Apocalyptic Pseudoscience on a University Stage | The Body of Evidence

Apocalyptic Pseudoscience on a University Stage

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As a science communicator who embraces the importance of critical thinking, I am fascinated by the way in which pseudoscientists convince the public of their erroneous beliefs. Understanding this relationship of confidence is crucial if we are to intervene and correct scientific misinformation. Facts alone are not sufficient; we must understand human psychology.

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Dominique Belpomme, a French oncologist and author, on the genesis of diseases. About 300 people showed up to hear him talk at a local university. As I looked at the crowd, I imagined what the average person must have taken away from this conference.

Disease rates are skyrocketing everywhere in the world. We are running out of medical treatments. The cause of all illnesses is environmental: pesticides, atmospheric pollution, heavy metals, and electromagnetic radiation are poisoning us all. This pollution is altering our genetic material, creating a curse at a population level. The human race will die out by the year 2100. Oh, and skeptics are dirty people who don't want us to learn the truth.

I was joined in attendance by a fellow skeptic who rushed to the microphone after the talk to offer his perspective. He asked Dr. Belpomme if we would live until the age of 1000--like they used to in the Bible--if we created around us an earthly paradise free of pollutants, and called the entire presentation "pseudoscientific". He was booed, loudly, by a large proportion of the public in attendance.

I will return to what this means at the end of this article but, first, let's explore the basic techniques a pseudoscientist like Belpomme uses to convince his audience he is right. I'll then delve into some of the specific arguments made during the presentation.


It's Not the End of the World, But You Can See It From Here!

The first tool in the arsenal of the pseudoscientist is fear. "Europe has become an empty crib," Belpomme shouted at the audience when referring to the drop in birth rates in Western countries. "We cannot scientifically refute the hypothesis of the extinction of the human race!" he went on to say. "The Western world is on the brink of a precipice!" The problem is meant to look unsolvable by the average person. Its sheer size is overwhelming.

The persuasive pseudoscientist then has to reveal a simple (yet often drastic) solution to this frightening problem. In Belpomme's case, the extinction of our species can be prevented by divesting ourselves of our environmental contaminants and embracing a new medicine in which doctors successfully deduce the environmental cause of whichever disease their patient presents with and treat this cause.

Credibility is ensured by the good old Galileo Gambit. Indeed, Belpomme's presentation was replete with name drops: Pasteur, Copernicus, and Hippocrates (a favourite of alternative medicine spokespeople). I was surprised Galileo himself went unmentioned, but Belpomme appropriated Copernicus for just that purpose: reminding his audience that lone geniuses are often derided by figures of authority before ultimately being proven right.

Finally, successful pseudoscientists find a way to earn money from their beliefs, their conferences often mere infomercials for the wares they peddle. Belpomme was advertising his latest book, Comment naissent les maladies (How are diseases born), and made sure to mention his latest volume numerous times throughout his talk. Of course, on your way out, you couldn't miss the table where his tome was on sale. It's a shame that, despite stretching his presentation to two hours, he wasn't able to get it all in, as he kept saying. I suppose I'll have no choice but to buy his book to find out more about his solution to prevent the end of an entire species.

And now, let's look at some of the claims Belpomme made during his talk. 


Argument #1: Cancer Incidence Is Rising Everywhere

According to him, cancer rates are going up all over the world. There are a few exceptions, he said, but overall, cancer incidence is on the rise everywhere. He claimed that fruits and vegetables, exercise, smoking cessation, and alcohol consumption reduction will not stop this cancer epidemic. Look at the WHO predictions, he said!

Let's indeed look at numbers emanating from the World Health Organization, a "slow organization" with which he regularly clashes. Their latest, 632-page document entitled "World Cancer Report 2014" shows age-standardized cancer incidence rates per 100 000 by year for all cancers combined for men and women. (The report is available as a free PDF download here, but registration is required. The figures I will be discussing are 1.1.44 and 1.1.45 found on page 51) Incidence means the number of newly diagnosed cases in a given year. The graphs trace cancer incidence rates from 1975 to 2012 for select countries. These rates are age-standardized, to take into account the aging population (since such a demographic shift entails a rise in age-related cancers).

What do we see for men? Incidence curves going down for men from "USA: Black", "USA: White", Japan, China, and Costa Rica; curves plateauing for men from Denmark, Spain, Colombia, and possibly India; and curves rising for men from Australia, Slovakia, and Uganda. Overall cancer incidence has stabilized for women from "USA: White", "USA: Black", Australia, Spain, China, and possibly India.

What about the United States? The National Cancer Institute reports that, between 1975 and 2012, the incidence rate has overall been falling. Canada? The Canadian Cancer Society reports that between 1986 and 2015 the number of new cancer cases rose; however, when adjusting for age, the incidence rate has actually decreased for males and increased slightly for females (the slope on that curve is very mild).

In short, the most accurate numbers we have simply do not agree with Belpomme's claim.


