No Every so often over the years, I’ve discussed germ theory denial and how it is such an integral part of alternative medicine and the belief systems that undergird alternative medicine modalities. Germ theory denial, of course, is the denial that “germs” (i.e., microbes, pathogens, bacteria, viruses, and all the microscopic nasties that can cause infectious diseases) are actually the cause of infectious diseases. Indeed, nearly 12 years ago, I wrote a post entitled Yes, there really are people who don’t accept the germ theory of disease, in which I also noted how large swaths of antivaccine beliefs are rooted in germ theory denial. (After all, if germs don’t cause disease, then you don’t need vaccines.) Ever since then, periodically I’ve been gobsmacked by more examples of germ theory denial, up to and including during the COVID-19 pandemic, when quacks have even misused Koch’s postulates to try to “prove” that SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t cause COVID-19. But why are infectious diseases contagious? Germ theory explains why and how. Germ theory denial tries, but has far less explanatory power. That doesn’t stop “Dr.” Melissa Sells, who tells us that it’s all about the vibes—excuse me, vibrations—ma-an! Buckle up for some serious woo!
Given that germ theory, which started with Louis Pasteur and has been built upon since the late 1800s with additional complexities and nuances, is the foundational theory of infectious diseases, my colleagues often refused to believe me when I regaled them with tales and examples demonstrating how prevalent germ theory denial is in the alternative medicine concepts that too many of them eagerly accept as part of “integrative medicine.” True, fewer of them doubt me now, given how COVID-19 has revealed just how prevalent germ theory denial, both in its explicit form (i.e., “germs don’t cause disease, period” or “bacteria are a manifestation of dis-ease, not the cause”) and “softer” forms (i.e., only those with a “welcoming terrain” of bad health and concomitant “weakened” immune system are susceptible to disease caused by pathogenic microbes), is. Although the “harder” and more explicit form of germ theory denial does continue in the pandemic, with certain quacks denying that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, actually exists, that it’s been isolated, or that the electron micrographs showing it in cells actually show a virus, it’s more the “softer” form that predominates.
Not that there isn’t outright denial in the form of video series like this, which was advertised in an email I received just this morning:
Currently, the form of germ theory denial that is prevalent today is a throwback to the 19th century and the ideas of Louis Pasteur’s rivals, such as Claude Bernard and Antoine Béchamp, both of whom who had different ideas and have been cited by germ theory deniers. Béchamp, in particular, argued: that microorganisms were not the cause of disease but rather the consequence of disease, that injured or diseased tissues produced them, and that it was the health of the organism that mattered, not the microorganisms. In other words, the “terrain” was all. Bernard, for his part, described the milieu intérieur, the interstitial fluids regarded as an internal environment in which the cells of the body are nourished and maintained in a state of equilibrium, which he and others also called terrain. Both men’s ideas, but in particular their shared concept of the “terrain,” have been very attractive to germ theory deniers.
Besides not fitting with the scientific evidence, these ideas promoted by contemporaries of Louis Pasteur, particularly Béchamp, had nowhere near the explanatory and predictive power for infectious disease that Pasteur’s theory did. While these concepts were not unreasonable for the mid-19th century given the technology and science that was available at the time to investigate bacteria, they simply didn’t hold up to scrutiny with scientific observation and experimentation.
On the other hand, there is some truth to them. Specifically, it is true that the condition of the “terrain” (the body) does matter when it comes to infectious disease. Debilitated people cannot resist the invasion of microorganisms as well as healthy people. There is a twist, though. This same “terrain” can facilitate the harmful effect of microorganisms in unexpected ways. One well-known example is how certain strains of influenza (as in 1918 and H1N1) are more virulent in the young because the young mount a more vigorous immune response against them and that immune response causes more damage than the virus. Even so, you can see how such concepts would support claims made by people like, for example, Bill Maher, who once famously claimed that he didn’t need the influenza vaccine and wouldn’t “get influenza on a plane” even if there were people coughing and sneezing because of his superior immune system honed by his superior lifestyle. The best response ever came from Bob Costas, of all people, whose exasperated retort, “Oh, come on, Superman!” forever earns him my kudos for pointing out the ridiculousness of the idea that pathogenic viruses and organisms can’t hurt you if you just live the “right” lifestyle.
