Sep 06 2010
Given that it’s a holiday and I debated whether or not I even wanted to post anything today, I think I’ll keep things light and uncharacteristically brief today. After all, not every post can be like last week’s epic on Avastin or the week before’s epic on peer review. That’s a lot of work, and it is a holiday, after all. Besides, sometimes a perverse mood overtakes me, and I feel the need to go slumming.
Bring on Mike Adams.
Mike Adams, as regular readers may know, runs the website NaturalNews.com from deep in the jungles of Ecuador. His website is a one-stop shop, a repository if you will, of virtually every quackery known to humankind, all slathered with a heaping, helping of unrelenting hostility to science-based medicine and science in general. True, Mike Adams is not as big as, say, Joe Mercola, whose website, as far as I can tell, appears to draw more traffic than NaturalNews.com, but what Adams lacks in fame he makes up for in sheer crazy. If you don’t believe me, check out his latest hip-hop video Vaccine Zombie:
Personally, if I had anything to do with the Michael Jackson estate, I’d be suing for copyright infringement. Still, grudgingly, I have to admit that the animation is pretty good, although when Mike Adams raps, “‘Cause livin’ without a brain ain’t half bad,” I don’t think he realizes that he is apparently living proof of that. In fact, so full of crazy is Mike Adams, that there has even been disagreement among SBM bloggers over whether we should lower ourselves to deal with some of his loonier stuff. Guess which side I took?
The reason I argue that, even at the risk of wrestling the proverbial pig in mud, we should not shy away from taking on some of Mike Adams’ lunacy from time to time is because he illustrates certain aspects of the mindset that allows unscientific so-called “alternative” medicine to remain popular. Sometimes, articles on Adams’ website bring up the question of whether Adams really believes the utter nonsense he lays down or whether he is simply a scammer, much like Kevin Trudeau is a scammer, and doesn’t believe a word of it but has such contempt for his followers that he thinks nothing of lying to them to sell them whatever nostrums he’s hawking on his website. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. I hope.
On Friday, Adams decided to attack “America’s doctor” and a promoter of woo whom we have from time to time taken on here at SBM, Dr. Mehmet Oz because, of all things, Dr. Oz apparently underwent colonoscopy and was found to have a precancerous polyp. That this might have happened to him is not at all surprising given that Dr. Oz recently turned 50 and current guidelines recommend commencing screening by colonoscopy at age 50. Indeed, I’m only a couple of years from needing to submit to the same screening myself. In any case, Adams decided to write one of his patented screeds, entitled, Dr. Oz colon polyps raises question of “spontaneous disease” without cause. In it, he inadvertently reveals a lot about alt-med thinking, making it worth a brief discussion.
Adams starts out:
Dr Oz was recently found to have a precancerous colon polyp which was surgically removed. Following this experience, he appears to be surprised and confused about the origin of the condition, and he credits colonoscopy screening with saving his life.
Dr Oz even seems to think he has a perfect health record, saying, “I have done everything right. I don’t have any family history, and yet I’m high risk now.” His personal physician, meanwhile, is implying that even though Dr Oz’s “healthy” diet was perfect, it wasn’t enough to prevent colon polyps, and therefore you might get them too. (And therefore everybody should get screened…)
All of which is more or less correct. Everything in medicine is a matter of balancing risks versus benefits, and it is impossible to lower your risk of a disease as prevalent as colorectal cancer to zero. I don’t care how “correct” your diet is or how “healthy” your lifestyle is. Diet and lifestyle can lower the risk of colorectal cancer, but they can’t eliminate it. In this case, as in many cases (at least where he doesn’t indulge his love of mysticism and pseudoscience such as reiki), Dr. Oz is being quite reasonable. Disease risk falls on a continuum that depends on genetics, environment, diet, and lifestyle. Not to Mike Adams, though. Mike Adams, like so many who promote “alt-med” and non-science-based thinking, cannot deal with ambiguity:
Colon polyps, in other words, appear without any cause! Mainstream medicine, you see, believes in the theory of “spontaneous disease” that “strikes” people at random.
Sort of like disease voodoo.
