The pseudoscience of immune system boosting

One of the most ridiculous pseudoscientific claims that I keep hearing from the junk medicine crowd is that this supplement or that food is critical to immune system boosting – this myth is so prevalent, I had to debunk it with lots of real science.

These type of claims ignore one basic physiological fact: the immune system is a complex interconnected network of organs, cells, tissues and biomolecules that prevent invasion of the body by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pathogens every day.

And no matter how much individuals try to trivialize the complexity of the immune system by claiming that downing a few tablets of echinacea will boost the immune system to prevent colds (it doesn’t), it still doesn’t make it a scientific fact.

So let’s take a look at why “immune system boosting” can be considered a pseudoscience. And to discuss pseudoscience, we will have lots of real science.

Pseudoscience – immune system boosting

Using the Graham Coghill’s Science Red Flags, which are indicators of either bad science or unscientific nonsense (and which I’ve used with respect to GMOs), let’s do a quick review of a few outlandish claims of the junk medicine horde. I just cherry picked a few, because their pseudoscience is not the focus of this article. I don’t have that much time to find all the “immune system” rubbish on the internet!

The Red Flag What “immune booster” proponents say
The ‘scientifically proven’ subterfuge. Apparently, without actually showing us any evidence, individuals like to state that this food or that supplement is “scientifically proven” to provide immune system boostingSetting aside the semantic point that science doesn’t “prove” anything, it provides evidence in support or refutation of a hypothesis, and the body of evidence is used to support a scientific principle, In other words, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Where is the extraordinary  evidence?
Empty edicts – absence of empirical evidence Yes, you’ll read this all the time. The claim of “it is widely known that XYZ boosts your immune system.” Widely know? By whom? Unless it’s widely known in the narrow mind of the Health Ranger, and his anti-scientific and junk medicine pushing claims about what boosts the immune system.
Anecdotes, testimonials and urban legends Anecdotes are de facto evidence of the pseudoscience pushing crowd. The problem is that anecdotes don’t equal data, and more anecdotes doesn’t equal better data. Maybe (or maybe not) your cousin’s friend got better downing lots of vitamin C. But that’s not evidence.
Stressing status and appealing to authority One of their common ploys of the junk medicine crowd is to employ the Argument from False or Misleading Authority, which is when someone provides an argument from an authority, but on a topic outside of the particular authority’s expertise or on a topic on which the authority is not disinterested.

Someone may try to convince us of the immune boosting properties of certain foods. One of the coauthors in this story is an RD (registered dietician), which is not a scientific degree. Just because they have that RD does not make them necessarily an expert on the field. The only thing that matters is evidence, and they provide none.

Devious deception in displaying data: Cherry picking Junk Medicine pushers love Cherry Picking. They will focus on one or two legitimate studies (or worse yet, only a part of the a study), while ignoring the body of evidence that contradicts it. Science does not function by inventing a conclusion and finding only data (or research) that supports the conclusion; in fact, good science examines the peer-reviewed data and follows where the evidence  leads.
Duplicity and distraction This is the False Dichotomy logical fallacy, which states that there are only two possible, and usually opposite, positions from which to choose. Either take this supplement, eat this food, or drink this juice, or you will die a horrific death because your immune system will just quit working. Uh no. That’s not what we know about the immune system.
Appeals to ancient wisdom – trusting traditional trickery In the world of foods, somehow there’s a belief that our ancestors ate better and healthier. And some go back to 10-20,000 years ago to try to convince everyone that the “Paleolithic diet” is the right one. Or that somehow our ancestors ate better, organic foods. Or that farmers knew better how to farm in the 13th century. In fact, food is better today because we have better transportation systems which means there’s less spoilage and generally healthier.

Humans today not only live longer today, we live more productive active lives.

Although there are lots of reasons for this (vaccinations, sanitation, medicines), one of the reasons is modern availability of more and higher quality food. Our ancestors had pests, wars, plagues (which killed laborers), and many other issues that made food in short supply and lower quality. Children died younger and from diseases we just don’t, and they were supposedly eating that wonderful immune boosting food. I guess not.

Technobabble and tenuous terminology: the use of pseudo scientific language In this tactic, people use invented terms that sound “sciencey” or co-opt real science terms and apply them incorrectly, and it’s one of the fundamental tenets of pseudoscience. Despite all of these outlandish claims about various things “boosting the immune system,” no one provides a plausible pathway for it.

