just like to DIY everything.) But I have browsed the offerings on Etsy because a lot of them are quite beautiful. There are some real artists out there putting some incredible creativity into making spell kits. Moreover, it seems that a lot of people do buy spells and spell equipment through Etsy, especially since eBay forbade the selling of spells back in 2012. In typical fashion, Etsy is not explaining the motivation behind this decision. But given that Etsy has shown itself more than willing to sell out their customers (the sellers) and investors for a few more bucks, I suspect that there is some financial reason underlying the ban on spells. But whatever the motivation, it’s an act of religious discrimination. Witches, pagans, and yes, even herbalists regularly have to tailor our wording to basically say that what we are offering is for “entertainment purposes” to conform to the prevailing worldview that what we do isn’t “real.” Now even that isn’t enough to protect our right to provide our goods and services. Note that the paraphernalia of dominant religions such as Christianity–your rosaries, crosses, angel statues, and whatnot–can still be sold on Etsy. One can sell a “prayer kit,” but not a “spell kit.” This reminds me of what Peter Grey of Scarlet Imprint publishers said in his essay “Rewilding Witchcraft”–the present toleration of witchcraft is not acceptance, it’s simply disdain:

“The reason that social services are not taking your children away is that nobody believes in the existence of the witch. We have mistaken social and economic change for the result of our own advocacy.”

When nobody believes what you do is any more than dress up, you have a fair amount of freedom to do it, but don’t think that means society has progressed to accepting your alternative religion as legitimate. When eBay banned spells, they said it was to “build trust in the marketplace,” implying that every witch with a shop is a con artist. This is the down side to having your religion, your worldview regarded as bullshit by the monoculture–if you make a dime off it, you are automatically legally a fraud. Still, Etsy has been willing to work with favored frauds in the past, even when they were exposed, indeed Etsy itself is being sued for fraud, so one can’t help but wonder what makes magic different?*

Herbalism is another activity that is tolerated because as long as we don’t claim to “cure,” “heal” or “treat” anything, as long as we take extreme pains not to even so much as imply that herbs are medicinal, it are seen as harmless nonsense. If you are an herbalist who happens to have a Ph.D., you cannot even be called by your proper, hard-earned title–“Doctor”–because that might suggest that what you are offering is “real” medicine. Heaven forbid. So I suspect that if Etsy is banning sales of magical or metaphysical goods and services, it’s only a matter of time until they crack down on herbal formulas and extracts. At the very least, I suspect they are going to get so restrictive about what wording is allowed that it will make it nearly impossible to sell herbal products.

If you are bothered by this and the potential it creates to limit our access to any and all non-mainstream goods and services, I urge you to sign this petition. And maybe consider taking your business elsewhere.

*UPDATE: In an article published yesterday in Quartz, an Etsy spokesperson is quoted as saying the rationale behind the ban is to “protect our community from business practices that prey upon vulnerable and desperate shoppers—such as those seeking a treatment for cancer or infertility, or those with self-esteem issues who are seeking a spell for weight loss or beauty enhancement (think penis or breast enlargement).” Thank you, anonymous Etsy spokesperson, for making my point for me.

Here are some links with information on online handmade marketplaces you can use instead of Etsy: 12 Etsy alternatives, 5 other handcrafted marketplaces, Best Etsy alternatives, and of course, for herbal products, there is PoppySwap, which is entirely dedicated to herbal stuff.

Bad science, Part II: Philosophy and ideology

math

In today’s anti-intellectual social climate I often see philosophy dismissed as useless ivory-tower navel-gazing, but the reality is we are all philosophers. The most basic questions asked by philosophy are fundamental: What Is? (i.e., ontology) and How do we know? (epistemology). We spend our infancy asking those questions–the little kid asking “Why?” endlessly is a perfect philosopher–until we get to the age where we just accept the answers our elders give us. Philosophy is the study of ideas, and it is basic to the experience of being human and having a human brain.

Of course not everybody wants to go pro with philosophy. When I was a kid I was fascinated by philosophy and even told one of my elementary school teachers I was going to get a Ph.D. in it (ha!). Yet by the time I went to college I had learned to disapprove of it as “useless,” and I regret to say I never took a single philosophy class. Granted, this was partly because I had become aware that all of us are doing it all the time, so why take a class? Also, some of my friends (and one guy I dated) were philosophy majors and holy cats could they get infuriating. It was almost impossible to have a conversation without footnotes defining every word! But I still wish I had given it some formal study, if only to learn a better language for asking questions, so I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time.

“Study of ideas” does sound a little rarefied until you consider that almost everything we ever “know” is actually an idea. We can’t get outside of our own heads, so our experiences are always mediated through our perceptions and memories. Our experience is made up of ideas about things, not the things themselves. In that sense, philosophy is the study of lived experience, plus everything we think about that. So you know, pretty important stuff.

