A mysterious woman in Belgrade, Serbia, massages ‘fresh’ horse placenta on sport stars injuries in her small apartment on the second floor. The treatment, rumored to cost thousands of Euros, is believed to accelerate the healing time.
Footballers such as Dutch striker Rob van Persie and Athletico Madrid’s Diego Costa have flown thousands of kilometers to attend Mariana Kovacevic’s practice.
Pseudoscience practices are prevalent around the world.
In Massimo Pigliucci’s book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk”, Pigliucci discusses the blinding effects of pseudoscience and the lengths people will go to implement their beliefs.
In 2000, AIDS denialists from around the world were invited to Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS advisory panel. The consensus of the former president of South Africa’s panel deemed AIDS and HIV to be nothing more than a harmless passenger virus.
The panel decided, despite irrefutable scientific evidence, that this passenger virus required no anti-retroviral (ARV) medication. Instead herbal medicines and beetroot treatments were endorsed by the Minister of Health, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
This would be similar to telling a cancer patient that they actually didn’t have cancer; they just needed more fruit.
This frightening and misguided decision doomed an estimated 330 000 people to an untimely death.
Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley was an integral part of Mbeki’s decision to shun Anti-retroviral medication. He himself was an AIDS denialist.
Pseudoscience, such as AIDS denialism, is any subject that “fails to meet the three criteria of naturalism, theory and empiricism. Yet even when all three of these checks fail, its supporters still insist there is no problem”, states Pigliucci.
Why did a respected scientist such as Duesberg play a role in this travesty of pseudoscience? Why did he not take into account the overwhelming scientific evidence?
Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, states that “it is all too easy to find at least some ‘experts’ who will defend almost any sort of nonsense”.
This is pseudoscience at its worst.
In 2006, thanks to ongoing petitions of civic groups and 81 leading scientists, Mbeki implemented ARV treatment in South Africa.
The Human Services Research Council (HSRC) survey showed that over 2 million people were on ARV treatment by mid-2012 in South Africa.
Pseudoscience in education
The Dover School Board in Pennsylvania attempted to implement their religious beliefs into the school’s curriculum in 2006. Intelligent design (ID) was to be installed into the curriculum and taught as a science.
Intelligent design is a pseudoscientific view that believes there is an intelligent or guiding hand that created the universe. It is a form of creationism, which, in 1987, was ruled by the Supreme Court to be a belief system and not a science.
“A field does not belong to science unless there are reasonable ways to test its theories against data,” states Pigliucci. In the case of ID, there is no way to test its theories therefore, it falls under pseudoscience.
The United States Constitution states that religion is not allowed to be taught in American public schools.
Against all odds, the Dover school board, fronted by Alan Bonsell, decided to push for the teaching of ID as a science. To promote their case, Bonsell recruited the help of the Discovery Institute, “a Seattle-based ‘think tank’ devoted to the promotion of intelligent design in public schools”, according to Pigliucci.
The Discovery Institute sent Bonsell an explanatory video that was “arranged to be shown to the teachers to ‘educate’ them about the real nature of ID”.
Bonsell and the Dover school board members were then taken to court. Judge Jones ordered the removal of ID from the science curriculum. The school board’s attempt to force their ideologies into education was denied due to laws protecting science from bunk. Judge Jones said, “To assert a secular purpose against this backdrop would be ludicrous”.
Ideological views tend to influence judgment and responsibility as was seen in the Dover case. Think tanks like the Discovery Institute have also become breeding grounds for bias.
Think tanks refer to “a specific kind of organization, namely, a private group, usually but not always privately funded, producing arguments and data aimed at influencing specific sectors of public policy”. Pigliucci goes on to say, “too often their political, ideological, and financial biases are not disclosed to the public, which gives them the misleading aura of being neutral, third-party experts.”
These factors make separating science from bunk that much more difficult.
In Tanzania, people from all walks of life pay large sums of money for Albino body parts, believing them to hold magical powers that will bring good fortune.
There is a common belief that “albinos are ghosts who are cursed but whose body parts can ward off bad luck and bring wealth and success”, according to the National Geographic.
Witch doctors sell Albino body parts as talismans to miners who “bury them where they’re drilling for gold and fishermen who weave albino hair into their nets”. This witchcraft in Tanzania kills thousands of innocent albinos, resulting in hundreds of albino children having to live under protection in guarded camps.
Albino camp in Tanzania. Photo: National Geographic
The title of astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark seems more apt than ever in Tanzania.
Sagan and Pigliucci both encourage people to learn critical or skeptical thinking to prevent pseudoscience tragedies such as these from happening.
Compared to the albino’s plight in Tanzania, the horse placenta treatment caused no serious harm to the footballers, except for their dignity. Diego Costa could only play for 7 minutes before having to come off after the ‘miraculous treatment’. On his departure from the field, one tweet read, “Horse placenta. Foal’s gold.”
Yet there are many who still swear by the treatment. There are even more who believe in dangerous, inhumane pseudoscience as mentioned in this article. Jumping on the band wagon is not an option and neither is sitting back. We should take inspiration from the truth seekers such as Pigliucci and Sagan, and remember the famous writer, Anatole France, who said, “If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
Anthony Molyneaux is a post-graduate journalism student and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.