The Top 10 Woo of 2018 [Part I]

Kavin Senapathy

2018. The year brought viral moments and memes like the “In my Feelings” challenge, BBQ Becky, and “is this a pigeon.” It also brought us breathtaking, groundbreaking, and at times disturbing science news, such as the highly-anticipated touchdown of NASA’s Mars InSight lander, mounting evidence on the scope of the impact of climate change, and the claim that a Chinese researcher created the first gene-edited babies. And, as predictably as death and taxes, bullshit peddlers—from Dr. Oz to Donald Trump—employed tried and true snake oil sales tactics to sell their ideologies and wares. Below, I take a look at the most egregious, amusing, and just plain weird woo-related news of 2018. Part one, below, will cover the first five, and I’ll give you the rest in part two, coming next week.

(I based this list, presented in no particular order, on a few rather unscientific criteria, including popularity, impact, weirdness, and feedback from readers. Didn’t include a story you thought was the wooiest woo of 2018? Feel free to get a hold of me on social media, where I’ll happily share the runners-up.)

Move over raw milk, raw water is here.

The media rang in 2018 with stomach churning news of Silicon Valley’s obsession du jour—raw water. Fans continue to rave about raw water’s exceptional taste profile and note that it doesn’t contain chlorine or fluoride like treated tap water.

A few companies have cashed in on the unfiltered, untreated, unsterilized spring water that promises to get customers “off the water grid.” Maine-based seller Tourmaline Spring boasts that its raw “sacred living water” goes straight from spring to a stainless steel containment apparatus, allowing it to “retain its natural purity without becoming exposed to and getting contaminated by radioactive isotopes, acidic rain, pollutants/etc.” Oregon company Live Spring Water, which offers a subscription water jug delivery service, proclaims that it “[honors] the earth’s natural gifts without the notion they need to be altered,” and that humans “are biologically adapted to drink unprocessed spring water” because “[o]ur ancestors drank this for 99% of human existence.”

Not only is raw water the ultimate in the appeal to nature fallacy, it’s also far pricier than regular water and just plain a bad idea. “There is a whole menu, if you will, of intestinal germs that can get into untreated ground,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told Healthline. “The water can look wonderfully clear, but as we learned in the Boy Scouts, don’t trust that water.” Vince Hill, chief of the CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention branch told Time that “[w]hen water isn’t treated, it can contain chemicals and germs that can make us sick or cause disease outbreaks,” and that “[a]nything you can think of can be in untreated water, really,” including but not limited to agricultural runoff, naturally occurring chemicals, and pathogens.

It’s important to note that, like other woo trends, raw water is a symptom of well-placed distrust—in this case, distrust in the public drinking water supply. But as science journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis aptly noted, the solution to this healthy distrust isn’t “for the richest and the most capable of us to opt out” of the public drinking water supply, but to continue holding government and industry accountable for keeping our water safe. 

More on raw water:

“Right-to-try” becomes federal law.

Framed as giving terminally ill patients the opportunity to receive promising experimental drugs that do not yet have FDA approval, President Trump signed the federal bill known as the “right to try” bill into law on May 30 with much fanfare and typical Trump rambling. But atypical for Trump this time was that the arguments he parroted from the law’s proponents are quite convincing—James Hamblin, writing in The Atlantic, said that right-to-try is “a step in the wrong direction, but one that is easy to misrepresent and to sell as good.”

This much was clear as Trump signed the bill, flanked by a small boy with muscular dystrophy and two men suffering from ALS. Christina Sandefur, the executive vice president of libertarian think tank Goldwater Institute that spearheaded the right-to-try initiative, said in 2016 that it’s about protecting terminally ill patients’ “basic human right to try to save their own lives.” Of course, any compassionate human being would want terminally ill people to be able to seek out and try promising treatments.

But that’s not how the law works. As surgical oncologist David Gorski explained at science-based Medicine, the bill that was finally signed into law was “the worst” of proposed federal and existing state right-to-try legislation. Ultimately, the law gives terminally ill patients the right to bypass the FDA and obtain experimental drugs from the company making them, all without oversight from the institutional review board that provides ethical guidance.

