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For shame, Dr. Oz, for promoting Joseph Mercola on your show!

I’ve been highly critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Vice Chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program (i.e., Columbia’s quackademic medicine) program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Those are his academic titles. More important, in terms of his promotion of pseudoscience, is his role as daytime medical show host. Dr. Oz’s television show, called, appropriately enough, The Dr. Oz Show, is a direct result of his having been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show on numerous occasions as one of her regular medical experts. Because of his popularity, Dr. Oz became Oprah’s protégé and ultimately scored his very own daytime TV show, which has been quite successful since its debut in September 2009.

So what has led me to conclude that I’ve finally completely had it with Dr. Oz? Or, as Popeye would say, “I’ve had all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”

The final straw occurred yesterday, but this has been building up for a while. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that Dr. Oz has a weak spot for “alternative medicine.” A decade ago, he was known for bringing reiki masters into the operating room do their mystical magical gestures during cardiac surgery, the better to channel the healing energy of the “universal source” into his patients before they went onto the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. His wife is also a reiki master, which might explain his particular fondness for this form of faith healing. Even so, even though I always knew Dr. Oz was into some woo, most of the times I ever saw him on Oprah’s show and the rare occasion that I’ve seen his show, the worst I could say about him was that he is at best a shruggie and at worst too prone to mixing perfectly valid, science-based information with the “softer” forms of “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM) modalities, such as acupuncture and reiki. Even so, CAM didn’t seem to be a major part of his show. That seems to have changed in 2010.

As 2010 dawned, I became aware of a show in which Dr. Oz promoted reiki completely uncritically, beginning the year with a show entitled Dr. Oz’s Ultimate Alternative Medicine Secrets. It wasn’t too long before Dr. Oz did it again, delivering a two-fer of “quantum” quackery coupled with just plain quackery, when he invited Deepak Chopra and Joe Mercola on his show. Around the same time, Dr. Oz also revealed in an interview also hadn’t had his children vaccinated against H1N1. In all fairness, he seemed embarrassed to admit this and uncomfortable about the situation (Dr. Oz has never, to my knowledge, expressed anti-vaccine views), but, even so, he did seem to be more sympathetic than the evidence warrants to the concept that vaccines might somehow cause autism. None of these occurrences was good, but, as disturbing as they were, none of them quite crossed a line. Quite.

As 2011 dawns, there is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Oz has now irrevocably crossed his Woo-bicon (link there to make my pun painfully obvious), gone over to the Dark Side, betrayed the cause, gone woo, or whatever you want to call it. He’s done, as far as science-based medicine goes. That’s because yesterday he featured one of the biggest promoters of highly dubious medical remedies on the Internet on his show in one fawning segment after another. I’m referring, of course, to Dr. Joe Mercola, who was the main guest on The Dr. Oz Show yesterday in segments entitled The Alternative Health Controversy (part 1, part 2, part 3), coupled with another segment entitled The Surprising Supplement You Need. Let’s just say that Dr. Oz’s journey to the Dark Side is now complete. He has controlled his fear but released his woo, and it is strong woo indeed.

To give you an idea of just how bad this is, take a look at the introduction to the show before the credits. Dr. Mercola is described as a “pioneer in alternative medicine” and “a man your doctor doesn’t want you to know.” I don’t know about you, but hearing that made me think instantly of Kevin Trudeau and his now-infamous book of quackery Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About. I also can’t help but note that when a good, science-based doctor doesn’t want you to listen to someone, there’s usually a darned good reason, and Dr. Mercola has given us a plethora of fantastic reasons to try to counter his influence over the years.

As the show opens, Dr. Oz is strikingly defiant right out of the box when he introduces the segment in which he interviews Joe Mercola. Describing Mercola as a “pioneer of holistic treatments” and a “lightning rod” (without noting that it’s not good to be a “lightning rod” when the criticisms that make you one are more than justified), Dr. Oz says that plenty of his fellow doctors are going to be angry at him for having invited Mercola back. I don’t know about angry, but my opinion of Dr. Oz has hit an all-time low over this. On second thought, yes I am angry. Dr. Oz has one of the ultimate bully pulpits, with a viewership of millions who take what he says very seriously, and by fawning over Mercola on his show, he has just abused that pulpit to promote unscientific medicine.

