The Meta-narrative of Health BS
Updated: Oct 27
As you guys can tell I love nutrition quite a bit. My last blog post had over 20 citations to make evident of that fact. However, my other passions include philosophy specifically when talking about science, skepticism, logic, reasoning, and knowledge. This post will be more conversation based, not filled with a lot of peer reviewed citations, and be more of my experience.
I want to shake things up a bit by providing a philosophical viewpoint to the nature of health misinformation by talking about “meta-narratives”. Meta- narratives describe the narrative of other narratives.
Well what are narratives? We can think of narratives as stories, stories we tell ourselves, stories we tell others, and stories others tell us. Stories that can relate to experience, knowledge, and more. Jean Francois Lyotard describes these narratives or stories in his book “The Post Modern Condition ''. In Lyotard’s line of thinking there are narratives about other narratives or “meta-narratives”. The prefix “meta” originates from ancient Greece and it stands for “of a higher order”. So these are higher order narratives that govern other narratives.
In application meta-narratives govern our values, conduct, and judgments. They’re the structure of many stories like someone gaining something, losing something, and then gaining it again. Another example could be Fall and Return, this is when a person loses something important, then finds themselves in a negative place, and then achieves a sort of redemption.
I’m sure you can pick out a few movies, books, TV shows, and real world examples that can fit into that example. Well that's the point, these meta-narratives can be seen as patterns that dictate how a story plays out. It is argued these meta-narratives influence us to a greater extent than we realize. The concepts of meta-narratives tie in pretty interestingly with concepts from cognitive psychology such as cognitive scripts and schemas. These theories state the way we organize our world can be described in terms of categories and sequential events of behavior. These theories can hypothetically dictate how we think or behave to an extent just like meta-narratives.
I know what you’re probably thinking… okay cool but how does this relate to health misinformation? Well I want to propose the errors in our thinking about health are very much dictated by specific meta-narratives that feed into cognitive bias and distortions about health information.
These meta-narratives I’m introducing come from personal experience of myself, others, and they elaborate on certain logical fallacies/biases many of us are familiar with. This won’t describe everyone in every circumstance but I hope it will give interesting insight into health misinformation as a whole.
The “It worked for me” Trap
How many times have people told you about an amazing diet, supplement, or treatment that worked for them? They swear up and down this is the cure for all diseases that afflicted them, the answer to their problems, and the savior they needed.
Soon it turns from “this worked for me” to “it must work for everyone”. Instead of this thing just helping them it must help everyone else. They don’t know exactly why or how it worked but they do know they felt like shit, they did this thing, and boom they feel better. Hardly any context, but why should there be? It worked for them.
The common questions you might bring up to counter this include... well, does it work for others? How does it work? Does it work in every circumstance the same way? Is there any research for why or how it works? Is the person who sells this supplement, treatment, or whatever else a reputable source of information?
The common response to these questions is usually “well it worked for me”. It’s sort of a mental trap where we ignore all other possible explanations, theories, and faults we might have.
The self absorbed judgement we have about our beliefs that they must be infallible. How could our experience deceive us? How can we not know our own bodies? Well maybe, just maybe, what works for us doesn’t apply to everyone or work how we think it works… maybe it was placebo effect, maybe it was regression to the mean, or maybe it was another variable that played a huge role.
I’ve seen this many times with supplements. A person starts taking a supplement and then they usually start making other changes as well. So they might exercise more, eat better quality foods, or have better quality sleep. If they weren’t initially committed to these behaviors before it makes sense they would feel better after doing them. Yet they attribute all of this progress to the supplement. How is this rational?
This lack of awareness and our self absorption can lead to us spreading misinformation about health. We start advertising that supplement, diet, or treatment as the ONLY answer for why we started to feel better with no consideration to alternative explanations or the science. This clearly leads to problems that should be resolved.
Well, how can we break from this trap? We can start by acknowledging our lack of awareness and knowledge about a particular product or treatment we’re using especially if there is no clear evidence behind it. I’m sure most of us out there aren’t doctors, medical researchers, scientists, pharmacists, or someone who truly understands the body.
When it comes to health, like with any other subject that's not our profession, you need to trust the experts. The rebuttal might be, “well, what if they’re paid off?”. Well let's talk about that.
The Shill Gamble
Gamblers are well known for taking risk usually involving money based purely on assumption. A form of wishful thinking that doesn’t take into account risk, coincidence, or evidence. This behavior associated with gamblers is so pervasive gamblers have their own fallacy called the gambler's fallacy. Calling someone a shill is a huge gamble that requires a lot of evidence.
A lot of evidence that needs to be provided on the part of the person making the claim or accusation, this is known as the burden of proof. In court when a side makes a claim they need to present evidence to back up what they stated or not the judge throws out their claim as nonsense. It’s like if you’re on trial with a lawyer trying to prove your innocence and the best defense they have for you is saying “trust me judge this person is innocent”, safe to say it doesn’t look good for you. So why would we make accusations without evidence, this just makes us look foolish.
You need to have evidence that justifies a person is indeed a shill, in this case paid off by a particular industry. You also need to provide evidence that a person's claim is incorrect, you also have to provide evidence they’re incorrect because of their paid affiliations. Saying someone is incorrect purely on the basis they’re paid off can be seen as an ad hominem circumstantial fallacy. Whether a person is paid by a particular industry has little weight to whether their statements are true or not from a factual standpoint.