While we’re on the topic let me say that the philosophical school I most closely identify with is Skepticism. I don’t mean those smug jerks who make it their life’s mission to liberate us from our “errors” (they are true-believers, and I’ll come back to them shortly)–I’m talking about David Hume’s Skepticism, or that of the ancient Greeks. Because we can’t get out of our own subjective head-space, we can’t know whether anything objectively exists outside of it, or what that anything might be like. A more extreme Skeptic would even question whether other subjectivities–other minds–exist at all. I don’t take it quite that far. I certainly don’t say that nothing else exists, I just don’t believe any of us humans has a tool kit that would enable us to determine its objective nature, or indeed even our own objective nature. I also think of myself as a sort of Neo-Gnostic in that I suspect (but don’t know!) that there is some kind of objective reality but that our subjective human experience is different from and even deceptive about what that reality is, and I also suspect that reality is both conscious and non-material in nature, though I have no way of being sure. I’m telling you this to be as forthcoming as possible about my own perspective, since I’m about to criticize others for not doing that.

The philosopher and scientist (and skeptic and atheist) Massimo Pigliucci has been calling out scientists and sciencelebrities lately for taking an anti-intellectual stance toward philosophy, and some other disciplines which aren’t their own, for example in this piece at Scientia Salon and this one in the Huffington Post. In his HuffPo piece, Pigliucci points out that philosophy is “the mother of all sciences,” and criticizes sciencelebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson in particular:

“It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: He has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so.

…someone who regularly appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and has had the privilege of remaking Carl Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series — in short, someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship.”

But aside from being rude to fellow scholars, what’s the big deal? The dismissal of philosophy as a valid field of inquiry demonstrates two deeper issues:

  1. There has been a serious deterioration in science (both in practice and education) to the point where its predication on beliefs, ultimate subjectivity, and its history and cultural context have been forgotten, or are deliberately obfuscated.
  2. In the hustle to achieve greater authority (see the previous post in this series), scientists have become unwilling to face challenge–not only from ordinary people like you and me, but even from fellow academics.

So it’s partly a sign of ignorance of the foundations and ethics of science, and partly due to fear of losing their status if anyone dares to point out that there’s a man behind the curtain.

If you’ve ever taken an English composition or historiography class, you’ve probably been told never to use the passive voice (e.g., say “X did Y” not “Y was done by X” or even more vaguely, “Y was done.”) However in science writing, the passive voice is used preferentially. This is to make it appear as if the findings simply manifested all by themselves, without any interference from a flawed human. It creates a veneer of objectivity.

Just as scientific experiments don’t happen in a vacuum, science didn’t arise in a vacuum: It was the product of specific historical and cultural trends–and philosophical beliefs. These beliefs have evolved somewhat, but not as much as you might think/hope. Science and the belief in scientific and technological progress arose out of what John Michael Greer calls the “prophetic religious sensibility,” which was also the source of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

“A religious sensibility isn’t a religion. It’s the substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins.”

Although Greer is talking about religion and not science, it isn’t only religions that are built on the substructure of “religious sensibility”–so are all of our just-so stories. They shape each of our subjective lived experiences. Atheism and science are not the same thing–although the dominant metaphysical premise of modern science is scientific-materialism and there is significant overlap–yet if you substitute “science” for “atheism” in this quote, it is still true.

“…the contemporary quarrels between atheists and theists, like the equally fierce quarrels between the different theist religions of salvation, take place within a shared sensibility. It’s indicative, for example, that theists and atheists agree on the vast importance of what individuals believe about basic religious questions such as the existence of God; it’s just that to the theists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from eternal hellfire, while to the atheists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from the ignorant and superstitious past that fills the place of eternal damnation in their mythos. That obsession with individual belief is one of the distinctive features of the current western religious sensibility…

The hostilities between Christianity and contemporary atheism, like those between Christianity and Islam, are thus expressions of something like sibling rivalry. Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars.” (my emphasis)

In another post on a related topic, Greer elaborates:

“I think most of my readers are aware that most versions of Christian doctrine insist that the Christian God is the only authentic deity in the cosmos, and the deities of other religions are a) imaginary, b) demons masquerading as divinities, or c) more or less garbled human misunderstandings of the one true Christian god—the choice between these options being largely a matter of the personal predilections of whoever’s doing the preaching.

Those religions that insist that theirs is the one and only real deity tend to have an awkward time dealing with the prevalence, and similarity, of religious experience across the whole spectrum of human religions.

All the prophetic faiths, from east to west, have certain things in common besides their abandonment of the old gods of nature. To begin with, as already noted, each was founded by someone who claimed unique access to the truth about the universe. To belong to one of these faiths isn’t simply a matter of participating in its ceremonies and showing reverence to its holy things, as in the nature religions; all of them started out with the idea that belonging to the religion required acceptance of a specific set of opinions about religious issues—the Four Noble Truths, the Nicene Creed, or what have you—and accepting them, furthermore, in a sense that formally excluded accepting any other set. Most of them, though not all, still maintain that principle of membership to one degree or another.”

All the prophetic faiths also share, to one degree or another, a rejection of the world as it actually exists in favor of some more or less utopian substitute…” (my emphasis)

I quote Greer at length here because I think this point cannot be overstated–the scientific method is a specific response to a specific set of cultural, historical, and philosophical conditions (one of which is the substructure of the prophetic religious sensibility with its notions of progress and transcendence), which were enveloped within the developing concept. Like a snowball rolling along, over time science has gathered to itself a set of mandatory beliefs necessary for membership (an ideology) and its own community of prophets and true-believers. Notice how the exact same language that Christians use to dismiss non-Christians is used by science’s true-believers to dismiss people who believe in sasquatch or ghosts. The problem is when people mistake their beliefs for truth. As we know, this has led to many wars. It’s very easy to point the finger at someone else and label their “truths” as beliefs, but we have to be able to do the same thing in the mirror.

