By Mandy McDougall
The prevalence of pseudoscience in our society is getting out of hand.
Pseudoscience (including bad science, chemophobia, and full-fledged anti-science) presents itself as a multidisciplinary problem. Though many pseudoscientific claims concern personal and public health (for instance, vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases, homoeopathy, and ‘detox’ cleanses), some also concern environmental toxicology, including misconceptions surrounding many environmentally relevant compounds, such as pesticides. Although pseudoscience is by no means a new phenomenon, tea detox advertisements and chemtrail conspiracy theory pages are now polluting the internet and social media. When combined with the growing glorification of pursuing ‘alternative’ agricultural and medical practices, pseudoscience often tries to disguise itself as quality science.
Such frequent disregard of the scientific method calls for scientists – particularly toxicologists – to play a vital role in tackling pseudoscience. Those who understand the science have an obligation to passionately and unapologetically communicate the threats of pseudoscience as it relates to public health, food security, and scientific literacy. How many times have you seen ads for a ‘chemical-free’ dish soap, granola bar, or makeup powder? Seems innocent enough, but excusing bad science in marketing is just the beginning of something much worse.
Overall, this issue is bigger than the specific area of toxicology or chemistry that we study. People are being encouraged to put their families, their children, and public health at risk, on account of advice from sources claiming to be an enlightened alternative to the evil ‘Bigs’ – Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Chem – you get the picture.
Some people have adopted a reaction whereby they believe that any product developed by a large company – let’s say pesticides – is inherently bad. No questions asked; no case-by-case evaluation; no room for logic and reasoning. These knee-jerk reactions to words like ‘pesticide’ and ‘chemical’ are brought on by fear-mongering campaigns and clever marketing schemes for ‘alternative’ products. There is this unfounded assumption that in maintaining a healthy environment, the use of conventional pesticides cannot occur. However, these two things are not, as some may think, mutually exclusive.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this involves the continued use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in select tropical regions of the world. DDT was once believed to be completely safe for widespread application. However, we eventually learned about the long-term bioaccumulative and toxic effects related to DDT exposure in ecosystems, wildlife, and humans.
Despite these serious toxicological concerns, DDT is still approved for use in certain regions of the world in an effort to combat malaria. Such decisions are the result of complex risk assessments. When the benefits of DDT’s anti-malaria properties are weighed against the adverse long-term bioaccumulative and toxic effects of exposure to the compound, DDT use wins in some cases, but not in others. It is important to remember that the world is full of wicked problems where there fails to be one ‘right’ solution. In such cases, pragmatic problem solving prevails over ideological thinking. In environmental decision-making, a one-size-fits-all solution is often unachievable. We must look at the evidence and calculate the potential benefits and costs via the risk assessment process.
That being said, an important question to ask someone standing firm in their anti-science or pseudoscientific position is, “What would it take to change your mind on this issue?”, whether it be vaccine safety, the impracticality of detox cleanses, or agrochemicals. To someone who is concerned about the potential effects of a herbicide like glyphosate, you may, as an environmental toxicologist, want to challenge their claim that glyphosate is inherently a ‘bad chemical’. You may explain the role of route and exposure in estimating the risk of toxic effects from pesticides and herbicides. You may explain to them what it actually means when something is labelled as a ‘probable carcinogen’. You may explain how the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), like most organizations, has their own agenda.
If nothing you say could ever make them even consider a different perspective, it means that they are no longer thinking in terms of scientific truth, but simply in their beliefs. Their belief that ‘chemicals are bad for the environment’ is no different from other types of beliefs. No amount of scientific data could change their perspective on ‘chemicals’. Ultimately, such beliefs stem from a lack of knowledge in chemistry and toxicology. Although they may consider themselves enlightened because they believe in information contrary to ‘mainstream science’, this does not mean that what they believe is legitimate.
It is likely that some of this mistrust stems from a lack of transparency and effective communication on behalf of regulators and environmental scientists. We will have to first overcome this lingering mistrust between scientists and the public. Twitter feuds and debates just seem to further divide the ‘conventional’ and ‘alternative’ science communities. To promote effective communication, advanced facilitation techniques are probably necessary. The main objective here should be to search for an idea or statement that both an agrochemical scientist and environmental activist could agree on. For instance, perhaps a statement like, “Pesticides have the potential to harm the environment and those who live within it” may be appropriate. I’m sure that there are situations in which both parties would believe this to be true. Once some common ground is established, subsequent conversations will likely be less defensive and circular.
Environmental pollution has been and continues to be, detrimental to the air, water, soil, and well-being of many communities worldwide. From biomagnification of harmful contaminants in Northern communities to hydrocarbon pollution at abandoned gas stations, environmental pollution is prevalent and a constant threat to humans, wildlife, and ecosystems. I began studying environmental toxicology because of my love for nature and the desire to protect the environment against anthropogenic harm – from a rational, scientific approach. Without this, we cannot know where to prioritize our efforts and would be easily distracted by the claims of pseudoscience enthusiasts.
I end with a plea. My plea to students studying environmental chemistry and toxicology is to speak up for sound science. Being a scientist does not disqualify us from sharing knowledge outside of an academic journal or a conference poster. If anything, we should feel compelled and eager, if not obliged, to contribute to such conversations.
Don’t let companies get away with marketing ‘chemical-free’ products. Don’t let your friends spread misinformation from websites with questionable agendas. It might seem innocent enough, but it’s these same ideas that influenced parents, in several instances, to attempt to cure their children’s very treatable diseases using pseudoscientific approaches, sadly resulting in their death. At some point, an innocent lack of scientific literacy grows to become a danger to public health, food systems, and the overall integrity of science. So for me, this is no longer just about silly semantics. It’s about our role in shaping a society equipped to interpret and challenge information.
Mandy is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University studying bioaccumulation behaviour of perfluorinated compounds in marine food webs.