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How to spot a wellness grift
A quick 'n easy guide to critical thinking
This week marked was a small victory for consumer rights advocates in the ongoing battle against wellness grifters’ misinformation.
It all started when a ‘holistic master coach’ recently posted an Instagram reel claiming that she can help visually challenged people stop wearing glasses simply by teaching them ‘self-healing’ techniques to improve their eye health. The post has since been deleted but you can watch a stitched (and hilarious) recap of it here.
I swear these people just out themselves.
I will add here that there is a BIG difference between saying: “you can support your eye health by following a healthy lifestyle because factors like stress can exacerbate or contribute to vision problems” V.S. “you don’t need glasses.”
The former is a balanced, and nuanced perspective. The second is an unsubstantiated claim.
This coach then proceeded to hard-sell her $11 masterclass she was offering to ‘educate’ people about holistic healing modalities for eye health. Again, big difference between offering holistic therapies to complement modern medical interventions V.S. offering wildly unfounded claims that essential oils can treat underlying symptoms (which this coach seemed to have been suggesting).
An undercover consumer rights advocate (shout out to @this.is.mallory!) audited the masterclass and then created a TikTok in which she exposed the misinformation, misleading claims, and predatory tactics that were taught inside the masterclass. Her TikTok went viral, garnering over 2 million views.
This story was immediately picked up by the Daily Beast in this article and is now making its rounds in local media outlets like The Inquirer, as well as getting reposted on countless anti-wellness misinformation social media accounts, including mine! This is a beautiful display of collective action to combat medical misinformation and serves as the perfect case-study for the wellness grift playbook, which I’m going to outline in this post.
A quick word on Joe Dispenza, et al.
Anytime I discuss wellness grifters on Instagram, it’s guaranteed that someone will ask me what I think of “Dr.” Joe Dispenza. I used to dance around this topic because I know that many spiritualists in my community have benefitted from his teachings, but I no longer have reservations about giving my opinion straight:
My opinion of Joe Dispenza is that he is yet another wellness grifter who takes advantage of chronically ill and other vulnerable people who have been hurt and disillusioned by our broken healthcare system. I announced to my audience this week that I’ve been quietly working on my exposé of the Joe Dispenza grift and I’m pleasantly surprised that many people are here for it. I’ve been debunking Joe Dispenza for over 2 years and I’ve noticed a refreshing shift in the way that my work is being received. In the past, I was inevitably met with pushback of my skepticism, but now, people not only resonate with it, but confirm it with their own troubling stories like these:
As a consumer rights advocate, I take a hard stance against medical misinformation. It is irresponsible, not to mention highly unethical (and in some cases illegal), to mess with peoples’ lives. I am counting on the day that Joe Dispenza will out himself and receive the same backlash and negative press as Anthony William aka the “Medical Medium” did earlier this year, when one of his close disciples died of cancer from following his dogma.
Anyway, while I work on my exposé behind the scenes, I want to spotlight the wellness grift playbook and offer some red flags to look out for when entering any kind of holistic healing community that is clearly lead by a wellness guru-turned-cult of personality.
Quick disclaimer: I’m not opposed to alternative therapies. In fact, I don’t even like to call them ‘alternative.’ Alternative to whom? Many holistic healing modalities are founded on cultural, ethnic, religious, or personal rituals and practices that hold significant value for individuals from those lineages. I don’t promote a dogmatic perspective that dismisses holistic therapies on the grounds that they are not ‘scientific.’ It’s important to acknowledge and remember that our modern systems of science and medicine are fundamentally flawed because much of our scientific understanding of material phenomena relies on a Euro-centric, colonial perspective where research dollars are funded for and by historically oppressive and exploitative systems that uphold a patriarchal and white supremacist status quo. As such, there is a dire need for social justice and culturally-responsive care to address the social inequities that exacerbate and contribute to mental and physical illness. In the context of healing, having a balanced, nuanced perspective means we can appreciate the emotional and psychological benefits that holistic therapies can have, while exercising caution and critical thinking when promoting them as medical or scientific solutions. In late stage capitalism, we have to pick and choose our battles and we are often forced with choosing the lesser of the two evils. All of these complex, often conflicting realities must be taken into consideration when making informed decisions about our health and well-being.