Argument #2: Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Is Real and Getting Worse

Belpomme claimed he had seen in his clinic 1,500 cases from 2009 to 2016 of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), patients for whom exposure to cell phone and WiFi signals causes physical symptoms. He described EHS as a "pre-disease" which often leads to Alzheimer's disease. He briefly mentioned the case of a 15-year-old he saw who was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease after sleeping with his cell phone under his pillow for the past four years. Belpomme reported on predictions that, by 2100, half of all individuals will be hypersensitive to electromagnetic radiation.

It is easy to see the problem with his logic in assigning blame to cell phone signals in the case of his 15-year-old patient. Such a correlation is not causative. I'm sure this patient also watched a lot of television; wore clothing made of synthetic fibres; used products containing fragrances; possibly ate quite a lot of junk food. Any one of these boogeymen could be made to look like the cause of his disease. Likewise, many teenagers his age sleep with their cell phone close to them, yet we are not seeing an epidemic of teenage neurological disease. The causative link here is unwarranted and shows a complete lack of understanding or willful ignorance of basic epidemiology.

Coming back to the larger idea of electromagnetic sensitivity, though, one needs to ask, "Is EHS a real disease?" In order to test this, scientists have done provocation studies. They recruited participants who claimed to suffer from EHS, brought them into the lab, and played with a source of electromagnetic radiation. The participant, who was blinded to whether or not the signal was on, had to guess, based on their symptoms, if they were being exposed to electromagnetic radiation. Some studies went further and told participants that the signal was on when it wasn't, to test for a potential nocebo response. Over a thousand EHS sufferers have been tested in various provocation studies: review after review after review after review after review all reach the same conclusion. There is no evidence to suggest that electromagnetic hypersensitivity is real. Its sufferers simply cannot tell when the signal is on, although they claim to in real life.

As many physicians point out, the symptoms are probably real but the explanation is inaccurate. Many of these people do experience headaches, and fatigue, and a host of other nonspecific symptoms, but these are not being caused by exposure to electromagnetic radiation. Rigorous scientific evidence simply does not agree with Belpomme's claim.

 

Argument #3: IQ Scores Are Dropping Everywhere

"L'élite, il n'y en a plus!" ("There is no more elite!") Belpomme actually claimed, rather brazenly, that IQ scores have been dropping and that we are losing our genius subpopulation. His slide displayed no reference while showing two bell curves, the second one being shifted to the left to show an overall IQ drop of 5 points. The title of this figure contained the phrase "hypothetical IQ loss", a title which he did not mention out loud.

Hypothetical, indeed. A bit of online research reveals that the adapted figure he showed was created by Bernard Weiss in 1988 for a paper entitled "Neurobehavioral toxicity as a basis for risk assessment". Weiss' point was that a hypothetical shift in the mean IQ of a population could be harmful to certain segments of said population and would create a large additional burden of intellectually handicapped citizens. He wanted to show that the risks posed by chemical exposure have been modelled on the basis of carcinogenesis but more advanced methods would be required. He did not study whether or not IQ scores had been dropping.

So, are IQ scores dropping globally?

No. IQ scores have been steadily rising over the years. This phenomenon even has a name: the Flynn effect, after James Flynn and his landmark 1984 study entitled "The Mean IQ of Americans: Massive Gains 1932 to 1978". A meta-analysis of the phenomenon published in 2014 shows an increase of 2.31 standard score points per decade, "comparable to previous estimates of about 3 points per decade, but not consistent with the hypothesis that the Flynn effect is diminishing". Belpomme is wrong: overall IQ scores have been rising for a long time and continue to rise even now.

 

Argument #4: Organic Food Is Pesticide-Free and More Nutritious

Finally, Belpomme intoned at the end of his talk that we should eat organic to avoid pesticides and to triple our antioxidant intake.

Systematic reviews of the scientific literature have failed to find significant evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organic and conventional foods. One of these reviews, published in 2012, specifically looked at randomized, controlled trials that reported on the serum and urine antioxidant levels in nonpregnant adults. Of the seven studies found, six reported "no consistent differences in plasma or urine [...] antioxidant activity". There is simply no evidence that organic produce is healthier, period.

Even if they contained more antioxidants, which they don't, the health halo of antioxidants has been grossly exaggerated. The marketing push for antioxidants was based on a preliminary understanding of the role these molecules play in our body. It turns out that they are one half of a complicated system of checks and balances, the "yin" to reactive oxygen species' "yang", and that an equilibrium is needed for proper functioning. There is even evidence that antioxidants can help promote metastasis formation in cancer. The following conclusion from a recent review article is arresting: "It is clear that antioxidant activity can have divergent effects on cancer cells depending on the cellular context. Nonetheless, the multitude of studies discussed here suggest that patients diagnosed with (or at risk for) cancers should avoid unnecessary supplementation of antioxidants in order [to] ensure that enhanced antioxidant activity does not inadvertently facilitate tumor progression and metastasis."

