In this episode, I talk with Matt Brignall, ND, about how the natural health movement has been co-opted over the past 3 decades by capitalist interests, as well as what we can all do to counter Covid pseudoscience and antivax. My post below builds out from some of the podcast, focusing on science communication; Monsanto; and right-wing influence into the antivax movement (links at the end).
Bio: Matt Brignall, ND is a naturopathic doctor in Tacoma, Washington. He currently works in a community-based primary care practice. For nearly 20 years, he was a professor in the naturopathic training program at Bastyr University. He left because he felt that the alternative medicine community was losing its ethical bearings, and becoming a threat to individual and public health. In addition to his practice, he is currently working as part of the Medical Reserve Corps COVID-19 response team. Matt is the parent of a 20-year-old daughter with Rett syndrome, and is active in disability advocacy.
The Episode: I was really glad to talk to Matt because we come from similar backgrounds and we have both witnessed the natural foods/health movement, which was once mostly about supporting workers and farmers, now being co-opted by corporate interests who’ve morphed it around a model of personal “wellness,” complete with gurus telling people which snake oil products to buy (and earning billions from it). We also addressed how, in Covid times, predatory right wing interests are leveraging people’s fears to build momentum for political and white- supremacist movements.
Persuasion across differences: Matt and I talked about science communication; namely, how do we really convince people, within our own families and communities, to steer clear of the toxicity of the Mercola/Natural News empire, to detect pseudoscience and to understand the importance of vaccinating? There is a clear need for more compassion and compromise, for the sake of persuasion and also for preventing radicalization. We need to stop the divisiveness between science and anti-science because this divisiveness only serves to make things worse.
Matt’s website, NDs for Vaccines, offers a wealth of information for naturopaths as well as consumers on the safety and the need for vaccines. It’s really about creating an environment to find common ground and solutions– that might not always be the solutions we want in a perfect world, but which are realistic and bring us closer to public health goals.
In my own family and community (homeschool community), I follow these guidelines: choose wisely who I want to spend energy discussing this with (not trolls!); focus on common perspectives; mainly lead by example (talk about what my own family is doing and why, rather than “should-ing” on people); never call names or make fun of a person; focus on conversing with people I know personally; and show flexibility (e.g., be open to solutions that aren’t my perfect solution).
Monsanto & the problem of orthodoxies: Monsanto “millennial engagement” campaign (which I reference in the podcast) is an example of how corporate influence on our community really diluted a central message about vaccine safety. Much like Mercola & Company co-opted the natural health movement, so did players like Monsanto attempt to infiltrate issue/interest-based social media groups (environmental, pro-vax, STEM) to develop an association between their product and a range of science-based movements—seeming to want to create a “science orthodoxy” in which supporting their corporate brand was central to being a good scientific comrade.
Journalist Kavin Senapathy observed the following dynamic from Vance Crowe, Monsanto’s Director of the initiative: “Crowe preached a scientific gospel of GMOs that went something like this: If you’re pro-science, you must be pro-GMO. If you’re anti-Monsanto, then you’re anti-GMO. Therefore, if you’re anti-Monsanto, you’re anti-science. His objective, it seemed, was to render opposition to GMOs as ridiculous as belief in Bigfoot, and to amass a movement that could be counted on to shout that message from the rooftops.”
Monsanto’s intrusion into specific science-related groups created credibility problems for the groups, especially vaccine-focused groups. At the height of it, vaccines and Monsanto had become mixed in some dialogues, as if one couldn’t support vaccines without uncritically supporting Monsanto. We now know much of the GMO rhetoric had been planted in science groups by the company itself and that a few of high-profile “pro-science” voices were actively promoting the Monsanto brand. Going forward, we should all take care to stay on topic if we want to be persuasive (e.g., climate change, vaccines) rather than demanding adherence to completely unrelated belief systems, especially when these focus around a brand.
Re-open protests and the radical right
Much like Monsanto’s approach, pseudoscience purveyors like Mercola/Natural News and Del Bigtree’s enterprise infiltrated counter-cultures on social media (including the home ed community) in an attempt to institute a sort of orthodoxy that conveniently includes supporting their brand. Within that belief system, if you have a nuanced perspective on nearly anything, you’re just a sheeple.
Ironically, Mercola, Bigtree and other leaders require a fairly sheep-like adherence to their belief system. This is deeply disturbing, especially as antivaccine and vaccine-hesitant groups have been drifting further to the right wing politically, particularly since their views are currently being validated by the current US administration (see links, below.) Followers are not just being told how to buy anymore. They are also being told how to vote.
Political groups like the Tea Party have been promoting and leveraging the re-open protests for their own agendas and sometimes for a corporate agenda (see links, below). And we are now dealing with the US President normalizing what were formerly seen as fringe, pseudoscience views. Examples include Trump’s supportive comments about antivax, and his seeming to recommend products like MMS bleach for Covid which “wellness guru” Mercola also endorses. (See my OpEd about this in the links below.)
In many ways, corporate interests and the radical right have been working together to radicalize antivax, home ed and other traditionally non-partisan groups towards the far right (see links at end). Beyond the grassroots communities, right wing lawmakers in the US–and at least one far-right political party and the Yellow Vests movement in Canada are also leveraging the alienation within antivax communities to recruit new members (see links below).
Social media is a key pathway for this. It seems like good news this week that Natural News was removed from the Facebook platform… but these groups can also move to new, even less-regulated platforms, and of course they even have a bigger platform now within some powerful political movements. Those of us working against pseudoscience and/or in antifascism really have our work cut out for us.
As Matt states: “We’re really only in chapter 2 or 3 of a very long book.”
Links from the podcast:
Inside Monsanto’s Millennial Outreach GMO campaign
New York Times: Donald Trump and Covid Pseudoscience (I co-wrote this OpEd!)