That said, nothing screams ‘colonizer’ like white men who have appropriated ancient healing modalities by rebranding it as their own ‘secret formula’ for personal profit. Tell me you have BGE (Big Grift Energy) without telling me.
Understanding Pseudoscience: Discerning Fake from Real
Wellness grifters rely on pseudoscientific claims to intentionally mislead and deceive people. It can be extremely hard to spot this, and many unassuming and otherwise intelligent people (including myself) can fall for the grift. Even with my extensive academic background, I found myself entangled in the web of junk science within the New-Age industry. This is a testament to how our curiosity, optimism, and open-mindedness can be used against us in bad faith, when we’re not careful. These so-called gurus are often excellent marketers and have mastered the art of emotional storytelling and other persuasive sales tactics. But with a little bit of critical thinking, we can learn to recognize their red flags and dirty tactics. Then we can hopefully avoid scenarios like this one:
Firstly, let’s explore what pseudoscience is, identify its key elements, and uncover the deceptive tactics used by wellness grifters so we can discern genuine v.s. junk science.
Pseudoscience is a term used to describe claims that masquerade as products of science but lack empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is the backbone of science.
For a claim to be empirical, it should meet at least 3 essential conditions:
It adheres to the standards of the scientific method, which is a six-step framework that guides the experimental process. Note: science seeks to disprove, rather than prove a theory. This is important for ensuring the falsifiability of a claim. In order for a claim to be valid, it needs to be falsifiable—meaning, there has to be a way to prove that it’s wrong, or false. Simply put: scientific ideas should be testable.
For example, the theory that “leprechauns exist” is not falsifiable because it is impossible to prove the non-existence of something. This becomes important when discerning between a scientific claim versus someone’s opinion or personal belief. Opinions and personal beliefs, while valid, are subjective which means they are not generalizable. Just because someone believes that leprechauns exist, doesn’t make it true.
It maintains full transparency in research methods and procedures, which enables results to be reproducible and replicable. This means that repeated experiments using the same exact procedures will yield the same exact results. This is to avoid experimenter bias and other chance errors. Even in the most controlled experimental conditions, confounding variables occur. This is why science is careful not to conflate correlation with causation.
For example: “holistic therapies improve eye health and reduce the need for glasses” (causation) v.s. “holistic therapies can mitigate stress levels which may indirectly improve eye health and reduce dependency on glasses over time” (correlation). The former assumes a direct relationship between holistic therapies and glasses. The latter leaves room for other mitigating factors, like stress, that can contribute to the outcomes.
The findings are peer-reviewed, which means the study has undergone rigorous investigation by trained and qualified experts in the field. This is a quality assurance measure—a system of checks and balances, if you will—to ensure that research meets the standards of accountability, credibility, professionalism, integrity, and ethics set forth by the scientific community.
For example, let's take a look at “Dr.” Joe Dispenza, who claims to be a neuroscientist despite holding a chiropractic degree from an unaccredited institution (called Life University). His research is published by the HeartMath Institute, a nonprofit with its own journal edited by its own scientific advisors—clear conflicts of interest.
Pseudoscience misses these conditions because it doesn't follow standard procedures, lacks transparency, rejects peer review, and often invents terms or concepts not recognized by the scientific community.
Red Flags to Spot in Pseudoscience
Here are 5 red flags to help you identify pseudoscientific claims made by wellness grifters:
Quick Fix Solutions: Beware of those offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. Physical and mental illness is incredibly complex. There are often a multitude of biological, psychological, and environmental factors to dis-ease which can also vary from person to person. Wellness grifters tend to oversimplify issues and promise sweeping, miraculous results that don’t take into account individual differences.
