The rise of fake scientists

Yesterday at lunch time, while I was sipping tea and casually going through Instagram stories to see what my friends were up to (not the best kind of work break, but we are human after all), I was shown an advert for a website I had never heard about before. It’s called Gaia, and it claims to offer “the largest online resource of consciousness-expanding videos — over 8,000 informative and enlightening films, original shows, yoga and meditation classes, and more that you won’t find anywhere else.”

Now, I’m all about expanding our consciousness by asking questions, seeking knowledge, and performing experiments. So the website piqued my interest. I really liked that the content seemed to be produced by experts in their respective fields, but I couldn’t recognize any names. So I did what anyone would (or should) do: I looked them up. The first one was Dr. Joe Dispenza, described as a neuroscientist, researcher, and New York Times bestselling author. Another one as Dr. Bruce Lipton, an “award-winning medical school lecturer and keynote speaker” and “internationally recognized stem cell biologist.”

But when I typed Dr. Joe Dispenza’s name and pressed enter, the first page didn’t show the usual Wikipedia and Google Scholar pages. Instead, I got a bunch of random self-promotional websites and YouTube videos of conferences he had held. Some of these videos are deeply disturbing: telling a woman to just think about how much she wants kids to fix her infertility; saying that we can achieve immortality — and that some human beings have achieved it — by truly “living in the present.”

And the credentials? His website is incredibly vague: “Dr. Joe holds a Bachelor of Science degree and is a Doctor of Chiropractic. His postgraduate training includes the fields of neuroscience and neuroplasticity, quantitative electroencephalogram (QEEG) measurements, epigenetics, mind-body medicine, and brain/heart coherence.” Most scientists will agree this does not make you a neuroscientist. Also, a Bachelor of Science in what, exactly? Why withhold that information?

Down the rabbit hole

A little bit more digging, and I found this on the website of Quantum University, where he is currently teaching: “Dr. Joe Dispenza, D.C., studied biochemistry at Rutgers University and also holds a B.S. degree with an emphasis in Neuroscience. Dr. Dispenza received his Doctor of Chiropractic Degree from Life University in Atlanta, Georgia, graduating magna cum laude.” Again, very vague, and it definitely doesn’t seem to check the boxes for what is considered being a neuroscientist, namely: holding a PhD degree in neuroscience or neurology, and actively conducting research or working in a clinical setting.

Let’s unpack all of this a little bit. First, “D.C.” means “Doctor of Chiropractic”, which can be a bit confusing. The term “Doctor” is not protected in most countries. Anyone could call themselves a doctor. Generally, though, it’s acceptable to use the term if you are either a medical doctor or if you hold a PhD. But now, imagine you are on a plane, in need of medical assistance, and yell: “Please, is there a doctor on board?” You are probably not looking for a Doctor in Corporate Law or a Doctor in Geology. That’s where the term “D.C.” is contentious: some people consider that a Doctor of Chiropractic does not make one an actual medical doctor.

That’s probably the part I care the least about in that (I think intentionally vague) biography. He earned a doctorate and wants to call himself a doctor, why not, as long as he’s not the only doctor on your plane next time you have an emergency.

Let’s look at the next claim. Dr. Joe Dispenza “studied biochemistry at Rutgers University” — did he graduate? We will never know, and the language suggests he did not. He also “holds a B.S. degree with an emphasis in Neuroscience.” What percentage of what he studied was focused on neuroscience? Again, we don’t know. He could have taken one introductory class, and the statement would still hold. A typical case of not even wrong.

Finally, his Chiropractic Degree is from Life University, an institution which has lost its accreditation in the past for poor teaching methods. Strangely, the Wikipedia page has been scrubbed of any mention of this event. If you check the discussion section, a reviewer says: “Removed now really dated section on ‘controversy’ as the school has been under totally new direction and management since then and it’s nearly ten years since the issue over accreditation.” Which is not aligned with the way Wikipedia works. Did we delete Henry VIII’s page because it’s been centuries he shuffled through so many wives?

I’m a big fan of citizen science, and I don’t think conducting scientific experiments should be limited to degree holders — that would stupidly slow down our progress — but I’m not a big fan of people who make up credentials for themselves so they can better sell snake oil to desperate people. And, above all, I’m a big fan of transparency — not withholding information, and giving people free access to your background, data, and context so they can judge your results for themselves.

So where does Dr. Joe Dispenza fare when it comes to scientific honesty and transparency? I will let you be the judge, but I will share my opinion: not so great. Dr. Harriet Hall, better known as The SkepDoc, writes: “He is a New Age woo-monger, a gullible believer in an imaginary ‘Quantum Field’ that supposedly responds to human thoughts and intentions. He was featured in the reprehensible movie What the Bleep Do we Know. He has no evidence to support his claims, only testimonials, fanciful hypotheses, and speculations.”

I don’t think I will do a better job as the comment section of this article, but to give you a quick overview of Dr. Joe Dispenza’s teachings: according to him, we can heal anything with the placebo effect (even fractured cervicals and cancer, and really anything as long as you really want it), and we can create our own reality with our mind. This is also a good overview of his philosophy.