Germ theory denial even borrowed a page from conspiracy theories of all stripes, namely that of the “deathbed conversion” of the primary driver or originator of the conspiracy. In this case, there is a myth, parroted by people ranging from the antivaccine and HIV/AIDS-denying quack Kelly Brogan to Bill Maher to water fast guru Michael Klaperto functional medicine quack Dr. Mark Hyman, that Louis Pasteur “recanted” germ theory on his deathbed, reportedly saying, “Bernard avait raison. Le germe n’est rien, c’est le terrain qui est tout” (“Bernard is correct. The bacteria are nothing. The soil is everything”). In some versions of the telling, this statement is claimed to have been Pasteur’s last words right before he died, presumably because it’s a much more dramatic story that way. Guess what? As Peter Bowditch demonstrated in 2004, there is no evidence whatsoever that Pasteur ever said anything of the sort, either any time during his life or on his deathbed or as his last words.
In 2022, one of the supreme weaknesses of germ theory denial—even among believers and leaving aside its pre-Pasteur rationales—has been its inability to provide even a semi-reasonable explanation for the contagiousness of infectious diseases. Even before scientists even knew that microorganisms existed, much less that they can cause disease, it was very obvious that infectious diseases could spread from one person to another or from something in the environment to people. Think the Black Death. Think even colds and flu. From these observations came miasma theory, which posited that such diseases were caused by “bad air.” by a miasma, which translates as “pollution” or “bad air”. Certainly it was a fairly trivial observation, even many centuries ago, that some diseases spread through the air somehow. It’s just that no one could tell you how because bacteria and other disease-causing microorganisms hadn’t been discovered yet. It’s also long been recognized that other diseases could be spread through the water and in other ways. After all, when John Snow halted the London cholera epidemic by shutting down the Broad Street pump in 1854, it was understood that contaminated water could spread disease, even if how was not yet understood. (Indeed, the causative organism for cholera, Vibrio cholera, was not identified until 30 years later.)
I think I’ve found one of the more unusual ways that someone steeped in germ theory denial explains the contagiousness of infectious diseases. Meet “Dr.” Melissa Sell. Here’s her Twitter bio:
Lest you think that I’m exaggerating by calling “Dr.” Sell “germ theory denial personified,” check this out:
Actually, in “germ theory” viruses, even though they weren’t discovered until after bacteria, are nonetheless generally considered one of the “germs” (i.e., pathogenic microbes) that can cause infection diseases, but whatever. Also, note how she thinks that “cancer theory” (whatever that is) and “autoimmune theory” are also “well-packaged webs of lies.” That certainly sounds like germ theory denial!
Elsewhere, on Instagram, she’s saying that germs are good for you:
This is a gross oversimplification of the hygiene hypothesis, which states how exposure to microorganisms as a child prevents the development of allergies and is important for the proper development of the immune system. Of course, germ theory deniers just love the observations of modern microbiology that demonstrate that many bacteria living on and in our bodies are actually beneficial. Contrary to the tenets of germ theory denial, germ theory is not incompatible with the observation that many bacteria and other microbes are harmless or even potentially beneficial. After all, germ theory only says that some microorganisms cause some specific diseases, not that all microbes are harmful. This was even known a century ago! As for that bit about bacteria being “microsurgeons,” I can only imagine that she is echoing Béchamp’s idea that bacteria show up in bad “terrain,” sort of. My retort to this claim is to ask: Is gas gangrene a good example of this “microsurgery”? Certainly bacteria in a gangrenous limb are busily microsurgerizing the dead tissue.
