Archive for July 5th, 2008

Marin-ated in Woo

July 5, 2008

One of the abiding questions in the bad science fraternity is:

“Where on earth did all this Wibble come from?”

(“Wibble” being Dr John Crippen’s slightly more whimsical synonym for “Woo”)

There are all sorts of answers to this question.

One, of course, is that Woo/Wibble has always been with us. After all, Samuel_Hahnemann’s homeopathy is two hundred years old – as the homeopaths love to remind us, as if the persistence of an Alt.Reality belief system conferred any special legitimacy on it. And “Ancient Folk Wisdom” is, well, ancient – although it is necessary to note that much of what is nowadays being sold as “ancient folk healing wisdom” is nothing of the kind [1].

No. When Bad Science people ask “where does all the Woo / Wibble come from?”, they are usually asking two things.

Firstly, why is it so mystifyingly popular, given the advances science has made in understanding the natural world since the Enlightenment, and the progress that medicine has made in understanding and treating disease, especially over the last 50-60 years?

Secondly, who started this bizarre obsession with things like nutrition woo, ”Vitamania” and “Detox”?

A third question is where and when these ideas came to be so linked with the notion that embracing Woo is “empowering”, and is a statement of one’s freedom from corporate consumerism – something that is manifestly untrue, since Woo is a multi-billion dollar business, and is increasingly of interest to large companies.

I would like to suggest a possible answer to at least one or two of the above questions.

In answer to the question “Where on earth does it all come from”, I think I may have pinpointed the place – and as in so many things, it is all the fault of California.

Step forward, Marin County.

Or rather, lets step back to Marin County in the mid 1970s.

Because mid-70s, affluent, San Francisco Bay-area California seems to have been a key Woo-incubator.

If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure and wear some (Bach)_flowers in your hair

The best place to learn about the mid-70s Marin lifestyle is in one of the funniest satirical novels ever written about Californian (and, increasingly, global First World) obsessions, Cyra_McFadden’s brilliant The_Serial (subtitled “A year in the Life of Marin County”).

McFadden’s book is fondly remembered by those of us old enough to have read it in the 80s, or even the 70s. Last year, in a Guardian story about American health food chain Whole Foods Market opening up a Kensington outlet, Stephen_Bayley pithily described it thus:

“The best account of the hippy culture that gave rise to Whole Foods is Cyra McFadden’s superb 1977 cartoon novel, The Serial. Here she established an affinity between 12-speed bikes, high net worth, yoga, eternal life and the consumption of mung beans.”

And that gets close to the root of it. A lot of the first world craze for Alt Medicine has, in my view, to do with the angst that goes with being prosperous, relatively free of lethal threats to one’s life (whether disease epidemics or shooting wars), and yet still sneakingly aware that one is not immortal.

[Though to deal with this by obsessing about Alternative Reality in general, and CAM and nutritionism in particular, still seems strange to me. It always puts me in mind of the old joke: “Eating a vegan diet won’t make you live forever. It’ll just feel that way”]

The Serial was, as the name suggests, originally serialised in a local Marin County alternative newspaper in 1976-7. It is now sadly out of print [2]. This is a pity, since it skewers the pretensions and idiocies of worried wealthy middle-class navel-gazers like no other book I know, and would make salutary reading for anyone prone to embracing Alt.Reality as a result of their Affluenza..

The Wikipedia description of the book is a good introduction to it, but in case you can’t be bothered to click it:

Meet the Holroyds

The central characters of The Serial are Kate and Harvey Holroyd, a moderately prosperous and aspirational couple in their late 30s or therebouts who are having marital troubles. In the course of the book Kate and Harvey “explore their options”, both lifestyle- and relationship-wise, before ending up back together (just about).

On re-reading The Serial recently, and for the first time in around a decade, I was struck by the amount of stuff in it that would be instantly recognisable to regular readers of Holfordwatch, or indeed to anyone who peruses the “Lifestyle” sections of our national newspapers, or (for those of non-delicate disposition) Patrick Holford’s or Dr John Briffa’s websites.

Anyway, let’s get a taste of what the Marin-istas of the mid-70s were about.

