01:27 am
29 October 2016

Spreading false hope and endangering people’s lives: why do so many believe in quacks?

A South African faith healer convinces vulnerable members of his congregation to buy his holy water to cure their illnesses, including HIV and Aids. The president of Gambia and former soldier, Yahya Jammeh, claims he can cure HIV, but only on Thursdays – Fridays and Saturdays his herbal treatment will heal people of asthma.

Thousands of desperately ill people in Nigeria throw away their prescribed medicines in the hope of being healed by the prayers of a Nigerian prophet, Temitope Joshua. Three seriously ill  (South African) Springbok rugby heroes venture into the field of quackery and turn their backs on evidence-based medicine in the hope of recovery from cancer and motor-neuron disease.

“Why do apparently irrational beliefs claim so many strong and vocal adherents? Why, when these beliefs are demonstrably false, is it often impossible to shift the mind-sets of the believers? When medicine today is capable of providing such significant health benefits, why is there an increasing support of ‘alternative’ therapies?” These questions in 2005 by a former editor of the South African Medical Journal, JP van Niekerk, have become even more valid today as superstition and pseudoscience remain scourges, killing thousands.

Eighteen years after Robbi Borjeson started practising as a medical doctor, her licence to offer treatment to patients was revoked in the United States, the Centre for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California reported in 2009. Over a period of more than 13 years, Borjeson had started to turn to prayers and faith healing, in combination with a good dose of vitamins, to treat sick people. The medical board of Arizona had already ordered Borjeson to receive psychological treatment in 1996 and to practise her occupation only within the formal structures created by the board.

Borjeson simply ignored the board and, in 2012, had to pay more than $71,000 after she had tried, among others, to pray a diabetic well and prescribed vitamins rather than insulin treatment.

Little done to protect illiterate and non-science people
The action against a professional health practitioner who prescribed prayer as a solution – without any scientific evidence that it can work and beyond the boundaries of her profession – at the expense of proven medical treatment, gives rise to the question on formal and informal interventions against quacks in Africa. Are the regulatory authorities on the continent doing enough to protect the often illiterate and superstition-vulnerable people in especially the rural communities?

The anti-vaccination campaign by ill-informed and unscientific people, often under the influence of celebrities, is again leading to an outbreak of diseases that can easily be controlled by adhering to regulated health programmes. But it is not only celebrities who are guilty in spreading pseudoscience and quackery.

In 2008, I wrote an article for SciDev.Net, pointing out that “religious leaders sometimes strengthen the hand of those making pseudoscientific claims. Attempts to eliminate polio in Nigeria, for example, ran into problems when Datti Ahmed, the chair of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Kano state, referred to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative as “modern-day Hitlers … who have deliberately adulterated the oral polio vaccines with antifertility drugs and contaminated them with certain viruses which are known to cause HIV and Aids”.

Celebrities peddle pseudoscience
Why pseudoscience spreads so virulently can also be laid at the door of celebrities who do not only sell products – the United Kingdom organisation Sense about Science reports that these famous people:

• Also offer medical advice, usually risky and unscientific, such as the marketers of homeopathy (Paul McCartney, Simon Cowell, Jilly Cooper, and Prince Charles, to name a few);

• Do not understand science and mathematics (Mariah Carey, who explained the title of her 2008 album, E=mc2, as “emancipation equals Mariah Carey times two”);

• Wage campaigns against vaccinations protecting children against diseases such as mumps, measles and rubella on the basis of the highly erroneous information that the combined MMR vaccine causes autism (Jenny McCarthy, “autism’s Pied Piper”, as Dr Paul Offit called her in his book, Killing us Softly: The sense and nonsense of alternative medicine, Jim Carrey, and Oprah Winfrey giving a platform to her “mother warriors”, McCarthy and Holly Robinson Peete);

•  Glorify quacks and uncritically provide the channel through which their strange, dangerous and unscientific ideas can be launched (in South Africa, illustrated by Ruda Landman and George Mazarakis on M-Net’s Carte Blanche with liberal exposure given to psychics like Marietta Theunissen and the ex-detective Danie Krügel with his “magic” machine to find the missing children abducted by Gert van Rooyen in the 1980s; KykNet’s Via lifestyle channel giving another psychic, Julia Theunissen, a weekly platform to “talk to the dead”; and the radio presenter of the SABC’s Afrikaans radio station, RSG, Amore Bekker, who every week uncritically interviews an ex-actress, Antoinette Pienaar, on why herbs can cure virtually every illness);

•  Link their names to quackery products and vitamin gimmicks, and either market these actively, or through institutional quack institutes (marathon champion Bruce Fordyce promoting a balance bracelet, as do some members of the Protea cricket team, Prince Charles, and actors Helena Bonham-Carter, Michael Caine, Judi Dench); and

•  Have no understanding of the scientific method and how important the process of peer review and evidence-driven science is, and propagate new diets, “inventions”, “findings” and other non-scientifically proven products (the Theunissens, Landman, Mazarakis, John Webb, John Maytham, Bekker and a host of other media personalities).

Science journalists are essential
The role the media can play to counter pseudoscientific beliefs, cannot and should not be underestimated. Recent developments in the field of science journalism in Africa have led to serious concerns about the independence of science journalists to report on dubious health and marketing practices by companies.

Two cases of defamation against Harris Steinman, editor and science consumer watchdog of the website Camcheck.co.za, have led to threatening letters to science reporters by companies manufacturing and marketing food supplements and so-called sports nutrition products.

Some science journalists have received letters from these companies’ lawyers to inter alia “stop defaming our client” and threatening to take them to the press ombudsman after they have merely reported on the case against Steinman, asking questions about the lack of evidence in claims by them in their marketing and advertising. Steinman has won more than 30 cases at the South African Advertising Standards’ Authority on the quackery claims made by various companies.

When science journalists reporting on scientific developments and the lack of proper health regulating practices in Africa are being intimidated by big companies whose marketing practices are often based on myths, pseudoscience and pure quackery, it endangers people’s lives.

Science journalists and Steinman act as consumer watchdogs on behalf of the public’s health and threatening them with court cases contravenes section 16 of the South African Constitution.

A last note: scientists have for too long been too quiet about quackery and pseudoscience. They should be far more outspoken against practices that endanger the lives of innocent people, acting as a united front to campaign against the scourge of quackery.

Professor George Claassen is the author of a book on quackery in Africa, Quacks, Tricksters and Scamsters: How a nonsense detector can save your life, which will be published later this year. He is director of the Centre for Science and Technology Mass Communication (Censcom), at Stellenbosch University. Censcom will present the first conference on the dangers of quackery in November as part of the series Science meets the Media in Stellenbosch