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“I Reject Your Reality” – Germ Theory Denial and Other Curiosities

Note: This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine. Space limitations resulted in omitting some of what I wanted to say. I’m taking advantage of having a blog to publish the entire article as originally submitted.

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On an episode of Mythbusters, Adam Savage was shown a video clip that contradicted his memory of something he had said. He responded, “I reject your reality… and substitute my own.” He was joking. Unfortunately, the world is full of people who reject reality and who are not joking.

James Randi tells a story about a TV program that featured Uri Geller doing his standard trick of bending a key. Afterwards, the program’s host said it couldn’t possibly have been a trick because Uri had “never touched” the key. The host was then shown the recorded program, which proved that Geller clearly had the key in his hands, for two-and-a-half minutes. Instead of admitting having been wrong, the host exclaimed, “Well, that’s not how it happened.”

One of my own ancestors was a pro at this kind of thing. I’ll call her Aunt S (for stubborn). She had once tried tinned sardines, hated them, and refused to ever touch sardines again. One day she came into my grandmother’s kitchen when she was frying up some large fresh sardines a friend had brought her. Aunt S ate some, proclaimed them tasty, then asked, “What kind of fish were those, Mary?” My grandmother told her they were sardines. She protested, “No they weren’t! I don’t eat sardines!”

Then there was the man I encountered on an Internet discussion group who denied the entire material world! He claimed there was only an imaginary world that we had all agreed on through some kind of cosmic mind-meld when we were disembodied spirits roaming the void between incarnations. Nothing was real; we had only agreed to pretend that it was. We had agreed on every detail from the color of the sky to what would happen to each of us throughout our imaginary lives. (Why bother? Maybe because eternal disincarnate spirits get really bored?)

There are those who deny the reality of evolution, the reality of the Holocaust, the reality of the Moon landing, and the reality of 9/11. I knew that. I’d even heard of the Flat Earth Society. But until recently, I had never realized how many people reject the germ theory.

My first encounter with one of these people was when a chiropractor told me, “Germs don’t cause disease: if they did, we’d all be dead.” He believed all disease was caused by misalignments of the spine. He had never been immunized. He said he simply could not catch any infectious disease as long as he kept his spine straight. He was so convinced germs couldn’t hurt him that he would be willing to walk into the midst of an Ebola epidemic with no protection. He knew he would emerge unscathed.

The chiropractor was confused by the fact that when people are exposed to a disease, not everyone gets sick. Why do some people get sick and not others? A simplistic mind says everyone has access to the same germs, so if some people don’t get sick that must mean the germs can’t be the cause. That’s a fallacy easily refuted by thinking of speeding and auto accidents. If 100 people speed and only 30 of them have accidents, that doesn’t mean speeding wasn’t the cause of those 30 accidents.

I thought the chiropractor was an anomaly, and I didn’t take him too seriously. But then I met the raw food lady (I’ll call her RFL) and discovered a whole new world of germ theory denial. She declared, “Vaccinations create wealth for the drugging profession, but they do not bring health or prevent disease, ever.” She explained that doctors manipulate statistics to make it “look” like vaccines work and big corporations censor the media and hide the truth from us.

The truth, for her, is that modern medicine is a belief system not based on science, that infectious disease is a myth, and that eating raw foods and having a healthy lifestyle is the only way to preserve health. She doesn’t wash her hands, she rarely washes her food, and she practices unprotected sex. Like the chiropractor, she would be willing to nurse Ebola patients without so much as a mask or gloves. At least she has the courage of her convictions.

This is the 21st century; how could anyone still be rejecting the germ theory at this late date? I realized she was a true believer and I knew I had no chance of altering her beliefs, but I wanted to understand what was going on in her head. We exchanged e-mails sporadically over a 2 month period. I got some insight into her thought processes and the sources of her information.

I thought she would have to admit that at least sometimes vaccinations could prevent disease. I decided to confront her with the best case for vaccinations. I pointed out that as the rate of smallpox vaccination rose, the incidence of smallpox fell until eventually it was eradicated from the entire world. She countered with evidence from 19th century epidemics that supposedly showed that as the rate of vaccination rose, the rate of disease rose. She disregards 20th century data because she thinks it’s all lies. She doesn’t admit that smallpox was eradicated because she doesn’t admit that there is any such infection. She says nothing has changed, but the doctors have just agreed not to label anything as smallpox any more – they label the same symptoms as chickenpox instead.