Marlene and Harvey

The book’s single most nutrition-conscious character is Marlene, the ex-cheerleader that Harvey shacks up with during his “Sabbatical” from his marriage. Harvey meets Marlene at the check-out till in Safeway when she expresses horror at “the garbage” he eats:

“Do you know what white flour does to you?” she asked him… “It kills your enzymes”… (Ch 8).

Marlene soon moves in to Harvey’s bachelor pad, putting him on a punishing regime of (tantric?) sex, kelp and soya_milk, and sending him out in search of “organic fibre”. However, Harvey eventually begins to chafe at the new menu and the attendant beliefs:

“…Marlene was a raving fanatic about nutrition; she lectured Harvey endlessly about things like the body’s need for zinc, and wasn’t amused when he suggested amiably that they go out and chew on the Volvo bumper” (Ch 10)

Subsequently things turn a bit nasty when Marlene catches Harvey surreptitiously scoffing barbecue-flavour Fritos in the bathroom with the water running:

“First she screamed at him that if he was going to poison himself on chemical preservatives she “couldn’t be responsible”. Then she made him drink a quart of kefir to “neutralize the toxins”” (Ch 10).

Many other quintessential Altie enthusiasms also appear in the book: for instance, Vitamin E supplements (Ch 14); avoiding emulsifiers (Ch 20); ”bacon’s full of carcinogens” (Ch 24); lecithin deficiency (Ch 47). And there are more.

“Mind-body therapies” also feature; almost every character is “in therapy”, or, to put it in Marin-speak, “heavily into personal growth”. One character hands out gift certificates from the Physical Therapy Centre, which read:

“A new path to health has been opened to you…. May you continue to grow in balanced harmony…. Please Call to learn about your new options in life (Ch 51)

Children are not exempt

The 70s Marin gestalt also extends to children and child-raising. In the following excerpt ten year-old Che, son of one of Kate’s friends, has been sent away to holistic summer camp:

“When [Che]… broke out into a rash, envisioning himself brought to a rolling boil in the hot tub, his Surrogate Parent for the session made him drink a lot of lemon-grass tea. “Listen, Che,” said [his surrogate parent], “you’ve just made a conscious decision. You’re the one that decides to get sick or stay healthy. Listen, you want your body to call the shots?”

Che just wanted the camp to call [his mother] and tell her he’d forgotten his cortisone ointment. Maybe she’d come and bring it to him and he could hide out in the trunk of the Rover. Otherwise he was in for two more weeks of unstructured freedom that stopped short of “pharmaceuticals”…

Glumly, he consulted the bulletin board, listing the afternoon’s activities, posted outside the communal yurt:: belly dancing, spear fishing and herbal medicine. Che didn’t know what herbal medicine was but suspected lemon-grass tea was part of it.” (Ch 43)

Now it is impossible, I think, to not be struck by the correspondence between all this and the nonsense peddled daily in the “Health and Lifestyle” pages of newspapers, in the books of Holford et al., and on innumerable natural health websites. Lots of people are vaguely worried. And you can bet someone is going to sell them “the solution” to their worries, even if that solution is a bunch of bullshit.

Angst + Woo = ker-chinnng!

This is aptly summed up by an excerpt from one of The Serial’s earliest chapters (Ch 4), when Kate’s psychologist friend Leonard tries to persuade her to work on “getting clear” by attending a weekend at his retreat. Leonard lists services offered:

…he began to chant seductively. “Wholistic nutrition…hypnosis…biofeedback… massage”. Kate was beginning to hyperventilate when he added, in another voice entirely, “Friday night through Sunday noon. One hundred and fifty bucks if you crash in the dorm. Extra charge for the hot tub. I take Master Charge, Amex, all your major credit cards.”

Which shows that the basic schtick of Alternative Therapy has not changed all that much in the intervening thirty plus years.

It’s just that now you don’t have to take a trip to the West Coast. You and your bank balance can get taken for a (wholistic) ride in Hemel Hempstead. Or central London. Or even rural Yorkshire.

Now there’s progress for you. Just don’t forget to bring an open mind [3]. And a major credit card.


[1] The Quackometer has a brilliant summary of the modern origins of many varieties of purportedly “ancient wisdom” Woo here.

[2] Although various editions can still be found second-hand – see for instance here and here.

[3] “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out” – usually attributed to Richard_Feynman.