Pseudoscience Goes Halfway Around the World by the Time the Truth Puts Its Shoes On
Pseudoscience Goes Halfway Around the World by the Time the Truth Puts Its Shoes On
Experts refuse to have dialogues with advocates of pseudoscience, while the BiH media gives them media space.
COVID-19 is caused by the 5G network, millions have died because of COVID-19 vaccines, the virus is made up, HAARP caused the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, teas cure cancer – these are just some of the pseudoscientific contents (fake science) available in the media and on social networks. Pseudoscience leads to distrust in science and the health system, which can lead to the death of patients who are treated using pseudoscientific methods.
Pseudoscientific content can often be found in the media, and one of the latest is Semir Osmanagić's appearance on FACE television, in the show Face to Face, in which he spoke about pseudoscientific views on earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
"This is the operation of HAARP, the American system that affects weather control," said Osmanagić, quoting the former mayor of Ankara.
Without trying to refute this scientifically unfounded thesis, presenter Senad Hadžifejzović continued: "HAARP is not unknown, it is not a secret, scientists brag about its effects, I think it was used in Russia and China at the Olympics." His guest also cited other people who presented pseudoscientific explanations.
The show has been watched by more than 500,000 people on YouTube, and of the 2,000 comments on the video, the majority support the views expressed in the show.
Osmanagić is otherwise known as an advocate of the thesis of the Bosnian pyramids, which the geologists of the Faculty of Mining and Geology in Tuzla denied in 2006, saying that the pyramids are not man-made, but a work of nature. The European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) did the same, saying that "this hoax is a gross deception of the uninformed public and has no place in the world of true science."
Despite this, Osmanagić continues to be a frequent guest in the media, and the space he receives is used to promote this and similar pseudoscientific theories.
"The EAA has previously published several statements on the subject of Semir Osmanagić and the Bosnian pyramids. I regret that I have to inform you that the EAA will not make further statements about this issue", said the president of this association, Eszter Bánffy, in response to Mediacentar Sarajevo.
"I am reluctant to engage in a war of words with Mr. Osmanagić and his supporters, because experience shows that they are completely immune to the reasonable arguments of those who have expert knowledge," a leading European expert who insisted on anonymity told Mediacentar briefly.
While leading experts do not want to engage in any discussions about scientifically unfounded evidence, such persons and theories are given space in the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
The Communications Regulatory Agency of BiH (CRA) says that pseudo-scientific content is not allowed for audio-visual content license holders except in the period from midnight to 6:00 a.m.
The CRA’s regulatory documents, The Code on Commercial Communication and the Code on audio-visual media services and radio media services contain a definition of parapsychological phenomena that denote pseudoscience that deals with scientifically inexplicable phenomena and includes an area outside medical or psychological reality that is not scientifically provable.
"Also, certain practices that offer solutions to life and health problems do not belong either to alternative medicine or quackery, but can be classified under paranormal phenomena, i.e. phenomena from the field of parapsychology, e.g. palmistry, divination, spiritism, exorcism, occultism, telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis. Such content is not intended for a wider audience and can be classified as content that is likely to endanger the physical, psychological and moral development of minors, and disturb certain categories of society (such as pensioners, people with mental health issues, sensitive persons, persons seeking solutions for severe life problems, etc.),” CRA representatives told Mediacentar.
Pseudoscience can cause death
The full extent of the dangers of pseudoscience can be is evident from the case of the death of Sanela Vrcić, a woman from Sarajevo who, after being diagnosed with leukaemia, according to doctors' estimates, had a 97% chance of being cured, but mistakenly believed that it could be cured energetically. An investigative report by BIRN BiH describes the entire case, and one of the story’s protagonists who “treated” her with minerals was Pavel Pavelka. The media gave him space by allowing him to be promoted, and in an article of the online portal Večernji.ba, he was described as a man from Sarajevo: "by profession, a teacher of physical education, a great fan of sports and healthy life, in which healthy nutrition occupies a special place."
He was written about as the inventor of fertilizer that affects the reduction of the greenhouse effect, and it has been stated that "Pavelka's design of a healthy life does not end there. Pavelka discovered AVM, which, admittedly, is not yet on the market, but he and his family have been testing the effectiveness of this powder for years. These are activated volcanic minerals, which, in addition to improving the immune status of the body, digestion, and mental abilities, accelerate the healing of bones and wounds, and slow down the aging of the body as a powerful antioxidant. Does it work? Yes. Pavelka never goes to the doctor," said an article in 2011, based on which it seems that volcanic minerals can really help boost immunity.
