Germ theory denialism

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Some alternative medicine advocates deny the validity of germ theory in medicine, believing that despite many, many validations of the relevant work of Ignaz Semmelweis, Joseph Lister, Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, Kiyoshi Shiga et al, bacteria and viruses are not the causative agents of infectious disease.

Typically, they argue that microorganisms are symptoms rather than causes of illness. While many cloak their denialism in other alternative medicine specialties such as naturopathy or chiropractic, others are more strident, often invoking conspiracy theories by the medical establishment and accusing Louis Pasteur in particular of fraud.

Rarely, some even deny that germs exist at all.[1] Denying the existence of viruses in particular is more common among deniers of germ theory. People who deny the existence of germs altogether (on the grounds that, for example, "I can't see it with the naked eye, so it isn't real") might be more accurately termed "microbe deniers", or some such, even if they technically also deny the accuracy of a germ theory of disease.

Terrain theory[edit]

Terrain theory is one of the most prominent and long-lasting forms of germ theory denialism. It dates back to 19th century France when Claude Bernard and Antoine Béchamp, two pleomorphistWikipedia rivals of Louis Pasteur, attempted to explain disease as caused by failures in the body's internal regulation, when the body's internal environment or terrain is upset.[2] They suggested that microbes are created by the body (or made dangerous) when it falls ill, rather than being the cause of disease. This put them in conflict with Pasteur's germ theory, and is the basis for modern versions of terrain theory.[3][4][1]

One modern version, popular on Facebook and other social media, holds that there is only one real disease, toxemia, caused by toxins and living an "unnatural" lifestyle. Microbes and viruses are symptoms of this, not the cause; followers believe viruses are debris produced by ailing cells. For believers, the secret to health is to avoid "meat, dairy, eggs, breads, pasta, soy, nut and seed oils, potatoes, garlic, onions, cereals, salt, fermented foods, coffee, supplements, alcohol, tobacco, and any other intoxicating substances" and definitely no "drugs, medical treatments, and vaccines".[3] While a few items on that list may be harmful (e.g. alcohol), avoiding all of them is not recommended.

Modern terrain theory proponents will sometimes deny that viruses exist at all, claiming that what is observed is actually something else entirely (such as an exosomeWikipedia). Of these, some especially focus on the shortcomings of Koch's postulates (developed in the late 19th century) with regard to viral infections. However, modern germ theory has built on Koch's postulates significantly; they have been supplanted largely by the Bradford Hill criteriaWikipedia or else a fusion between that and Koch's postulates (see also Molecular Koch's postulatesWikipedia).[5][2] Robert Koch himself acknowledged the shortcoming of his first postulate, when he discovered subclinical cases of cholera and typhoid fever.[6][7]

Terrain in germ theory[edit]

The idea that the "terrain" (environment) that microbes act within influences the presentation of diseases is not completely incompatible with a germ theory of disease; The microbiomeWikipedia for instance is increasingly important for our current understanding of health and diseases.[1] The overall strength of a person's immune system can also cause a disease's symptoms to present more or less severe.[5]

What is at fault in "terrain theory" is not a re-emphasis on the influence of environment factors in the presentation of certain diseases (though certain interpretations or conclusions following this may be at fault, e.g. attempts to discredit vaccines, or to promote unproven quack medicine as a fix), but rather a denial that specific germs cause specific infectious diseases where there is evidence for that, and an attempt to replace those explanations with only environmental explanations because that must be the root cause of any disease, even where this is empirically unproven.[5]

Who believes this tripe?[edit]

Germ theory deniers pop up in a number of different locales:

Curiously, few of these people have shown a willingness to drink a glass of pathogen. Those that do will not always learn their lesson from the expected result.