For a more in-depth examination and critique of the mandatory beliefs of scientific-materialism, I recommend this debate on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. Note the fact that Shermer, the darling of materialist true-believers, is not actually a scientist (he does hold a Ph.D. in history of science); Sheldrake, their bete-noire, actually is a scientist. It’s not merely an irony, it’s indicative of how true-believers accept as science only that which corresponds to their fundamentalist beliefs.

In this debate, Sheldrake takes the position that science needs to move past its dogma, while Shermer argues “science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition” (my emphasis). I think the italicized part there is really interesting and reveals much about materialist orthodoxy: Shermer could have said that science is a materialistic enterprise, full stop. Or he could have said that it’s a materialistic enterprise, everything else is outside of science’s purview, and so simply is not of interest/can’t be addressed by science. If you read the rest of Shermer’s remarks, it seems that the crux of his argument is that attributing something to a “supernatural” or “paranormal” (or by extension, any other non-material) cause is laziness–those aren’t explanations, just “placeholders” for material processes we don’t yet understand. And the goal of science is to continue investigating until we do understand. This is a fair point (although he assumes a priori that the answers science will discover must be material in nature), so why didn’t he say that? Why did he sum up his argument the way he did? When you read closely what he actually did say (in the quote above), you see that Shermer is stating that science is materialistic, and everything else doesn’t exist/is delusion. Moreover, to even attempt to investigate all of that non-material/non-existent stuff is betrayal–which totally contradicts his argument that science keeps on investigating until the answer is known. Shermer is not arguing that we need to keep investigating and not be lazy; he’s arguing that we should adopt a particular ontology and ignore and deny everything that doesn’t seem to fit it. And I don’t know about you, but his language sounds rather religious and very emotional to me. I’m half surprised he didn’t say “apostasy” or “heresy” instead of betrayal. It’s also a ridiculous statement from anything other than an ideological point of view. I mean, think how ridiculous it would be if I applied this same reasoning to an entirely different thing. What if I said, “horses are mammals; only mammals exist, therefore all other animals are mythical and it’s a betrayal of horses to investigate them.” Or, “painting is done with paints; and therefore all other art forms are imaginary, and it’s a betrayal of painting to do other kinds of art.” But notice how normal and familiar it sounds if I say, “Islam (or Christianity, etc.) is the only true religion; all other religions are lies/sin/delusion/heresy/paganism/etc. and it’s a betrayal of God to follow them.” As Sheldrake says,

“These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology….Many people are unaware that these doctrines are assumptions; they think of them as science, or simply believe that they are true. They absorb them by a kind of intellectual osmosis.”

I do know some scientists that are aware of this. Unfortunately, true-believers–the evangelists of scientific-materialism–rarely even understand how scientific experimentation is done, let alone do it themselves, let alone know anything about the history and philosophy and cultural context of science and how the method has changed over the years. Just as 99.9% of Christians I encounter have virtually zero knowledge of the history and philosophy and cultural context of Christianity. Part of why I get so irked by the pop-science Facebook memes (a few of which I dissect in my next post), and the pandering of prophets sciencelebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that their proliferation, their sheer numbers, give them credibility in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t think critically about this stuff. The more that stuff is shared uncritically, the more natural and normal it appears to be. “Everybody knows.” “They say.” “Studies show.” “It’s a well-known fact.” They’re all code for ideology.

Oh, really?

I love how it looks like Tyson is experiencing some kind of mystical communion here.

I’m not sure when science came unmoored from its fundamentals and its history. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy tells his class, “Archaeology is the search for fact–not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall”? Indy was correctly acknowledging that questions of “truth” are not the domain of science, but of philosophy. Have Tyson and his fellow sciencelebrities forgotten that, or are they simply ignoring it? I can tell you that scientists’ unwillingness to engage with philosophy is a sign of science’s devolution into a cult. It’s more important to belong to the group, and to show that by espousing the same opinions and beliefs and not doing transgressive stuff like, say, cryptzoology to name just one example (unless the point is to belittle the notion). This is an extremely inflexible, and therefore fragile, position.

Because this is where we get into Black Swan territory. For a materialist or a so-called skeptic, a philosophical challenge taken seriously could be a Black Swan. Nothing in your past led you to believe it could be possible, so when it happens, it blows your world up; yet looking back, you see that really, all the necessary ingredients were there all along, you just didn’t realize it. The important thing about Black Swans in this context is that they are dependent on your worldview. An oft-quoted example is that Thanksgiving is a Black Swan to the turkey, but not to the butcher. It all depends on your prior experiences and your perspective. It is possible to turn a Black Swan to your advantage, but all of them are dangerous to some extent. The more inflexible you are, the more likely a Black Swan is to break you. The antidote is to have horizons so broad and mental doors so open that it’s almost impossible to take you completely by surprise.