I told her that the smallpox virus can be seen on electron microscopy of the fluid from the blisters. She said it was just cellular debris. I told her the smallpox and chickenpox viruses are distinctive and have been fully analyzed and can be easily told apart. Their entire genomes have been sequenced. No one could possibly confuse them with cellular debris. She wasn’t convinced. She quoted Dr. Vivian Vetrano:

As Natural Hygienists, we know that there is no such thing as a viral disease. There are simply states of impaired health with cell degeneration. That the virus is an entity and that it occasions cellular degeneration is a moot question. The so-called viruses may simply be the various toxic debris that Hygienists have been condemning and shouting about for many years. Not wanting to keep the toxin in the bloodstream, the body may find a means of encapsulating it in a protein membrane and injecting it into a cell to get it out of the bloodstream. Eventually these toxins pervert the metabolism of the cell and cause cellular degeneration. The virus may be only encapsulated protein, the body having surrounded it with a membrane to prevent an excess from upsetting the system. The modern high protein diet may be the reason for so-called viral infections.

RFL went on to explain that

Smallpox is a disease that is instituted by and for the body for purposes of body purification. Its causes are the same as all other diseases — toxemia. Therefore, it cannot be transmitted and it cannot be “prevented” by means of injecting serums or poisons into the bloodstream.

Epidemics like the Black Death, to her mind, can be fully explained by toxemia due to the inadequate diet of the victims. I never did get a coherent explanation of why epidemics stopped even though the diet didn’t change, but she remains confident her explanation is correct.

One cause for all disease. Vague unidentified toxins. A conspiracy to hide the truth from the public. A simple cure by diet. The red flags were multiplying.

I asked where I could read more about how toxemia caused all diseases. She referred me to a book by J.H.Tilden, MD, Toxemia Explained. The full text is available online.  Don’t bother reading it unless you are interested in history.

This book was written in 1926, before modern vaccines, before antibiotics, and before randomized controlled trials. Essentially before modern scientific medicine. Tilden did no experiments. He “thought” about disease and came up with a hypothesis: enervating habits allow toxic metabolic waste products to accumulate in the body, and this is the one cause of all disease. Then he proceeded to advise people about health without doing any kind of testing to determine whether his hypothesis was true or false, or whether following his recommendations really made a difference. It is all speculation, and the facts it is based on are largely pre-scientific errors and distortions. It was not entirely unreasonable for him to think that way in 1926, but his ideas have been completely superseded by 8 decades of advances in microbiology, genetics, histology, immunology, physiology, and other disciplines.

RFL wants to believe Tilden so badly that she blithely jettisons the last century of scientific progress (who says time travel isn’t possible?). Then somehow she gets beyond Tilden’s diet advice to another new paradigm. She is convinced humans are not omnivores, but frugivores, because we don’t have the claws and fangs to kill an antelope. She admits Eskimos survived on meat alone, and even an all-meat diet is preferable to the terrible American diet; but meat is still way inferior to fruit.

She thinks meat does not contain all the nutrients necessary to sustain healthy human life, (even though I showed her evidence that it does). She says meat contains insufficient carbohydrate and fiber, and the excess protein in meat causes demineralization of the bones, and our body chemistry is not equipped to digest meat (!?). She eats nothing but raw fruit and an occasional salad, and is convinced this keeps her in optimum health – although she is still learning from experience and continues to make improvements in her regimen.

She says one of our biggest mistakes is cooking food. “If eating cooked food were healthy, we’d all be healthy.” Cooking apparently produces toxins that our cells can’t handle. Animals were not meant to eat cooked food. She says wild rabbits don’t get sick (!) because they eat only raw food. I didn’t get a chance to ask her about tularemia, but I’m sure she could have explained that away somehow.

As the creationists say about the theory of evolution, she says that germ theory is “only a theory.” I asked her to look at the gazillions of animal and human experiments that support the germ theory. You find a germ that is only present in animals suffering from a specific illness. You isolate that germ. You inject the germ into half of a group of animals and only that half gets sick. You do this over and over. You cure them with antibiotics. You fulfill all of Koch’s postulates. You accumulate a huge body of data to validate the germ theory from every possible angle. You use it to make predictions, and the predictions are accurate. Never mind – it’s all worthless. In her opinion, the people doing the experiments are believers in a false paradigm and they are not doing the science right and they are fooling themselves or lying.

