In a recent blog, we reviewed the various agents of medical bullshit and hinted at the idea that much of medical bullshit is being run by big businesses (e.g. corporations). It’s ironic that a field that so often rails against The Establishment as part of its claim to legitimacy—whether that be in the form of the mythical medical-industrial complex, government regulators, or any number of industries accused of feeding us harmful chemicals—is in fact as much a part of The Establishment as any industry can be. This includes lobbyists and large trade associations which are, not surprisingly, vested in the success and growth of sales of unregulated products that have never been proven to help people. As with the individual agents of medical bullshit, big bullshit comes in a variety of flavors (yum).
The Natural Industry (aka Big Herba): It may seem contradictory to talk about industrializing all-natural products, and it is. But it is also reality. The supplement industry is currently estimated at between $30-$120 billion in annual sales (the higher number appears to come from supplement industry lobbyists) and this is projected to double in the next eight years. Regardless of the actual figure, this is a lot of money and a big business by any definition. Not surprisingly, where there is big money to be made, there are large corporations. In fact, the lion’s share of supplements now being sold are made by companies that are owned by just a handful of mega-corporations. Ironically, but also not surprising when you stop to think about it, many of these corporations are linked to Big Pharma. Even cannabis is becoming corporate, with investors including alcohol, tobacco, and pharma.
The Dark Side of Mainstream Medicine: Pharmaceuticals, health insurance, and hospital chains are the epitome of big business. It is not hard to see that the ultimate aims of big business (corporate profits) and healthcare (a healthy society) are often not compatible. In fact, one can claim that many of the shortcomings of the US healthcare system can be linked to big businesses simply conducting business as usual (for more on this read The American Sickness). There are many instances of these industries purposefully sacrificing, or at best conveniently ignoring, the health implications of lobbying efforts (e.g. increased medication prices) and other business practices (e.g. closing small hospitals, pushing opiates). Even academic and other “nonprofit” hospitals, once relied upon to be a bastion of pure science and altruism, have increasingly taken on the practices and values of big business (e.g. this and this).
Big Conspiracy: The generation of conspiracy theories and sales of products related to those theories (e.g. books, podcasts, radio shows, and of course supplements) has become a big business, particularly over the past decade. This is true not only for political bullshit, but also medical bullshit, where celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have cashed in on the generation of anti-vaccine propaganda, and organizations trying to promote unproven therapies or disproven theories of disease play the conspiracy card in an attempt to legitimize their work and discredit actual science. An unfortunate side effect of conspiratorial thinking is general distrust, including of real science, that fuels vulnerability to further bullshit.
The Sensationalists: The business model for much news media and social media is to attract as much attention as possible to fuel sale of advertisements. While providing accurate and engaging journalism is one way to do this, it is often easier, and more profitable, to simply create hype. Medical hype is a great way to do this and in fact studies have shown that medical misinformation generates more attention than accurate medical information.
While each of these businesses can have value (e.g. big pharma created the COVID vaccine, and some conspiracy theories turn out to be important and true), there is too much money to be made on medical bullshit to naively trust that these businesses will consistently do the right thing. When you see the tell-tale signs of big business—slick advertising, professional websites, mass manufactured products, and celebrities—associated with a medical product, upgrade your medical bullshit detector to a Big Bullshit Detector. And don’t be fooled when these corporations and business people proclaim their dedication to protecting you against some variant of The Establishment because they too are The Establishment.