The Internet is a wonderful new medium for communicating ideas and information in a rapid and interactive way. Many articles are followed by a “comments” section. Like so many things in this imperfect world, comments are a mixed blessing. They can enhance the article by correcting errors, adding further information, and contributing useful thoughts to a productive discussion. But all too often they consist of emotional outbursts, unwarranted personal attacks on the author, logical fallacies, and misinformation. They provide irrational and ignorant people with a soapbox for promoting prejudices and false information.
To illustrate, let’s look at the responses to something I wrote about a weight loss product called Isagenix that is sold through a multilevel marketing scheme. To quote the website,
The Isagenix cleanse is unique because it not only removes impurities at the cellular level, it builds the body up with incredible nutrition. Besides detoxing the body, Isagenix teaches people a wonderful lesson that they don’t need to eat as much as they are accustom to and eating healthy choices are really important and also a lot of the food we are eating is nutritionally bankrupt. [errors are in the original]
I didn’t set out to write an article about this. It started when I received an e-mail inquiry about Isagenix. I posted my answer on a discussion list and it was picked up and published on the healthfraudoz website. Sandy Szwarc approved of it and kindly reposted it on her Junkfood Science blog.
As I write, the comments on the healthfraudoz website have reached a total of 176. A few commenters approved of what I wrote, but the majority of commenters tried to defend Isagenix. Their arguments were irrational, incompetent, and sometimes amusing.
It was as if no one had actually read what I wrote. No one bothered to address any of my specific criticisms. No one even tried to defend Isagenix’s false claims that toxicity accounts for most disease, that the body protects itself from toxins by coating them with fat, and that internal organs become clogged and deteriorate if you don’t “cleanse.” No one offered any evidence that “detoxification” improves human health. No one tried to identify any of the alleged toxins or show that they are actually removed. No one tried to provide any rationale for the particular combination of ingredients in Isagenix products (242 of them!). No one questioned my assertion that “no caffeine added” was inaccurate because green tea was added and it contains caffeine. No one commented on my observation that the amount of vitamin A in the products was dangerous and went against the recommendations of The Medical Letter. No one offered any evidence that more weight was lost by adding Isagenix to a low calorie diet and exercise. I offered some alternative explanations that might account for people believing it was effective when it wasn’t; no one commented on that. The medical advisor on the Isagenix website argued that at $5 a day Isagenix is less expensive than open heart surgery. I pointed out that that was a laughable false dichotomy: it’s not a matter of choosing between open heart surgery and diet supplements. No one commented on that. Instead of rational responses, we got …
The greatest number of comments were testimonials: “I took it and I lost weight.” They claimed not just weight loss, but a variety of improvements. It allegedly cured fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and hemorrhoids. It facilitated getting off sleeping pills and caffeine, balanced brain chemistry (what does that mean?), improved focus and mental clarity, allowed running longer marathons with less fatigue, saved a failing marriage, stopped irritability and crankiness, kept arm from getting sore after pitching, “Made my son interact appropriately with peers, take care of himself, and want to be hugged and kissed,” and “I made money selling it.” One said, “My out of control Irritable Bowel Syndrome disappeared and I had the healthiest BM in about 6 years! … you can’t brainwash POO!!” Two commented that the Isagenix program provides motivation; one said he needs “structer” (structure?) to stay on a diet.
The plural of anecdote is not data. Two commenters appropriately objected to all this testimonial evidence. They pointed out that testimonials are unreliable and subject to post hoc ergo propter hoc errors, that all the “it works for me” comments can be attributed to low calorie diet and exercise, and that the testimonials are almost exclusively from people who are selling the product.
Quite a few commenters reported that they had tried it and it either didn’t work or caused side effects such as 5 days of violent diarrhea. One reported gaining a lot of weight while taking it; many reported losing weight just as well without it. Several reported credit card disputes with the company and failure to get their money refunded. One reported that his parents are using it and it seems to be slowly killing them: they have decreased energy, declining health, mood swings, and poorer control of diabetes.
Rebuttals to Negative Testimonials
Supposedly the people it hasn’t helped haven’t been following the program right.
Apparent bad reactions are just signs that it is working: “When one is cleansing out years of accumulation of toxins, chemicals, jet fuel, gasoline, arsenic, heavy metals, radiation poisoning – one will have reactions.”
“Evidence” that it works:
One commenter heard a doctor speak who cited all kinds of studies to support the theory behind Isagenix — environmental toxicity, depletion of nutrients in the food supply, malabsorption, our incessant food cravings, and how Isagenix cleansing could supposedly solve these problems.
A former Hare Krishna was impressed by the array of nutrients in the products and believed that the doctor on the website had integrity and cared about her patients.
Several people claimed that we need nutritional supplements because the ground has been depleted of nutrients.
“There have been many valid scientific research [sic] to back the claims of Isagenix.” [I couldn’t find any, and they provided no clues as to where to look.]
Lots of MDs are recommending Isagenix, and they can’t all be quacks.[Apparently they can. And lots of MDs recommend homeopathy, and some of them believe in astrology.]
Isagenix has paid for independent studies [Where are they? What did they show? If Isagenix was paying, were they truly independent?]
Mainstream physicians are starting to realize cleansing is important.[Not any of the ones who practice science-based medicine.]
Cleansing makes sense because one of the main ingredients of pesticides and insecticides is estrogen. It makes women fat and causes ED in men. Toxicity is a bigger cause of obesity than most people realize.
These products are “designed and formulated by professionals and advocated by professionals.”
One MD commenter claimed “I have the before and after pictures and the lab tests to prove it.”
“Most people only absorb 8% to 12% of what we eat – the rest is waste which we flush down the toilet. With Isagenix we can absorb up to 94% of what is ingested with less waste going down the toilet. Isagenix is full of good probiotics which help rebuild our digestive systems, fights candida. Isagenix also helps the body become alkaline, which is a healthy body. John Hopkins 2008 Cancer Report stated that cancer cannot live in an alkaline body only acidic bodies. Processed food makes our bodies acidic — thus the epedemic [sic] of cancer and diabites [sic] in the USA along with heart disease.” [This is all nonsense.]
Isagenix is food. Regular food is from depleted soils. Organic food made children behave better at lunch in a school study. Genetically modified food is lacking in nutrition. “The majority of people fill their stomachs with foods void of natural nutrition and the evidence supports that they behave poorly, learn less, mis-behave more and commit more crimes than those who fill their stomachs with highly nutritious organic produce and meats.” [Wow! Instead of the Twinkie defense, criminals can claim their non-organic lunch made them do it!]
“Isagenix is a divine blessing in this toxic sick world.”
These people apparently expect us to believe unsubstantiated assertions. They have no concept of what constitutes scientific evidence or why controlled studies are needed.
Defense of Multi-Level Marketing
“MLM is not a scam, but one of the last bastions of free enterprise.” MLM is good because FDA products don’t work. MLM is “the most legitimate business out in the world today.” All corporations are a pyramid, anyway.
But one commenter called it an “exploitative business model” and pointed out that the average yearly income for Isagenix distributors is only $116.87. And another pointed out that 97% of MLM schemes fail.
Personal Attacks on Me
“A Dr Harriet Hall wrote a very funny one sided arguement [sic] against it (Isagenix) but omitted to inform the world how much money she has made conning patients into taking drugs she should know are harmful to you.”
I am arrogant: “If it were up to know-it-all MDs like Harriet Hall, I’d still be in chronic pain.”
“To [sic] bad when you look up Dr. Hall in Washington no such person is licensed to practice medicine. Sad day when you have to lie to get people to pay attention to anything you say…” [It took me about one minute to locate verification of my license at