She calls medicine a “foul, fraudulent, flaw-ridden menace.” It isn’t based on REAL science, as evidenced by the fact that it doesn’t work(!?). The sickest people are the ones who most rely on doctors, drugs, herbs, remedies, etc. (Well, yes! But that’s because they’re sick, not why they’re sick.) She claims that if the medical system had wanted to eliminate disease, it could have accomplished that centuries ago by figuring out the best fruit diet to follow. Instead, it seeks only to perpetuate disease by “managing” it. It is an uncaring entity dedicated to making money, and is extremely destructive to humanity.

She thinks there are other ways of determining truth besides what the medical establishment sees as “proof;” for instance, our ancestors learned what to eat by practical experience. She thinks Pasteur was asked by the French government to find out why drinking fermented alcohol causes people to get sick (the version of history I read said a distiller asked him to figure out how to keep beer from going sour after fermentation). She thinks drugs kill cells, even over-the-counter drugs, and then the bacteria come in only to mop up the garbage. She thinks drugs suppress symptoms and thereby cause further damage to the body.

She sees no need to evoke the “supernatural” idea that a little bacterium or dead piece of DNA can conquer a body millions of times larger and more powerful. She thinks people who are vaccinated are more likely to die earlier, of chronic disease. For pneumonia, fasting and appropriate re-feeding is much more effective than antibiotics. Diabetes can be cured by proper diet.

As if the 1926 book by Tilden weren’t outdated enough, she quotes 19th century authorities like Florence Nightingale, who said diseases were the

reactions of kindly Nature, against the condition in which we have placed ourselves. I have seen with my eyes and smelled with my nose smallpox growing up in first specimens, either in closed rooms, or in overcrowded wards, where it could not by any possibility have been ‘caught’ but must have begun [spontaneous generation?]… The specific disease doctrine is the grand refuge of weak, uncultured, unstable minds, such as now rule in the medical profession.

And she quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who said “If the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes,” which was undoubtedly true in 1860. I think things have improved a bit since then; she thinks they have only gotten worse.

RFL is not alone. She is part of a large and vocal group with websites, books, and other supports for their point of view. They are convinced that raw foods and only raw foods (mainly fruit) will prevent all disease. They reject any public health measures that are based on the germ theory.

It’s very frustrating trying to carry on a discussion with someone who thinks this way; it’s like trying to grasp a cloud or wrestle with Jello. It’s as if you pointed out the brick building in front of you and she said, “What building? There’s no building there! That’s an octopus.” Even if you can intellectually understand how she came to think that, it’s hard to imagine yourself in her shoes. It feels entirely alien, and is painfully disconcerting.

Psychological defenses can protect false ideas like these from any attack. Humans are amazingly creative about rationalizing away every vestige of reality that tries to intrude on their convictions. They are like the psychiatric patient who thought he was dead. They asked him if dead men could bleed. He said no. They pointed out that he was bleeding. He said, “Wow, I guess dead men can bleed.”

If RFL gets sick she can deny that she is sick and reframe her symptoms as healthy signs that her body is eliminating toxins. She can experiment with changes in her diet until her symptoms run their course and subside; then she can give the credit to whatever she did last. “Cured with kumquats” or whatever.

In a way I can understand the attraction. If you don’t believe in germs you think they can’t get you. You remain in control of your health and are not threatened by unpredictable random events. The world seems safer and more manageable.

It’s always fun to play the “Just So Stories” game and try to explain how a trait like denial might have offered some evolutionary advantage. Usually we are better served by confronting reality, but I can imagine how reality rejection might improve reproductive success. A woman who falls in love with a man may idealize him and temporarily ignore the reality that he is a slob who drops his clothes on the floor and leaves the cap off the toothpaste. If the wrong sperm wins the race and the kid is a booby prize in the genetic lottery, the parents can reject that reality in favor of the Lake Wobegon Delusion that Junior is good-looking and above average, so they will love him anyway and bring him up successfully. If reality says you’re in a dangerous situation with no way out and you’re going to die, rejecting that reality may keep you from giving up and may improve your chances of surviving. If you’re a lousy hunter, embellishing your opinion of yourself may keep you hunting longer and trying harder, so you may end up actually getting more game. And we all know our life is finite, but we may function better if we don’t think about that constantly in our daily life.

So denying reality may have some value. As long as it doesn’t involve standing on the tracks and denying the reality of an oncoming train. And therein lies the rub: how can you know which realities are safe to deny? Isn’t it more prudent to stick to reality as much as possible?

