Many Americans are seeking greater "authenticity" in their lives. There's nothing wrong with that unless, in the process, they're being misled by false advertising that causes them to pay inflated prices for products that are "free from" various things that are actually beneficial, or for worthless nostrums. Examples of false alarms include the rejection of the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), which is used to make certain plastics and as an antibacterial agent on metal coatings; and embracing the pseudo-medical practices of "naturopathy" and "homeopathy."
BPA is used as a coating in canned food to prevent botulism and other bacteria-caused illnesses. Its protection of canned goods allows consumers better access to fruits and vegetables by safely preserving them in cans all year round, and at low cost. It might seem that the lower the legal limits of chemical added to food packaging, the better, but the negative public health ramifications of too low a standard are enormous. They arise from the fact that most of the canned foods consumers consume come from containers lined with a special safety epoxy that prevents the spread of fatal contamination by Salmonella, Clostridium botulinum, and other food-borne bacteria. This safety epoxy is made with a small amount of BPA, and only a minuscule fraction of the BPA can transfer from the can lining into the food.
In research conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, human volunteers consumed a diet enriched with BPA, mostly from canned foods, and scientists then collected blood and urine samples each hour and measured the amount of BPA in their bodies. Even though the volunteers ate more BPA than an estimated 95 percent of the American population would consume under normal circumstances, researchers were unable to detect any BPA in most blood samples, let alone any deleterious effects.
Another technology that has been vigorously attacked by activists is genetic engineering using highly precise molecular techniques, even though it increases yields, boosts farmers' income, and reduces the need for the spraying of chemical pesticides. It can even be used to make highly innovative products that prevent frost damage to crops and create animals whose organs can be used for transplantation into humans. But just as is the case for BPA, vaccines, and other products, there are special-interest groups that oppose them and regularly misinform the public.
Because the term "authenticity" connotes different things to different individuals and depends on subjective factors like craftsmanship, worldview, and political and religious beliefs, it is hard to define exactly what people want; what they're willing to pay for; and in the end, how they make their choices.
Stanford University Business School Professor Glenn R. Carroll has studied the phenomenon extensively and has some revealing observations about it, including that authenticity is intrinsically "self-contradictory and ironic," because being genuinely authentic means not drawing attention to it.
According to Prof. Carroll, the whole point of businesses being authentic is not appearing to be calculating or grasping, but rather behaving in a way that seems consistent with values that are pure and ingenuous. For example, his research has found that restaurants that want to be perceived as authentic should find ways to get others to comment on their authenticity, but should not explicitly claim it themselves.
Carroll and his colleagues also found that "[a]uthenticity seems to buffer businesses against negatives," so, as research subjects evaluated restaurants, authenticity tended to trump even negatives like lack of cleanliness.
He cites microbreweries as another example of an important negative attribute trumped by authenticity: Especially when they first became popular, small, boutique breweries often made products that in blind taste tests were objectively inferior to those of the behemoths in the industry, who had both deep expertise and sophisticated technology. But, Carroll says, the little guys "were just trading on the fact that they were small-scale craft producers doing something different. And they didn't really know how to brew beer. . . But people associated the craft operation with higher quality and certainly with higher value and were willing to suspend a lot of judgment."
Arguably, the demand for raw (unpasteurized) milk, which regularly causes serious illnesses in numbers far out of proportion to its consumption, is a similar example.
Other industries and individuals consciously exploit this sort of myopia to falsely portray themselves as more-authentic-than-thou, and with some success. You need look no further than the office of your local "naturopathic doctor," "homeopathic doctor," or the shops that sell "natural" nostrums such as herbal supplements.
Physician Stephen Barrett discussed naturopathy comprehensively (and with appropriate supporting references) on the Quackwatch website. He defined and characterized it this way:
Naturopathy, sometimes referred to as "natural medicine," is a largely pseudoscientific approach said to "assist nature," "support the body's own innate capacity to achieve optimal health," and "facilitate the body's inherent healing mechanisms." Naturopaths assert that diseases are the body's effort to purify itself, and that cures result from increasing the patient's "vital force." They claim to stimulate the body's natural healing processes by ridding it of waste products and "toxins." At first glance, this approach may appear sensible. However, a close look will show that naturopathy's philosophy is simplistic and that its practices are riddled with quackery.
Dr. Barrett went on to describe the various discredited and often dangerous practices of naturopathy, the basis of which is implausible, unscientific mumbo jumbo. It is remarkable for its staying power, however. In an iconic exposé almost a century ago, Dr. Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association for 25 years, derided naturopathy as a "cult" and described in detail the absurdity of its practices.
My colleagues at the American Council on Science and Health have warned repeatedly (for example, here, here, and here) about the worthlessness (at best) and dangers of homeopathy, another pseudo-medical discipline, which is based on the belief that disease can be treated by drugs given in minute (and even undetectable) doses that in a healthy person would produce symptoms similar to those of the disease.
Rev. George Washington Doane composed this ditty about homeopathy two centuries ago:
Take a little rum
The less you take the better
Pour it in the lakes
Of Wener or of Wetter.
Dip a spoonful out
And mind you don't get groggy,
Pour it in the lake
Stir the mixture well
Lest it prove inferior,
Then put half a drop
Into Lake Superior.
Every other day
Take a drop in water,
You'll be better soon
Or at least you oughter.
University College London pharmacologist David Colquhoun is a scathing critic of homeopathy and other non-scientific, "alternative" medical disciplines. He sees them as a part of the current movement toward magical and wishful thinking and away from evidence-based medicine, and as a manifestation of a period of "endarkenment," a state in which truth ceases to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality have become respectable.
Leaving aside ethics and rationality, Stanford's Professor Carroll has some business advice that should give pause to the authenticity hucksters about their long-term prospects: "If you open up and start telling your story, you better make sure it's true and that you're actually doing what you claim you're doing, because you'll be found out if you lie or exaggerate. Someone will eventually discover the hypocrisy and go around telling everybody about it, and you'll be worse off than if you hadn't gone down that route in the first place."
I hope his prediction is correct.
Dr. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.