Germ theory denialism
| Not just a river in Egypt|
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Some alternative medicine advocates deny the validity of germ theory in medicine, believing that despite many, many validations of the work of Ignaz Semmelweis, Joseph Lister, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, 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.
Germ theory deniers pop up in a number of different locales:
- Some HIV denial advocates also partially or completely discount germ theory.
- Germ theory denialists are generally antivaxers as well, which makes a kind of perverse anti-intellectual sense.
- Dairy cranks who support the use of raw milk over pasteurized sometimes accuse Pasteur of being a shill for the French wine industry (a somewhat incoherent accusation that sometimes betrays a Prohibitionist streak).
- NaturalNews, of course.
- Bill Maher (Though he claims he is not a "germ theory denier").
- Andrew Schlafly — handwashing is a compulsive phobia, and Jesus told us so (Matthew 15:2)
- Rudolf Steiner, anthroposophist and father of Waldorf education
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) is against requiring food servers to wash their hands after using the bathroom, 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.
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 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. They suggested that microbes are created by the body 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.
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". While a few items on that list may be harmful (e.g. alcohol), avoiding all of them is not recommended, and very hard.
- Germ Theory Denial, Steven Novella
- Germ theory denialism: A major strain in alt-med thought, Science-Based Medicine
- "International Skeptics Forum — View Single Post — Bill Maher says vaccines don't prevent disease".
- "More medical conspiracy from Bill Maher". 17 October 2009.
- "Bill Maher's Medical Meltdown Turns Off Guests, Confuses Audience". Mediaite. 18 October 2009.
- Conservapedia: Talk:Biblical scientific foreknowledge by Aschlafly (11 July 2010) Conservapedia (archived from May 22, 2019).
- Conservapedia: Biblical scientific foreknowledge by Aschlafly (11 July 2010) Conservapedia (archived from May 22, 2019).
- Rudolf Steiner's Quackery by Roger Rawlings (July 23, 2012) Quackwatch.
- A Republican, who'd have thought…
- Steve Benen. "Thom Tillis tackles germ theory". MSNBC.
- Deep dive into stupid: Meet the growing group that rejects germ theory, Ars Technica, Aug 7, 2021
- The 19th-Century Crank Who Tried to Tell Us About the Microbiome, Wired, June 15, 2018