Defensiveness and Avoidance of Critique: The scientific method is built on a foundation of skepticism and critical inquiry. Real scientists welcome critique and aim to improve their work, hence why there is a rigorous peer-review process. Wellness grifters often get defensive or ignore criticism, relying on published books, blogs, social media platforms, or privately owned websites to disseminate their ideas (e.g. Joe Dispenza’s HeartMath Institute). They are more concerned about pushing their dogma rather than contributing to the long-standing body of work of their peers.
Lack of Recognition: Wellness grifters are typically ignored or not taken seriously by experts in their field because they lack the advanced degrees or relevant qualifications in fields like physics, biology, or medicine. In the scientific community, recognition is earned through years of education, research, and contribution to one’s field. Established scientists often receive recognition in the form of academic titles, tenures, research grants, awards, and invitations to speak at reputable conferences. Their work is peer-reviewed and they collaborate with other experts. These activities are essential for the advancement of knowledge.
Profit-Driven Motives: True scientists are motivated by curiosity and the desire to expand knowledge. The work of a scientist is laborious and often unrewarding. They are rarely, if ever, acknowledged for their contributions. Wellness grifters prioritize profit. They rely on sensationalist claims that go against well-established scientific principles. There is a strong commercialized approach to their pseudoscientific claims. In other words, the entire success of their career often hinges on the revenue they are able to generate from their products/services. Real scientists have jobs in the real world; their career is longstanding and extends beyond just promoting their privatized products/services.
Relying on Personal Narratives: Anecdotal evidence and personal stories should never be mistaken for scientific proof. Anecdotal evidence typically consists of individual stories, testimonials, or personal accounts that attempt to ‘prove’ the validity of a certain intervention. While personal narratives can be intriguing and inspiring, they are highly subjective and lack the rigor and objectivity of real research. Personal stories are heavily influenced by individual perceptions, biases, and unique circumstances. Wellness grifters rely on personal narratives as a way of appealing to our emotions and creating a strong emotional connection with their claims. This can greatly hinder critical thinking and send us down the wrong path.
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Deceptive Marketing Tactics
In the context of wellness grifts, pseudoscience goes hand in hand with deceptive trade practices. Here are 4 major ones to flag:
Ambiguous Language: Wellness grifters use vague, generic statements that don't convey specific information and instead rely on buzzwords or other marketing gimmicks to make their claims appear more profound and appealing than they actually are.
Example 1 : “Unlock your hidden potential with our revolutionary technique"
In this statement, "hidden potential" and "revolutionary technique" are not defined. The language suggests something extraordinary but lacks specifics about what is being offered.
Example 2: "Harness the power of the universe to manifest your desires."
"Harness the power of the universe" is a vague and grandiose claim. It doesn't provide any concrete information about how this ‘harnessing’ occurs or what "manifesting desires" entails.
Example 3: "Achieve ultimate balance and wellness through holistic practices."
"Ultimate balance" and "holistic practices" are broad terms that can mean different things to different people, at different times. The statement doesn't specify which practices or how they lead to ‘balance and wellness.’
Citing Atypical Results: Wellness grifters will often cherry-pick atypical or unusual results that don’t represent normal distribution of outcomes. This is why they refer to isolated facts or anecdotes as proof, to create the illusion that their methods are highly effective.
Example 1: "Meet Sarah, who overcame a rare, incurable disease using our herbal remedy."
This statement spotlights a single case of success while neglecting to mention the many others who did not experience similar results.
Example 2: "John became a millionaire overnight by following our financial advice."
By highlighting an extraordinary outcome, this claim suggests that everyone who follows their financial advice will become wealthy, which is highly unlikely.
Example 3: "Terry lost 50 pounds in a week with our weight loss program."
While this result may be accurate for one individual, it ignores the typical and healthy rate of weight loss, creating unrealistic expectations.
