Our diet is either the cause of, or solution to, all of life’s problems. I’m paraphrasing a great philosopher. We just can’t seem to let food be food. Today each ingredient we eat seems to be demonized or glorified. Gluten is the latest evil. It used to be fat. At some point in the past, it was MSG. Or it’s a superfood, preferably local, organic and GMO-free. Even on the healthiest diet, however, we’re apparently still ingesting too many harmful chemicals. After all, this is apparently a toxic environment we live in. Gwyneth Paltrow says so. So does the Food Babe. In an era of daily television quackery and loony internet health conspiracy websites, one might think that bizarre food ideas are a recent phenomena. But worries that we’re being poisoned from within are probably innate. One of the oldest surviving written documents is an Egyptian papyrus from the 16th century BCE that linked the cause of disease to digestive wastes in our colon. Since that time, our scientific knowledge about the cause of disease has advanced, but the underlying obsession with diet and elimination hasn’t waned. Anecdotally, it seems to be growing. The idea that our bodies need to “detox” is thriving, despite the fact that it has no scientific basis or validity. Part of the modern appeal of “detox” may be that detoxification is a legitimate medical term and treatment. However, in the alternative-to-health perspective, the word has been co-opted, but the science part has been ignored. Fake “detox” is easy. And now proponents of “detox” have taken it one step further. They’re using real medicine for a fake “detox” with. That’s how activated charcoal has become the latest health fad. (more…)
One of the greatest triumphs of marketing over evidence was the incredible rise of vitamin supplement use in the 20th century. Supplement makers successfully created a “health halo” around vitamins, and taking your vitamins became a virtue, something mothers told their children to do. The evidence, however, does not tell such a simple story.
In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that there are unintended consequences to taking vitamin supplements, and in fact there may be a net negative health effect. This is especially true for those who are healthy and don’t need vitamins, and for those who exceed the recommend dosages.
A recent review of the last 20 years of literature on the subject, presented at the American Association for Cancer Research 2015 meeting, found an overall increased risk of cancer among vitamin users. Dr. Tim Byers presented the study, which echoes the result of a 2012 review that he and others published. He specifically refers to two famous studies showing an increased risk of cancer from vitamins.
The ads in my local newspaper are a never-ending source of questionable health claims, most often from diet supplement manufacturers and chiropractors. There’s no single spokesman like Dr. Oz, but as a group they remind me of Oz’s unending series of weight loss miracles, each one the perfect solution until the next one comes along. The proliferation of chiropractic ads is bad advertising for the efficacy of chiropractic itself, since chiropractors are increasingly turning to adjunctive treatments like lasers and decompression machines.
The latest ad that annoyed me was from the Objective Diagnostics Research and Rehabilitation Institute (ODRRI). What an impressive name! On their website, not only do they advertise “the low back pain solution,” but they offer to fix herniated discs without surgery. They say they treat the underlying cause and say their approach is “based on solid and leading edge diagnostics, scientific research, and experience.” While not a complete lie, that statement is certainly misleading. (more…)
I’ve been blogging for over a decade now, a fact that I find really hard to believe looking back on it right now. I’ve told the story before, but it’s worth briefly recounting again because doing so will explain why the story I’m about to discuss caught my attention. My “gateway drug,” if you will, into skepticism was discovering Holocaust denial in the late 1990s on Usenet, a vast and sprawling conglomeration of thousands of discussion forums that began to fade away at the turn of the century with the rise of web-based forums and Google providing an interface to it to make it Google Groups. The forum where I first discovered Holocaust denial and learned to combat it, alt.revisionism, still exists, but long ago degenerated into a cesspool of racism, spam, and trolling. A couple of years later, around 2000 or so, I discovered quackery and the antivaccine movement, thanks to a Usenet newsgroup known as misc.health.alternative, which is where I honed my early skills applying science to medical claims. It’s also where I first encountered Peter Moran, a regular commenter here who greatly inspired me back then with his full-throated criticism of cancer quackery and his website that taught me reasons why cancer quackery could appear to work even when it did nothing to impact the progression of the cancer.
