Whole Foods Market is a relentlessly hip American supermarket chain which prides itself on organic fruits and vegetables, gluten-free just-about-everything, and high-end touches like wine bars and exotic take out items (roasted yucca, anyone?). The health products aisle is stocked with Bach Flower and homeopathic remedies. For example, in-house brand Flu Ease: “an established homeopathic formula that should be taken at the first sign of flu for temporary relief of symptoms including fever chills and body aches.”
Selling Flu Ease and like products certainly exhibits a lack of appreciation for scientific evidence, not to mention basic science. But I recently saw a product in the checkout line that was so filled with over-the-top quackery and so shocking in its disregard for the public’s health that I haven’t been back to Whole Foods since. And I won’t be going back.
The product? A glossy, slickly-produced magazine with the conspiracy-minded title What Doctors Don’t Tell You. The April 2014 issue promises, in banner-headline font size, a “New Light on Cancer.” It features the well-known symbol of fighting breast cancer, a loop of pink ribbon, but with a tear in the middle of the loop. We’ll look into this “new light” in a bit.
WDDTY is a British export. The magazine launched there a couple of years ago as a companion to the website of the same name, which has been around since 1989. Both are the creation of Lynne McTaggert and Bryan Hubbard. She claimed, in 2012, that the magazine has a circulation of 40,000. I am not sure when it made its American debut, but this is the first I’ve seen of it.
McTaggert and Hubbard are no strangers to pseudoscience. I’ll let the UK blog Tessera introduce them.
Who are McTaggart and Hubbard? She has form as an anti-vaccination campaigner. In one of her books, The Intention Experiment, she says that the universe is connected by a vast quantum energy field and can be influenced by thought. He recommends vitamin C as a treatment for cancer and they complain about the Cancer Act which prevents them promoting their ‘cures’. So I think we know what we’re dealing with.
Yes, we certainly do.
The magazine’s appearance was not well-received in the UK’s scientific and skeptical community, and for good reason. Simon Singh led the charge: he and others called for its removal from newsagents’ (as the British call them) shelves, a campaign that enjoyed some success. This, in turn, was not well-received by McTaggert, whose representative threatened to sue Singh, a libel litigation veteran. Although McTaggert later denied the threat, she left an internet trail that contradicted her claim. (Moral of that story: don’t deny something you said on the internet. Someone will find it somewhere.)
UK skeptics, science supporters, and their blogs rained well-deserved criticism on WDDTY, especially after McTaggert’s threat to take legal action. Josephine Jones has an extensive list of links to posts and tweets, as well as newspaper articles and a BBC interview with Margaret McCartney, M.D., who also wrote an article about WDDTY in the BMJ. As you might imagine, in addition to the nonsense within the covers, the magazine’s name proved fertile ground for sport. Even the staid BMJ got into the act with “What a new consumer health magazine doesn’t tell you.” Here’s a personal favorite from The Quackometer, a re-do of a WDDTY cover:
(Be sure to look at all of Andy Lewis’s hilarious cover re-dos.)
More criticism heaped on, British-style
What were Singh and the scientific and skeptical community so put off by? Here’s a sample of articles discussed by Dr. Margaret McCartney, in the BMJ. (We should note that Dr. McCartney is no defender of “conventional” medicine.)
In the October issue’s news section the article “Thyme is better for acne than creams” starts, “Thyme is more effective than prescription creams for treating acne. . .The herb outperformed pharmaceuticals in a series of laboratory tests, killing the actual bacteria that cause acne . . . Not only is thyme more effective, but it’s kinder on the skin too, say the researchers. Most pharmaceuticals cause a burning sensation and irritation to the skin, whereas thyme and other herbal preparations have none of these side effects.”
What did the magazine cite in support of this claim? Dr. McCartney found that it was an in-vitro study reported in a press release that (obviously) didn’t compare side effects. (This is a recurring theme in WDDTY: in-vitro or small studies cited with the same degree of confidence as if they were large, randomized, controlled clinical trials.)
Another article Dr. McCartney criticized:
“Army personnel with noise deafness and tinnitus are commonly deficient in B12, but enjoy an improvement in symptoms after taking B12 vitamins.” The study referred to contained 12 patients receiving vitamin B12 and was not a randomised controlled trial.
But that was small potatoes in comparison:
The editorial on Gardasil, headed “Lock up your daughters,” warned that “your doctor and your daughter’s school nurse are not likely to tell you about the 100-plus American girls who suddenly died after receiving an HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine.”
Tessera jumped on this too:
[An] article, by McTaggart, says that cervical cancer is a third world problem, a ‘disease of poverty and unhealthy living’. She talks about the huge number of side-effects but lists only the serious, scary ones. The article bombards the reader with statistics and ‘facts’ and ends by claiming that the vaccination will ‘at best’ save 40 lives in the UK while harming huge numbers.