Particularly nauseating is the taped segment that follows, which lionizes Dr. Mercola as someone who has made a career out of “challenging everything you think you know about traditional medicine and prescription drugs.” I suppose that’s true in a rather trivial sense in that Mercola has been well known to promote all manner of crank medical science, whether it be Tullio Simoncini’s cancer quackery (which claims cancer is a fungus and that the cure is baking soda); his teaming up with Barbara Loe Fisher to promote anti-vaccine misinformation in November, which is is of a piece with his promotion of anti-vaccine misinformation on his website; his belief in raw milk faddism; and even his selling of homeopathy. I suppose that is “challenging everything you think you know about traditional medicine and prescription drugs,” but it’s a challenge built largely on either pseudoscience, co-opting preliminary studies that support supplements that Mercola believes in, or fear mongering and exaggeration about studies that raise legitimate concerns about “conventional” medicine. Together, it’s a toxic brew, and Dr. Oz drinks deeply of the Kool Aid.

Just to give you an idea of what I mean, here’s Mercola’s article describing Tullio Simoncini, the man who came up with the idea that cancer is a fungus and that baking soda is the cure:

Unfortunately, Dr. Simoncini is yet another brilliant doctor who has been ousted from the medical community due to his revolutionary simple ideas of how to cure profit-making diseases.

So many people refuse to believe that this is true and that it’s happening to good doctors, since “everyone knows” you must be a liability to human life if you’re stripped of your medical license.

But the reason why Dr. Simoncini was kicked out is because as an oncologist – a cancer specialist — he refused to use conventional cancer treatment methods, choosing instead to administer sodium bicarbonate, which is HARMLESS, as opposed to the often lethal use of chemotherapy.

Simoncini is from my perspective a dangerous quack who claims that injecting sodium bicarbonate directly into tumors can cure them. Indeed, he has had his medical license removed in Italy for fraud and patient deaths and has been under investigation in the Netherlands, where he now has a clinic. A blogger who has combed Italian websites for information on Simoncini reports:

Because one of us (SJJ) is fluent in Italian, we could extensively search Italian Web sites for information on Simoncini’s background. Currently living in Rome, he has been using unsubstantiated cancer treatments for 15 years. He calls himself a specialist in diabetes and metabolic diseases, but in 2003, his license to practice medicine was withdrawn, and in 2006 he was convicted by an Italian judge for wrongful death and swindling. This has not stopped him from continuing to provide his controversial treatments, not only in Italy, but apparently also in foreign countries, such as the Netherlands. He has appealed his conviction, but we could not find information on the status of this appeal on Italian Web sites.

Other examples abound. In this article, Mercola promotes quacks like Hulda Clark (who promoted the idea that all cancer is due to a liver fluke), Raymond Rife, and Ryke Geerd Hamer (creator of the quackery known as German New Medicine). Indeed, there is no “alternative” health claim so preposterous, so utterly dubious, so dangerous, that Mercola will not support it. Peruse Mercola’s website, and it won’t take you very long to find health information that is pure pseudoscience. He even fell for a dubious study that claimed that, because investigators couldn’t find cancer in Egyptian mummies, cancer didn’t exist back then and is therefore a “man-made” disease.One depressing tidbit of information, if it’s true, is that Dr. Mercola’s website is the fourth largest health website on the Internet. If that doesn’t show how bad health information on the Internet is, I don’t know what does.

Worse, Mercola is portrayed as having alerted the world to the importance of vitamin D and the “dangers of high fructose corn syrup” (which is not nearly as dangerous as Mercola would have you believe). In reality, appreciating the importance of vitamin D has come out of medical science, not Dr. Mercola, and in actuality the science behind the role of vitamin D is in evolution. What Dr. Mercola is most responsible for, along with Mike Adams, is promoting vitamin D as some sort of miracle supplement that will prevent heart disease, cancer, and aging. His “alerting the world” about HFCS consists mainly of overblown fear mongering that blames HFCS for virtually all modern human health problems. It’s the very antithesis of a reasoned weighing of risks versus benefits based on science. Worse, right out of the box, Mercola spouts his same old nonsense in which he represents himself as a bastion against the evil pharmaceutical companies, a champion of the concept that “we can take control of our health” using “natural lifestyle approaches,” castigating medicine as “treating only the symptoms.” Meanwhile, Mercola’s online store is a cornucopia of unproven, dubious, and outright nonsensical health products, including supplements, herbal remedies, and DVDs covering all manner of woo, such as meridian tapping, a Gary Null DVD, a DVD of the anti-vaccine group NVIC’s conference from last year (blogged here), the Living Matrix DVD (blogged here by Harriet), a DVD promoting raw “living” food veganism, and a DVD claiming to cure multiple sclerosis by “eliminating toxins.”