However, the long-term immunologist Jasenko Karamehić knows that it is not so and says that immunity is very difficult to acquire, and it is equally difficult to break it.
"Immunity can only be built through a healthy lifestyle. There is no special recipe for immunity, something one can take and say that starting tomorrow, my immunity will be better. There is no such recipe in the world. You must have a balanced, harmonious, healthy lifestyle without stress, with enough sleep, with sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals, a balanced diet, movement, being in the fresh air. All this gives stability to immunity", explained Karamehić for Mediacentar.
He says he will not even comment on promoters of fake science.
In addition to Pavelka, the investigation of BIRN BiH (Detektor.ba) included a group of people who treat seriously ill people without a license, offering them a complete cure under the condition that they do not seek medical treatment.
"At least one person died in the story we published, and her case was never prosecuted by the judiciary. These people are still working today without any consequences. Our responsibility was to point out this phenomenon and the consequences it carries, in this case the most extreme – death. The media must point out the dangers to the public and very cautiously give space to quackery with a clear questioning of what it advocates," Azra Husarić Omerović, a journalist from BIRN's Detektor.ba platform, told Mediacentar.
She adds that Pavelka was one of the actors in the "treatment" of Sanela Vrcić, which ended in death.
"He sold her minerals and preparations that he claims help strengthen immunity and treat certain difficulties," explains Husarić Omerović.
Private messages obtained during the research prove that Pavelka assured her that he was treating her from a distance, together with other persons from that group, but he did not offer an explanation to the journalists about this type of "treatment".
"He said that Sanela was alive while she was using his preparations, which means that he believes that his preparations can cure serious diseases, for which not only does he not have a certificate, but he does not even have a license to work on it, because he is a professor of physical education," adds Husarić Omerović.
In his 40 years of work as an immunologist, pharmacologist and internist, Karamehić encountered quackery and fake (pseudo) science many times. He remembers a case when a patient with diabetes decided to stop therapy and replace it with quack methods.
"While taking over an on-call shift, I find him in a coma, in a comatose state. I ask what the reason is, my colleagues tell me: it seems that he went to a hodgepodge, a quack, fell into a coma, because he stopped taking insulin. We brought him back from the coma with therapy," says Karamehić about the dangers and consequences of fake science.
Although such actions are prohibited by law, the spread of false scientific methods and explanations is still present. It is particularly worrying that the media often give space to pseudoscience, instead of condemning it.
Media as allies of pseudoscience
During 2023, Raskrinkavanje published 15 analyses of pseudoscientific claims in the media space, evaluating dozens of articles and posts on social networks. Almost all of these cases involved incorrect claims related to the treatment of various diseases and conditions, most often through preparations from nature and the kitchen.
"In the background of such stories are often businesses that sell preparations that are recommended and presented as alternative medicines. Disinformation about the pandemic and vaccines against COVID-19 is still current, so some pseudoscientific claims were also related to that topic. In addition, we also wrote about pseudoscientific claims about the impact of atrazine on health", says Raskrinkavanje editor Emir Zulejhić for Mediacentar.
He adds that the most extreme, i.e. the most explicit and inaccurate forms of pseudoscientific claims are most often published by anonymous portals.
"Partly because these types of sources don't care about the standards of the profession in the least, and partly because they are simply the most numerous and we count them in the hundreds, probably the thousands. None of the other outlets, which are often called "mainstream" media, publish pseudoscientific content to the same extent as anonymous portals, but there are some examples," says Zulejhić.
In some of the mentioned 15 analyses of pseudoscience carried out by Raskrinkavanje in 2023, among the media that published such content were public media, news agencies, TV channel portals, regional tabloids and other more or less well-known portals.
The role of journalists in spreading content that has pseudoscientific "arguments"
While, on the one hand, giving space to pseudo-scientific content can be justified by ignorance, carelessness or failure to check the facts, on the other hand, journalists become complicit with such behaviour.
"Giving space to someone to spread pseudoscientific ideology is the same as supporting it if the statements, claims and suggestions that people advocate through such ideologies are not questioned. The role of the media can be extremely useful in disproving false claims and guiding the public to the facts. But the media can also contribute to the spread of pseudoscientific ideology, whose goal, in the most extreme cases, can be the death of people, which the media are mostly not even aware of at the time they do it," Husarić Omerović believes.