Unsubstantiated Claims: Wellness grifters will often present concepts, laws, or theories as factual without any shred of scientific evidence to back up their claims. Even worse, they will often distort, misrepresent, or manipulate scientific data, which is not only a form of information control (a cult tactic), but it exploits and abuses others’ hard work. By positioning their ideas as facts and laws, they aim to convey authority and credibility which can make their claims appear more persuasive to individuals who are not familiar with scientific principles.
Example 1: The "Law of Attraction" is real
This new-age concept suggests that positive thoughts attract positive outcomes, while negative thoughts attract negative outcomes. Despite its popularity and widespread acceptance, the "Law of Attraction" has not undergone rigorous scientific testing to qualify as a ‘law.’ In order for something to qualify as a “law,” it needs to produce the same outcomes in repeated experimental conditions.
Example 2: Detox diets remove toxins
Detox diets often promise to remove "toxins" from the body or “balance your hormones,” leading to various health benefits. This is not only a gross oversimplification of the body’s detoxification and endocrine process, but the effectiveness of detox diets in removing specific toxins or balancing hormones is scarce.
Example 3: Aromatherapy heals physical ailments
Aromatherapy asserts that inhaling specific essential oils can have various therapeutic effects. While essential oils can certainly have stress-reducing benefits, making sweeping claims about its ability to cure serious medical conditions like cancer is misleading and dangerous. To date, there is not enough research to determine the effectiveness of essential oils on human health.
Exaggerated outcomes: Wellness grifters take a grain of truth or minor finding and blow it out of proportion to create a compelling narrative that misrepresents or distorts information. Again, the intent is to make a certain claim seem more miraculous or sensational than it actually is.
Example 1: Celery juice is a miracle cure-all
Sure, it’s true that celery juice does have health benefits such as being a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (a grain of truth). However, celery juice does not have life-saving properties that serve as a magical cure-all from all kinds of diseases and ailments (an exaggerated claim made by Anthony William, the Medical Medium).
Example 2: Thoughts are vibrations; you can manifest your reality through positive thoughts
While its true that thoughts emit an electrical frequency in the brain (a grain of truth), this frequency is too small to directly effect events in the material world (an exaggerated claim frequently made by Joe Dispenza and other ambassadors of the Law of Attraction dogma).
Example 3: Meditation can rewire your DNA through epigenetics
While it may be possible that meditation can change gene expression over time by influencing physiological factors like stress and blood pressure (a grain of truth), the field of epigenetics is still in its infancy and there is no scientific support for the idea that you can directly impact gene expression through meditation or positive thinking (an exaggerated claim frequently made by Deepak Chopra and Bruce Lipton).
The Wellness Grift Playbook
Now that we’ve established familiarity with these concepts, let’s break down the Wellness Grift Playbook.
Target a vulnerable population of the market who are desperate for solutions to their health problems (like folks with chronic illness). This is a highly unethical application of a marketing technique called segmentation. In marketing ethics, it is absolutely foul-play to intentionally and knowingly target vulnerable people. Wellness grifters will often launch campaigns and create products that cater to the needs/fears/anxieties of a vulnerable population. They not only keep an eye on trends, but they study the trajectory of their consumers’ journey to target them at specific time points. This is why people often get caught up in the grift when they are most vulnerable. This is not by accident; it’s a product of predatory marketing.
Make sensationalist/exaggerated claims, often on the basis of pseudoscience. Wellness grifters will often position their claims as groundbreaking or revolutionary discoveries by using scientific jargon and cherry-picking specific data (or making up random statistics) to falsely legitimize their claims. Examples:
“Dissolve your trauma in 7 days using our revolutionary quantum healing technique!” “Did you know? You can cut down your sugar cravings by 80% using our cutting-edge biohacking technology!”
Sow panic/paranoia through fear-mongering. Wellness grifters will often create or exploit pre-existing health anxieties or fears within an already vulnerable population. This is a manipulation tactic that undermines our critical thinking, triggers survival instincts, and increases the likelihood of making emotional decisions and impulse purchases. Examples: “Sugar has hidden cancer-causing ingredients!” “The bread you’re eating is made of toxic chemicals found in yoga mats!” “The Epstein-Barr virus is the root of all disease.”
