Marin-ated in Woo

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.


22 Responses to “Marin-ated in Woo”

  1. dvnutrix Says:

    Entertaining and disturbing. I shall look out for a copy of both The Serial and Vitamania.

  2. Liz Ditz Says:

    Let me add Esalen and the human-potential movement. And of course, the whole hippy thing.

    I am a native Californian and spent the 60s (well, my whole life, really) in the San Francisco Bay Area. While SF was hippy central, the wibble was deep in Lost Angeles, too.

    However, the first time I encountered homeopathy was in 1970, when a doctor prescribed a homeopathic remedy for my acute tonsillitis. In California? No, in France.

  3. draust Says:

    Hi Liz

    Yes, Esalen gets a name check in The Serial, as do both Werner Erhard and Gurdjieff.

    Talking of Esalen, there is a famous and very funny Esalen anecdote in Richard Feynman’s “Surely you’re Joking…” (the story is repeated in shortened form here).

    My family lived in the States in the late 60s when I was a kid (though never on the West Coast), and we are still the proud possessors of a copy of the Autumn ’69 (I think) Whole Earth Catalogue. There even used to be a family squash blossom necklace, though accounts differ as whether it was my father or my mother that used to wear it…

    You are right about homeopathy, which always had its deepest roots in Europe where it originated. Though Americans later contributed to homeopathic “thought” too, most notably the barkingly mad James Tyler Kent.

    Kent was a religious mystic who enthusiastically pushed the view that the cause of all illness was spiritual and related to disturbances of the “Vital Force”. He was also the guy who mainly set homeopaths on the path to infinitely dilute remedies; the point was that, if the illness was entirely spiritual, then a purely symbolic remedy (i.e. one with no physical ingredients beyond water) was the appropriate treatment as it had more “spiritual healing potency”.

    All this, of course, at the end of the 19th century when germ theory was becoming well-accepted. But Kent was wholly dismissive of germ theory and of “allopathic” medicine in general, a stance which homeopathy maintains to this day.

    It is my opinion, and that of a lot of other quackbuster types, that many (or even most) of the modern “lay” (non-medically qualified) homeopaths still believe in this “the cause of all illness is spiritual” line. However, they are cagey about saying this plainly (at least in public) and hide behind deliberately anodyne language like “homeopathy works with your body’s natural healing powers” or “homeopathy treats the whole person”.

  4. Liz Ditz Says:

    Speaking of new-age weirdness, don’t get me started on Waldorf Schools. Steinerian evolution, check. Past life experiences. Check. Treating children with homeopathy. Check.

  5. She-Liger Says:

    Waldorf School is the way to mutilate the intellect and psychology of child. It even worse that old (before 1987) Britain school.

  6. jdc325 Says:

    Ha – the old punk maxim was right then: “never trust a hippy”.
    I’d never come across ideas like lecithin deficiency or avoiding emulsifiers before now, but they are perfectly contradictory aren’t they?

  7. draust Says:

    Yes, you’re right jdc, I hadn’t thought of that – it is contradictory, isn’t it?

    Although… I suppose lecithin (commonly derived from egg-yolk) is a “natural” emulsifier and thus acceptable to (non-vegan?) nutritionistas (see e.g. here)… while “artificial” emulsifiers are ADDITIVES and therefore BAD.

    A quick read suggests the “artificial” emulsifiers will typically be compounds very like lecithin but with the chemical structure tweaked to make them more stable – e.g. acetyl esters of monoglycerides, rather than phosphoryl diglycerides like lecithin. To be an emulsifier a molecule really only has to be “amphipathic” (have both a hydrophilic and a hydrophobic bit).

    Of course, the idea of “artificial emulsifiers” being “toxic additives” is a boon to those who wish to believe people are trying to poison them…

  8. She-Liger Says:

    Nevertheless, it is enough a silly idea to explain today’s dominance of different quackery by means of idiotic serials. Don’t be angry, Doc, but it is too primitive philosophy, suitable rather for middlebrow ;)) And you are a scientist. Moreover, scientist, reading Feynman :))
    No… You could explain it better, if you thought about it deeply.
    Certainly, there were more serious and large events in the world, which had provoked the increasing of quackery in the world.

  9. Robert Estrada Says:

    I was born in San Francisco and grew up on the peninsula. I first read the works of J.R.R.Tolkein in the late 50’s(A gift to the colonials from a brit. friend of my parents) and thoroughly enjoyed them at 9-10 years of age. I was dumbfounded in the last half of the 60’s to find that my contemporaries were just reading them and trying to live in that fantasy. Too much vegetation being inhaled I guess. Much was made of the age of aquarius and the great wisdom of the east. I tried to get them to look at the way Hindu and Muslims frequently treated each other and to point them across the highway from Palo Alto to East Palo Alto and what that dichotomy indicated about the reality of our society but the haze of drugs seems to have obscured their vision. I think it still does.
    Robert Estrada

  10. draust Says:

    Thanks, Robert.