What motivates deniers? They can feel superior because they have special knowledge, they can feel part of an elite group of cognoscenti, they can exercise their intellect and get positive reinforcement, and it gives them a purpose in life, a cause to fight for. They must find all this very satisfying.

It might be tempting to call RFL crazy; but she isn’t. She’s not out of contact with reality, she’s just rejecting one facet of reality. You may call it a delusion, but it’s not the kind of delusion that qualifies as mental illness. It’s more like the creationists’ delusion that the evidence doesn’t support evolution. There are a lot of deniers out there: they’re wrong, but they’re not crazy. You and I probably deny a thing or two ourselves. Of course, you can always deny that you do.

Other deniers, such as 9/11 deniers, can be looked at as an annoying but relatively harmless part of the human zoo. They make life more interesting for the rest of us. But people who reject the germ theory are not harmless. By rejecting vaccination, they are decreasing the herd immunity in our population and are endangering the public health of us all.

What can we do about it? Not a darn thing. These beliefs are impervious. The best we can hope for is to understand how false beliefs come about and try to avoid succumbing to any of them ourselves. And we can put the correct information out there for those who are capable of receiving it.

I wish we could reject the reality that germ theory deniers exist.

Posted in: Nutrition, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (42) ↓

42 thoughts on ““I Reject Your Reality” – Germ Theory Denial and Other Curiosities

  1. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Raw foodists can develop bizarre health problems, I recall this visionary,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Lovewisdom

    But when they do get sick, they don’t seem to change their opinions too often.

    I met an RFL who in her twenties could no longer walk without a walker. It did not occur to her that her wasting away might be due to her diet, thus she never sought medical care.

    Harriet, you might ask your RFL about this girl,

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article4087977.ece

    In the case of the children of deniers, there is something to be done, but hopefully sooner than this.

    I do wonder: what will the stunted children of vegans think of their parents choices when they are teenagers???

  2. Joe says:

    Wow, what a story.

    BTW, I doubt Vivian Vetrano is a doctor of any stripe http://www.casewatch.org/civil/vetrano/complaint.shtml One Vivian V. falsely claimed to be a chiropractor (which I won’t call a doctor, either).

  3. nitpicking says:

    I once had an argument with a raw foodist on Usenet. He was claiming that if you eat meat, it remains in your gut for weeks or months, poisoning you.

    I pointed out actual experiments had been done showing elimination of even an all-meat diet in about 24 hours. (They put little plastic markers in the food and timed their eventual appearance in the feces.)

    He promptly disappeared from the newsgroup forever.

  4. David Gorski says:

    I’ve dealt a lot with germ theory denialists before because a major strain of antivaccinationism derives from germ theory denial. Ditto HIV/AIDS denialists, many of whom buy into part or all of the canards of germ theory denial.

    It’s really, really hard for a rational person to understand how anyone can take one of the best established theories in all of science and deny it so blithely, but they can. I have yet to figure it out, but you’re right. Whenever you start trying to refute germ theory denialists, it is like wrestling Jello, and you’re certain to get a variation of the Gish gallop so beloved of creationists.

  5. Harriet Hall says:

    DevoutCatalyst,

    I don’t need to ask the RFL; I already know her answer. She believes you CAN’T get sick if you eat right, so if those people developed symptoms it was their own fault. She is still experimenting with her own diet trying to get it just right.

  6. DogLady says:

    Speaking of denying reality, Discovery Health channel had a 30 minute segment on ‘Morgellon’s’ syndrome,’ replete with its own specialist interviews (their going theory was tick bites and a plant bacterium). Guess I’ll have to take DH off my favorite channels list. Geesh, I don’t mind media getting into controversial subjects, but when it doesn’t even strive to maintain objectivity and a scientific view – it’s getting scary out there for those trying to stay rational and science-based.

  7. hatch_xanadu says:

    Eeew, keep the raw food lady away from me.

  8. nixar says:

    « Then there was the man I encountered on an Internet discussion group who denied the entire material world! (…)N othing was real; we had only agreed to pretend that it was. »

    Couldn’t that be a symptom? Temporal lobe epilepsy, or even some type of schizoïd disorder, whereby the patient, instead of seeing imagined things as real, sees real things as imagined?

  9. hatch_xanadu says:

    More likely a symptom of elitist pseudointellectualism.