In December 2004, intrigued by all the news stories about blogging and having discovered a number of good blogs, I decided on one dark, gray Saturday afternoon to dip my toe in the blogosphere. On the spur of the moment I created the first iteration of my not-so-super-secret other blog on—what else?—Blogger. Much to my own amazement, over the course of a year I got my little hobby noticed, to the point where I was invited to join a blog collective; by late 2007 I had become prominent enough to be invited by Steve Novella to join this very blog at its founding, where I have remained for seven years, with no plans to move on any time soon. During my early days, though, there was one person who also inspired me, helping me to learn about the pseudoscience that undergirds the antivaccine movement and, in particular, the quackery making up what is known these days as the “autism biomed” movement. His name is James Laidler, and he was one of the ones who introduced me to this topic which I’ve written about many times both at my not-so-super-secret other blog and, of course, right here on SBM. In doing so, over the years I’ve catalogued why “autism biomed” seems compelling to many parents with children with autism, how antivaccine groups use fake “medical conferences” to sell autism biomed by giving a patina of medical respectability to rank quackery like bleach enemas, and providing a place where those selling unscientific treatments can find willing customers and where disreputable discredited “scientists” like Andrew Wakefield and Mark Geier can find adoring fans who believe their quackery.
I bring this up because last week WIRED published an excellent article about Jim Laidler, “An Alternative-Medicine Believer’s Journey Back to Science.” Appropriately enough, it’s by Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. I say “appropriately enough” because, as has been noted here on a number of occasions, there are many religion-like aspects to alternative medicine in general but to the autism biomed movement in particular. Indeed, the two are often tied together, with the motivation for some alt-med being explicitly religious and belief in alt-med sharing some major characteristics with religion, particularly belief in miracles against evidence, charismatic leaders (like Andrew Wakefield) who can do no wrong, and mutually-supportive communities of believers who reinforce each others’ beliefs and ward off skepticism. Add to that the magical thinking, and it’s not for nothing that I’ve referred to the central dogma of alternative medicine as being that wishing makes it so. Indeed, it’s for good reason that I frequently point out that most “energy medicine” (particularly reiki) is basically faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.
In Levinovitz’s profile of Jim Laidler, we see a lot of this, and I learned some details that I didn’t know about Laidler before. Levinovitz also grasps the religion-like nature of alt-med by starting the article bluntly saying:
Jim and Louise Laidler lost their faith on a trip to Disneyland in 2002, while having breakfast in Goofy’s Kitchen.
So I was checking out my Facebook page when I stumbled across an article, entitled “200 Evidence Based Reasons NOT To Vaccinate” [PDF download] posted by a physician friend. He and I often post medically related articles for a laugh, and every so often, we stumble across something like this, and share it with those whom we know will laugh at the incorrect pile of garbage it truly is. But, of course, I am prejudicing you in advance.
Let us first look at where this article is found. It comes from a website called GreenMedInfo, complete with the tagline of Education Equals Empowerment. While I don’t disagree with that tagline per se, I will also add the caveat that the education needs to be soundly based in reality. It contains such articles with catchy titles like, “What if HPV does not cause Cervical Cancer?,” “Research Confirms Sweating Detoxifies Dangerous Metals, Petrochemicals,” and “The Toxic Terrain of Airplanes: 4 Steps To Travelling Clean.” It is a veritable cornucopia of medical woo, and you too can access it to your hearts content. The founder of the site, Sayer Ji, has been discussed before on this site, regarding Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic mastectomy and the links between diet and cancer, with even broader discussion by a “friend” of the blog. He “founded Greenmedinfo.com in 2008 in order to provide the world an open access, evidence-based resource supporting natural and integrative modalities.”
For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple—and wrong.
– H.L. Mencken
Despite my multiple personalities, it seems that only the OCD doctor gets anything done. The Goth cowgirl persona? Lazy. And the NBA playoffs are sucking up an inordinate amount of time. Go Blazers. Just not very far. Sigh. But what are you going to do. Work needs doing and someone has to do it.
This week was one of deadlines. In June I am giving a series of talks at the SMACC conference in Chicago and I have to have all my talks ready to go today. So sometimes to meet all my deadlines I need to re-purpose other material.
Spoiler alert: if you are going to be at SMACC and hear my lectures, stop reading here. Everything I am going say in 6 weeks will follow. And really even if you are going to SMACC, it is a content-free post. You might be better off spending your time elsewhere. (more…)
Naturopathy is chock-full of quackery. No doubt about it. Here at SBM and elsewhere, the seemingly limitless nonsense that can be incorporated into naturopathic practice has been documented time and again: detoxification, food “sensitivities,” anti-vaccination ideology, fake diseases (chronic yeast overgrowth, adrenal fatigue, chronic Lyme disease), bogus tests (also here), homeopathy, chelation therapy, assorted other odd-ball treatments, lack of ethical standards, and just general wackiness.
So, let’s give naturopaths licenses to practice primary care! What a good idea.
