The Top 10 Woo of 2018 [Part II]

Kavin Senapathy

This post picks up where I left off last week with the first five in the top ten woo news stories of 2018. Check out the last five here. Do you think I left out the wooiest 2018 woo? Feel free to hit me up on social media, where I’ll be sharing the runners-up.

Anti-vaccine “hotspots” are getting worse.

A June 2018 study published in PLOS Medicine reveals a disturbing story about the impact of anti-vaccine movement—the rise of nonmedical vaccine exemptions (NMEs) in pockets of vaccine resistance in areas in twelve of the eighteen U.S. states where religious and philosophical-belief exemptions are permitted. The study details how the rise in NMEs is leading to “hotspots” where vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks are more likely. Several of these hotspots are in major metropolitan areas, some of which have airports, ultimately leaving swaths of the population vulnerable to vaccine-preventable illness. 

“Our concern is that the rising NMEs linked to the antivaccine movement in the US will stimulate other countries to follow a similar path,” the authors note. “It would be especially worrisome if the very large low- and middle-income countries—such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRIC nations), or Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan—reduce their vaccine coverage. In such a case, we could experience massive epidemics of childhood infections that may threaten achievement of United Nations global goals.”

Study author Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, is vocal about his concern as a vaccine scientist and a father of four children, including a daughter diagnosed with autism and intellectual disabilities. He described how anti-vaccine political action committees work to stoke parental fear in an essay published in The Conversation.

“Researchers are still in the early stages of understanding the reasons behind the anti-vaccine movement. A couple of these states, Oklahoma and Texas, host well-organized political-action committees that lobby their legislatures and even raise campaign funds for candidates to endorse anti-vaccine positions. These committees appeal to parental fears of unwarranted government interference.” 

More on anti-vaccine hotspots:

The centuries-long scourge of scientific racism rears its head.

In perhaps the most infamous 2018 example of the scientifically racist trope, Roseanne Barr suggested that Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman who served as an adviser to President Barack Obama, is descended from apes, promptly resulting in ABC cancelling her show. But the Ambien-popping sitcom mom was hardly the only one in 2018 pushing scientific racism—the use of pseudoscience to corroborate theories of racial hierarchy and justify white supremacy. Writing in The Guardian, science journalist Angela Saini observed:

“Over the past year I have been investigating this tight, well-connected cabal of people, who nowadays call themselves ‘race realists’, reflecting their view that the scientific evidence is on their side. Their work is routinely published by Mankind Quarterly, a marginal journal operating since the 1960s, when it was founded by a group of scientists disgruntled with the fact that mainstream journals were unwilling to publish their controversial ideas.

Its earliest editions argued against desegregation in the United States, and warned that inter-racial conflict was the byproduct of natural selection. Many of its writers became sources for the notorious 1994 book The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which drew links between race and IQ scores.”

Editor-at-large at Vox Ezra Klein pointed out that it’s crucial to contextualize the evidence that bolsters scientifically racist arguments and take accountability for disparities:

“International evidence suggests oppression, discrimination, and societal resentment lowers group IQs. As the New York University philosopher of neuroscience Ned Block has written, quoting the work of anthropologist John Ogbu, oppression has a clear effect on marginalized groups globally. ‘Where IQ tests have been given, ‘the children of these caste-like minorities score about 10-15 points … lower than dominant group children,’’ he writes.”

The American Society of Human Genetics responded to the resurgence of scientific racism (which, of course, never went away) in November of this year, officially denouncing the misuse of genetics to fuel racial ideologies.

There is, perhaps, one horrific silver lining to the scientific racism cloud—that the reemergence of this latent phenomenon, emboldened in the age of Trump, renders it accessible for the dismantling. As political science professor and writer Edward Burmila wrote in The Nation:

“It is tempting to frame the current prevalence of racialism—immigration restriction, scientific racism, and eugenics—as a revival. In truth, it never went away. It was in hibernation as intellectuals, scientists, and political elites rejected the ideas after World War II. Adherents were simply waiting for the right time, the right social and political climate, to emerge from with their long-discredited and bigoted pseudoscience.”


More on the revival of scientific racism:

Goop pays up for jade vaginal eggs.

No year in woo is complete without a Goop-related story, and 2018 was no different. In an apparent win for the world’s most pampered yonis, a group of California lawyers fined Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand $145,000 in September of this year, leaving some reveling in schadenfreude. Goop agreed to pay the civil penalties following an investigation by the California Food, Drug, and Medical Device Task Force into its jade eggs and quartz eggs for “vaginal wellness,” and a flower essence blend that “could help prevent depression.”

According to the Orange County District Attorney’s office, as part of the settlement, Goop was “barred from making any claims regarding the efficacy of its products without possessing competent and reliable scientific evidence, and from manufacturing or selling any misbranded, unapproved, or falsely-advertised medical devices.”

“The health and money of Santa Clara County residents should never be put at risk by misleading advertising,” Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in a statement. “We will vigilantly protect consumers against companies that promise health benefits without the support of good science … or any science.”