I thought I got luckier when looking up Dr. Bruce Lipton — there was a Wikipedia page. Except that I was greeted with this: “He claims that beliefs control human biology rather than DNA and inheritance. Lipton’s contentious claims have not received attention from mainstream science.” That doesn’t prevent Dr. Bruce Lipton from being prominently featured on Gaia’s website and to host popular conferences all year-round. What’s going on here?

A web of pseudoscience

Turns out, there is a whole ecosystem of publishers and authors promoting “alternative science”, often linked to the “New Thought” movement, sometimes called the “mind-cure” movement. Some common beliefs within this movement include the law of attraction (according to which “we attract whatever we desire or expect”), the existence of a life energy (which is impossible to detect or measure with conventional scientific means), and spiritism (humans and other living beings are essentially immortal spirits).

These are not so different from many precepts you will find in major religions. The worrying part is the scientific claims made by the New Thought movement, and in particular the ideas surrounding health and wellness. Practitioners of the New Thought movement are encouraged to use positive thinking as a treatment for all human disease. While a patient’s mental state certainly has an impact on their well-being, there is no evidence for being able to cure any disease just by wishing so — and such claims may be unnecessarily dangerous by making a patient forego traditional, empirically-demonstrated treatments.

If only these teachings were niche; but they are not. Hay House, which exclusively publishes books from New Thought authors, generates over $100 million in annual revenue. Hay House promotes the idea that “traditional Western learning, as codified by universities that bestow fancy degrees, is woefully incomplete, sometimes harmful, and must be supplemented by other ways of knowing.” Authors include Deepak Chopra, Tavis Smiley, Sylvia Browne (who claims to be a medium with psychic abilities), and, you guessed it, Dr. Joe Dispenza and Dr. Bruce Lipton.

Book titles include Love is the Strongest Medicine, The Law of Positivism, Thyroid Healing, The Power of Vital Force, Turn Autism Around, Healing the Prostate… One book about cancer states: “Drawing from the most up-to-date and rigorous research, as well as his deep faith, Chris provides clear guidance and continuous encouragement for his healing strategies, including his Beat Cancer Mindset; radical diet and lifestyle changes; and means for mental, emotional and spiritual healing.”

The publishing company was founded by Louise Hay, a member of the First Church of Religious Science. Other New Thought organizations include the Church of Divine Science and the Global Religious Science Ministries. Many promote the idea of “sickness as a mental error” which can be fixed with prayers. That’s again where the New Thought movement is more dangerous than it looks: by blurring the lines between science and religion, it promotes dangerous practices that may give hope to people (that’s a good thing) at the expense of their health (that’s the bad thing).

In the words of a Christian Science practitioner published in the New York Times: “Christian Science treatment is practiced most effectively when not combined with medication, and experience has shown this to be true.” You read that right: promoters of the New Thought movement are actively telling people to forgo medication and to use Christian Science prayers instead.

Thanks to the internet, such ideas are now being disseminated through YouTube and specialized platforms such as Gaia, which charges $99 per year to watch unlimited videos about (these are the tags on their website) energy healing, alternative realities, channeling, forbidden science, psychic abilities, emotional healing, aliens, and more. At least, such topics make it relatively easy to spot the pseudoscientific nature of the content. But it’s not always that clear, especially when people use fake credentials and complex vocabulary to sound more authoritative.

How to spot fake scientists

Again, you don’t need credentials to conduct science. Anyone can technically conduct scientific experiments in their living room, discover new plant species on their daily walk, or tackle one of the many unsolved problems in mathematics.

However, fake scientists purposely deceive their audience by inflating their credentials, making false claims disguised as based on scientific evidence, and often profiting from the despair of people who have been disappointed by the results of mainstream science.

Pay attention to the following red flags to spot fake scientists:

  • All the material about their work was produced by themselves or their teams. If you cannot find a third-party source about their work, such as a Wikipedia page or article in a trustworthy publication, you may doubt the famous scientist you are looking at is as renowned in the scientific community as they claim to be. Please note that having a Wikipedia page does not necessarily make someone an honest scientist either, but when everything on the internet about their work is created by the person themselves, it may be that they are spending more time and money on self-promotion than scientific research.
  • No peer-reviewed research. It’s not a good sign if you do a quick search in Google Scholar and nothing comes up.
  • A vague biography that leaves out important information such as their alma mater. Remember how intentionally unclear the biography of Dr. Joe Dispenza was? This is a classic modus operandi of fake scientists. Take the website of Dr. Shannon Irvine, which mentions several times her PhD in neuropsychology, but never includes the name of the university. A bit of research and you will find out that she studied online at Walden University, which doesn’t offer a degree in neuropsychology, and is not accredited for its psychology courses.
  • Made-up scientific terms not used by anyone else in the scientific community. For instance, Idriss Aberkanne is known to have coined the term “neurowisdom” in his book Free up your mind! which was described by neurology researcher Sebastian Dieguez as “an uninterrupted succession of isolated facts, of pointless detours, anecdotes and personal opinions, elementary mistakes, debunked ‘theories’, truisms, hyperboles and aphorisms, which do not make for good science education.”

There is of course no sure-fire way to know for certain whether you are looking at the work of an honest scientist, especially if you are not an expert in their particular field, but these signs taken in combination can be a good indication to proceed with caution. Especially when the research topic is around health and wellness, teaching yourself and your loved ones to be skeptical can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

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