  10. overshoot says:

    The first step is recognizing that you’re never going to change their minds. The best you can do is make it obvious to any observers that they’re batshit crazy.

    In that light, I have given up making declarative statements and have gone to asking them how their beliefs apply in practice. For instance, how do they induce plague in experimental subjects? I’d like to experience smallpox, how do they advise me to get a case? And so on.

  11. mjranum says:

    Last time I ran into a denialist at a social event, I decided to F with him by pretending to be a postmodernist. I started off by agreeing with him that he was completely right – that we hadn’t gone to the moon – but then proceeded to try to convince him that his notion of why we didn’t go to the moon was so mired in american social perceptions of what the moon is, and our terminology, that he didn’t even understand what ‘rockets’ were, because he was just a white, moderately educated yuppie. It was great fun and made me wonder whether a reasonable stratagem for dealing with these idiots is to spin them up and aim them at eachother.

  12. nixar says:

    « It might be tempting to call RFL crazy; but she isn’t. She’s not out of contact with reality, she’s just rejecting one facet of reality. »

    Again, couldn’t that be a mild paranoia? I have an aunt who has OCD, but it doesn’t show up in all situations. For instance, she doesn’t have any fixations about hand hygiene; but sending a letter is an adventure — how do you make sure you’ve put the letter inside the envelope once it’s sealed? ;) So I’d figure those people could rationalize their delusions with such nonsense, and it wouldn’t show up otherwise.
    I could see how they’d associate the feelings of distrust and fear with the medical profession; those would in turn bring those ideas back to their consciousness, and, conversely, when the feeling shows up because of whatever chemical imbalance they have, they’d associate it, again, with the same topic.

  13. nixar says:

    « It was great fun and made me wonder whether a reasonable stratagem for dealing with these idiots is to spin them up and aim them at eachother. »

    Not my experience. I know of a real moon-hoaxer, and the guy’s the cream of the kook. He’s quite famous on the interwebs, actually, he has a self-published book. To give you an idea of how retarded he is, I first heard of him while perusing a Usenet crypto newsgroup, where I was trying to convince crypto experts that he had solved once and for all cryptography with his “unbreakable” closed-source Visual Basic crapware. He clearly had NO idea wtf he was talking about, it was eery. Of course he wouldn’t give the source code (not understanding the difference between divulging the algorithm and divulging the private key), but anyway, someone managed to break his (very weak, needless to say) cypher, on one of the examples he posted. Guess what? He never admitted defeat, despite his code being broken in his face.
    So how’d you expect to convince him or anyone like him of being wrong? They’d just make up some more sh*t to justify anything.
    That’s why I’m tending to think of them as delusional, however slightly. But they’re not harmless, obviously, since their voices add up, and to the masses unfamiliar with the subject matter, they can sound, at first, like a legitimate group.

  14. nixar says:

    Stupid mistake: « where ƗHE was trying to convince crypto »

  15. DevoutCatalyst says:

    « It might be tempting to call RFL crazy; but she isn’t. She’s not out of contact with reality, she’s just rejecting one facet of reality. »

    This doc thinks raw foodists and vegans are in particular prone to what he calls “orthorexia”,

    http://www.orthorexia.com/index.php?page=forprofessionals

    What do you think?

  16. storkdok says:

    Hmmm, I’ve run into a couple of these germ theory denialists on the autism blogs, they were anti-vaccine. They were quoting from the Tilden book as well as other pre-modern books and “scientists”.

    Having a rational conversation with them is impossible. It is like “suturing flatus to moonbeam” as we say in surgery, no substance. I just hadn’t realized they were another denialist group, it all fits together now.

    Great article!

  17. nitpicking says:

    Christian Scientists deny the material world as a matter of doctrine. Of course they also deny the germ theory of disease.

  18. pmoran says:

    I have also often puzzled over the workings of such person’s minds.

    One deduction that might be made is that personal belief systems can have nothing at all to do with science, but everything to do with where individuals are prepared to invest their trust. Some are prepared to believe what nuts and cranks say even when that requires that a whole branch of human endeavour (medicine) is incompetent and corrupt.

    Has this implications for healthfraud activities? Does much of what we say and do simply confirm certain prejudices? We certainly cannot expect the lay public to think like us, or to simply accept our word on what science predicts, especially when they are ailing and we don’t seem to have a good solution.

