28 March 2018 Volume :6 Issue :9

The UKZN Griot. Of Quackery and Pseudoscience

The UKZN Griot.  Of Quackery and Pseudoscience

It is very fitting that South Africa hosted the 1st International Summit on Quackery and Pseudoscience, in 2017. It was organised by George Claassen, Director of the Centre for Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University. The delegates examined the role of science communication in the medical arena in countering quackery. Quackery means a hawker of salve, not the two legged amphibian, whom I will now use in a metaphorical sense.  My apologies to ducks everywhere in making my point.

The squawking, hawking ducks are everywhere. From AIDS denialism and beetroot quackery in the early days of liberation, and now the snake oil peddlers whose torn and unsightly posters plaster street poles, fences and relay boxes on arterial roads. Yet, despite these charlatans promising big hips, abortions and all kinds of unmentionables, there is the never-ending harassment of the indefatigable Tim Noakes whose Banting research is threatening vested interests in the nutrition industry.

All this pales when it comes to “voodoo economics”, a term popularised by a temporarily disorientated Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, when he  fell for the garlic and olive oil theory of HIV cures during the era of denialism.  Did him well, that aberration; now he’s a head honcho in the financial sector, perhaps heading up the Halloween Division.  I tip my pointy black hat.

But last year that greasy quack discourse reached right inside the Treasury. The Gigaba Zumerite who ousted the twice fired unquackable Pravin played word games and raised VAT and estate duty to pay for state capture and salary increases for Cabinet members who created the conditions for our junk status in the first place.  But even this minister of financial farce had begun to understand that capitalism is not all quackery, and that the super-quackery of radical economic transformation in the post-BELPer (Bell Pottinger) age is the self-induced, long-wave financial (down) cycle that is wrecking the duckpond. 

If this high economic theory needs explanation, just read Ernst Mandel’s Late Capitalism (London, Verso, 1978).  Our capitalism here in South Africa is actually very, very late thanks to the PR-generated pseudo theory of “white monopoly capital” that created a disorientating moral panic and discredited the global PR industry.  It also set back our economy for about a century, but I suppose better late than never.  We all know that the PR sector is where quackery most likely develops its finely tuned theories. But, of course, the PR industry is for the most part honest.  I do however hope to examine a whole slew of self-flagellating PR PhDs on the topic being submitted soon.

While the Stellenbosch squawkfest was one squawk away from engaging madness, the squawkers continue to squawk.  Hence, the need for the conference, which unfortunately I could not attend.  I was leading a field trip on the African Ivory Route in deep 4x4 land, sliding in the mud, but unlike in 2016, we did not slither four-wheels sideways down the side of a mountain and I did not break a few ribs falling through an obviously defective pedestrian bridge over a waterfall.  On the latter, the resort management was quite unperturbed at my close brush with death, and after much argument, instead of sealing off the bridge, they reluctantly offered me my money back.  Quack quack!   But they did eventually fix the bridge.

On the route we met, talked to, and hoped to hear the ancestors speaking through the mystical (real) white lions, who have a particular place in Venda mythology. Extraordinary things are said to happen on the Ivory Route, none of them currently, apparently, scientifically explainable.   We just don’t have the methodological or theoretical tools for this at the moment. Communicating with lions (or elephants or horses) requires an affective science whereas talking to quacks requires the suspension of science or replacement with pseudo-science and sham reasoning.

Claassen who hosted the Quackery conference is a veteran science journalist, professor of journalism, and a man whose ditty duck-tape discourse is after my own heart. Well, Claassen has now turned the tables on the quackers who proposed this toxic brew as a cure for AIDS and the ANC’s ballooning party debt.  And, what a party that was.  Just ask anyone who was working in the health sector in those days.  I was there, as were many UKZNers like the Abdool-Karims, Alan Whiteside, Eleanor Preston-Whyte, Jerry Coovadia, and Jack Moodley who, when co-operating with the hard working and sensible officials in the Department of Health,  tried to restore sanity to the upper duckhouse (ie the Cabinet). 

A four-year national media and health campaign, called Beyond Awareness, designed by me and Arnold Shepperson, was implemented by UKZN graduates Warren Parker and Professor Lynn Dalrymple via a consortium of NGOs, and later via the UKZN/UNIZULU affiliated Drama in AIDS Education. For the rest of the time the Minister’s advisory committee was putting out fires emanating from her office:  virodene, Sarafina II, illegal Rath Foundation experimentation, denialism, and endless and distracting politicking even down to provincial level. 

The politicos could care less about treatments and cures; they just wanted to be “seen” to be doing something, while doing nothing.  The Life Esidimeni debacle and the refusal of the MEC to take responsibility, or even understand her responsibility, arises out of this culture of narcissism and impunity, lack of accountability and blatant idiocy.  My congrats to Professor WM Makgoba for exposing this sham project that led to 141+ unnecessary deaths, often in the most appalling circumstances.   The MEC is 2017’s chief quacker in addition to being the Sunday Times’s Mampara.

Eventually, the light of day reappeared; denialism, sham reasoning and quackery retreated and the health sector was able to deliver drugs for HIV again. These were also the early days of deceptive journals where the claims made by many of the denialists were first published.  But now, it’s the muti peddlers who are on the street (and I mean the peddlers, not the healers).  

Twenty years later, the NRF finally awoke to the predatory threat, in issuing its own warning to grant and rating applicants. Man, the wheels of academia slide slowly, even as the shameful sham ducks slide effortlessly across the sleazy and now predatory priced open access deep, creating ripples in the murk, and the impression of elegance and fast turnaround with little or no peer-review. 

Finally, academics are now taking on the quacks, and explaining why they have such wider purchase across all societies.   Well done Stellenbosch University.

Note:  For further information on the conference see: http://www.censcom.com/index.php/conferences and the YouTube videos,


Words: TOMASELL@ukzn.ac.za

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.

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