Toxins? Stop the Nonsense!

toxinsPseudoscience gives us a perfect example of the bandwagon effect in the wild. The situation becomes crystal clear when you try to detangle the issue of toxins. While I sit on the proverbial fence about creating new words, I stand firmly against making up definitions.

This is the case with toxins. Many attribute a wide host of ills to them Hogwash! First, let’s get the definition right.

Defining Toxins

An article in Gizmodo put it best:

“Here is a scientific definition for a toxin: It’s a poisonous substance produced by living cells, especially one that, when introduced into a new body, spurs the creation of antibodies. That’s a toxin. That’s what it is, where it’s made, and what it does.”

It is not a build-up of waste products that the likes of Food Babe would have you believe. Its definition is pretty straight forward. If your body isn’t excreting waste, you don’t need a diet; you need a doctor.

This concept gets tossed around so much that the uninformed masses believe it. It’s everywhere. I saw an article just like week published in Bon Appetit about your detox diet for the new year. Please.

But the nonsense of toxins persists. And unfortunately, it has crept under the insidious rock of ideology. To attack someone’s notion of toxins and detox is to attack their fundamental belief system. However, it goes deeper than that.

Why We Fall for It

From an evolutionary perspective, we need to understand a basic tenet of how we navigate our world. We fear the false negative. To believe the bush is just a bush is a fatal false negative if it turns out to be a hungry saber-toothed tiger. The same logic is at work here.

To believe that toxins can’t harm us (in the manner that pseudoscience defines it) sets us up for the tiger attack. So, people cling to the belief. Evolution created that beast; the bandwagon effect is an example of it gone bad.

It’s difficult to pull ourselves away from the tenacious hardwiring that we have. Equally troubling is the fact that so many people are willing to accept this crap without investigating its merits. It’s a symptom of information overload, lack of oversight, and hyper-busy schedules. We like our news in sound bites.

The Bane of Anecdotes

Another issue concerns anecdotal “evidence.” What works for Minnie and Mickey (in studies on mice) is not the best choice for dealing with health issues for Grandma and Grandpa. Too many times, people prefer the story to the science—especially if it’s laced with a little confirmation bias. You can’t learn biology in one internet session no matter how many Yahoo answers you read. I beg your pardon, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

But why is this? Why do some people trust Google rather than a doctor or a scientist, for that matter? Why are they so quick to believe a stranger’s story about losing weight with this new wacky diet than the science that paints a different and more realistic picture?

Perhaps it’s because some people are intimidated by science. They are scared of the ivory tower and look toward a voice they can understand. In this age of MOOCs, one would hope that science would prevail as the teacher. The late Richard Feynman put it best when he said,

“Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.”

(Feynman won the 1965 Nobel prize in physics for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics.) It takes time, understanding, and lots of reading to get complicated subjects like physiology or physics. It’s frustrating for science too. It used to be enough to debate research among their learned colleagues. Now, they have Yahoo as their nemesis.

If you’re interested in facts versus stories, consider this for a New Year’s routine. Next time you see a bit of nonsense like the toxins baloney, follow up with some checking. Go to sites like or Cochrane Review and get the facts. Don’t put your health in the hands of quacks like Dr. Oz and these other laughable sites. )If you don’t believe the risks, check out this site.) Take back science!

By Chris DR/

photo credit: Apple Dearie? via photopin (license)