  19. True believers will do almost anything to eliminate cognitive dissonance when it comes to their beliefs, even if it means ignoring logic. I think it’s this problem of cognitive dissonance that is at the heart of a lot of the conflict between scientific medicine and alternative medicine. Though scientists are not free of trying to eliminate cognitive dissonance themselves.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance

    A wonderful book on this issue of cognitive dissonance as it applies to our society in terms of medicine, politics, economics and other areas was recently written by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson entitled Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.
    http://www.amazon.com/Mistakes-Were-Made-But-Not/dp/0151010986

  20. Mojo says:

    I’ve recently read Richard Fortey’s book Dry Store Room No. 1 (About the Natural History Museum in London) and at the end of one chapter he writes, in the context of creationism:

    “Is it conceivable that anyone would now say that they don’t believe in pasteurization? It would be rather like saying they don’t believe in germs or microbes, or even hygiene. Yet a comparable denial of Darwinism has apparently been growing in the last decades.”

    Oh well, here’s something from the British Institute of Osteopathy:

    http://www.british-institute-of-osteopathy.org/Events/poster_germy_wermies.pdf

    “so you think diseases are caused by little germy wermies?”

    The description of the talk is no longer on their website, but here it is discussed on the UK Skeptics forum:

    http://www.ukskeptics.com/forum/showthread.php?t=2452

  21. pec says:

    It’s pretty obvious that germs can cause disease, but it’s also pretty obvious that a healthy immune system can prevent most infections. I think most people realize this. You can always find someone who goes to a ridiculous extreme.

  22. Peter Lipson says:

    pec, that’s not even wrong. What does it mean? How do you know if you’ve “prevented most infections”?

    Truly your inanity knows no bounds.

  23. HCN says:

    My immune system works just fine, thank you. Unfortunately it works too well in early spring when the *&^%$#! alder trees blow out pollen (or it may be grasses and/or ragweed). My immune system thinks it is some pathogen and reacts by causing me to sneeze, watery eyes and some serious inflammation (sometimes my face is so swollen I can barely see).

    Dr. Crislip has an amusing take on the immune system, including some “inflammation” exclamations here:
    http://www.quackcast.com/spodcasts/files/6319331ae076e5a5967d7d7282813128-21.html … “QuackCast 22_Boost your imune system and die”

    (Note: a good way to improve the immune response to certain infections is to keep ones vaccines up to date!)

  24. David Gorski says:

    It’s pretty obvious that germs can cause disease, but it’s also pretty obvious that a healthy immune system can prevent most infections.

    How is it “pretty obvious”?

  25. nitpicking says:

    Jason Schneiderman? Jay?

    It’s Carl. I didn’t know you read this blog.

    Sorry for the OT stuff, everyone else.

  26. Mark Crislip says:

    I dont know.

    My last leukemic was consumed and killed by soil saprophytes and I remember all too well the bad old days of end stage aids, patients dying of various ‘non pathogens’.

    a healthy (normal) immune system is pretty phenomenal at preventing most infections. I remain amazed we are not consumed by the organims that surround us. Pathogens for humans being a tiny minority of the microbial world evolved to kill us. Those, not so much prevent as attenuate.

    And even without knowledge of hygiene, antibiotics and vaccines, it allowed us to take over the world, albeit with a life expectancy less than about 25 years and awesome infant mortality rates.

    I tend to side with pec on this one.

  27. David Gorski says:

    Oh, I wasn’t saying she was necessarily wrong, merely trying to find out if she could be specific and present evidence to support what she said.

    A lot of germ theory denialists tend to claim that, because the immune system holds the vast majority of microbes at bay that there is no such thing as a pathogenic microbe. If you get sick due to a microbe it must be due to a weak immune system. Yet you and I know that there are microbes that can infect perfectly healthy young people and kill them. The 1918 influenza pandemic showed that quite well. Its entry into the U.S. started in an Army barracks full of strapping young mean in the prime of health.

  28. HCN says:

    An incident at my one and only college biology class:

    Professor: So what are pollen?

    Me: Annoying!

    (correct answer was male gametophyte)

    Dr. Gorski said “Yet you and I know that there are microbes that can infect perfectly healthy young people and kill them. The 1918 influenza pandemic showed that quite well.”

    And the reason they died so quickly was because their immune systems were healthy and did what they were supposed to do too well! They reacted with too much INFLAMATION! (thinking of Dr. Crislip’s enunciation when I write that). The term that sticks in my head is “cytokine storm”.

