May 29 2012

Modern Medical Zombies

There was a lot of buzz over the long weekend within skeptical circles about a recent article by Mike Adams of Natural News infamy about the coming zombie apocalypse. In the article Adams, who is notorious among skeptics as a conspiracy theorist and promoter of every sort of dubious medical medical claim, reports the story of a Miami man who was shot by police because he was eating the face off another man and would not stop when instructed to do so.

Let me say right off that I get that Adams is being tongue-in-cheek through most of his article. He is using the current cultural fascination with zombies as a metaphor for the kind of medical zombies he thinks modern society is creating. I understand the use of satire and metaphor, and have done so myself on occasion. But I have also learned to be crystal clear about it (and even then you run the risk of being misinterpreted). I found Adam’s article, however, to blend points he was seriously trying to make with distortions and metaphors in a very unclear way. It doesn’t help that his serious points are themselves conspiracy mongering and fear mongering nonsense.

Here, I think, is the actual point Adams is trying to make:

Humans who subject themselves to fluoride, aspartame, psychiatric drugs, vaccines and street drugs end up lobotomizing their higher brains. Vaccines, for starters, cause extreme neurological damage, and some vaccines are actually made of aggressive viruses designed to “eat” targeted regions of the brain, resulting in a biological lobotomy.

See what I mean? Adams occupies that part of CAM world that is anti-government, conspiracy mongering, and anti-medical establishment. Those imperatives seem to trump science and reason at every turn. The anti-fluoride community is a very vocal minority who have had some success in scaring communities away from a safe and effective public health measure. They employ misinformation, distortion, and half-truths to fear-monger about fluoride.

Aspartame is another common internet conspiracy meme – right up Adam’s alley. Fear mongering around aspartame usually involves the claim that it turns into methanol and formaldehyde (a claim Adam’s repeats in the article). This is an excellent example of distortion and misrepresentation of the fact. Aspartame is indeed metabolized into amino acids, methanol, formaldehyde and then formic acid, which is ultimately converted into water and carbon dioxide. This is all part of the normal metabolic pathways by which foods are broken down, used, and excreted. Many foods we eat also pass through formaldehyde on their metabolic journey in our body. There is nothing special about aspartame in this regard.  Further, studies have shown that asparatame is completely safe (as long as you don’t have phenylketonuria).

Fear mongering about aspartame is classic scientific distortion, similar to the dihydrogen monoxide satire. The satire, in fact, is so perfect and effective because it is just a slight exaggeration of the kind of fear mongering that conspiracy theorists like Adams create.

It’s interesting that Adams goes on to mention street drugs, because the article he linked to about the Miami man found eating the face of another man explained that it was almost certainly the result of the use a designer drug called bath salts. (The news article said it was a new form of LSD, but actually its mephedrone, an amphetamine-like stimulant.) The drug causes high fever, hence victim are often found naked as they strip down to cool off. It also causes violent delirium. While Adams is using the term “labotomizing” in a vague and sensationalist manner, this is the only time he comes close to the truth. Some street drugs do damage the brain and can cause violent behavior or acute delirium. The news story is actually a cautionary tale against abusing recreational drugs and the dangers of some street drugs in particular.

Psychiatric drugs are an entirely different animal. They are tested and used in specific controlled doses by trained professional to treat bothersome mental symptoms and disorders. I won’t get into another discussion of mental illness denial here – you can see my previous posts on the topic.

And of course Adams focuses special attention on vaccines, repeating the anti-vaccine pseudoscience about vaccines causing “extreme neurological damage.” Again, I refer readers to my many previous posts on the topic – to summarize, aside from very rare reactions, there is no evidence of neurological damage from the use of vaccines. The bit about some vaccines being made from brain-eating viruses is simply pure nonsense. Most vaccines are made using only parts of viruses or inactivated viruses, and therefore do not have the potential to cause any infection themselves (Adams also says “made of” not “made from”). There are some vaccines that are made with live attenuated viruses – viruses that have essentially been cultured to be weak forms of the virus, and are by definition no aggressive. There is no vaccines that contains an aggressive virus that attacks the brain – so it is hard to characterize that statement from Adams as anything other than a bold lie.

Conclusion

While Adam’s article was not literally about the coming of the walking dead, it was just as crazy and unscientific. He concludes:

I suppose that at some deep gut level, most people realize our civilized world is crumbling. The abandonment of law and common sense in the United States (and, heck, the UK too) is just one such sign…

What he lists as evidence for this is just confirmation bias. If you look at the world through the filter of conspiracy theories, then everything seems to support your conspiracies. He is thinking on a “gut” level – i.e. without any evidence of metacognition, skepticism, or any apparent critical thinking.

Ironically I think that Adams’ approach to the questions he addresses are “zombie like” in that he is thinking and reacting on a very primitive intellectual level, and is failing to employ the higher metacognitive practices that would make someone question what their gut tells them.

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