No matter what you do, they say, you can’t be totally sure that you’re disease free. Therefore, you need all their disease screening protocols, mammograms, and CT scans (which irradiate your body and can actually cause cancer, by the way).
What a bunch of nonsense. As any real scientist knows, everything that happens in our universe has a cause. It’s a cause-effect universe, and unless you’re God or can magically change the laws of the universe, you can’t alter the laws of cause and effect.
Mike Adams is, of course, applying a flame thrower to a straw man of Burning Man proportions. Science-based medicine actually tells us a lot about how polyps form, what genes regulate the process, and how polyps can progress to outright colon cancer. There is the famous Vogelstein sequence of genetic alterations that lead to polyp formation and progression to dysplastic polyps and ultimately colorectal cancer. We know a fair amount about the contribution of genetics and diet. Do we know all the answers? Obviously not, but we do know quite a bit.
What I find most revealing about Adams’ rant is the inability to deal with probability and even the slightest degree of randomness. The idea that there is a stochastic component to disease is completely beyond him. Either that, or he full well understands that there is a random component to many diseases, including cancer, and intentionally creates a straw man that misrepresents the stochastic component of disease to mean that scientists are telling us that disease is completely random. The reason is that there is definitely a strain of magical thinking in alt-med, namely that of complete empowerment. That concept makes itself known in germ theory denialism, as I discussed previously, in which it is believed that, if you just eat the right foods, take the right supplements, and keep yourself “healthy” enough through exercise, infectious disease cannot strike you down.
Similarly, here Adams is peddling the idea that, if you only eat the right diet, you will never, ever develop colon polyps or colon cancer. He drives that point home by castigating Dr. Oz as not being sufficiently pure:
Now, Dr Oz says he eats a “healthy” diet, but he’s from the world of mainstream medicine. Even though Dr Oz has undoubtedly given a lot of really positive dietary advice to a lot of people, and even though his diet is no doubt far healthier than what most people eat, from the point of view of us who focus on superfoods nutrition, Dr. Oz is not really that deep into cutting-edge healthy eating.
He’s not an advocate of raw foods or veganism, for example, and while he smartly teaches people to avoid high-fructose corn syrup and sugar, he’s places very little emphasis on avoiding other harmful ingredients like MSG, aspartame and artificial colors.
He doesn’t strongly advocate organic foods, either, and eating pesticides from conventionally-grown produce is certainly one way to aggravate your colon. Nor does Dr Oz talk much about avoiding genetically modified foods (GMOs), which we now know may actually result in pesticides being manufactured and released directly in your gut. (He did, however, interview Jeffrey Smith on his Oprah radio show, to his credit.)
You see, Dr Oz is only considered really healthy by mainstream people who are ridiculously unhealthy by comparison. Sure, compared to what most people eat — or even what most doctors eat — Dr Oz has a fairly clean diet. But I don’t know anyone in the world of natural health who is really that impressed with Dr Oz’s dietary advice — most of which seems “watered down” to make it more acceptable to a mainstream television audience. People like Dr Mercola no doubt follow far healthier diets than Dr Oz, and raw food gurus like Dr Gabriel Cousens will probably never be diagnosed with colon polyps.
In other words, it’s all about orthodoxy. It’s about faith. It’s not about science; it’s about hewing to a dogma every bit as onerous as fundamentalist religion. In Adams’ world, the reason Dr. Oz developed a premalignant colon polyp is not because he may have a genetic predispostion or because he was simply unlucky. Oh, no. Like a three year old, Adams believes that everything must have a discrete cause. Probabilities and stochastic events are beyond his ken. He simply can’t imagine them because to him it’s not enough to be, as he disparagingly calls it, “mainstream healthy.” Oh, no. You have to go beyond that. You have to be “cutting edge healthy,” and the only way you can achieve “cutting edge healthy” is to start eating a radical raw food diet and taking supplements–supplements that Adams recommends, of course. To Adams’ way of thinking (if you can call it thinking), the reason Dr. Oz developed a premalignant colon polyp is because he was not sufficiently “virtuous” in his diet.