    Anyway, there is a fine balance in immunity. I come from a family that has a couple of extremes. Either you live a good long disease free life, or you spend your time fighting annoying allergies (aside from the occasional cardiac issue with cholesterol). Going through a geneological book I noticed that from about 1600 on my MALE ancestors lived an average of 80 years (a couple of fore-fathers died in their 60s, included a great-grandfather who committed suicide due to retirement boredom). In that same book there was a fairly close cousin of my grandfather who lived over a 100 “without a sick day in his life.”

    As it turns out my sister has an iron-clad immune system. This is why she survived her first few months of life. She was born two months premature in the early 1960s. Babies like her who were around three pounds at birth did not usually survive in those days, but she did. So later, when my step-sister and I were knocked out by a nasty flu bug, she flitted in and out of house without a care. She was not entirely immune to illness, one year in high school she did miss a bit of school due to mono (oh, and she appropriately suffered with ear infections as a very young child, she had to have her tonsils removed).

    My dad and I also have robust immune systems, for the blankety blank wrong stuff!! I blame him for my allergies! We both sneeze in spring, and are both allergic to nickel. To nickel! It is a bleeding metal! What kind of wacked immune system decides that NICKEL is a pathogen! (to be fair, nickel only really causes a reaction when mixed with persperation, but still… it is just a stupid metal!, not a protein like most allergens)

    I just thank my lucky stars I only have annoying allergies and not the host of other immune disorders: lupus, arthritis, alopecia (I know of a 17 year old kid who now has no hair on his head because of this!), celiac disease (I like bread and pasta!), diabetes and a bunch of other things listed here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autoimmune_disease

  29. Jurjen S. says:

    Dr. Hall wrote “It might be tempting to call RFL crazy; but she isn’t. She’s not out of contact with reality, she’s just rejecting one facet of reality. You may call it a delusion, but it’s not the kind of delusion that qualifies as mental illness.”

    Isn’t it? I mean, sure, we’re all prone to a little denial and cognitive dissonance, but when it takes on proportions like this, requiring belief in a perfect global medical-industrial conspiracy spanning decades to explain away all the evidence to the contrary, not to mention all the biological and anthropological evidence that humans are omnivores, it strikes me (and admittedly, I’m no expert on mental health) that we’ve crossed the line into some form of psychosis.

  30. Fifi says:

    I know quite a few raw foodists. It’s a very hard and expensive diet to maintain if you don’t actually live in a tropical paradise. You HAVE to be obsessive to follow it. There’s a lot of very religious ideas about purity and obsessive ideas about perfection linked to raw foodism (as there are to some schools of yoga). For some people, it seems to function very much like anorexia (if it’s not a substitute expression of anorexia) in that it’s a way to control both oneself and those around one via food and eating and is obsessed with the idea that what we consume dictates whether we’re pure/beautiful/perfect enough (to be loved). You really do have to be quite affluent to live a raw lifestyle and all the people I know who are into it are either de facto trust fund babies or actual ones. Raw foodists are the kind of people who go to Burning Man in Winnebagos (so much for radical self reliance!). It also seems to be an excuse to hang out and do psychedelics while pretending to be on a “spiritual quest”. A lot of the pseudoscience about food is coming out of this camp – particularly the “acid food acid blood” theories. One of the “stars” of raw foodism – David Wolfe – promotes this heavily and presents himself as having medical knowledge because his father was a doctor (his father was a chiropractor). Lovely guy who backpedalled furiously when I asked him about some of his wacky ideas about aliens that he now distances himself from for commercial reasons but he is just a guy who wants to be rich and famous (Anthony Robbins is one of his mentors, need I say more!)

  31. Zetetic says:

    “…an Army barracks full of strapping young mean in the prime of health.”

    During the Vietnam war, there was an epidemic of bacterial menengitis on a couple of the Army bases where they conducted basic training – I cared for them in an Army Hospital ICU. Yes, the recruits were strapping young men but they were pushed to the limit in training and then bunked down in close quarters where any infection could freely associate. Perhaps their immune systems really were compromised?

  32. Karl Withakay says:

    I believe those were barracks of men who had not yet been to war. Fort Reiley is where the troops were trained before shipping out for France.