Also, one more time, nothing in germ theory denies that humans are a part of nature. What germ theory denial, as expressed by Sells above, seems to be saying is that because “germs” are part of nature they can’t hurt us. This is obviously nonsense. There are lots of things in nature that can hurt or kill human beings, ranging from predatory animals to real toxins produced by various animals (as opposed to the imaginary “toxins” that supposedly cause disease in alternative medicine) to, yes, certain microorganisms that can infect even “healthy” people with the best “terrain” to cause harm or even kill. As for the “fourth biological law,” that’s an obvious reference to German New Medicine, a form of quackery that claims that cancer (actually all disease) is due to psychic trauma or “conflict.” Let’s just recount part of this “law”:
It is true that microbes are present in infectious diseases, but it is not the microbes that cause the disease. On the contrary, our organism uses the microbes to optimize the healing process. It is also true that microbes can be transmitted, but they stay inactive as long as we are not in the healing phase of the appropriate conflict.
That tracks. In germ theory denial, microbes are never the cause of disease (except, per softer forms of germ theory denial, when the “terrain” is already diseased). Then there’s this:
But wait, Orac! you say. I still don’t see an explanation for the contagiousness from this germ theory denier. Patience, it’s coming. In fact, here it is:
Vibrations. Of course, it had to be vibrations, or, as I once said describing some particularly silly quackery: Vibrations. Toujours des vibrations. How much quackery is based on the idea of “vibrations” and “frequency”? More than I can remember! So of course germ theory denial incorporates these concepts into the denial of a foundational theory in medicine. Just look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and the “Body Vibes” magic vibration stickers she sold and might still be selling, for all I know. Look at Bill Nelson’s supremely ugly SCIO, Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface, which claimed to identify the “frequencies” of “vibration” to optimize your health and battle disease. Then there’s a the “bioresonance” machine beloved of naturopaths, which does more or less the same thing. I also can’t help but see “resonances”—sorry, couldn’t resist—of “harmonized water” and, going way, way back to 2006, Dr. Emoto’s imprinting of water with “positive” emotional vibrations.
So let me get this straight. The reason infectious diseases are infectious is not because “particles” (clearly a reference to viruses, which are not, strictly speaking, life forms because they basically cannot do much of anything until they get into cellular hosts to reproduce) can float from person to person on the air or go from person to person through touch or via fomites, but because the ill person’s vibe is off kilter and makes the vibes of people around him go off-kilter too? It gets worse, but first, who the heck is Melissa Sell? Apparently she’s a “health mindset coach,” whatever that means, who sells a “30 minute info” call for the low, low price of $111 and whose blog is a “target-rich environment” for future posts. She’s a chiropractor, because of course she is. With the help of her boyfriend Steven Ravnstag, she came up with something they call the 10 Module Online Course in Mind Mastery: The Ever Better Life Course and the Awareness School.
Coming back to the German New Medicine connection, let’s recount what the Fourth Biological Law says about contagion:
Based on the two-phase pattern of every SBS (Second Biological Law), “infections” cannot be transmitted to another person since the symptoms (discharge, inflammation, fever) are already healing symptoms. Moreover, a DHS that activates a Biological Special Program is a highly individual conflict experience. If two or more people happen to have the same symptoms, for example, a cold, diarrhea, or a stomach flu, this means that all of them are in the healing phase of the same type of conflict (stink conflict, indigestible morsel conflict, territorial anger conflict) that took place, let’s say, at school, at home, or at work. The idea that everyone had a “weak immune system” just at that time is rather far-fetched. The same holds true for epidemics which are the result of conflicts affecting large populations (attack conflicts, territorial fear conflicts, death-fright conflicts). This was the case, for instance, with the Great Plague, the Spanish Flu, and the lung tuberculosis epidemic after World War I. Nowadays, such collective conflict shocks are easily evoked through frightening media reports (threats of an economic collapse, threats of a global war, threats of terrorist attacks, threats of a “deadly virus”). The ensuing pneumonia outbreak (termed SARS, the swine flu, and so forth) is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I note that the above website has only been slightly updated for COVID-19, but there are still “gems” there, such as the explanation for anosmia (loss of sense of smell) and the loss of sense of taste that COVID-19 often causes:
A loss of smell (anosmia) is linked to the olfactory nerves and the biological conflict of “not being able to smell something or someone”. Curfews and “social distancing” (not being able to smell a loved one, a friend, a school mate, a teacher) can easily trigger the conflict; but also the opposite, namely, “not wanting to smell someone” because of the fear of getting infected by coming too close to a person. The symptom occurs during conflict activity.
