Denial of germ theory is alive and well – and it removes nuance from the scientific debate
In February 2019, when the pandemic was still far from the thoughts of most people, the Fox News program Fox & Friends aired a segment in which contributor Pete Hegseth revealed he hadn’t washed his hands for ten years. Far from being dismayed, the show’s hosts burst out laughing.
It turns out that Hegseth’s poor hand hygiene wasn’t all that new. According to the World Health Organization, only 19% of the world pre-COVID washed his hands after going to the toilet. The reasons were very varied, ranging from a fundamental lack of potable water to forces like peer pressure or exaggerated optimism on his health. But that was not Hegseth’s reason. He said his decade of handwashing abstinence was based on his belief that germs don’t exist. If he couldn’t see them, he explained, they weren’t real.
Even before the pandemic, a statement like this sounded the alarm. Whether Hegseth realizes it or not, and whether he is serious or not, he was reciting the Seed Theory Deniers Creed, a mixed group whose beliefs range from hardline renunciation to germ theory – in which the very notion that germs exist is denied – and the milder disavowal of the importance of germs in explaining disease.
At the end of the 19th century, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Joseph Lister and others established that the disease was caused by living organisms that invade the body. But the theories that Pasteur and the others were promulgating were not yet very nuanced or entirely consistent. Indeed, as historians have highlighted, it is more appropriate to speak of the “germ theories” of the late 19th century, and to some extent the early 20th century. There was still a lot to work on. For example, if only some people got sick when exposed to a specific pathogen, didn’t that mean that the germ theory was only valid in certain cases?
During those early years, it was also not clear how the theory could be useful. Its predecessor in the cause of the disease, miasma theory, who attributed the disease to “bad air”, had spurred sanitation movements that had dramatically improved public health. The resulting reduction in disease did not necessarily validate the miasma theory, but it clearly showed that, whatever its theoretical shortcomings, it held practical power. The germ theory could not say the same thing immediately. It is in the uncertainties of this precocious and confused environment that the deniers of the theory of germs locate their claims.
Although historians have pointed out the nuances of the creation and contestation of scientific knowledge in the late 19th century, deniers have become more interested in locating the path not taken – or, they argue, concealed. They found it in the work of Antoine Béchamp, chemist, contemporary of Pasteur, and according to certain testimonies “bitter crank”, whose disease theories focused on the state of the host rather than the microbes themselves.
A highly referenced text on Béchamp is a 1920 book which tells its story as a “lost chapter in the history of biology”. He describes his notion that microbes weren’t the malicious invaders that germ theorists claim (why else wouldn’t they cause disease always and everywhere?). Instead, he believed the disease essentially depended on “tiny molecular granulations” called microzymas, which only become pathogenic when a change in the balance or function of the environment makes them so. It is from this change in the bodily “terrain”, and not from the invasion of germs, that disease arises.
Many germ theory deniers adhere to this field theory, extrapolating from Béchamp a variety of alternative therapies specifically designed to reduce toxins and rebalance the body. The therapies promise to create a bodily environment made immune (although they wouldn’t use that term) to germs because it lives at peace with them.
It is an idea that ignites many who control the lines of medical and scientific orthodoxy. Yet, as the diametrically opposed proponents of germ theory and Béchamp’s field theory seem, the two ideas were not always seen as mutually exclusive.
In the mid-20th century, the eminent immunologist Thomas Magill gave voice to growing concern in his field when he reflected on the idea that the germ theory, with its rather simplistic description of disease resulting from antagonistic microbes attacking a passive host, had obscured scientists and physicians. In 1954 he wrote: “The concept is difficult for us to accept that the host can be the aggressor, taking undue advantage of the reasonably peaceful microbe, many times, of course, to the detriment of the host. The pitch, Magill hinted, could matter after all.
You don’t even have to look so far back to see the coexistence of these two perspectives. Traces of field theory underlie our contemporary obsession with the so-called “good” bacteria in our digestive tract. Prebiotics and probiotics claim to do exactly the kind of work Béchamp suggests, restoring “balance” and “diversity” in our gut to improve not only our digestive system, but our health. overall health.
Along the way, the germ theory has continued to survive as a theory because it explains a lot and because, unlike the first decades of its existence, it has deeply effective practical applications. Antibiotics are often hailed as the most revolutionary of them, although they are only the tip of the therapeutic iceberg.
But although the theory of germs has become much more stable since the end of the 19th century, it has not become rigid. As scientific theories are made to do, germ theory continues to adapt and change. Recognition of the vital role of our gut ‘ground’ (our ‘microbiome’ as we are more likely to call it) is not seen as an attack on germ theory but rather as an integral part of it. .
What is perhaps most disturbing about the denial of the germ theory is not really the strength of its claims but the tenor of the debate it inspires. For while the claims of germ theory deniers are misleading and poorly substantiated, the clear line between germ theory deniers and the advocates they create establishes a clear line between the deniers of germ theory and the advocates they create. opposition this imposes on the theory of germs – and on science more generally – a rigidity and a fixity that it does not have.