I wrote an article about people misunderstanding of a study that used banana extract placed inside the abdomen of rodents. Foreign bodies in the abdominal cavity will nearly always induce an immune response, the bananas are irrelevant.

And then junk medicine gang went crazy happy over this study, stating that bananas have a small protein called TNF that has some robust effects (many of them quite negative and deadly) on the immune system. Well bananas don’t have TNF, and even if it did, you couldn’t absorb it after eating a banana, and even if you could absorb it, you couldn’t eat enough bananas to have a physiological effect.

Conflating correlation with causation: rooster syndrome The infamous post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy, which is essentially a belief that because a second event follows the first, the first event must be the cause of the second. So eat your broccoli kids, because 10 people who ate their broccoli didn’t get cancer.
Banishing boundaries and pushing panaceas – applying models where they don’t belong Those who use this tactic take a model that works under certain conditions and try to apply it more widely to circumstances beyond its scope, where it does not work. My aforementioned banana article is a perfect example of this boundary issue.

The authors of the original article induced the production of TNF (a natural response of the body to foreign substances) by essentially grinding up bananas and placing it in the the abdominal cavity of rodents. Then they measured TNF (tumor necrosis factor) levels. But the woo-pushing gang, went crazy over the study.

Dismissing all of the data and methodology of the article, they claimed BANANAS BOOST THE IMMUNE SYSTEM TO CURE CANCER. No it doesn’t. And TNF is a poorly name protein in the immune system, since it doesn’t kill cancer cells. And too much of it can be quite dangerous to your health. (By the way, this banana cancer meme is completely zombified, I get hundreds of hits to the article every day).

Appeal to nature – the authenticity axiom “Boosting the immune system” believers push the Appeal to Nature, which is the belief or suggestion that “natural” is always better than “unnatural”. It assumes that “nature” is good, and “unnatural” is not.

Yoni Freedhof, an MD and Professor of Family Medicine, wrote that, people who believe that nature is good, and chemicals are bad, “(are) arrogant because it suggests that the entirety of the natural world has been created purely as a service to humankind – that somehow the earth and everything on it grows simply for our pleasure or our consumption.”

There is nothing in nature that is necessarily and inherently better than something invented by mankind, but the believers want to believe that everything natural must be better for humans. Because you know that evolution happened just to benefit Homo sapiens.

 

So there it is. A deconstruction of the pseudoscience behind some of the claims about boosting the immune system – short of getting fully vaccinated, it’s a myth.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2013 as a major part of another article. To improve the readability of the other article on the immune system, this section was excised and made into a separate article. This article has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor

Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!


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  • Andrew Lazarus

    As far as I can tell, if antivax cranks really believed in their workout-at-the-gym model of the immune system, they’d go every weekend to roll in poison ivy.

  • Tigger_the_Wing

    Thank you for doing the work so I don’t have to! =^_^=

    If there WERE foodstuffs that were guaranteed to boost the immune system (I realise that the premise is bunk, but bear with me) then you bet I would like a comprehensive list of the blighters.

    I already have a restricted diet, thanks to a GI system that hates me, so crossing a few more items off the list would be more than irritating; but I would do so in order to avoid boosting an immune system that hates me even more. =^.^=

    Have these people not heard of auto-immune disorders? Or how people like me are actually taking immune *suppressants* (fortnightly injections in my case) in an attempt at having some quality of life higher than “Miserable”?

    Anyway, ‘immune boosting’ is bunk that relies on a naïve understanding of human biology, just like ‘colon cleanses’ and ‘detox diets’. Seriously, despite a G.I. tract that has serious problems, including Cœliac Disease and a spastic colon, mine cleans itself; andmy liver not only did a sterling job of detoxing my body of the breakdown-products of all the medications I take, but when the products of some of them started to damage the liver itself (so I had to stop taking those particular medications) my liver started to de-tox *itself*.

  • Sandy Perlmutter

    Boosting the immune system is like cleansing the colon. Both of these things show a lack of respect for wonderful and complex parts of our bodies. As if attempting to tweak these systems, already perfectly set up for our protection, were appropriate.

    Yes, medical science attempts to help when things go wrong. But non-scientific interference just shows lack of respect, not to mention gullibility. Someone is making a ton of money out of immune system boosters and colon cleansers. Leave yourselves alone, folks!