The Depths of Ms McKeith’s Anti-Science

It’s been a bad week for Gillian. The anti-quackery blogging brigade have been partaking in bouts of the great British pastime of uncontrolled Schadenfreude (why did we leave it to the Germans to coin that term?) after the Advertising Standards Authority stopped Gillian McKeith as advertising herself as ‘Dr Gillian’. The Guardian printed a huge article by Ben Goldacre about how she is a ‘Menace to Science’ and how her particular brand of nutrionism is deeply anti-science and harmful.

Is there anything else left to say on the subject? One thing that Ben and Gillian’s defenders have in common is their belief that, in many ways, it is immaterial by what title she calls herself. Obviously, her use of the title offends the many hardworking PhDs who have sweated and slaved to use their title in order to try to secure upgrades at airport check-ins. But if her advice leads to people eating more sensible diets then surely ‘all’s well that end’s well’? That would be fine. But Gillian just speaks nonsense at people. Her thoughts on chlorophyll and food colour have been well addressed as non-scientific silliness. If people take her seriously, then how do they know what is good advice and what is rubbish? Therein lies the problem.

My contribution to the debate is going to be to show just how deep her embrace of anti-science is. I don’t think even Ben has described just how far she is prepared to go. She does not just embrace the language of science in a pseudoscientific way, but is also quite prepared to get into bed with a deep anti-science agri-woo in order to sell her products. Let’s just look at one of her products for sale on her web site: Veggie Vitality, available in 200ml quantities for £1.79. Her description reads…

My Veggie Vitality is produced to BioDynamic and Organic principles. BioDynamic is the highest standard for food excellence in the World today. These dedicated farmers grow their vegetables holistically according to the rhythms of the earth, sun, moon and stars. Using mineral-rich composted soil, natural homeopathics, soft music, happy conversation and meditation for the enjoyment of the crops, BioDynamicfarmers garner the perfect vibrational energy to help me create the most delicious vegetable juice ever made.

In itself, this description is pretty scary – holistic, organic, homeopathic, happy conversations – but the really kooky stuff is a little under the covers. Apparently, this drink is made to BioDynamic standards, which is supposed to be some sort of pinnacle of food excellence. Let’s look at what this actually means.

Biodynamics is a farming method that was the precursor of the now popular organic food movement. Supporters of Biodynamics still stick to the founding fathers’ original ideals of how farming should be done. If you are easily frightened, do not read on. This stuff is off with the fairies.

First the easy bit. Biodymanics believes that you should re-use stuff from the farm as fertilizer and not import chemicals and so on. Treating pests should also be done with readily available and local materials. There ends the fairly sane stuff.

Using any old horse shit as fertilizer is not good enough though. You have to ‘activate’ it using a number of formulated preparations. Let me describe a few to you…

  • Filling a cow horn with crushed quartz and burying it in the field you wish to help.
  • Yarrow flowers are stuffed into the bladder of a Red Deer and then buried over-winter before digging up in Spring
  • Oak bark is stuffed into the skull of a dead cat, or other domestic animal, and then also buried in peat
  • Chamomile flowers are stuffed into cattle intestines and buried in Autumn.

Once retrieved, the resultant gunge is used in teaspoon sized quantities on the whole dung heap to add special ‘life-forces’. Other flower preparations, similar to Dame Mossop’s Phytobiophysics, in near homeopathic concentrations, can also be used for the same effect.

It gets better. If you have an infestation of field mice, then catch a few, ceremoniously burn the little buggers, and then sprinkle the ashes around, but do this only when Venus is in Scorpio. (I am serious.)

What is quite clear is that Gillian’s ‘highest standard for food excellence’ is little more than a mystical collection of nostalgic wishful thinking, voodoo, astrology and quackery. Her carrot and cucumber juice has to be that expensive as the farm workers are spending significant amounts of their time killing cats, stuffing stinging nettles into cow’s squelchy bits, digging holes in peat bogs to bury this stuff, consulting astrological charts, succussing homeopathic preparations, and not forgetting to run around catching mice and the burning them at the stake. And she wants to be called Doctor.

Unless you wear purple a lot, I doubt I have to convince you that Biodynamics is at the nuttier end of the organic food movement (but not that far off in my opinion). Nonetheless, the issues that the organic farmers are trying to address, such as land use and animal care, are serious and need good answers. However, they do not get these answers by clinging to magical thinking. How do we make best use of our land, without cutting down more forest, and still produce the yields to feed everyone? How do we ensure our crops reliably grow every year so that disease, climate change and flooding do not produce regular shortages? How do we ensure that our soils can grow the yield of crops we need, year on year? How do we make sure that crop growing is energy effiecient and that the food on our table is not producing ridiculous amounts of greenhouse gasses in the field-to-table process?

