Last month, Crikey released a guide to some of the most prevalent strands of science denialism. But in the age of fake news, there is plenty more pseudoscience populating the discourse. Here are some of the theories we missed, from the quackish to the outright bigoted.
What they believe: People believe a lot of things about water fluoridation. As early as the 1950s, it was being described as a communist plot to destroy America. Now, a number of harms are falsely attributed to fluoride, with opponents arguing it can cause cancer, make people dumber, and reduce fertility.
What the science says: For more than 50 years, numerous studies and nearly all reputable public health bodies have been saying that water fluoridation greatly lowers tooth decay, and there is no evidence for claims it damages people’s health.
Who believes it: Lots of people, from illuminati truther David Icke, right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and celebrity chef Pete Evans are vocal fluoride opponents. The state of Queensland is also on board. While fluoride has been added to water in other Australian states since the 1960s, Queensland held out until 2007. In 2012, LNP premier Campbell Newman put the decision to fluoridate back in the hands of local councils. Councils raced to opt out, fluoride coverage dropped from 90% to 79% in three years, and tooth decay rates among children began to creep up.
Gay conversion therapy
What they believe: That LGBTIQ people can be turned straight through a mixture of prayer, counselling and other, often more medieval practices like exorcisms.
What the science says: There is no scientific or medical evidence that sexuality can be changed. Conversion therapy is considered a form of torture by the United Nations. This week, Victoria became the first Australian state to move to ban the practice, after an inquiry found it causes serious long-term harm.
Who believes it: There is considerable evidence that conversion therapy is still happening quietly and under the radar in Australia. Few public figures will explicitly defend conversion therapy, but it has many apologists, particularly among those on the religious right who argue that attempts to ban the practice infringe on freedom of religion.
For example, Australian Christian Lobby director Martyn Iles labelled Victoria’s decision to ban the practice as “the most insidious attack on Christians and their churches I have ever seen in Australia”. Last year, Liberal Party branches in Victoria tried to introduce a motion at the party’s state council meeting pushing for legislation to allow conversion therapy. Then state party president Michael Kroger had to intervene to stop the motion. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a devout evangelical, has refused to take a firm position on conversion therapy.
What they believe: That lines of vapour left in the air by planes are chemicals used by a shadowy cabal of governments to manipulate the weather, poison crops, and control populations. In many ways a predecessor of our current age of fake news and disinformation, the chemtrails conspiracy emerged in the 1990s through early online chat rooms and talk radio.
What the science says: There is no scientific evidence supporting the chemtrails theory. While geo-engineering (or attempts to modify the weather) do exist, they tend to be small and concentrated projects operating at a research stage. The white lines created by airplanes are just vapour.
Who believes it: Unsurprisingly, Alex Jones believes in chemtrails. He’s joined in the movement by C-grade actor turned 2000s-era meme Chuck Norris; reality TV personality Kylie Jenner; and, sadly, Prince. Facebook groups for believers have thousands of members, and in a recent US survey, 10% of respondents said the theory was true, while more than 20% said it was partially true.
What they believe: Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine dating back to the 18th century, based on the belief that substances which cause an illness in healthy people can be used, in highly diluted doses, to treat sick people.
What the science says: Homeopathy has long been discredited as pseudoscience. Any effects are, according to The Lancet, merely placebo. After a comprehensive review, the National Health and Medical Research Council concluded that there is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective, and that it should not be used to treat medical conditions.
Who believes it: Prince Charles is a vocal supporter of homeopathy, as are celebrities like Usain Bolt and Paul McCartney. British politics seems to have its share of supporters — Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn voiced some limited support in 2010 after he signed a parliamentary motion in favour of the National Health Service providing homeopathic treatments. On the Conservative side, then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt, a past supporter, asked the UK’s Chief Medical Officer to review industry-funded pro-homeopathy research.
Genetically modified food
What they believe: There is a lot of fear-mongering around genetically-modified (GM) crops. Much of it is related to concerns about the power of companies like Monsanto, that seek to use GM crops as a tool for domination of global agriculture with little regard for the environmental and health impacts they might cause.
What the science says: GM crops are no more harmful to your health than regular crops. The environmental impact of GM crops is slightly murkier; although in 2010, the US’ National Research Council found that they were slightly better for the environment than non-GM crops, with the caveat that over-reliance should be avoided. The upshot is that GM crops aren’t nearly as terrifying as many of their opponents claim, and in the context of an ever-worsening food crisis, might be essential to alleviating hunger around the world.
Who believes it: Much of the opposition to GM crops comes from environmental groups like Greenpeace. Activism from such groups was successful in getting GM crops banned in parts of Europe and Australia. Both Tasmania and South Australia currently ban the growing of GM crops. The Greens are generally opposed to GM crops, advocating a moratorium on their further release.