Once you grasp that there’s more than one way to add up to 9–and even more importantly, that 9 is not even a foregone conclusion but some may be adding up to 7, or 15, or 232–you are down the rabbit hole my friend. You have chosen the red pill, and shit gets weird. You’ll never be able to go back to the comfortable certainty of your prior belief system, whatever it was. Being truly aware of and open to other ontologies isn’t mere political correctness, or even cultural relativism, it’s an awakening that completely changes your views of the universe. Meeting actual flesh-and-blood Martians would not be any more mind-imploding than this. From then on, no premise can be taken for granted. You will, like it or not, be forced to think critically about everything all the time. (The good news is there will be infinite new horizons of thought to explore.)

This is not incompatible with good science–science that lives up to its stated ideals rather than its secret agendas. However, it does reveal scientific-materialism for what it was all along, which is merely one among many metaphysical propositions which cannot ever be proved or disproved. Scientific-materialism is an ideology, and those who trumpet it as the Alpha and Omega, the Way, the Truth, and the Light, are ideologues. They have a vested interest in converting you to their belief just as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Evangelical Christians will try to convert you to theirs. They cannot see that, though, like the fish who can’t see the water. Now, I think they are all entitled to their religions, I only want them to recognize them for what they are.

What we have to avoid here is falling into the same trap as the true-believers. Being critical of some current scientists (and their followers) for not recognizing the philosophy underlying their work does not mean we get to reject scientific principles or findings out of hand. These findings still represent generations of empirical observations made by our ancestors. They are now part of the Western tradition. It means we take things on a case-by-case basis, critically evaluate the claims, realize they are probably at least partly wrong and so are we. Yes, we need guidelines on which to base our life decisions. You can be philosophically a Skeptic or a Gnostic who views life as a flight simulation, but as long as you’re in it, remember that you don’t get infinite lives and play as if it were real. We can even take our guidelines on faith and be totally devoted to living them, as long as we don’t call it truth, ram it down everybody else’s throat, and infantilize and demean them for having different guidelines.

Next time I tackle how ideological arguments are constructed so as to beat us into submission.

Bad science, Part I: Authoritah

authoritah

Okay. Deep breath. There’s a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, but every time I start I get so worked up about the issue and I have so many words I can’t sort through them. Every time I have given up. This time, I was almost to the end when I hit some unknown combination of buttons and accidentally erased more than half of what I’d written. But I think this time I will make it through to the end…

(This got really long, so I’m breaking it up into parts.)

I want to say at the get-go that I’m trying as hard as I can to spell out my thoughts clearly. Not because I am underestimating your intelligence. Far from it! If you read this blog you are clearly a person of wisdom, discernment, and excellent taste! But I don’t want to assume that you already know my thoughts, let alone agree with them. Writing your thoughts and cherished beliefs–I mean, not just stating them, but explaining them–to someone who has never met you and can’t see your facial expression or hear your tone of voice is really difficult. I have discovered that through bitter experience. So I’m trying not to assume any prior knowledge, as if you just stumbled on this blog and this is the first post you’re reading (which it might be).

In other posts I’ve alluded to the fact that I used to be a science educator and used to do scientific analyses in an R1 (does its own research) university. In a lab and everything! I ended up leaving that path, first because I realized I was not interested in just measuring stuff, but in wrestling with questions about meaning and human subjectivity. I went humanities, in other words. Second, because my mom got sick and I had to take care of her, and my nascent academic career disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

I make no claim that the herbalism I practice is science-based. That is, I do incorporate scientific findings and will share them with you when relevant; and I do base my practice on empirical (but subjective) observation–but I personally am not conducting a controlled study. But this doesn’t mean I stopped being interested in science. Nor does it mean I forgot how science works or stopped associating with practicing scientists.

Because I love what science actually is (I’ll return to that in a minute), I get really incensed when I see it being misused.

Specifically, I’m referring to the use of “science” to establish and enforce an epistemological and ideological hegemony. To be completely clear, what I am saying is this: over the course of my adult life I have seen the concept of “science” co-opted by thought police who want to enforce conformity in the general public–determining what questions can be asked, whether and how they can be discussed, and using rhetorical tricks and misdirection to discredit opposing voices.

Now I know it might sound like I’m making some crazy conspiratorial claim here. Stay with me and you’ll see it’s nothing so glamorous.

I am not the only person noticing this. Currently, the protesting voices are coming from the fringes–not from mainstream society–but there are more and more of them. It’s time for me to add my voice to the chorus. If every person adds their grain of sand, in time they make a mountain. But whether my grain of sand adds much to the pile is irrelevant–a person’s character is obvious from their values, and this misuse of “science” in the attempt to quash free inquiry and free speech goes against everything I believe in and care about.

I believe in critical thought, and that if you’re not thinking critically you’re wasting your human brain. I understand that it’s often difficult to look beneath the surface explanation of things, especially when we really like the explanation we’re being given, but making the attempt is not only good for the developing your cognitive skills but is also a moral virtue. Moreover, we need to turn that probing eye on ourselves and our own society, to put them under the microscope, and never accept something as truth just because someone told us so. In particular, we must always ask whether what we’re being told is a statement of fact or an ideological belief or philosophical premise being packaged as fact. I don’t care whether the claim is that Yahweh is the one true god, or that there is no god, or that the two-party system is the best form of governance, or that such-and-such war is justified, or that you need to detox your liver, or that science is the best way to investigate the universe. The metric for truth is not whether we agree with it, whether it makes us happy, or whether it’s convenient. In fact, we need to beware anything that feels easy and comfortable because that is where blind spots develop.