    The 1918 Spanish Flu was unusual in that many of the 50 million (as many as double that by some estimates) victims who died from it were healthy adults with healthy immune systems. It is believed that the 1918 strain of H1N1 virus turned the body’s immune system against it and killed via cytokine storm, and thus a strong, healthy immune system may have actually been sort of a liability.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu
    http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol12no01/05-0979.htm

  33. pec says:

    “It’s pretty obvious that germs can cause disease, but it’s also pretty obvious that a healthy immune system can prevent most infections. I think most people realize this. You can always find someone who goes to a ridiculous extreme.”

    That is what I said. Nothing controversial, yet I was attacked. This is merely because I am known to be open-minded about some aspects of alternative science.

    Gorski said: “How is it “pretty obvious”?”

    It should be obvious how it’s obvious. If not, I am scared for your patients.

  34. Mark Crislip says:

    here is an interesting counterpoint

    J Infect Dis. 2008 Oct 1;198(7):962-70.

    Predominant role of bacterial pneumonia as a cause of death in pandemic influenza: implications for pandemic influenza preparedness.

    Morens DM, Taubenberger JK, Fauci AS.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA. dmorens@niaid.nih.gov

    BACKGROUND: Despite the availability of published data on 4 pandemics that have occurred over the past 120 years, there is little modern information on the causes of death associated with influenza pandemics.

    METHODS: We examined relevant information from the most recent influenza pandemic that occurred during the era prior to the use of antibiotics, the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic. We examined lung tissue sections obtained during 58 autopsies and reviewed pathologic and bacteriologic data from 109 published autopsy series that described 8398 individual autopsy investigations.

    RESULTS: The postmortem samples we examined from people who died of influenza during 1918-1919 uniformly exhibited severe changes indicative of bacterial pneumonia. Bacteriologic and histopathologic results from published autopsy series clearly and consistently implicated secondary bacterial pneumonia caused by common upper respiratory-tract bacteria in most influenza fatalities.

    CONCLUSIONS: The majority of deaths in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic likely resulted directly from secondary bacterial pneumonia caused by common upper respiratory-tract bacteria. Less substantial data from the subsequent 1957 and 1968 pandemics are consistent with these findings. If severe pandemic influenza is largely a problem of viral-bacterial copathogenesis, pandemic planning needs to go beyond addressing the viral cause alone (e.g., influenza vaccines and antiviral drugs). Prevention, diagnosis, prophylaxis, and treatment of secondary bacterial pneumonia, as well as stockpiling of antibiotics and bacterial vaccines, should also be high priorities for pandemic planning.

  35. JoshS says:

    pec wrote: “That is what I said. Nothing controversial, yet I was attacked. This is merely because I am known to be open-minded about some aspects of alternative science.”

    No, you were chastised because you have a documented history of arguing in bad faith, misrepresenting facts, outright lying, then affecting a wounded martyr persona. Anyone who’s read your posts (and I have, as former lurker) knows your game.

  36. sowellfan says:

    So, would it be possible to propose to RFL that she allow some syphilitic crotch rubbings to be smeared on her own genitalia, as a test? I imagine a doctor couldn’t do it, what with ‘first do no harm’, and all that, but maybe if some lay-people could come up with a couple thousand bucks, that is hers if she *doesn’t* get infected, she’d be willing to try it. I think it’d make for a hell of a youtube video.

  37. swami says:

    science and medicine? oh please!

    walk into your nearest hospital and see if there is a 13th floor, a room number 13 in emerg, or in the intensive care unit, or in recovery, or in pre-op.

    science and medicine? oh ye of little faith!

  38. …There is in *my* hospital.

    Also, just because an architect or a board of directors is superstitious doesn’t mean the doctors and nurses are. Or the patients.

  39. Mark Crislip says:

    we used to have room 666 in our hospital but patients would refuse to go to the room and it made it difficult when the hospital was full to assign patients. so now it jumps from 665 to 667.
    we do have rm 13 in the icu and no one has ever commented that I am aware.

  40. jem53 says:

    A few months back, a friend sent me this article:

    http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080924-does-
    ideology-trump-facts-studies-say-it-often-does.html

    Studies have found (and as we have all learned empirically)
    people are generally not swayed from their opinions by even the most careful and patient use of data, reason and evidence.

    Where does this sort of behavior leave scientists? Do we have the attention of only a small percentage of the population in presenting data, evidence and conclusions? Do rational arguments fall mostly on the ears of those with ossified opinions? Will this doom our species? Do we have to make emotional appeals to get our points acrosss, as every successful politician already knows? Can we educate ourselves out of this?

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