She accuses drug companies of using extreme scare tactics to promote the vaccines and make money — which is a bit rich when the magazine is shot through with scare stories to promote supplements and alt med.
An article in the same issue, “How I avoided a hysterectomy through diet,” tells of a woman who claims to have healed herself of severe dysplasia and HPV after turning down a biopsy and D&C. A chiropractor/nutritionist friend suggested she be tested for “hidden food allergies.” A naturopath recommended vitamins and supplements and she went on a “special diet.” The article ends with a list of “helpful supplements.”
WDDTY’s extensive advertising for dietary supplements and other alt med products didn’t escape notice either. The Nightingale Collaboration reviewed the September 2012 issue and submitted 26 complaints to the British Advertising Standards Authority, perhaps the “greatest number of complaints submitted to the ASA for a single publication.” Skeptical Letter Writer listed questionable ads in one issue, including these doozies:
Although doctors tell you that a hearing aid is the only recourse for age-related hearing loss, a wide range of herbs and supplements may be able to restore your hearing… Try the herb Gingko biloba, which helps to improve circulation to the ears.
And this ad from Brandon Bayes, “one of those feel-good-about-yourself speakers from the US” (apparently Americans have a reputation for this sort of talk):
Research by the American Center for Disease Control states that 85% of all illness is emotionally based.
As Skeptical Letter Writer noted, Bayes couldn’t seem to find room in her full-page ad for a citation in support of this statement. Or, I might add, get the name of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention right.
Included in the list was an ad for a subscription to WDDTY, with these enticing claims:
Discover treatments that are safer and more effective… Reverse bone loss for good — The secret your doctor doesn’t know… Asthma exclusive — End your child’s wheezing without drugs… Sunbathe your diabetes away… Natural botox — Safer ways to beat wrinkles… ‘How I avoided a hysteroctomy through diet’… Rock’n'roll dads — You can regain your hearing… Unsteady gran? It’s drugs that cause the falls, not old age…
Meanwhile, back in the checkout line
I was intrigued, but knew none of this controversy, when I bought (@ $7.99) WDDTY’s April issue at Whole Foods. In fact, my first thought was: “Kevin Trudeau has a magazine now?”
A glance at the Editorial Panel, on page six, hinted at the contents. We have here several members of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, a specialist in “multiple chemical sensitivity,” the Medical Director of the Alliance for Natural Health, a water birth advocate, and one gentleman who is an osteopath, homeopath, acupuncturist, naturopath and medical herbalist, all rolled into one, as well as a member of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrative Health.
The uproar over her magazine has apparently made Lynne McTaggert a bit testy. She jumps right into the fray on page seven with her Editor’s note, entitled “Natural medicine is a human rights issue.” It seems all these bad thoughts about WDDTY have negatively affected her universal quantum energy field and she aims to set things straight. She declares that “there is nothing remotely scientific about conventional medicine,” a conclusion buttressed, she says, by three points: (1) Most of the science behind standard treatments is fiction (a conclusion based solely on reports that some drug companies have manipulated the data on some drugs); (2) most conventional treatments haven’t been proven to work (a myth kept alive by people like McTaggert), and (3) they cause more harm that health (the “Death by Medicine” fallacy).
After chewing on that for a while, she decides that “this is not a fair debate.” It is “a blatant attempt to deny you one of your basic human rights: the gift of effective health care.” By this point, McTaggert has worked up a real lather, triumphantly concluding:
In fact it is essentially a form of persecution — no less than it was to deny an African-American a seat on the bus before the Civil Rights movement.
So, in sum, calling McTaggert on her magazine’s pseudoscientific articles, advertisements shilling for quack products, and potentially dangerous health advice has turned her into no less than a modern-day Rosa Parks.
WDDTY’s April issue has the same eye-popping cover as the UK’s November, 2013, version, along with its claim that a “new light” would be thrown on cancer. Let’s take a closer look and see if it lives up to its billing.
But first, a few words from an advertiser in the magazine. A two-page spread advertises the “Chikey,” a quack device that “provides biophoton treatments to restore energy, rejuvenate the mind and body, and tackle specific health complaints at their root cause.” The Chikey is based on the work of:
Dutch health care pioneer Johan Boswinkel who discovered that the cause of each disease and ailment can be found by measuring the light — biophotons — emitted by the body’s cells.