The 2012 systematic review linked to earlier also looked for studies that had compared pesticide levels among adult consumers of organic versus conventional foods, but could find none. Organic produce itself has fewer pesticide residues than conventional produce. Fewer but not none. It is important to note that, contrary to what Belpomme implied, pesticides can be used by organic farmers. In the US, the list of allowed pesticides for organic farming is rather long (Canada has a similar list). Moreover, these "natural" pesticides can actually be worse than the ones used by conventional farmers. Testing of organic produce on sale in Canada by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency revealed that almost 50% of it contained traces of pesticides, despite what consumers may expect. Organic does not mean pesticide free.

Moreover, there is no evidence that the levels of pesticide present on the surface of food products, whether they are organic or conventional, present any health risk. Washing your produce before consumption is an effective way of reducing what little residue there is. Once again, Belpomme's recommendation runs counter to the scientific evidence.

 

Stray Observations

  • His invocation of Hippocrates reminded me of American Republicans' "Founding Fathers" argument. The Founding Fathers, they say, would be ashamed! It's a special logical fallacy that combines the argument from authority with the argument from antiquity to express a dislike with the way in which a doctrine has been twisted over the years. Alternative medicine practitioners and fearmongers like Belpomme would have you believe that Hippocrates truly understood medicine and we would do well to return to the origins of this discipline.
  • Belpomme's claim that medical oncology has delivered every treatment it could is patently absurd. Our understanding of the molecular biology of cancer keeps improving year after year.
  • His take-home message is that pregnant women must be protected to minimize the baby's exposure to environmental toxins. I'm surprised he has not marketed a type of SCID plastic bubble for soon-to-be mothers.
  • He ended his presentation, which took place in Montreal, with "Vive le Québec libre et indépendant!" ("Long live a free and independent Quebec!"), a truly manipulative statement completely detached from his topic, the only purpose of which is to play the tribal card with Quebec separatists in the audience.

 

Trust

How did an obvious merchant of doubt, whose thesis is based on motivated reasoning and cherry-picked studies, get to speak on a university stage? The talk was organized by Coeur des sciences, a scientific cultural centre within the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQÀM) that regularly hosts conferences, panel discussions, and scientific excursions for the French-speaking public. I emailed its director prior to Belpomme's talk to inquire about the choice of speaker. I was told he had been highly recommended by a university professor in sociology and that the centre believed he would talk about pollution and epigenetics. They had been unaware of the pseudoscience he was peddling, even though a simple Google search of his name reveals it.

Universities and other science-promoting organizations in good standing need to carefully investigate the speakers they want to invite. This vetting process is not always done, and the net result is that pseudoscientists like Belpomme obtain an extra layer of legitimacy by presenting their beliefs in academic environments. I do not want to silence these voices, however: a debate would have been interesting. As it is, his views were officially unopposed on stage.

We saw something similar last week when Deepak Chopra was revealed to be one of the speakers at Children's Autism Services of Edmonton's 9th Annual Conference to be held next January. Timothy Caulfield from the University of Alberta has referred to him as the "embodiment of pseudoscience" and "the great de-educator" when he was interviewed by the CBC. We would like to think that professional organizations and academic centres could be trusted to invite proper scientists, but the public must learn to be skeptical. Laziness, lobbying forces, and the hazy demarcation between science and pseudoscience all contribute to fool people who we would like to think should know better.

Blind trust is never a good idea, whether it is in institutions or in individual scientific studies. Indeed, it has become too easy for pseudoscientists to quote cherry-picked studies to a non-scientific public and get away with tall claims. In 2014, an estimated 2.5 million scientific articles were published through roughly 28,100 English-language, peer-reviewed journals. Not all of these studies were rigorous in their design. You can probably find a study that proves whatever belief you have, which means that the public must be leery of single studies being presented by speakers until they have had a chance to investigate the topic themselves. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses are much more trustworthy, as they judge the results of multiple studies on a single issue.

Finally, the jeers. Why did the skeptic get booed off the mic? In part, his attack might have been gauche and unnecessarily insulting, but here's my take on what happened at a deeper psychological level.

Imagine the parent of a toddler hiding being the couch wearing the mask from Scream and holding a kitchen knife. Just as the toddler totters by the couch, the parent jumps at him, screaming. The toddler cries, seemingly inconsolable. The parent removes his mask, gives his child his favourite blanket, and hugs him.

A random guy walks by and pulls the blanket away from the child.

What do you think happens?

Belpomme scared attendees with apocalyptic predictions of the highest order, then set himself up over the course of two hours as their saviour. He gave each attendee a metaphorical blanket in the shape of easy answers to complicated problems, and the promise of even more feel-good answers in his book. A stranger walked up to the microphone and tugged on that blanket. He was deemed a pariah and booed.

This is the challenge we face as skeptical science communicators. We must make incursions into areas that have been freshly "tribalized" and announce ourselves as outsiders. While peddlers of pseudoscience need to be challenged, I wonder if intervening at the end of their talk is the right place.

The good news is that the Coeur des sciences has organized a panel discussion to be held a week after Belpomme's talk on how to counter scientific misinformation.

There is hope.