Quackery in medicine takes many forms – use of bad science (pseudoscience), fraud, and reliance on mysticism are a few examples. Perhaps the most insidious form of dubious practice, however, is to use genuine and promising medical science to promote treatments that are simply not at the point of clinical application. New treatments, and especially new approaches to treatment, in medicine often take years or decades of research before we get to the point that we have sufficient clinical evidence of safety and effectiveness to apply the treatment in clinical practice.
One example of the premature promotion of an otherwise legitimate scientific medical treatment are the many dubious stem cell clinics promising cures for serious diseases. Stem cell science is real, but we are still in the long period of build up when we are mostly doing basic and animal research. Human clinical trials are just beginning.
Another treatment approach that is being prematurely promoted by some is nutrigenomics. The claim is that by analyzing one’s genes a personalized regimen of specific nutrients can be developed to help their genes function at optimal efficiency. One website that promises, “Genetics Based Integrative Medicine” contains this statement:
Nutrigenomics seeks to unravel these medical mysteries by providing personalized genetics-based treatment. Even so, it will take decades to confirm what we already understand; that replacing specific nutrients and/or chemicals in existing pathways allows more efficient gene expression, particularly with genetic vulnerabilities and mutations.
The money-quote is the phrase, “it will take decades to confirm what we already understand.” This is the essence of pseudoscience – using science to confirm what one already “knows.” This has it backwards, of course. Science is not used to “confirm” but to determine if a hypothesis is true or not.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Gorski is currently in Chicago attending the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress. As a result, he has not prepared a post for this week (although he doesn’t feel too guilty about missing this week, given that he did write two rather hefty posts last week, one on the cancer quackery known as the German New Medicine and the other on a rather dubious monkey study being promoted by the anti-vaccine movement). Fortunately, we have Ben Kavoussi to fill in with a post on some of the more exaggerated claims of advocates of nutritional interventions for various diseases and conditions. Enjoy!
- A centipede was happy quite,
- Until a frog in fun
- Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
- This raised her mind to such a pitch,
- She lay distracted in the ditch
- Considering how to run.
Just like complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), nutritionism — meaning the unexamined assumption that food is only a conveyor of the substances it contains 1,2 — has evolved independently of science and medicine since the 1970s, and has caused so much wondering and confusion about food and diet that many Americans have become unable to eat properly. Today, there isn’t a popular magazine that doesn’t have a “health and nutrition” section that — often with the backing of very little science — promises many health benefits of a nutrient or warns against the harms of another; and then provides a list of foods that contain it. The same publication might time and again write the exact opposite, further adding to the already-prevalent nutritional confusion. Nutritionism is thus an ideology sourced by popular beliefs, academic reveries, and the food and dietary supplements industry, where food is simply seen as a mean to achieve a specific health goal. In its latest form, however, coupled with genomics and biomedical informatics, and called “nutrigenomics” or “nutritional genomics,” nutritionism takes academic reveries to such an extent that it could be accurately described as “science fiction.” The Center of Excellence for Nutritional Genomics at UC Davis writes indeed (in bold) on its website that:
“The promise of nutritional genomics is personalized medicine and health based upon an understanding of our nutritional needs, nutritional and health status, and our genotype. Nutrigenomics will also have impacts on society — from medicine to agricultural and dietary practices to social and public policies — and its applications are likely to exceed that of even the human genome project. Chronic diseases (and some types of cancer) may be preventable, or at least delayed, by balanced, sensible diets. Knowledge gained from comparing diet/gene interactions in different populations may provide information needed to address the larger problem of global malnutrition and disease.”
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I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However, after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a book that contains science-based nutrition information I decided to agree to the review. This is how the book was described to me in an email:
In their provocative new book, Eat to Save Your Life, best-selling authors Dr. Jerre Paquette and Gloria Askew, RRN, sort through the piles of information and misinformation about nutrition to reveal the true connection between food and health. Fed up with the advertising hype and conflicting nutritional advice, the duo provides common sense explanations for consumers everywhere who are looking to make smart nutritional choices.
Unfortunately, I was sold (quite predictably) a bill of goods. And rather than ignore the book and simply not do a review, I figured that maybe a negative review would reduce the number of incoming PR requests for future tomes of pseudoscience. In the end, I’ll probably just become the focus of personal attacks by dedicated proponents of various snake oils.
That being said, I thought it might be somewhat instructive to remind SBM readers of certain basic “warning signs of pseudoscience” that I accidentally overlooked in agreeing to review the book. For a more complete review of similar “signs” I highly recommend Dr. David Gorski’s 2007 classic, humorous take on predictable arguments and behaviors of alternative medicine proponents (written in the style of comedian Jeff Foxworthy). As for me, I tend to think of much of the world of integrative medicine as a militant group of bakers eager to add odd, inert and occasionally toxic substances to cake recipes.
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