Someone can say something completely true even if they’re a “shill” or completely false even if they aren’t. We also have to discuss the arbitrary accusation of calling someone a shill, if a shill just means you’re paid off by an industry many of us can be seen as shills.
Work for an insurance company? Well you’re a big insurance shill. Work in education? You’re a big education shill. Work at a gym franchise? You’re a big gym shill... there are more examples but the logic is the same.
So by calling someone a shill (especially a random person online) you need to provide a lot of evidence they’re in fact a shill and their statements are incorrect. You also have to provide evidence they’re incorrect purely on the basis of being a shill if that’s what your argument is. So it’s a big gamble that really doesn’t pay off.
The Conspiracy Verdict
Usually when someone calls someone else a shill it’s meant to imply they’re a part of some big conspiracy theory. When it comes to health people usually want to argue about GMOs, vaccines, medication, pesticides, COVID-19 etc… I’m not going to talk about these specific topics, they're just examples. If you want to argue about it rant on Facebook or Reddit not here.
The problem with conspiracy theories is similar to calling someone a shill, you need to provide a boat load of evidence that a conspiracy does indeed exist. This is not to imply conspiracy theories don’t exist or don't apply because there are cases where this is indeed the case… the problem arises from the set up, execution, and accusations that follow from concluding there is a conspiracy theory.
You often hear arguments framed like, “ All X are paid off by big Y, therefore they’re wrong about Z.”
We can also frame it like this, “ All doctors are paid off by big pharma, therefore they’re wrong about COVID-19”.
We can start off by addressing problems related to generalization and specificity. When we make general statements they’re problematic especially if we’re talking about a group of people. In this case we’re talking about all doctors, well to describe all doctors (in this case we’re talking about medical doctors) we need to actually have information on every single doctor on earth. This feat will probably require a lot of time, resources, and money to track every single medical doctor on earth. This will require not only tracking them but you have to provide evidence each of them are indeed paid off by “big pharma”. So you will need financial and funding records of each doctor but I’m sure more information as we need to also show this makes them wrong about COVID-19. If even one of these doctors is not paid off by “big pharma” the premise of “all doctors are paid off by big pharma” will be wrong.
There is a high probability your general statement in the premise referring to “all doctors” is incorrect making your whole argument unreasonable. In light of this faulty generalization, which is actually fallacious outside of the points I made, people often move goalposts so they deviate from their original claim to something else in an attempt to be correct. People usually become more specific as they realize their generalized claims at face value are often incorrect (look into the guilt by association fallacy). However, these specific claims are often no better because people still fail to provide evidence for the conspiracy.
So even if we move the goalpost to something more specific like “American doctors” or “doctors in my area” that’s still a very general statement that’s extremely hard to provide evidence for. Even if you name drop a specific person you need to provide evidence or risk making the shill gamble.
When we argue or make claims of fact they should be more specific and less general but we still need evidence to back up the conspiracy we argue is true.
There are many more problems with conspiracy theories so much so that it might warrant a whole post. For now we’ll just go over a few other basic problems:
1) Something all theories should share is the ability to be falsified, this is the ability to be proven incorrect. All scientific theories go through this process known as falsification where it is tested to see if it’s really true or not. Many times conspiracy theories cannot be falsified; they're unfalsifiable, any attempts to discredit the conspiracy are used as part of the conspiracy. So If I disagree with the conspiracy theory I must be a part of the conspiracy, this is clearly an issue. How can something that can’t be shown to be incorrect be correct? How can the theory be refined or revised without the possibility of being incorrect? The chances of a conspiracy theory being absolute is slim to none as none of our current knowledge is certain, besides certain branches of mathematics and formal logic.
2) Conspiracy theories are usually riddled with fallacies both in a formal and informal way. Usually the fallacies are informal so it relates to general errors in reasoning. These fallacies include hasty generalizations, ad hominem attacks, slippery slope fallacies, furtive fallacy, strawman argument, and more.
3) Another huge issue relates to the amount of assumptions people generally make when it comes to the conspiracy theory. Like the example we talked about earlier, if I’m talking about all doctors being paid off and this makes them wrong about something… if I’m saying this without strong evidence I’m making a lot of assumptions. This relates to occam’s razor where the simplest explanation is usually the best explanation especially if it makes the fewest assumption unless it is logically warranted to get away from this simple explanation. What we mean by “logically warranted” of course refers to evidence strong enough that it forces us to move away from the simplest answer. I probably will make a future post about what is good evidence but for a good idea of it follow me on Instagram (my handle is @mr.cogfit).
It’s very hard to hand out the conspiracy verdict on a situation, person, people, or circumstance as you can tell.
Meta-narratives refer to the narrative of narratives that sort of guide our judgement, values, beliefs, and to an extent our behavior. These are the patterns that underpin many stories in media and culture. I’ve created some patterns based on health misinformation I’ve seen over the years but I’m sure you've probably seen or participated in yourself.
These are in no way absolute but offer a general structure when it comes to thinking about misinformation specifically pertaining to health. There are more I could name off but I would love to save it for a future post.
Just keep in mind critical thinking requires us to question our beliefs not confirm them.
Baker, Alan, "Simplicity", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/simplicity/>.
Gratton, Peter, "Jean François Lyotard", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/lyotard/>.