One small step at a time, the alternative medicine industry is radicalising people


Michael Marshall
Michael Marshall is the project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He is the co-host of the Skeptics with a K podcast, interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast, has given skeptical talks all around the world, and has lectured at several universities on the role of PR in the media. He became editor of The Skeptic in August 2020.

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It can be tempting to view society as split down the middle: on the one side, skeptics and critical thinkers who strive to challenge their own beliefs and to follow evidence as much as possible; and on the other side, ‘believers’, dedicated to one or more irrational beliefs and unshakeable in their certainty. Such a black and white view is, of course, unhelpfully simplistic – partly because it could encourage us to wrongly assume skeptics are beyond the corrupting influence of our own biases and assumptions, but also because it conflates a spectrum of pseudoscientific belief into a single position, and in doing so loses track of how people can become more ardent, and even radicalised, in their beliefs.

Imagine, for example, you were someone who had an interest in ‘natural’ medicine – perhaps you avoid antibiotics and painkillers, opting instead for herbal alternatives; maybe you eat an organic diet, or shop in health food shops. You might have a friend you do yoga with who swears by seeing their chiropractor. It’s a background thing, maybe even a fairly harmless aspect of your personality. In another, less connected era, it might even have stayed that way.

But one day, a friend invites you to a natural health Facebook group, to share tips on how little changes to your diet can help you stay healthy, and you find a community of people who are warm and accepting and who seem to see things the way you do. Perhaps you see the magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You in the supermarket, with its glossy cover and its eye-catching cover story about a purported natural health miracle or alleged conventional medicine scandal, and you pick up a copy. Reading it opens up your eyes to all sorts of other applications of alternative medicine, with a plethora of personal testimony, and even what looks to be some sound scientific evidence here and there, in studies that you’re not going to look up. But it’s in a magazine on the shelf of a high street giant, so it must surely be legitimate, right?

And so you subscribe to the magazine, and as your interest rises, perhaps in part because of your new subscription to the magazine or your new social media circle, you start looking around online at other alternative therapies. Maybe you start to read Natural News and Joseph Mercola. Often what you read in one place agrees with what you’ve seen elsewhere, so there’s a kind of consensus. It’s a consensus that the conventional doctors don’t agree with, but you’re furnished with plenty of explanations for why that’s the case: doctors are paid to sell pills, you’ve read; they treat the symptoms not the disease. You’ve seen again and again that pharma companies can’t patent a good diet and cheaply available supplements – like the many supplements and vitamin pills you now find yourself taking regularly, to help your body stay healthy.

Over time, your diet becomes more specific – you believe in clean eating, you’ve changed to a vegetarian diet and you avoid all processed foods. As a result, you stop eating out at restaurants, because you don’t trust others to cook for you. How can you be sure they’re using the natural, clean and healthy ingredients that the diets in your articles tell you are so vital for good health?

Each of the steps you’ve taken makes sense, and each is supported by the previous step. A position and belief system you would never have imagined yourself in at the start now seems like a perfectly reasonable place to be, because of the steady, almost-imperceptible progression at each stage.

And the thing is, this all makes sense to you: each of the steps you’ve taken makes sense, and each is supported by the previous step. A position and belief system you would never have imagined yourself in at the start now seems like a perfectly reasonable place to be, because of the steady, almost-imperceptible progression at each stage. The myth of being able to boil a frog by raising the temperature of its water so slowly that it fails to notice is indeed a myth, but it’s absolutely true that mountains are climbed one small step at a time.

One day, you are diagnosed with a genuinely serious health condition, and all of that slow progression has led you so far off the beaten path. With your new breast cancer diagnosis, do you really want to let the doctors push on you those drugs that your Facebook feed is so sure are toxic and dangerous? Especially when you’ve read of gentle, non-toxic, natural treatments whose chances of success aren’t expressed in the percentages of a medical prognosis, but are stated in bold, affirmative certainties?

So, rather than accepting the path of surgery or chemotherapy, you ask your Facebook groups what to do, and you pick up an old copy of What Doctors Don’t Tell You, and you find the name of a cancer charity who specialise in giving patients alternative options and directing them to other modalities. It can’t hurt to explore what’s possible, to keep your options open, and it surely can’t be as bad as the things you’ve read about those barbaric poisons like chemotherapy and radiotherapy…

The charity tells you about a clinic who can track the progress of your cancer without mammograms, using a thermographic scan, so you let them scan your tumour every few months. They recommend a homeopath who gives you remedies to use, to keep you as healthy as possible to beat the cancer. The months go by, and the scans seems to show things are going OK, and that what you’re doing is working.

By now, you’re taking Vitamin C supplements, because you’ve read that Vitamin C can treat cancer. You limit what fruit you eat, because cancer (as all of the articles tell you), thrives on sugar, so you can starve your cancer by cutting sugar out of your diet. Soon you’re trying herbal remedies from a herbalist, and you’re seeing a naturopath for regular cleanses. Your naturopath helps you monitor the level of toxins in your body. You’re taking pancreatic enzymes, cannabis oil and Vitamin D3.

You read about black salve from the blogs of cancer patients and in links shared in your cancer-cure Facebook group, so you start applying that to the affected area of your breast. Eventually, after forming a blackened scab, the area of skin you’re applying the black salve to comes away in a fleshy lump. Your therapist tells you that your tumour is gone. And they believe it; and you believe them.

You haven’t had any conventional cancer treatment since your diagnosis, but you’ve assembled this alternative cancer team who you’re seeing regularly and getting lots of enthusiastic support from. It feels right. And it will continue to feel right, right up until it doesn’t.

It feels right. And it will continue to feel right, right up until it doesn’t.

This may sound like an abstract thought experiment, even unrealistically extreme, but this journey is happening all the time, to real people. Working for a charity that investigates alternative cancer ‘cures’, I hear stories like this with worrying frequency. Too often, family members get in touch to tell us about how their loved ones’ last years were spent following the false hope sold to them by the ecosystem of alternative cancer therapies, clinics, practitioners, charities, magazines, podcasts and influencers.

These are stories of radicalisation, of how a constant drip-feed of exposure to pseudoscientific claims can lead people to extreme ideologies. They are stories of how those rabbit holes often have entrances in mainstream places: like the magazine shelves of respectable high street stores, or celebrity-fronted Netflix specials. And they are stories of how, once radicalised, those same people are left particularly vulnerable when it comes to a health crisis.

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