Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875
I’ve been blogging for over a decade now, a fact that I find really hard to believe looking back on it right now. I’ve told the story before, but it’s briefly recounting again because doing so will explain why the story I’m about to discuss caught my attention. My “gateway drug,” if you will, into skepticism was discovering Holocaust denial in the late 1990s on Usenet, a vast and sprawling conglomeration of thousands of discussion forums that began to fade away at the turn of the century with the rise of web-based forums and Google providing an interface to it to make it Google Groups. The forum where I first discovered Holocaust denial and learned to combat it, alt.revisionism, still exists, but long ago degenerated into a cesspool of racism, spam, and trolling. A couple of years later, around 2000 or so, I discovered quackery and the antivaccine movement, thanks to a Usenet newsgroup known as misc.health.alternative, which is where I honed my early skills applying science to medical claims. It’s also where I first encountered Peter Moran, a regular commenter here who greatly inspired me back then with his full-throated criticism of cancer quackery and his website that taught me reasons why cancer quackery could appear to work even when it did nothing to impact the progression of the cancer.
In December 2004, intrigued by all the news stories about blogging and having discovered a number of good blogs, I decided on one dark, gray Saturday afternoon to dip my toe in the blogosphere. On the spur of the moment I created the first iteration of my not-so-super-secret other blog on—what else?—Blogger. Much to my own amazement, over the course of a year I got my little hobby noticed, to the point where I was invited to join a blog collective; by late 2007 I had become prominent enough to be invited by Steve Novella to join this very blog at its founding, where I have remained for seven years, with no plans to move on any time soon. During my early days, though, there was one person who also inspired me, helping me to learn about the pseudoscience that undergirds the antivaccine movement and, in particular, the quackery making up what is known these days as the “autism biomed” movement. His name is James Laidler, and he was one of the ones who introduced me to this topic which I’ve written about many times both at my not-so-super-secret other blog and, of course, right here on SBM. In doing so, over the years I’ve catalogued why “autism biomed” seems compelling to many parents with children with autism, how antivaccine groups use fake “medical conferences” to sell autism biomed by giving a patina of medical respectability to rank quackery like bleach enemas, and providing a place where those selling unscientific treatments can find willing customers and where disreputable discredited “scientists” like Andrew Wakefield and Mark Geier can find adoring fans who believe their quackery.
I bring this up because last week WIRED published an excellent article about Jim Laidler, “An Alternative-Medicine Believer’s Journey Back to Science.” Appropriately enough, it’s by Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. I say “appropriately enough” because, as has been noted here on a number of occasions, there are many religion-like aspects to alternative medicine in general but to the autism biomed movement in particular. Indeed, the two are often tied together, with the motivation for some alt-med being explicitly religious and belief in alt-med sharing some major characteristics with religion, particularly belief in miracles against evidence, charismatic leaders (like Andrew Wakefield) who can do no wrong, and mutually-supportive communities of believers who reinforce each others’ beliefs and ward off skepticism. Add to that the magical thinking, and it’s not for nothing that I’ve referred to the central dogma of alternative medicine as being that wishing makes it so. Indeed, it’s for good reason that I frequently point out that most “energy medicine” (particularly reiki) is basically faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.
In Levinovitz’s profile of Jim Laidler, we see a lot of this, and I learned some details that I didn’t know about Laidler before. Levinovitz also grasps the religion-like nature of alt-med by starting the article bluntly saying:
Jim and Louise Laidler lost their faith on a trip to Disneyland in 2002, while having breakfast in Goofy’s Kitchen.