Reinforce distrust in the medical establishment through conspiratorial thinking. Wellness grifters promote a black-and-white, ‘us v.s. them’ worldview (another cult dynamic) by disparaging the medical establishment and vilifying doctors and scientists. Critical thinking is the ability to hold multiple realities at the same time. Yes, we all know that the pharmaceutical industry is a profit-driven entity that does not have our preventative care in mind AND modern medical interventions like antibiotics and vaccines are life-saving. Prescription drugs have undesirable side-effects AND holistic therapies are not always safer and more effective. Doctors and scientists are often employed by greedy corporations AND individual doctors and scientists are not conspiring to hide cures from you.
Gaslight victims/survivors under the guise of ‘self-empowerment’. Wellness grifters promote the idea that we can ‘self-heal’ any health issues which can be resolved through holistic means. While this can be seen as an empowering message, it undermines the complexity of illness and invalidates the myriad of factors that are out of our control (such as environment and genes). This is a subtle form of gaslighting that places the blame and responsibility on the individual to heal themselves, suggesting that if someone isn’t getting better it is because they are not motivated enough.
When people feel guilty and inadequate, they become easier targets for wellness grifters to foster a sense of dependency on their holistic methods and products, which is only reinforced by the grifter’s promise of miraculous results. Self-healing is not synonymous with ‘holistic.’ Self-healing simply means valuing your wellbeing and taking proactive measures to heal by using a variety of tools and treatments available, including a combination of both holistic and modern interventions.
Self-promote through savvy marketing. As previously discussed, the success of a wellness grifter’s entire career hinges on amassing a large, often cult-like following. They achieve this by crafting a personal brand around themselves as gurus and experts. They leverage various marketing strategies to project the image of success, health, happiness, etc. to create an aspirational persona that draws people in. They share personal stories of overcoming struggles to make themselves relatable to their target audience, creating a sense of connection and trust.
Grifters may reference their own qualifications and credentials, even if they are dubious or irrelevant to the services they offer (such as having a chiropractic degree and self-proclaiming the title of a ‘neuroscientist’). Or, they may center their credentials/degrees to establish authenticity/authority while simultaneously undermining the medical establishment or contradicting established principles in their field. Nicole LaPera (@the.holistic.psychologist) often does this by messages like, “I’m a licensed psychologist, and I don’t believe in mental illness.” Discrediting modern medicine is a positioning technique that both isolates a person from conventional treatments and at the same time reinforces the idea that the grifter’s methods are trustworthy.
Here’s the thing: wellness grifters love to repackage and simplify common sense ideas about healthy living that have already been well-established in the scientific and medical community. It is often comical how they present these ideas as some groundbreaking ‘secret’ that the medical world is hiding from the ‘masses’. They hype up the mind-body connection as if they’ve just unearthed something that modern medicine is behind on. Telling people they can support their own health by following a balanced lifestyle is not new, controversial, or revolutionary.
The reality is, the medical sciences have made significant progress in their advancement of understanding the mind-body connection. If your doctor is ignorant or dismissive of the mind-body connection, it may be wise to find a different doctor. Most medical practitioners who have graduated from accredited institutions in the last 30 years have a foundational understanding of how our mental and emotional states can profoundly impact our physical health.
Actual healthcare experts recognize that illness rarely has one ‘root cause,’ they don’t oversimplify the healing process, and they certainly don’t present any one treatment as the ultimate cure-all. Legitimate medical practitioners and scientists rarely make grandiose, sensationalist claims that position as ‘mind-blowing’ insights. Instead, they rely on evidence-based practices and a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted nature of wellness to provide responsible and effective care. Are there “bad” doctors and scientists out there? Of course. But they’re not the ones making millions of dollars from book deals, community memberships, masterclasses, coaching programs, and corporate sponsorship deals: wellness grifters are.
Botton line: be discerning.
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