Proponents of the law, including the Goldwater Institute, suggest that drugs eligible for right-to-try are safe, because they’ve had to pass phase I of clinical trials. Except that’s not how it works. Only about 10 percent of drugs that pass phase I trials go on to be deemed effective and safe. Gorski called the claim that phase I testing is enough “utterly insane” in a Twitter thread outlining the fundamental problems with the law.

More on right-to-try:

Rise in autism prevalence figures spurs anti-vaccine frenzy.

Vaccines save lives—the facts don’t lie. But the infamous fraudulent 1998 study by the discredited-many-times-over former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, which linked the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism, planted a stubborn killer fear of vaccines in the parenting world. That fear has proven impossible to dislodge, and purveyors of a slew of unsubstantiated yet prevalent therapeutic interventions (which I covered in this column earlier this year) have cashed in.

The usual suspects pounced when the CDC released its report in April of this year on 2014 data, which showed an autism prevalence of 1 in 59 children born in 2006, compared to 1 in 150 in the year 2000. That’s alarming, but the figures don’t necessarily mean that there are more autistic children. Rather, the changing numbers most likely represent increased surveillance, changes in diagnostic criteria, increased awareness and educational support, and reduction in stigma, so that more of the population falls under the ASD umbrella.

In a since-deleted Facebook post, the anti-vaccine World Mercury Project (now the “Children’s Health Defense”) shared the view of its famous chair Robert F. Kennedy Jr. following the CDC’s report:“Genes don’t cause epidemics, environmental toxins do. Why is the CDC doing nothing to identify the environmental toxins responsible for the most cataclysmic epidemic of our era?”

Not surprisingly, the antivaccine movement pounced on this report, which showed a modest increase in prevalence since the last CDC report in 2016, as proof that it must be the vaccines, because to antivaxers it’s always—always—about the vaccines. But is it?” asked David Gorski in Science-Based Medicine. “Of course not. However, as usual, unpacking the data is far more complicated than antivaxers like to make it sound.”

More on autism prevalence:

The newest book from the “Medical Medium” taking over the nutrition fad scene.

Anthony “Medical Medium” William combines the appeal of John Edwards and Gwyneth Paltrow to spread health woo with the added unfalsifiable aura of cosmic authority. Claiming to be “born with the unique ability to converse with Spirit of Compassion who provides him with extraordinarily accurate health information that’s often far ahead of its time,” William’s ascent into the upper echelons of health woo has been sudden—Google trends show a steep rise in the volume of queries starting in 2015 and shooting up sharply in just the past few months.

William’s most recent rise in popularity coincides with the release of his newest bestseller (it’s a mouthful) in October of this year:“Medical Medium Liver Rescue: Answers to Eczema, Psoriasis, Diabetes, Strep, Acne, Gout, Bloating, Gallstones, Adrenal Stress, Fatigue, Fatty Liver, Weight Issues, SIBO & Autoimmune Disease.”

His bio explains that William’s work has “earned him the trust and love of hundreds of thousands worldwide, among them movie stars, rock stars, billionaires, professional athletes, best-selling authors, and countless other people from all walks of life who couldn’t find a way to heal until he provided them with insights from Spirit.”

Eleven-time Grammy winner Pharrell Williams is among William’s celebrity fan base, saying of Liver Rescue, “Anthony’s understanding of foods, their vibrations, and how they interact with the body never ceases to amaze. Effortlessly he explains the potential harmony or disharmony in our choices in a way anyone can understand. He has a gift. Do your body a favor and treat yourself.”

It’s no surprise that Gwyneth Paltrow shares the enthusiasm, gushing that “[w]hile there is most definitely an element of otherworldly mystery to the work he does, much of what Anthony William shines a spotlight on—particularly around autoimmune disease—feels inherently right and true.”

Scott Gavura sums it up at Science-Based Medicine

“William may genuinely believe he has a gift. But he has no medical knowledge or training. His ignorance of medical science is evident from his dismissal of it. It’s worth remembering that William has enough sense (or caution) to write a disclaimer that emphasizes that anything he says should be reviewed with a medical professional.”

More on the Medical Medium:

The newest in false health halos: Non-GMO Vodka.