Annoyingly, Dr. Oz asks Dr. Mercola, “What makes people so angry at you?” Dr. Mercola then invokes his criticisms of Vioxx (of all things) and then cites Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous saying, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” I’ve always hated this saying because it’s so trite, and it’s not even true. But even if Schopenhauer’s maxim were true, untruth would never make it to the third stage. That’s why purveyors of pseudoscience, like Dr. Mercola, never make it to the third stage as much as they desperately want to. So they reassure themselves when they get stuck at the stage of opposition or justly deserved ridicule that it’s all because they are promoting a “truth” that is so threatening and tell themselves that it’s only a matter of time before they reach Schopenhauer’s third stage.

But it gets worse. Dr. Oz even goes so far as to describe modern medicine as being in a “civil war,” which makes me wonder if the criticism of his embrace of pseudoscience is starting to get to him. Be that as it may, Dr. Oz claims that he wants to “get the two sides talking to each other.” In all fairness, I will say that Dr. Oz does get some minor points for citing criticism of Dr. Mercola as a supplement hawker who is no different from pharmaceutical companies in that he says what he needs to say to sell a product. Actually, that’s a spot-on description of Mercola. That’s exactly what he is–a salesman–who will say whatever it takes to sell his product. True, the best salesmen actually believe in the products they’re selling, but that doesn’t excuse Mercola if he does believe in his products (I’m not always sure that he does) or excuse him for peddling medical pseudoscience.

Mercola’s reply is priceless and sad. First, he says that he sells only “natural” products, as if that matters one whit to the accusation of his having a massive conflict of interest every bit as bad as that of any pharmaceutical company. It’s completely irrelevant. Second, Mercola states that he didn’t sell anything the first three years of his website’s existence, as though that mattered at all either. His excuse? Publishing his newsletter and keeping his website going was costing him a half a million dollars a year, leaving him the choice of selling things he “believes in” or selling advertising. To me, that means he needed money to run his website, and if he didn’t sell products his website would be defunct. That’s a pretty strong motivation to keep the products flowing out to the credulous masses, all at a hefty markup, of course. Then, Mercola states that no one has ever died taking his supplements, as though that matters when it comes to his massive conflict of interest. Actually, Mercola has no way of knowing that no one has ever died taking his supplement. More importantly, I do know that at least one person has died as a result of quackery featured on Mercola’s website, namely a woman who died after Tullio Simoncini tried to treat her breast cancer by injecting it with baking soda, as described here:

According to her partner, Simoncini flew to the Netherlands and started treating Sylvia with intratumoral sodium bicarbonate injections, with the help of an assistant. Sylvia received up to 20 injections in her breast tumor. Shortly thereafter she became sick and in a nearly dead state was towed out of her appartment by the fire department and presented at the first aid department of the Free University Medical Center of Amsterdam. There she died of metabolic alkalosis related disease soon after. The attending internist refused to sign the documents for a natural death and contacted the police. An autopsy revealed that Sylvia did not die of breast cancer. She had several injection spots on her blue and swollen mutilated breast.

No doubt Mercola would deny that he has any culpability whatsoever, but, by credulously posting Simoncini’s praises, in my opinion he is promoting dangerous quackery that kills. Finally, Mercola then goes on and on about how he promotes “healthy natural supplements.” Dr. Oz eats this up, playing the world’s weakest “skeptic” by saying that he “doesn’t always agree” with Dr. Mercola. That’s just a prelude to Dr. Oz planting his lips firmly against Dr. Mercola’s anus by calling him “so far ahead of us” and asking him where he finds out all this wonderful information that he provides. If there is one brief moment that is the most nauseating of all, that most characterizes Dr. Oz’s fall from grace. He doesn’t challenge any of Mercola’s assertions, either with science or even with enough skepticism to ask Mercola to show him some evidence to support his claims.