I think it should go without saying–though I’m saying it anyway–that scientific materialism is the dominant paradigm in modern Western society, and has been for about 200 years. We give science ultimate explanatory authority. Previously, Christianity and the Church held that role, and although there are still a small minority who look to Christianity for answers, their day is long past. It was already getting shaky in Henry VIII’s time. But it’s still a long way from being really threatened. When was the last time you heard a talking head report sincerely the good news that Jesus has appeared miraculously in a tortilla? Not in your lifetime. The fact that creationism is increasingly being packaged as “creation science” shows how desperate people are to reconcile what they want to believe in–Christian theology–with what they kind of believe in spite of themselves and think everyone else believes–science.

Yet there has been much hand-wringing and arm-waving, as well as snarky mockery, lately about people being “anti-science” and “science-deniers,” and it’s true that cracks are beginning to appear in science’s credibility. What’s got scientists and science fans so defensive? Basically, people are starting to question and in some cases even dispute their authority. Take for example this blog post by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who writes:

“So you have the direct problem of science collectively steering my entire generation toward obesity, diabetes, and coronary problems. But the indirect problem might be worse: It is hard to trust science.

Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?

If a person doesn’t believe climate change is real, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is that a case of a dumb human or a science that has not earned credibility? We humans operate on pattern recognition. The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:

Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.

Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time.”

(Emphasis and link are in the original.) Adams isn’t dumb and he isn’t a “science denier.” He understands that science is a “’mostly wrong’ situation by design that is intended to become more right over time. How do you make people trust a system that is designed to get wrong answers more often than right answers?” Indeed! By definition scientific findings can never be conclusive; it’s always a work-in-progress. So how did science ever come to be granted so much authority as the arbiter of truth?

The picture gets even murkier. John Michael Greer elaborates:

“Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is ‘Who’s paying him?’ …

From influential researchers being paid to put their names on dubious studies to give them unearned credibility to the systematic concealment of “outlying” data that doesn’t support the claims made for this or that lucrative product, the corruption of science is an ongoing reality, and one that existing safeguards within the scientific community are not effectively countering. …

Not that many years ago, all things considered, scientists didn’t have the authority or the prestige, and no law of nature or of society guarantees that they’ll keep either one indefinitely. Every doctor who would rather medicate than cure, every researcher who treats conflicts of interest as just another detail of business as usual, every scientist who insists in angry tones that nobody without a Ph.D. in this or that discipline is entitled to ask why this week’s pronouncement should be taken any more seriously than the one it just disproved—and let’s not even talk about the increasing, and increasingly public, problem of overt scientific fraud in the pharmaceutical field among others—is hastening the day when modern science is taken no more seriously by the general public than, say, academic philosophy is today.”

(I’ll have more to say on academic philosophy and science next time.)

Nothing upsets a scientist more than telling her that her work is irrelevant, but a close second is finding her work misrepresented in the popular media. How often have I seen scientists raging about how the spin put on their research is going to mislead people? Or gloating over how uninteresting some rival’s findings are once you discount the spin? But a recent (scientific!) study shows that most of that spin actually comes from the scientists themselves, or from the universities where they work. Scientists have to compete for funding, and bigger results get bigger grants, so there is a lot of pressure to exaggerate the significance of results. Greer again:

“These days, in any field where science comes into contact with serious money, scientific studies are increasingly just another dimension of marketing.”

In short, there are a lot of reasons why people are starting to reject scientists’ a priori authority and are getting pissed that their every challenge is dismissed as ignorance, stupidity, or conspiracy theory. It’s kind of sad in that in its early days, modern science was a challenge to hegemony and ideological oppression–but now it has become its own tool of oppression. But in the long view, you see that over and over through history.

Particularly concerning, to me, is the fact that scientific authority is used not only to promote scientific findings as accurate and truthful, but how it is used to bully and shut down discussion. Thought- and speech-policing is a bad, bad sign of deeper and darker social and political problems.

A list of things we're not allowed to talk about.

Shhhh… A list of things we’re not allowed to talk about.

Although in principle nothing is off-limits for scientific investigation, and nothing can be discounted until thoroughly investigated, above you see a list of things a scientist is not allowed to investigate or seriously discuss. To do otherwise is to lose all credibility (and thus funding). As far as science fans are concerned, all that is necessary to discredit an opponent is to accuse them of pseudoscience (even when the label, as in some of the items on this list, is inaccurate).

Why are these particular topics off-limits?

Because they relate to aspects of human life that are generally very meaningful, where people are most likely to stand up to authority and say the emperor has no clothes on. For example: 8 out of these 25 items (32%) relate to health and healing; 5 of 25 (20%) directly relate to religion; and a conservative count of 18 out of 25 (72%) pertain to the possibility of the existence of non-material phenomena or experiences. You know, the kinds of things that massively effect people’s quality of life. People don’t like being shut out of the discussion on topics that are important to them.

Most importantly, I think people are starting to see the man behind the curtain. They are starting to recognize that many claims which are in fact ideological (belief-based) are masquerading as science in order to ride the wave of scientific authority. So things that for a long time were accepted as natural, self-evident, and true are now being challenged. The reason that the topics on the above list are verboten is not because they have any inherent conflict with science–it’s because they conflict with materialism, the metaphysical proposition that underlies science as it’s currently practiced.