It makes sense to seek quick fixes and easily-avoidable scapegoats when it comes to what we put in our bodies—it’s only natural to want to do everything in our control to stay healthy. After years of covering food and health, it’s clear to me that “GMOs” have become a lightning rod for the myriad ills of the current food system. As my fellow SciMoms and I wrote at our blog in May, “[t]he GMO debate has been raging for two decades, but this debate isn’t actually about GMOs at all. Rather, ‘GMOs’ have become a stand-in for a number of very real concerns: Who controls our food supply? Who makes sure our food is safe to eat and our environment is protected? Who looks out for small farmers? What about health and economic disparities that are surely tied to food?”

Perhaps nothing juxtaposes the simultaneous meaninglessness and utter weightiness of “GMO” better than Smirnoff’s 2018 ad campaign for—get this—non-GMO vodka. The brand announced a new ad campaign in October featuring celebs such as Jonathan Van Ness, Ted Danson, and Laverne Cox, all proudly announcing that “Smirnoff No. 21, which has always been gluten-free, is now also made with non-GMO grain, specifically non-GMO corn.”

Now, I adore Jonathan Van Ness and I hate to tell him that this martini is not a good look.

I won’t get into every one of the myriad reasons that “non-GMO” is a frivolous claim at best and misleading at worst for any product, let alone vodka, but for one, there is no genetic material or protein in vodka (or any other distilled spirit), so there’s nothing in a shot of Smirnoff to warrant the distinction. Even though it feels good to slap a health halo on a cocktail (the authors of “Clean Cocktails: Righteous Recipes for the Modernist Mixologist” give it a shot in their 2017 coffee table book), it’s pretty clear that there’s not really a known “safe” level of alcohol consumption. 

Smirnoff wasn’t the first to go non-GMO—Ketel One and several other brands have announced non-GMO spirits over the last couple years—but its campaign brought non-GMO back to the forefront of the distilled spirits world. “We know that Smirnoff’s new status update has everyone (OMG!) excited,” the brand stated in a press release, which also specified that neckers (paper tags around the bottle necks) will accompany each newly packaged Smirnoff No. 21 bottle noting the brand’s new non-GMO status.

Note that it seems that these neckers have helped Smirnoff exploit a loophole (which I described here). Alcohol labeling falls under Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and TTB currently doesn’t approve non-bioengineered labels. Neckers are considered advertising according to an email from a media representative and “unlike labels, advertising does not require pre-approval from TTB.” 

As ridiculous as non-GMO vodka is, far more ridiculous is that “GMO” as a larger concept has served only to keep us distracted from what’s really important, not only in the food system, but as a larger society. As I wrote in a post at the Biology Fortified blog:

“[W]hat’s so interesting about GMO; what gives GMO so much power:‘GMO’ represents a lot more than just genetic engineering. It’s a social construct. Like any social construct, what ‘GMO’ means to people can vary from person to person. And it’s precisely for this reason that the polarization around GMO has done us no favors. Seriously, if you want to see all of the nuance and critical thinking get sucked out of a room, just say GMO. Nuance gone. On all sides. GMO is positioned, both by design and happenstance, as a spoke around which conversations about the food system spins. And because food is one of the foundations of life itself, it is powerful.

GMO raises a vast array of justified socio-economic anxieties — including very real anxieties about our environment and the future of our planet, workers rights, disease rates, corporate control of the food and political systems, and the systemic inequality propping up our society, from systemic racism, sexism, and the yet unhealed gaping wounds of the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and environmental destruction around the world.

Because GMO represents so much more than just genetic engineering, and because it can represent so much to different people, the polarization of arguing ‘against’ GMOs and arguing ‘for’ GMOs is really, on several levels, a conversation about any and all of those things.”

In that sense, the non-GMO angle is smart, from a marketing standpoint at least—it serves as a shortcut to the feel-good perceived rejection of a symbolic all-encompassing bad guy. But it does nothing to solve any specific problem related to health or the food system.

More on non-GMO vodka:

That’s it for part one of 2018 in woo news! Come back next week, on December 31st, as we dive in to the last five woo-related stories of the year.

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin is an author and public speaker covering science, health, medicine, agriculture, food, parenting and their intersection. Her work appears regularly at Forbes, SELF Magazine, Slate, and more. Her chapter in the recent MIT Press book “Pseudoscience” is entitled “Swaying Pseudoscience - The Inoculation Effect.” When she’s not writing and tweeting, she’s busy being a “Science Mom”—also the name of a recent documentary film in which she’s featured—to a 7-year-old and 5-year-old.