Whilst mincing around with astrological charts, skulls and quartz crystals is going to be fun at Glastonbury Festival this year (my prediction – the Police will headline), it is not going to produce a reliable and sufficient amount of food, year on year, in the challenging times ahead. Only science can tell us the right and wrong paths to take. Superstition, nonsense and wishful thinking will only cloud our judgements and add to the confusion. Only serious enquiry and hard choices will steer us around the problems. Does GM have a role? How do we protect seed stocks? What energy sources should we use? These are serious questions that will affect the health of millions, if not billions, of people over the coming decades. This is for real and is a long way removed from the middle-class shit-poking, superfood obsessing, bullying and nonsense-promotion of the TV and Sunday Supplement nutriquacks.

Ms McKeith’s anti-science is not helping us on this most critical journey.

On this theme…

8 Comments on The Depths of Ms McKeith’s Anti-Science

  1. “cattle intensities” — I think you mean intestines, unless you’re talking about some particularly woo form of cow vibration.

    Interestingly, I was first told about biodynamics by a friend who’s a wine merchant (and an engineer by training). He worked on a biodynamic vineyard for a while and swears that despite the clear lunacy of their methods, they must be doing something right by accident, because the movement is renowned for making some bloody good wine…

    Andrew.

  2. Thanks Andrew for the sp.! Corrected.

    On your main point I would say that, yes, I am sure that any form of low-intensity farming (I will resist calling it organic) has the potential to create a superior product. However, production costs will be higher and hence, we have to ask if this approach will ever be little more than an indulgent choice of the middle-classes? Can low-intensity farming offer good food for the many, the poor, and the developing world without using huge amounts of natural resources in land, water and labour? Does good animal husbandry only come at the cost of wildlife and forests?

    Questions like these are important, and the low-intensity farmers have a role to play in answering them. However, if they base their knowledge on astrology, witchcraft and quackery, it is not going to be a very sensible debate, is it?

    The Organic Movement and the Soil Association still have strong vestiges of this sort of mumbo-jumbo. They are not evidence-based approaches, but prefer to fossilise much of their ‘standards’ on the early thoughts of people like Rudolf Steiner and the Biodynamics movement. I think it is a big shame that the vanguards of progressive farming have been hijacked by supporters of irrational philosophies and marketing myths.

  3. “However, production costs will be higher and hence, we have to ask if this approach will ever be little more than an indulgent choice of the middle-classes?”

    Well indeed — more suited to, for example, making nice wine in whatever hocus-pocus manner, than to feeding Africa or stopping Western childhood obesity.

    Andrew.

  4. I loathe Mckeith and everything she and her litigious husband stand for (ie the suppression of science for personal gain) – and share your opinions about the need for science to maintain / optimise our rusty old food chain in the very difficult times ahead; but once again, you’re missing the main target.

    The real threats to food security are climate change (probably), and very certainly, the current push for biofuel, driven by the increasingly irrational neo-conservatives and industrialists who dominate USA policy, which is distorting global food production. In 2006, US farmers diverted 14m tonnes, or 20% of the whole maize crop, for ethanol for vehicles. This took millions of hectares of land out of food production and nearly doubled the price of maize. US exports of maize are 70% of the world total, and are used widely for animal feed. The shortages have disrupted livestock and poultry industries worldwide, and are driving up food global prices. This in turn is causing instability in a number of 3rd world countries, and contributing to serious malnutritional issues.

    As Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute thinktank, recently pointed out, “The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its 2 billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue.”

    Now why don’t you tackle a few of the serious themes? Homeopaths and quacks are easy targets …
    paul C

  5. btw – didn’t mean to give the impression to lay off the mckeiths of this world – I just think you should put them in context. They are a relatively small evil, as i see it.
    paul C

  6. paul C – I get a lot of comments like this. Usually along the lines of ‘what about the evils of XXXX?’ [insert pet evil here]. Now, I may well agree that XXXX is evil and needs to be tackled, but this logic suggests that the only important and legitimate issues to comment on are what someone else sees as the most important.

    This is a web site about quackery. I hope it can be judged in that context.

    And I do think that the undermining of the respect for science by the likes of McKeith is a very central problem. Rational thought is not an optional extra in solving big problems. Science gets chipped away at in the margins and then makes it impotent in the big issues. We see many ‘leaders’ using the rising anti-science (or endarkenment) to promote their own agendas.

    Just doing my bit.

  7. You’re spot on about the endarkenment – the current tide of anti-science, a significant amount of which seems to emanate from the USA, is a betrayal of some of the best of the (chequered) history of our species, and must be resisted whenever and wherever a new front opens up.

    I take your point also about the main focus of your blog being quackery; we all have to cultivate our own jardin. And yet …

    I can’t help feeling that your excellent criticism of the Mckeiths of this world would look better if placed in a slightly larger context. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the narrowness of your focus undermines the strength of the important case that you are making. As I tried to imply.
    Paul C

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