    It is really fascinating the way Tolkien’s books, especially The Lord of the Rings, were taken up by the late 60s counterculture in the US (it was far less marked in England, though Led Zeppelin did write a bunch of songs with Tolkien references in them, see here).

    Ace Books in the US produced a “bootleg” paperback edition of the LOTR in 1965, and then Ballantine hurriedly did an authorized US mass market edition the same year. I had a hunt around and you can see some of the cover artwork for these editions here. Anyway, the late 60s enthusiasm for Tolkien in the US is often traced to the “intersection” of these editions of the books with the times, although clearly that doesn’t entirely explain it.

    Although Tolkien was very grateful for the money from the US royalties, he was rather mystified by becoming a counter-culture hero. Of course, this is what you would expect for a man in his mid 70s whose thought-world was somewhere back in a kind of 6th century-ish imagined world of pre-Christian mythology. Plus he had lived almost all his adult life in a town (Oxford) which has never embraced the 20th century all that enthusiastically (I speak from experience).

    Personally I think the one area where Tolkien most clearly anticipated the counter-culture was his “green leanings”. He was certainly very pro a kind of environmental mysticism, and was once famously quoted (in the Oxford Times, as I remember) commenting that:

    “on the whole I much prefer trees to people”.

    The other author whose popularity with the counterculture I always found rather bizarre (not to say ironic) was Robert A. Heinlein. Of course, this was mostly just for Stranger in a Strange Land. But it is weird to think of the Heinlein of Starship Troopers also being the author a counter-culture classic like Stranger.

    My parents used to own the Age of Aquarius album, among other 60s artifacts. Of course, as a kid under ten in the 60s, the counter-culture aspect of the era was all lost on me – I was far more interested in the moon landings. I guess part of the reason I find it fascinating to look back at it all now through older eyes is that feeling of having been there but not aware of what was going on. My own memory of late 60s America is almost exactly encapsulated by the TV show The Wonder Years. When we first saw the show both my younger brother and I were completely transfixed, because it was like seeing a chunk of our childhood that we only dimly remembered being re-run in technicolour.

    There is always that sense with discussion of the 60s counterculture of “what happened to all that optimism, and the sense that the world was changing?” My favorite piece of writing about this is in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the “Wave Speech” at the end of Ch 8). Of course, one way to look at it is to say that the late 60s idealists were fooling themselves all along.

    What I personally find frustrating about the post late-60s New Agers is the total techno-rejection and the navel-gazing. In my view there were some definite insights to come out of the era, but too much of it has just fragmented into a kind of “the world’s a bad place, let’s just look within and study our inner spirituality”, which I find incredibly frustrating and defeatist. I have a lot more respect for the environmental lobby, who at least want to do something about changing the world, rather than just sitting around burbling about their right to get naturopathic medicine on insurance.

    Anyway, however one looks at it, it seems clear to me that a lot of what came out of the late 60s has been diverted rather futilely into New Age-ery in general, and Alt Medicine in particular. To take one other example, Andrew Weil, the most visible spokesman and proponent of US Alternative Medicine, is very clearly rooted in the counter-culture – in fact he did his medical residency in SF (at the UCSF Medical Centre) in the late 60s.

  11. She-Liger Says:

    Tolkien… :) It is almost Harry Potter :) Only for kids ;)
    Nevertheless it is interesting and engrossing “fairy-tales”. And even some adults love them. Generally such things can really stimulate in hyper-impressible people the interest in more dangerous nonsense, such as CAM. Especially in conditions of lack of more intellectual literature.

  12. Robert Estrada Says:

    I prefer to refer to the terminally introspective as omphalosceptics. I want to rap them on the head to snap them out of it.

  13. draust Says:

    Omphalosceptics – I like it.

    I’m tempted to try and come up with an analogous Greek-derived word to convey the insertion of one’s head “where the sun don’t shine”… a little project for another day.

  14. She-Liger Says:

    Project for WHOLE day?? Doc! :) Shame! ;)
    It’s elementary, Doc. It is job for 7 seconds!

    First version.
    “Scotos” – “a darkness” in Greek, “cephale” (“kephale”) – “a head” in Greek.

    Though – there is some nasty side in this word. “Scot” – is a coincidence with name of my favourite nation :) A hint about the stupidity of Scotchmen?

    Second version.
    “..where sun doesn’t shine”? It means “eclipse”!
    “An eclipse” – “ekleiptike” in Greek.

    Transctription: – [ekliptisefalus]
    Ecleipticephalus (sing.), ecleipticephali (plur.).

    It is better, isn’t it?

    [Edited to remove personal jibe]

  15. She-Liger Says:

    Ecleipticepahlus is a sort of “endarkenhead” :)

  16. draust Says:

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    I prefer “Scotocephalic”.

    Since the etymology is Greek I don’t think the Scots will be offended.

  17. She-Liger Says:

    Third version.
    Ecleiptanthrope or Ecleiptanthropus

    I hope it’s understandable ;) i.e. “endarkenman”

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