Yes, the one true cause of all disease is discovered, yet again. So clever is the Chikey that it can be used not only on people and animals, but also on plants and food. It can even “take the chlorine out of water.” Apparently it accomplishes these things by restoring the light of the cells and of food. (Whatever that means.) And then there is the article by Boswinkel coincidentally appearing in the same issue. Boswinkel dramatically revels how his biophoton therapy saved a woman’s life, after (and isn’t it always the case?) she had been told by her doctor nothing was wrong. Not only will WDDTY’s editors allow the sale of bogus devices through their magazine, they actually believe them newsworthy.
But let’s get back to putting cancer under WDDTY’s “new light” and see what we can see.
In “107 degrees Farenheit, When cancer just goes away,” by Bryan Hubbard, WDDTY’s founder and co-editor, Hubbard offers the tantalizing possibility that a high fever could cause cancer to go into remission, although I don’t know if this is still (or ever was) a viable hypothesis. But credence is also given to the “mind over cancer” research from the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), a new-agey California group. (Or, as I like to call it, the “your cancer is your fault” theory). IONS identified “eight changes that may play an important role” in cancer regression. Example: “believing in a positive outcome.” To give you the flavor of its agenda, IONS is also researching “both the accuracy and the mental activity of mediums as they were tasked with communication with the deceased.” I do hope “communication with the deceased” is not something you are ever “tasked with” at your job. And, by the way, what mediums do is known at IONS as “mediumship.” Funny, I thought it was called “fleecing the bereaved.”
Unfortunately, according to Hubbard, spontaneous regression isn’t being given enough attention by researchers because of that eternal alt med villain, drug companies, who are the only ones with research funds and aren’t interested. Apparently, in Hubbard’s world, the NCI, NIH and a slew of universities and other cancer research institutions don’t exist.
Another article shedding “new light” is “Pet Corner: When your pet has cancer.” Written by a veterinarian who (while not discouraging conventional cancer treatments) recommends a “natural” approach that includes dietary supplements, Apocaps, an algae-based “alkaline superfood that helps alkalinize the body,” and “giving them positive energy via Reiki.”
But the most execrable bit of this nonsense-laden publication is “Like Water for Chemo” by Bryan Hubbard and its companion piece “How might homeopathy work?” by Lynne McTaggert. (Note to McTaggert: you can find the answer here. And that is all I need to say on the topic.) Hubbard’s article has already been eviscerated by those who read it in the November UK issue, but I’ll add my two cents.
Hubbard’s piece touts India as a mecca of cutting-edge research on using homeopathy as a cancer treatment. It cites a couple of questionable “research” facilities, one of which has done no actual clinical trials but rather relies on “14 million cases dealt with through past generations of [the owner’s] family.” Hubbard cites three of these “case studies,” finding them “impressive.” Data from the other clinic suggests, according to Hubbard, that homeopathic remedies match the best results for conventional medicines “without the debilitating results of chemo and radiation.” He even trots out that reliable homeopathic warhorse, the Frankel study, skewered by Orac and others (here and here).
Hubbard claims that the National Cancer Institute is so “impressed” by these results it wants to see more research carried out. But the NCI, he says, can’t find funding because “most research is paid for by drug companies” who “have nothing to gain from these studies — other than perhaps a loss of revenue for their chemotherapy drugs.” (Them again!) This is an extraordinary statement because the NCI is funded by Congress, not the drug companies. I imagine the reason the NCI isn’t funding research on homeopathic remedies for cancer is because the scientists there think it’s a stupid waste of taxpayer money.
Finally, there is an article by Laura Bond, who says her mom, Gemma, refused chemo “and instead made extensive changes to her life, from dietary changes to changes in attitude” which cured her of uterine and ovarian cancer. This led me to wonder whether Gemma actually had surgery and refused adjuvant chemotherapy, an important distinction David Gorski covered, but the article doesn’t say. Gemma’s treatment included ozone therapy, about which there is a separate, credulous article.
While Bond’s article is ostensibly about “six characteristics that cancer patients commonly share” (e.g., “embrace change”) it is actually a thinly veiled homage to choosing dubious remedies instead of conventional treatment. Examples: coffee enemas, vitamin C injections (IV, 3 times a day, for 12 days, in one case), infrared saunas, pop psychology, addressing the “root cause” (e.g., a “horrible job”), ozone therapy, hydrogen-peroxide infusions, and giving up gluten, salt, dairy and sugar.
The “new light” WDDTY promised to shed on cancer is in fact darkness itself, the darkness of a prescientific age, when medicine could be practiced by all comers, including snake oil salesmen.
As Andy Lewis rightly said on The Quackometer blog:
There is a very good reason that doctors do not tell you the things in this magazine — because it is nonsense, quackery, conspiratorial rubbish designed to sell vitamin pills and other useless treatments.
But I’m sure Whole Foods Markets doesn’t want me to tell you that.