This takes us into philosophical territory, which will be the topic of my next post.

EDIT: Just one week after I published this post, an article about “Big Science Frauds” was published in The New York Times.

Every day, on average, a scientific paper is retracted because of misconduct. Two percent of scientists admit to tinkering with their data in some kind of improper way. That number might appear small, but remember: Researchers publish some 2 million articles a year, often with taxpayer funding. In each of the last few years, the Office of Research Integrity, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, has sanctioned a dozen or so scientists for misconduct ranging from plagiarism to fabrication of results.

The article goes on to point out that it isn’t just a matter of a few dishonest scientists. Scientists want to publish in more prestigious, and therefore more competitive, journals such as Science and Nature. But the high-profile journals actually retract more papers than the less-prestigious ones. Maybe the editors of big-name journals are more conscientious (but then why are mistakes being made in the first place?); or are scientists are cutting corners to make their articles more competitive? The article’s conclusion is so perfect, I’m just going to quote it:

Economists like to say there are no bad people, just bad incentives. The incentives to publish today are corrupting the scientific literature and the media that covers it. Until those incentives change, we’ll all get fooled again.

Science’s crisis of authority continues…

Feed your family. Feed it!

DandelionMasjid DarussalamSanFrancisco1_MonaCaron_0

Dandelion mural by Mona Caron.

I have been getting an ironic laugh out of the latest Scott’s Turf Builder with Plus 2 Weed Control (TM) (EDIT: the product is called Weed and Feed) commercials. The eponymous Scott tells the homeowner how “dandelions are stealing precious nutrients” from his lawn.

This is a perfect expression of how messed up our culture is. We would rather use our paltry bit of land for almost entirely useless* “grass” while dismissing amazingly nutritious, health-enhancing, tasty, medicinal plants as “weeds.” (God forbid we use that space to grow food for our families.) It’s just so…stupid. It makes me laugh and rage at the same time.

It exactly parallels what is happening to humans here in California. We are in the midst of this major drought, and far from all of us pulling together, we “little people” are expected to shoulder the burden by cutting our water use by 25% while petroleum companies, Big Ag, and Nestle can have all the water they want so they can either pollute it utterly, or sell it back to us at obscenely inflated prices under various brand names. And as for the wealthy of Southern California, well, they just use as much water as they damn well please because (1) they are evidently *completely* out of touch about how to actually conserve it and (b) they feel entitled to everything else, why not water too? But hey, they’re willing to cut back “if the state’s water situation doesn’t improve.”

Well, guess what? It’s not going to improve in our lifetimes and probably not in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

We know grocery store vegetables and fruit taste like cardboard. We can reasonably surmise that they’re not as nutritious as they once were due to the depletion of nutrients in soils.** They’re covered in pesticides (even some of the organic ones) that we’re told are safe, but then they told us DDT was safe too. Few people are affluent enough to buy all organic, and for all the reasons listed above, even organics aren’t that great (certainly not commensurate with their price).

Not everybody, not even everybody in suburban America, has access to a garden. Some people are lucky to have a little balcony or even a windowsill. So it is, in my opinion, frankly nuts not to use your land to grow food and/or medicine, if you are lucky enough to have access to some. It is bonkers to spend your time and money seeding, feeding, mowing, and watering a lawn (which you know you don’t even like doing anyway, to the point that you’ll hire others to do it for you) when you could probably put less time over the long term into making delicious food. Lawn has never been anything other than a status symbol. “Look at all this land and water I can afford to waste! Look at how I’ve tamed nature! Look how I employ the less-wealthy to maintain it for me!”

If status and conformity are more important to you than (1) eating delicious things, (2) saving money, (3) taking charge of your health and nutrition, (4) potentially even making money (market gardening or mini-farming), (5) conserving water, (6) living more independently and self-sufficiently, and (7) sticking it to The Man (in the form of mega-corporations and consumerist, materialist ideology), if you’re into that sort of thing–then you’re probably not reading this blog anyway. Look, I am not saying that growing your own food is a stress-free, idyllic lifestyle. Anthropologists have long noted the relatively high levels of stress and worry in farmers relative to hunter-gatherers. There is a learning curve and some trial and error involved. And some initial capital is required, although probably not as much as you’d think.

What I’m really saying here is, would you rather be a dandelion–wild, un-dollarable, full of juicy vitality, tough and tenacious, thriving in any conditions?–or would you rather be a lawn?

*I will grant, it feels nice under bare feet.

**For a plan to re-nutrify your soil, I recommend The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food by Steve Solomon.

Just because it sounds like science doesn’t mean it ain’t crazy

Is this someone coughing, or me screaming at the author of this POS article?

Is this someone coughing, or me screaming into a kleenex about how dumb this article is?

Today this article from Slate was brought to my attention: “Something to Sneeze At: Natural remedies that claim to ‘boost your immune system’ don’t work, and it’s a good thing they don’t.” And it really pissed me off.

I’m thinking that if you’re reading a blog about herbal medicine, you will probably have a similar eye-rolling response to this, but I want to rant anyway because some of what this article says is downright dangerous.

