To tackle a conspiracy theory, you have to find it first | Brigid Delaney’s diary


Technology has liberated the spread of information and enabled like-minded people to come together to share their views. But it can make them harder to argue with too

When researching my book Wellmania (available in all good book shops, and some bad ones), I spent many months immersed in online fasting communities. Their system of belief was whole, coherent and logical – to them. But their beliefs about toxins, the digestive system, cellular biology and the spread of disease in the body were totally unrelated to the philosophies and findings of modern medicine. And often dangerous.

Theories were grabbed from here and there – including the Hindu Vedas and the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca – who believed fasting both provided a rest for the body and a discipline for the mind. Much of the wisdom and advice in these communities is via intuition and people’s own experiences of their body. So science says there’s no such thing as toxins. But in the fasting community if you don’t eat for a week or more and you start to feel unwell, that’s the toxins coming out. And when you feel amazing in week two, surely that’s your body’s state when you’re toxin-free. The community explains your body’s unpleasant reaction to lack of food by calling it a “healing crisis” that indicates you are on the right track.

Mainstream medicine dismisses the notion of a healing crisis and says the ache in your body is due to a severe depletion of essential vitamins and minerals.

The use of the word “toxins” in this way entered the mainstream long ago, but the gap between the scientific and some intuitive health communities can be so broad sometimes, it’s as if both parties are talking about completely different things. And if you are someone who accepts the logic of a certain system of belief – whether that be a food system or a philosophical system – then people from outside that system who criticise it can be dismissed and simply not heard.

It’s the natural manifestation of a trend we are already seeing. Trust in journalism is at an all-time low. The US election was won by Donald Trump in part because of this distrust. And the proliferation of communities that have their own belief systems, leaders and experts, theories and knowledge that exist and thrive outside the mainstream. In fact their very identity is defined in relation and opposition to the mainstream. Steve Bannon, Breitbart chief and Trump strategist, made his political and media career tapping into those communities and voices that felt alienated from the mainstream. And the mainstream didn’t see it coming. There is us – and them. As John Harris pointed out this week, the liberal left won’t defeat Trump until they understand him. But they aren’t really hearing him yet, either.

The people within that system remain adherents to it for many reasons: it makes sense to them, it has worked for them, there is evidence of a standard that is accepted in that community, and the evidence supports the diet. Dogma – whether it be around politics or diet – hardens opinion like a high-sugar diet on artery walls.

Last week I watched The Magic Pill, the “paleo film” starring Australia’s famous/notorious paleo guru, Pete Evans. It starts in northern Australia – with the Indigenous Yolngu community struggling with blood sugar diseases triggered by whitefella foods. What would it be like, the film wonders, if these Indigenous people went back to their hunter-gather traditions, to eating “meat and vegetables that come from a place that is closest to its natural state”?

Some things presented in The Magic Pill are irrefutable: a diet of processed, sugary, packaged foods will lead to poor health outcomes, that certain low-level chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure (which can lead to type 2 diabetes) can be controlled by weight management and exercise and diet, and that the proliferation of low-fat, high-sugar products has not halted a global obesity epidemic.

The Magic Pill takes you through all of this and introduces us to people who are struggling with modern conditions. There is a little girl with non-verbal autism, a diabetic, an asthmatic and a woman with cancer. What would happen if these unwell people ate like our ancestors? Could food be the magic pill that can cure disease? In the film, over the course of five weeks on the paleo diet, these people are shown to drastically reduce their symptoms and reliance on pills.

This is where The Magic Pill deviates from other food or health films like The Sugar Film and Supersize Me. The paleo eating plan is not just about losing a few extra pounds – it’s about curing yourself from disease.

Dr Michael Gannon, the head of the Australian Medical Association, called the film “ridiculous”. I also found a lot of the film credulous. “The idea that a high-fat diet can change a child’s behaviour in a month is just so patently ridiculous,” Gannon says. “And yet the reality is the parents of autistic children are so desperate they will reach for anything.”

But head to Pete Evans’ Facebook page and you’ll find a community there of more than 1.5 million people. Around 1,600 people commented on the AMA’s attack saying things such as: “This is such a great example of how the media can persuade the masses to stay on course with multinational convenience products. Which promotes disease, which promotes pharmaceutical companies.”

The enemy here in this world is broad and hydra-headed: the AMA, established medicine, big pharma, the media.

The Magic Pill is distributed and screened in cinemas across Australia via groups of people interested in the paleo way of life. Promotion and tickets to the film are organised through the internet and the group’s social media. If enough people are interested in seeing the film, then a screening will go ahead.

Films supporting the views of a particular community can be privately or crowdfunded, bypassing the usual ways a documentary receives funding. Those that receive government funding and are commissioned by the ABC, for example, have to tackle things like bias in the storytelling. “When you self-fund it – you get anti-vaxxers and the like and you can get the message out without checks and balances,” one TV executive told me.

Technology and social media have created new ways of forming communities. New methods of distribution, much of which is also web-based, have facilitated the spread of information within those communities.

Facebook groups set up for communities of like-minded people act like a hive, identifying common enemies, debunking them and promoting the work of people who reinforce that community’s beliefs. These group are not swayed by orthodox science, government-sanctioned medical opinion or the views of the mainstream media. In fact criticism from these institutions that contradict the group’s dominant philosophy act to strengthen the group, and reinforce the belief that big corporations are conspiring to quash the knowledge and practices of the group.

The role of big business and big pharma in the development of food and medicine should be questioned and tested, and not every conspiracy theory is nutty. Yet the distrust that binds the group together can cut out the good science and the diligent and tested government warnings (about vaccinations, for example). The baby then is thrown out with the unpasteurised bath milk.

So: fight, or flight?Gannon can’t let this stuff pass.To doctors it’s a matter of life and death. But we are splintered, atomised, super-sceptical. The internet has liberated voices; but it doesn’t always reward the merits of the argument. Especially if we don’t know that the argument is going on.

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