An active public debate about women’s health practices flared up recently on social media. Writers who criticized pseudoscientific practices and products found themselves under attack as “anti-women.” Under its 21st-century surface, there were echoes of fervent arguments that go far back in history to early questions about the philosophy and the very meaning of science.
In November, Scientific American published a blog post titled “Doctors Are Not Gods,” by an independent journalist, Jennifer Block. Scientific American quickly retracted the piece — correctly, in my view. (The archived version, however, lives on.) It focused on criticizing the personality and opinions of Jen Gunter, a well-respected obstetrician and gynecologist, champion for women’s rights, regular New York Times contributor and author of The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina — Separating the Myth from the Medicine. Block voiced displeasure about Gunter’s frequent criticism of the pseudoscience that underpins many of the health-related products and methods promoted by Gwyneth Paltrow’s media conglomerate, Goop — such as vaginal steaming and the use of yogurt for yeast infections.
Three months later, in February, the ideas of the retracted article were resurrected by Block, along with Elisa Albert, in an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Who’s Afraid of Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop? The Long History of Hating on ‘Woo.’” This time, however, there was no mention of Gunter — though there was a nod to her fellow Goop-battler Timothy Caulfield, professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta and author of The Science of Celebrity…or Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?
The central thesis of both articles was that it is an act of “patriarchal devaluation” to criticize women’s claims of health benefits from products derived from Goop and, more broadly, to dismiss other forms of pseudoscientific thinking — such as embracing or relying on intuitive thinking or magical thinking that violates the laws of nature.
The social media melee that ensued not only reflected a projection of anti-medical-establishment sentiments that were concentrated and unfairly launched toward Gunter and Caulfield in the guise of ad hominem attacks. It also unearthed a deeper war of ideas about the meaning of philosophical constructs such as science, pseudoscience, feminism and lived experience.
Women deserve better evidence-based health care, not pseudoscience
There are egregious problems with the idea that it is anti-women to fight against pseudoscientific health ideology. The war and demarcation between science and pseudoscience is a complex one, with decades of philosophical literature devoted to the topic. But the use of quasi-medical procedures — such as insertion of jade eggs into the vagina and coffee into the rectum — is not complex. There is no medical theory or research that supports such procedures, and the scientific refutation of any anecdotally reported benefits has nothing to do with feminism.
Make no mistake: there is well-documented bias in health sciences research with respect to sex-based differences, and this bias can threaten the validity of particular scientific findings. These structural problems within science must be addressed and corrected in order for evidence-based health care to make a more inclusive and powerful impact for women. But the existence of these alarming biases does not mean that alternative systems of knowledge, or “other ways of knowing,” are reliable and valid when it comes to health, which is precisely why our ethical standards of practice adopt a scientific and evidence-based approach.
A Trojan horse
It is careless and dishonest to claim that advocates of science and evidence-based health care are anti-women by virtue of their work debunking pseudoscientific health claims. Is it anti-women to disbelieve women who claim that they are impacted by their astrological sign? Of course not. The argument is a Trojan horse: it invites empty discussion about feminism and lived experience, but in reality, it is masking a pseudoscientific agenda.
At best, the argument rests on a logical fallacy called a false equivalence by equating the rejection of women’s personal health anecdotes with oppressive acts against women. But the more detrimental impact of this fallacy is to trivialize women’s health and advocacy for it. In fact, it might be argued that the truly anti-women position in this controversy is the hijacking of the construct of lived experience — a source of self-knowledge with a valuable role in the scientific method — by using it as an ideological weapon that puts women at medical risk and undermines legitimate advocacy efforts for the interests of women.
It is a cheap trick to cloak pseudoscientific ideas in feministic doublespeak. It is doubly ironic to elevate these ideas by assassinating the character of those — especially women — who advocate for women’s health and for true science.
Photo: Shutterstock, By Gusak