The article links to a selection of “natural immunity boosters” promoted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, and dismisses them as “expensive placebos.” These, apparently, are meant to represent all natural remedies. It then goes on to say that you don’t want to boost your innate immune system at all because it causes all the unpleasant “symptoms” we think of as being sick. Excessive immune response, after all, is responsible for autoimmune disorders and allergies. In fact,

“The mainstay of treatment for symptomatic cold viruses is to suppress, not boost, our crude and clunky innate immune responses. That’s why we take fever reducers and antihistamines.”(emphasis original)

Let’s rip this article apart, shall we?

Bogus claims

I’m no fan of Dr. Oz, and I shudder to think that he is now the figurehead for natural remedies among the general public, but alas, he probably is. Let’s look at the specific things being promoted on this page of his website (which, remember, we are supposed to consider representative of all natural remedies, if we accept the implication of the Slate article):

  1. larch (claimed to reduce the number of colds by 23%)
  2. oregano oil (to boost immune system and “cleanse your gut”)
  3. Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, enoki, etc.; a source of antioxidants)
  4. cruciferous vegetables (to “support your liver and immune function by boosting the liver’s ability to flush out toxins”)
  5. avocados (to support adrenal function)
  6. ginger (to “break down the accumulation of toxins in the organs”)
  7. black currants (to promote health vision and supply Vitamin C)
  8. oats (to lower cholesterol)
  9. pomegranates (which “contain ellagic acid and punic alagin which fight damage from free radicals and help preserve the collagen in your skin”)
  10. pumpkin seeds (as a source of magnesium, which may help lower blood pressure)
  11. sage extract (as an expectorant)
  12. eggs (just as a source of vitamins and minerals)
  13. graviola (“traditionally used to kill parasites, ameliorate liver problems, reduce fevers, and help treat colds and the flu. Scientists have studied graviola since the 1940s and most research has been centered around annonaceous acetogenins, a group of natural compounds that appear to have some anti-tumor properties – meaning they may help fight various types of cancer cells and thus help boost immune function”)
  14. green veggies, mushrooms, onions, seeds, and berries (for overall nutrition)

On this list, 4 items are promoted just for general good nutrition (Japanese mushrooms, black currants, eggs, and collectively, green veggies, mushrooms (again), onions, seeds, and berries). I don’t think anyone can critique that; these are all nutritious foods, hardly “expensive placebos.”

A further 7 items are foods for which specific health-enhancing claims are advanced (cruciferous veg, avocados, ginger, oats, pomegranates, pumpkin seeds, and graviola). I’m not going to do the research right now to determine whether the specific claims are valid, but again these are all nutritious foods. Will they cure cancer? Probably not. Will consuming them help your body perform its necessary normal functions? They sure will.

The remaining 3 items are herbal preparations (larch, oregano oil, and sage extract), and are the only ones that could possibly be considered “potions” and “snake oil”, as the Slate article paints natural remedies. I will come back to these later. I don’t know anything about larch, but am a big fan of sage. For expectorant purposes, I would probably take a tea rather than an extract, or even just inhale the scent of the essential oil, but extract would work. I am very dubious about the oregano oil claims. First of all, the website doesn’t make clear whether Oz is talking about infused oil or essential oil. Taking oregano essential oil to “cleanse your gut” is massive overkill. Essential oils are super-concentrated; they are super expensive to make in terms of the amount of plant material required to make them; and you rarely need to take something that strong internally. Furthermore, although oregano does have antimicrobial properties, how is it supposed to tell the difference between the beneficial gut flora and the pathological ones? You are much better off just eating oregano!

Back to the Slate article: “Research on these products [i.e., Dr. Oz’s recommendations as stand-in for all natural remedies],” it says, “shows that they are expensive placebos.”

Does research show that? If you click on “expensive placebos” in the article, it links to The Cochrane Library (“independent high-quality evidence for health care decision making”). The implication being that at The Cochrane Library site we will find evidence to refute the claims of natural remedies.

What we find there are 16 links to “intervention review” articles–reviews of experimental data previously published by the Cochrane Collective–on various substances used to treat cough and cold. Only 7 of these reviews pertain to what might be termed “natural” or “alternative” remedies (unspecified “Chinese medicinal herbs,” echinacea, garlic, heated humidified air, honey, Vitamin C, and zinc). Two points stand out here: (1) None of those is among the items promoted on Dr. Oz’s website; and (2) only one of the natural remedies examined was found to definitely be not at all helpful, and even then the authors called for more research:

  • On “Chinese medicinal herbs”: “Chinese herbal medicines may shorten the symptomatic phase in patients with the common cold. However, the lack of trials of low enough risk of bias, or using a placebo or a drug clearly identified as a control, means that we are uncertain enough to be unable to recommend any kind of Chinese medicinal herbs for the common cold.”
  • On echinacea: “Echinacea products have not here been shown to provide benefits for treating colds, although, it is possible there is a weak benefit from some Echinacea products: the results of individual prophylaxis trials consistently show positive (if non-significant) trends, although potential effects are of questionable clinical relevance.”
  • On garlic: “There is insufficient clinical trial evidence regarding the effects of garlic in preventing or treating the common cold. A single trial suggested that garlic may prevent occurrences of the common cold but more studies are needed to validate this finding.”
  • On steam: “Steam inhalation has not shown any consistent benefits in the treatment of the common cold, hence is not recommended in the routine treatment of common cold symptoms until more double-blind, randomised trials with a standardised treatment modality are conducted.”
  • On honey: “Honey may be better than ‘no treatment’ and diphenhydramine in the symptomatic relief of cough but not better than dextromethorphan. There is no strong evidence for or against the use of honey.”
  • On Vitamin C: “given the consistent effect of vitamin C on the duration and severity of colds in the regular supplementation studies, and the low cost and safety, it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial for them. Further therapeutic RCTs are warranted.”
  • On zinc: “Zinc administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms reduces the duration of common cold symptoms in healthy people but some caution is needed due to the heterogeneity of the data. As the zinc lozenges formulation has been widely studied and there is a significant reduction in the duration of cold at a dose of ≥ 75 mg/day, for those considering using zinc it would be best to use it at this dose throughout the cold.”