As I said before, according to Mike Adams and his ilk, you must hew to a fundamentalist religious dogma. Do so, he assures you, and you’ll be super-healthy, veritable super men and women immune to the ravages of disease, be it from germs (no vaccines necessary for Superman!), the common chronic and degenerative diseases to which we are all prone as we age (such as hypertension, heart disease, type II diabetes, arthritis), or other common diseases of aging that result in large part from accumulated “damage” to our cells and DNA (i.e., cancer). In other words, you have to listen to him as the prophet of health. Adams promises you perfect health, perfect “wellness,” but there is a price, and that price is to follow slavishly the advice that Mike Adams or other “alt-med” health gurus lay down. Worse, if you are unfortunate enough to become ill, it is because you didn’t follow Adams’ advice, and if you become ill while following Adams’ advice it means you didn’t follow it closely or radically enough. In other words, it’s all about accepting Adams and his fellow woos as your leader Don’t believe me? Adams makes it explicit here:
But don’t confuse Dr Oz with someone who has attained a state of perfect human health. Whatever polyps appear in Dr Oz’s colon are being predominantly caused by Dr Oz’s food choices. That’s because the body of Dr Oz follows the laws of physics, just like yours and mine. There is no law of the universe by which Dr Oz could follow a diet of perfect health and yet somehow a colon polyps would spontaneously appear in his body without cause.
If you believe that, you believe in magic. Or voodoo. Or luck. Heck, if you believe that disease is spontaneous and appears without cause, then you might as well just eat whatever you want and pray to the spontaneous disease gods that they don’t strike you down with some random affliction like diabetes.
Of course, science-based medicine does not deny that lifestyle, diet, and environment have effects on human health. Huge amounts of money and large groups of researchers are devoted to studying these very things, identifying risk factors for diseases, and determining strategies to overcome them using lifestyle and/or pharmacologial interventions. The difference between SBM and Adams, however, is the magical thinking that permeates everything Adams sells. SBM may tell you, for example, that certain diets may decrease your risk of, for instance, heart disease, but accept that it’s all probabilistic and that no diet will decrease your risk to zero, particularly if you are unfortunate enough to have a significant genetic predisposition. In Adams’ world, “the laws of physics” themselves–which Adams wouldn’t recognize or even be able to articulate were Newton himself to rise out of his grave and reconstitute enough of his corpse to bite Adams on his posterior while shouting “F = ma“–tell Adams that it’s easy to avoid these chronic diseases by following his diet, taking his supplements, in general doing whatever he advocates, and, above all, avoiding “chemical” or “conventional” medicine as though it were Satan itself (which, to Adams, it is). Particularly ironic is how in the video above and on his website, Adams represents following his dogma as “thinking for yourself” and “standing up to The Man” (as represented by the “zombie doctors” of the CDC), but in reality all he is doing is substituting himself for the usual set of medical authority figures, and he does not base anything he says on science.
In the end, I still don’t know whether Adams really and truly believes in the nonsense he promotes. I really don’t and still can’t tell. For example, did Adams’ relocate to Ecuador because he really believes in the “natural” lifestyle or did he do it to escape those pesky laws in the U.S. that frown on selling unproven remedies. I do know, however, that Adams appears to have an utter contempt for his own readers, as evidenced by his repeating outrageous straw men such as the claim that SBM says that susceptibility to disease is totally random and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it and bizarre falsehoods like his claim in the Vaccine Zombie video above that vaccines can make your testicles fall off. So, yes, taking on Mike Adams is, in a way, slumming a bit; he provides too easy a target. On the other hand, I look at him in the same way I look at parody. His version of “alt-med” thought is so exaggerated that it makes it easier for me to show you just what is wrong with it. I wouldn’t want to provide my readers with nothing but a steady deconstruction of various Adams bon mots. As amusing as that could be, it would rapidly grow tiresome. On the other hand, it is useful from time to time to take on certain particularly egregious or representative bits of nonsense that Adams lays down.
Which reminds me. None of us has gotten around to this bit of Adams’ misinformation. Maybe next week; that is, unless one of my partners in crime wants to take it on first.
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