Note that this settlement only applies to advertising claims, though—not claims on the lifestyle website’s blog or other platforms. The jade and rose quartz vaginal eggs, which are “pre drilled for string add-on,” remain up for sale at as of the writing of this piece, albeit with toned down language to “ensure compliance” with the terms of the settlement.

The news left some wondering whether the yoni egg gaffe would leave a dent in Paltrow’s lifestyle empire, but don’t expect Goop or Paltrow to go anywhere soon. According to a December 4 interview in WSJ Magazine, Gwyneth Paltrow sees Goop as “trailblazers” for women’s health. Goop told the magazine that it has tripled revenues in the past two years and is on track to double them this year, in part from direct-to-consumer sales of Goop-branded products, which are up 80 percent year-over-year.

More on Goop’s jade egg settlement:

The frantic news that our kids’ breakfast food is laced with toxic Roundup.

A slew of news outlets, including CBS News, Mic, CNN, The Hill, and more, raised the alarm over an August report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) finding trace amounts of the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, in several “children’s” breakfast foods. I covered the uproar in an in-depth article on Mom guilt and the glyphosate saga for my column earlier this year:

“Fortunately, as it often goes, the ‘[Scary Substance] in Children’s Food or Other Products’ headlines were quickly followed by ‘Actually, You Don’t Need to Worry About [Scary Substance] in Kids’ Food’ articles. In this case, Slate (where I sometimes contribute) set the record straight with ‘You Don’t Need to Worry About Roundup in Your Breakfast Cereal’ and Mashable laid out a solid case to not worry about the Roundup in your morning oatmeal. For those who like a visual debunk, Know Ideas Media put out a video aiming to get to the bottom of EWG’s findings.”

As those of us who regularly try to make sense of whether or not people really need to worry about the latest alarming chemicals-in-things news know too well, the damage was already well past containable as soon as the story broke. For instance, after a recent panel I sat on following a screening of the Food Evolution documentary at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, a gentleman approached me with one pressing question: Is it safe to start eating his beloved cereal again? The poor guy had stopped eating his usual morning breakfast after reading about the EWG report. I told him that I’ve continued serving my kids the oat and wheat cereals that they like, and I’m not afraid that it’s poisoning them. His sigh of relief made my day.

As I wrote:

“There are plenty of facts to show that we should worry about our kids’ breakfasts. Obesity rates have risen dramatically, children are bombarded with predatory marketing of added sugars and empty calories, and far too many kids don’t have access to nutritious breakfasts. As complex as tackling the challenges of the food system has proven, one thing’s clear—the EWGs of the world have done as good of a job of keeping consumers complacent as the Monsantos have. MAA’s motto is “Empowered Moms, Healthy Kids,” but being afraid of herbicide in our kids’ cereal isn’t empowering; it’s a distraction at best.”

More on glyphosate and your kids’ breakfast:

CFI sues CVS for misleading marketing of homeopathy.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI, which publishes this column via the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) filed a lawsuit in June on behalf of the general public against drug retailer CVS for consumer fraud over its misleading sales and marketing of homeopathic products—in other words, suggesting that they work for stated purposes.

In a nutshell, homeopathy is founded on two basic principles that render it the perfect quackery:1) that a condition can be cured by the substance that caused it and 2) that repeatedly diluting the substance until an infinitesimal amount of the original substance remains increases its potency.

In a July 9 press release, CFI stated:

“Apart from being a waste of money, choosing homeopathic treatments to the exclusion of evidence-based medicines can result in worsened or prolonged symptoms, and in some cases, even death. Several products have been found to contain poisonous ingredients which have affected tens of thousands of adults and children in just the last few years.”

CFI’s Legal Director Nick Little has made clear that the lawsuit came after years of trying to convince CVS to market homeopathic remedies responsibly to no avail. “I genuinely thought that once we brought this to their attention, they’d turn around and say, ‘You know what, you’re right. We should deal with this,” Little said in a phone interview with Gizmodo. “But they didn’t, they stopped communication with us.”

“Homeopathy is a total sham, and CVS knows it. Yet the company persists in deceiving its customers about the effectiveness of homeopathic products,” the press release quoted Little as saying. “Homeopathics are shelved right alongside scientifically-proven medicines, under the same signs for cold and flu, pain relief, sleep aids, and so on.”

“If you search for ‘flu treatment’ on their website, it even suggests homeopathics to you,” he pointed out. “CVS is making no distinction between those products that have been vetted and tested by science, and those that are nothing but snake oil.”

In an update shared with me, Little explained that CVS and CFI have “agreed, on the basis of the discussions, to extend the time permitted for them to file their answer and for us to have the first conference with the court. That will now be in January, and we are seeking to arrange another in person meeting before then to explore the situation further.”

More on the CVS lawsuit:

That wraps up the first (annual?) edition of the year in woo. Keep an eye out for new episodes of Point of Inquiry in the beginning of 2019, in which I interview some great scientists, authors, subject matter experts, and stars on topics covered in this column and more. Here’s to good health and joy in 2019!

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.