In conclusion, (1) only a fatuous idiot would consider Dr. Oz’s recommendations to be representative of the vast array of natural/alternative remedies on the market; (2) most of what Oz recommends is just food anyway; (3) no refutation of the efficacy of Oz’s suggestions is provided by the Slate article or The Cochrane Library site.

That is pathetic. If I had handed that in as a term paper, my advisor would have given me the dreaded disappointed-face. Of course, he would assume the paper was just incompetently researched and written, not a cynical and disingenous attempt to discredit alternative medicine…which is what this is.

Dangerous implications

But what’s worse is the implication that all natural remedies are snake oils, used only by ignorant bumpkins who don’t understand science, and the claim that immune suppression is actually desirable. Go ahead, re-read that quote up above. Apparently our immune systems are so “crude and clunky” that we’re better off just disabling them rather than letting them do their job.

There are a couple things to be considered here in regard to “immune boosting.” First, many herbal medicines are marketed as boosting the immune system because the Food and Drug Administration does not allow manufacturers to claim or imply that the herb is in any way a medicine or cure. Herbs are treated as food supplements, and about the only thing we can legally say about them is that they will support the body in doing something it already does anyway. When it comes to illness, therefore, all we can say is that an herb supports the immune system. Even if that’s complete BS in terms of how the plant actually works.

I believe the choice of the term “boost” is in order to make the product more attractive to consumers. Here’s the other thing about herbal medicines–they are no way to get rich. You can’t patent them, and you can’t truthfully mass-market them. Less-scrupulous manufacturers and sellers try to amplify the potential market for a medicine by (1) suggesting that herbs are taken in the same way as pharmaceuticals, (2) implying that everyone can benefit, and (3) using language designed to sound efficaceous and medicinal to as many people as possible. Hence “boost.” It sounds more active than “support” or “nourish.”

Don’t suppress your immune system!

The immune system produces the “symptoms” that we think of as sickness (fever, chills, boogers, vomit, diarrhea, etc.). All of these either attempt to flush the pathogen out, or kill it with heat. Over-the-counter medications are designed to suppress these symptoms, and many people imagine this means they are suppressing the cause of the sickness (the germ or virus). But they’re not. They can only suppress the symptom by suppressing the immune system itself. This in turn means that the virus or bacteria live longer in your system and are contagious longer. (There are reams of scientific studies to support this. It would take me hours to track them all down. Go to Google Scholar and do a search and be amazed.)

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Rather than hobbling your immune system, next time you have a cold or flu try being nice to your body. During the first 24 hours of symptoms, hit it hard with elderberry and/or echinacea, Vitamins C and D, and zinc. Then feed it nutrient-dense but easily digestible foods like homemade soups (hard to make when you’re sick, I know–I’m making some up in advance and freezing them just in case), and stay hydrated with lots of water or tea. Juice is OK in moderation–it’s very high in sugar, and once you’re sick, the amount of Vitamin C in orange juice isn’t going to do much good. Keep taking elderberry (tea, tincture, or syrup). If you have chills, don’t take antipyretics to lower your fever (in fact don’t take these at all) but help it with warming herbs like ginger.* Get as much rest as possible, and don’t neglect the recuperation period.

Even better, before you get sick, make sure you are getting good nutrition, lots of vitamins and minerals. Get sunshine, exercise, and meditate. (Don’t you dare tell me you can’t. Practice makes perfect.) You can take adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng or astragalus–an appropriate selection for your specific needs–nourishing infusions (nettles are awesome), and nutritive tonics. There are some crazy, BS natural “remedies” out there which you are wise to avoid. But to lump all alternative medicine in with wacky oregano oil gut-cleanses and lemon juice and olive oil detoxes is throwing the baby out with the bath. It’s also worth bearing in mind that most doctors aren’t scientists. Not. Even. Close. Moreover, medical practice exists within the overall context of a culture and it is subject to the body- and health-related beliefs of that culture. They are beliefs, not truths. Look–don’t trust me, and for God’s sake don’t trust Dr. Faust (<–his actual name), the author of the article in Slate–do the research, use common sense, question the assumptions, trust your own experience.

Too often, I see people I know–intellectually brilliant people, many of them–only being skeptical of a scientific-sounding claim if they already doubt it. Don’t do that. I know life is short and we can’t perform our own experiments on everything–sometimes we have to just trust what other people tell us. But choose those people wisely. Make them earn it. And if they tell you you should suppress your immune system when you’re sick, laugh in their stupid faces.

*Always, always, always use your common sense. If your fever is very high or shows no signs of abating after a couple days, or if you are immuno-compromised, seek medical help.