Vedada Baraković, a full-time professor at the Department of Journalism of the Faculty of Philosophy in Tuzla, told Mediacentar that today's society in scientific circles is labelled as postmodern, which is "fundamentally marked by the questioning and criticism of absolute truths, identities, and values established during the modern period."
"Unfortunately, the idea of healthy criticism and scepticism slowly began to turn into relativization and unargued rejection of existing systems of knowledge, science, truth, etc. Thus, in the field of media and journalism, a specific environment was created for entering the era of post-truth, which is also characterized by polarization of opinion, manipulation of knowledge and science, and the dominance of conspiracy theories in the public space," Baraković added.
She notes that a lot of scientific research today is predominantly financed by powerful corporations whose interest is primarily profit-making, so that manipulation of research results in favour of profit is not uncommon.
"On the other hand, journalists are not sufficiently educated to understand and, so to speak, translate the results of scientific research into a language acceptable to the public. Why is it relevant to the public that the Higgs Boson was detected at CERN, which physicists were delighted with? And what is the benefit of that discovery? Or some other important discoveries. How can we bring them closer to the audience? People should know the advantages of scientific research and achievements, what are the long-term and short-term benefits for the individual and for society. Today, the media is the most common intermediary between the scientific community and the public," says Baraković.
She also adds that the scientific community often does not react adequately, as was the case with COVID-19.
Anđela Kuprešanin Vukelić, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Banja Luka, explains to Mediacentar that if a journalist decides to publish content that is not based on verified, complete and relevant facts and sources, they violate the basic ethical principles and standards on which the journalistic profession is based.
"Also, in the context of spreading content based on pseudoscientific arguments, the journalist does not meet one of the imperatives of journalism, i.e. satisfying the interests of the public, and at the same time it is very often resorted to as a way to satisfy the interests of the public," Kuprešanin Vukelić adds.
She explains that journalists must perform multiple checks, respecting the standard of professional journalism, in cases when they encounter content that has not been checked and does not constitute common knowledge.
"Professional communicators should use relevant sources and not publish this type of content, certainly not before they are able to determine its accuracy and contextualise it. In this sense, it is very useful to use information that will enable the provision of background (BKG), such as expert BKG, BKG explanation, BKG retrospective, etc., advises Kuprešanin Vukelić.
If the media gives space to the spread of pseudoscientific claims, which most often relate to health and treatment, and which, as we have seen from the example of former doctor Simoncini, can be fatal in some cases, responsibility obviously does not exist, Zulejhić believes. Tullio Simoncini has already been convicted of murdering patients, to whom he gave false therapies, assuring them that they would be cured.
"He treated patients with cancer, which he claims is actually a fungus, by injecting a mixture of baking soda and water, and he charged thousands of euros for all of this. Due to this practice, Simoncini has been in court several times, and his therapy has led to the death of several people in several European countries, including one case in Tirana," Zulejhić explains.
Although Simoncini lost his medical license and was expelled from several countries, articles about his recipe are still shared on domestic portals, and baking soda is presented as a revolutionary cure for cancer.
"There are many such examples, and their massive prominence in the domestic media space can potentially lead to fatal consequences in BiH as well. After all, we can't claim that it hasn't already happened," Zulejhić warns.
He explains that the topics dealt with by pseudoscience are usually very important and sensitive and have direct consequences for people, and should therefore be approached with the highest degree of responsibility and professionalism.
"Because if there was responsibility, there would also be awareness of the potential dangers that can occur if someone decides to stop the therapy prescribed by the health institution, resort to alternative medicine, and thus potentially (additionally) endanger their health and life based on our article," Zulejhić said in a statement for Mediacentar.
The influence of pseudoscience on the public
In addition to the fact that by transmitting pseudoscientific content, the media violates basic journalistic and ethical principles, they also influence the public attitude towards fake science because they give it credibility. Husarić Omerović says that giving space to such attitudes without questioning them is an advertisement for those ideas that can kill someone tomorrow:
"Journalists are complicit if they do not approach it in the right way. Proof of this is the situation during the coronavirus pandemic, when a large number of citizens decided to refuse vaccination because certain media allowed space for people who, without any scientific basis, spread conspiracy theories and convinced the masses that the vaccine is poison, and that the cure is in the tunnels, forests, underground, in certain water, minerals and everything we've been hearing for months."