A loss of taste is linked to the posterior third of the tongue and the conflict of “not being able to taste something” caused, for example, by a fear of not being able to buy food or not being allowed to eat out due to the shutdown of restaurants.
Or maybe—just maybe—SARs-CoV-2 is what causes loss of sense of taste and smell in those who get COVID-19. A crazy idea, I know!
So Ms. Sell’s claim is, basically, that bad vibes reflect or cause disease and are contagious. Of course, whenever I come across an alternative medicine claim like this, I imagine the consequences of this particular idea. That led me to imagine the worst: That my wife became deathly ill, say with cancer. If Ms. Sells’ and “German New Medicine” are correct, does that mean that I caused it by transmitting bad vibes to her? Or does it mean that if she doesn’t recover I or someone else close to her must be the cause? Or does it mean that if I don’t somehow cut myself off from her I’ll become deathly ill with cancer or something else too?
I’m not the only one for whom the logical conclusion coming from Ms. Sell’s statement was obvious, either:
Seriously, do these quacks even consider the victim blaming and the blaming of loved ones that flow from their ideas of “interconnectedness,” “vibrations,” and the germ theory denial version of “contagion”?
When you come right down to it, as I say all the time, this form of alternative medicine is nothing more than The Secret, which I once described as the central dogma of alternative medicine. You might remember The Secret from the 2000s, back when Oprah Winfrey was promoting it. Basically, the first idea is that, if you wish for “health” or “healing” hard enough, you will attract it from the universe through the force of your mind/spirit/energy. The second idea is that, if you attract that “healing,” “nature” can heal you of almost anything, just as, according to the Law of Attraction from The Secret, you “attract” things to you from the universe according to your thoughts, intents, and desires. In one way, The Secret is obviously trivial in that there is no doubt that if you truly want something badly enough you will be far more likely to take action to go after it and therefore become more likely to get it. However, action based on desire is not what The Secret is about; rather, it’s about thoughts and attitudes. As I like to say, the central dogma of alternative medicine is The Secret, or: Wishing makes it so.
The similarity with much of alt-med should be obvious and embodied in the idea, which I’ve seen so many times on so many alt-med websites, that you – yes, you! – are completely responsible for your own health by your own lifestyle choices. According to this line of “thought” (if you can call it that), all it takes is living the right way, doing the right things, using the right supplements, and you can be not just healthy, but virtually immune to serious diseases up to and including cancer and, even if you get them, you can cure yourself of them “naturally.” As with The Secret, there is a germ of truth embedded in the concept that your thoughts can make you healthy. It just doesn’t work the way it’s stated or implied by alt-med practitioners. Again, if you have a genuine desire to be healthy, it is more likely that you will act on that desire and exercise, lay off the unhealthy habits such as drinking to excess and smoking, and eat a healthy diet. However, as reasonable people know, it’s a matter of probabilities. Diet and a healthy lifestyle are no panacea, and even the most “righteous” person (from a healthy living standpoint) is not immune to cancer, heart disease, infectious diseases, or any of the other diseases and conditions to which the human organism is prone. Worse, the corollary of the central dogma appears to be that if you are ill it is your fault for not having the right “intent,” attitude, and thoughts and therefore not doing the right things and/or not believing hard enough.
If you don’t believe that, here’s Ms. Sell elsewhere:
In another Tweet, Ms. Sell emphasizes the same principle:
And, of course, like all quacks:
At least Ms. Sell seems to be, whether she realizes it or not, admitting to magical thinking with her reference to her critics being “muggles.” As anyone who’s ever read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies knows, a “muggle” is a nonmagical human, as opposed to wizards and witches, who have the ability to use magic. I suppose that I should be relieved she didn’t use the term “mudblood” instead, although it would have totally fit with German New Medicine if she had.
In Ms. Sell’s world of germ theory denial, apparently all we have to do to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control is to harmonize everyone’s vibes to a happy, healthy frequency. I have an idea.