The label "germ theory denialism" is often applied to systems of alternative medicine which claim that if a person is in optimal/perfect health then that person's immune system will be 100% effective at fending off all infections, and thus 1) anyone following said system has no need of vaccines, and/or 2) anyone who has a bacterial infection should use said system's means of "boosting the immune system" to fight off the infection rather than using any antibiotics. Proponents of these systems reject the notion that they're germ theory denialists on the grounds that they acknowledge that germs play a causative role in infections. That said, there are systems of alternative medicine which claim that germs play no causative role in any illnesses, and that instead that the presence of germs is the effect of certain forms of illness. Similar to the "not outright denialist"-alties, US Senator Thom Tillis (R[10]) is against requiring food servers to wash their hands after using the bathroom,[11] though you'd think the fact that said food servers have just touched their genitals and possibly urine or feces would be reason enough to require them to wash before handling your food. Andrew Shlafly, on the other hand, claims that hand washing amounts to a phobia, though one might believe Andy to be projecting just a bit here. Both of these national health hazards think that hand-borne pathogens are of no great concern to public health, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

List of germ theory deniers[edit]

All-in deniers

  • Thomas S. Cowan — alt-med practitioner who co-wrote The Contagion Myth: Why Viruses (including "Coronavirus") Are Not the Cause of Disease and subsequently had his medical license relinquished.[12]
  • Pete Hegseth — Fox News contributor who confided he hasn't washed his hands in ten years because "germs are not a real thing".[1]
  • NaturalNews, of course.[13][14][15]
  • E. Douglas Hume, an early 20th century animal welfare advocate
  • Rudolf Steiner,[16] anthroposophist and father of Waldorf education
  • Woody Harrelson[17]


External links[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Gainty, Caitjan (July 5, 2021). "Germ theory denialism is alive and well – and taking the nuance out of scientific debate". The Conversation. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mattingly, James (2022-09-21) (in en). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. SAGE Publications. pp. 331–335. ISBN 978-1-4833-4771-4. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Deep dive into stupid: Meet the growing group that rejects germ theory, Ars Technica, Aug 7, 2021
  4. The 19th-Century Crank Who Tried to Tell Us About the Microbiome, Wired, June 15, 2018
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Gorski, David (January 4, 2021). "Germ theory denial in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic". Science-Based Medicine. 
  6. "Ueber den augenblicklichen Stand der bakteriologischen Choleradiagnose" (in de). Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infektionskrankheiten 14: 319–38. 1893. doiWikipedia:10.1007/BF02284324. 
  7. "10.1E: Exceptions to Koch's Postulates" (in en). 2018-06-20. 
  10. A Republican, who'd have thought…
  11. Steve Benen. "Thom Tillis tackles germ theory". MSNBC. 
  12. Barbara Feder Ostrov (February 5, 2021). "Conspiracy theory doctor surrenders medical license". CalMatters.
  13. The Germ Theory Hoax on the next NaturalNews Talk Hour by Jonathan Landsman (February 09, 2011) NaturalNews (archived from (February 11, 2011).
  14. Is Modern Medicine Founded on Error? by Gabriel Donohoe (December 07, 2007) NaturalNews (archived from February 24, 2010).
  15. Germ theory delusions collapse as new science reveals healthy people carry 10,000 different germ strains at all times by Ethan A. Huff (June 19, 2012) NaturalNews (archived from June 19, 2012).
  16. Rudolf Steiner's Quackery by Roger Rawlings (July 23, 2012) Quackwatch.
  17. Rebecca Ford (May 24, 2022). "Woody Harrelson on Working Through the Pandemic, Even Though He Thinks Masks Are 'Absurd'". Vanity Fair.
  18. Peter Doshi (June 10, 2013). "Influenza vaccines: time for a rethink". JAMA Internal Medicine.
  19. Michael Simpson (December 5, 2014). "The zombie anti-vaccine lie–Peter Doshi and the appeal to authority". Skeptical Raptor.
  20. Nikki McCann Ramirez and Miles Klee (June 27, 2023). "RFK Jr. Claims 'Vaccine Research' Likely Responsible for HIV and the Spanish Flu". Rolling Stone.
  21. "International Skeptics Forum — View Single Post — Bill Maher says vaccines don't prevent disease". 
  22. "More medical conspiracy from Bill Maher". 17 October 2009. 
  23. "Bill Maher's Medical Meltdown Turns Off Guests, Confuses Audience". Mediaite. 18 October 2009. 
  24. Conservapedia: Talk:Biblical scientific foreknowledge by Aschlafly (11 July 2010) Conservapedia (archived from May 22, 2019).
  25. Conservapedia: Biblical scientific foreknowledge by Aschlafly (11 July 2010) Conservapedia (archived from May 22, 2019).