Mercola then goes on to hawk coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Personally, I was curious; so I did a PubMed search. Actually, I did quite a few PubMed searches, and I had a hell of a time finding anything linking the use of coconut oil to the treatment of any form of dementia rather than just Alzheimer’s. Maybe I didn’t get the right search terms; so I tried Google Scholar as well. I found a few animal studies, but that’s about it. Oddly enough, although there are quite a few articles about coconut oil on Mercola’s website, but almost nothing that even mentions using coconut oil for treating Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia and only three references looking at medium chain triglycerides as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Now, there‘s some seriously thin evidence. So I went to the almighty Google, and what I found are a lot of CAM websites touting coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, such as here. The concept seems to come from a physician named Dr. Mary Newport, who claims that her husband suffering from Alzheimer’s improved after the addition of coconut oil to his diet. Looking at this claim in more detail might make a good topic for a future post, but I must say that I wasn’t too impressed with what I could find. It’s hard to believe that Dr. Oz or his staff never bothered to look for the studies supporting the use of coconut oil for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. If that had been done, it would have been rapidly apparent how thin that evidence was. One of the other supplements Mercola and Oz promoted was L-arginine. Again, the evidence isn’t too persuasive supporting the claims for that one, either, even if a Nobel Laureate is out there hawking it as a supplement for Herbalife.

Finally, in the final segment of Mercola’s appearance, Mercola promotes a supplement I had never heard of before, astaxanthin. Surprisingly, there isn’t that much on Mercola’s website about it, although PubMed actually does have some interesting review articles on it. There actually is some evidence that astaxanthin might well have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health and other aspects of health. However, to date most studies are either cell culture or animal studies, with several smaller clinical trials. In other words, touting astaxanthin as some sort of miracle supplement–and, make no mistake, that is exactly what Mercola does (watch for yourself if you don’t believe me)–is irresponsible and premature. The evidence just isn’t robust enough to recommend it to the general population. Not that any of this stops Dr. Oz from giving Mercola a platform or Mercola from taking full advantage of it.

Dr. Oz ends this segment by addressing Dr. Mercola:

You’re a lightning rod for controversy. I’m glad you’re on the show today, and I asked Dr. Mercola to be on the show today because you forced me, as you force all physicians, to think critically about what we’re offering you [faces the audience] as advice. And the alternatives you [faces Mercola] talk to us about and the questions that you force us to ask allow us to reevaluate what we’re doing, which helps you [faces the audience again] get get more truthful information. I thank you [faces Mercola] for that.

Mercola forces all physicians to think critically? “Think critically.” You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means. Dr. Oz clearly needs to disimpact his nose from Dr. Mercola’s nether regions.

There is no excuse for this. Dr. Oz, by featuring a noted supporter of dubious medicine as influential as Dr. Mercola, has done his viewers–no, science-based medicine itself–a grave disservice. Worse, not only is Dr. Oz not skeptical of Mercola; he embraces him, with only a few minor quibbles where “I don’t always agree with you.” Add to that Dr. Oz’s enthusiastic promotion of the fallacy of the golden mean, in which he argues that optimal health care would be achieved by somehow melding woo with scientific medicine (or, as promoters of quackademic medicine like to put it, “integrating” CAM with science-based medicine–or, as I like to put it, “integrating” quackery with medicine), plus his explicitly treating Mercola’s pseudoscience as being an equal of science-based medicine worthy of a “dialogue” to meld the two, Dr. Oz’s show can only be described as having utterly destroyed what little shred of credibility that Dr. Oz had left. In his quest to conquer television and become “America’s doctor,” it’s clear that Dr. Oz has left behind his scientific integrity. It’s hard not to liken this to the proverbial deal with the devil for his very soul.

Still not convinced? Then check this out:

The Dr. Oz Show was set to air a special show featuring Dr. Issam Nemeh and two of his patients who experienced miraculous healings on January 11, 2011. Due to the recent congressional shooting, the episode has been rescheduled for February 1.

That’s right. Nemeh is a faith healer. If it’s good enough for Oprah, I guess it’s good enough for Dr. Oz. The only difference is that Oprah gets John of God, and Dr. Oz has to go to the second or third tier of faith healers.

Dr. Oz, you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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