This affinity for nonsense is perfectly understandable, given their pseudoscience-filled education and foundation in vitalism. Once the scientific method is chucked in favor of “philosophy,” what’s to stop them from simply making things up? As far as I can tell, nothing. But why inflict this on the public under the guise of promoting health, safety and welfare?
To be fair, naturopaths aren’t the only ones who incorporate quackery into their practices. There are chiropractors, acupuncturists, reiki masters, doctors of Oriental Medicine, and “integrative medicine” practitioners. But what sets naturopaths apart, in my mind, is the sheer range of pseudoscience they will accommodate without the slightest hint of doubt in its efficacy or safety and their unwavering belief in their ability to diagnose and treat patients with the expertise and skill of medical doctors. “Delusional” is not too strong a word to describe their utter lack of awareness of their ignorance or the danger to patients they may pose. (more…)
Pepsi has announced that it will remove aspartame from its formulation of diet Pepsi products in the US this year. Apparently this is a reaction to a 5% drop in the sales of Pepsi. Seth Kaufman, vice-president of Pepsi, said “Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda.”
This move comes in the same week that Chipotle announced it is removing GMO food from its food chain. Unlike Pepsi, who cited only public opinion, Chipotle went one step further and directly cited pseudoscientific fears of GMOs as their justification. (But that’s another story.)
Like GMOs, aspartame has been widely studied and found to be safe, but remains the target of fear-mongering and conspiracy theories. It is not clear why this one food additive has continued to be the target of a fake controversy, other than that fears and conspiracies can take on a life of their own. The best example of anti-aspartame conspiracy theories comes from Janet Starr Hull, who wrote:
I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.
That is a common claim of conspiracy theorists – the truth is being suppressed out of fears that it will bring chaos if revealed. I think our society will survive Pepsi moving over to a different sweetener. (more…)
Alex Loyd’s concept of “Healing Codes” is one of the most bizarre, ridiculous offshoots of so-called energy medicine. Loyd is a naturopath who has been criticized by “Dr. Joe” Schwarcz for recycling old bunk for profit. He claims that illness is due to disturbances in the human energy field and that the cells of our body store destructive energy patterns and all our memories, habits, interests, and tastes. This is pure imagination: there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a human energy field or of cellular memory.
By one account, God told Loyd about the Healing Codes in a dream. By another account, he studied under Roger Callahan in 1999 and derived his system from Callahan’s Thought Field Therapy, a fringe psychological treatment with no scientific evidence of efficacy. By another account, a 10-year-old boy had a vivid dream in which a “power” gave him a gift: a series of 10 words that could heal. His parents used the words and experienced near-miraculous healing. They were past clients of Loyd and they offered the words to Loyd. The parents didn’t want any money; they wanted to share their miraculous discovery with the world and help as many people as possible. Loyd was not bound by any such scruples. He proceeded to develop an elaborate money-making business around those words, charging clients hundreds of dollars to get in on the secret. He claims to have customers in 50 states and 143 countries. If using a special sequence of words to heal reminds you of Harry Potter and witches’ books of spells, you’re not alone. (more…)
It is with reluctance that I decided to write about this topic again, given how many times I’ve written about it over the last decade, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog and given how little his fans seems to care when I do. I’m referring to the antivaccine stylings of comedian and political pundit Bill Maher, something I’ve been writing about for over a decade now. Indeed, a little more than five years ago, I stirred up a bit of trouble in the skeptical community through some particularly harsh criticisms of Bill Maher, in particular of the Atheist Alliance International’s (AAI) decision to award Maher the Richard Dawkins Award. More than once, I’ve likened giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health, given that, at least when it comes to medicine, Maher is anti-science to the core. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of both Dawkins’ and Maher’s fans.
Arguably Maher reached his peak of antivaccine advocacy through his weekly HBO talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher, five years ago, when the H1N1 pandemic was going on and public health officials were working hard to persuade people to get vaccinated against H1N1 influenza. Indeed, it got so bad that his own guests, such as Bill Frist and Bob Costas, were openly dissing him on his own show for his antivaccine views. Perhaps my favorite example came from Bob Costas, who in response to a wild claim by Maher that he doesn’t worry about getting the flu, even in the crowded confines of an airplane because of his superior lifestyle that apparently made him immune, blurted out, “Oh, come on, Superman!” Even worse, a friend of Maher, Michael Shermer, published an “Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations” in—of all places—The Huffington Post, which led Maher to respond, both on his show (in which he referred to vaccination as a “risky medical procedure”) and in a post on HuffPo himself entitled “Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having“. It was, as a certain “friend of the blog” put it, a pyre of stupidity.