Four weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Sanjay Gupta’s nomination by the Obama administration as our potential new Surgeon General. Many of you voiced concerns about Sanjay’s nomination, specifically because of his poor handling of the Raelians’ Clonaid fiasco, his inability to counter Michael Moore’s health statistics as presented in Sicko and his relationship to the pharmaceutical industry.
As I wondered about what Sanjay Gupta might be like as Surgeon General – and specifically how he might assist in “restoring science to its rightful place” – I decided to educate myself about his thought processes by purchasing his recent book “Chasing Life.” The question I sought to answer was, “is Sanjay Gupta a crank?”
The short answer is: I’m not sure. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is a crank, I think he’s more likely to be a shruggie. For those of you who haven’t read my post on shruggies, here’s the definition:
Shruggie (noun): a person who doesn’t care about the science versus pseudoscience debate. When presented with descriptions of exaggerated or fraudulent health claims or practices, their response is to shrug. Shruggies are fairly inert, they will not argue the merits (or lack thereof) of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or pseudoscience in general. They simply aren’t all that interested in the discussion, and are somewhat puzzled by those who are.
The longer answer involves an exploration of Gupta’s disturbing insistence on flirting with cranks, if it gets him publicity. The back cover of Chasing Life caries an endorsement from Deepak Chopra – and the inside page a favorable review from Andrew Weil. Normally, I would assume that the author of any book endorsed by those two would contain an intolerable blend of science and pseudoscience and refuse to read it. But for the sake of the readers of Science Based Medicine, I stifled my gag reflex and purchased the book. I hope that my sacrifice will benefit you all.
What’s Wrong With Sanjay’s Book
Chasing Life does not deliver what it promises. At the outset, Gupta suggests – with noteworthy grandiosity – that he has traveled the entire world on a quest for the secrets of long life. In reality, he cites interviews with researchers and centenarians in the US almost exclusively – with two notable exceptions: a conversation with a 103-year-old woman in Okinawa who attributes her good health to her 76-year-old boyfriend, and a bizarre visit to a “stem cell” laboratory in Russia. I hardly felt that I was reaping much benefit from his international “investigative journalism.”
Gupta’s facts are impossible to check. There is no reference section in his book to “chase down” his reasoning behind statements like these:
Consider this: if we were able to maintain our body as it is when we’re eleven – when our healing capacity is at its maximum – we could live to an estimated 1,200 years.
Starting today, there are things you can do to fend off the toxic forces trying to unravel your DNA and shorten your telomeres.
Differences in the bacteria in peoples’ digestive tracts may allow some people to eat 30 per cent more calories daily than another without gaining weight.
Gupta listens with rapt attention to delusional people. He entertains the fantasy that longevity can be purchased at a Russian spa, and that those who believe they might live 1000 years are credible scientists.
Yes, his just might be the face of a man who has found something that has eluded adventurers for the last thousand years. [Gupta’s conclusion after speaking with a Russian man who injects people with “stem cells” derived from a customer’s own fat.]
Kurzweil himself says he expects to live at least one thousand years. If that sounds crazy, you haven’t sat down and listened to him.
Gupta is careless in representing science outside of his field of expertise. In one case, he suggests that because central obesity puts people at higher risk for heart disease, they should reduce their abdominal fat by performing core strengthening exercises. (As if one can truly spot reduce belly fat with sit ups.)
In another part of the book, Gupta describes the evidence for an herbal mixture’s ability to extend life this way:
This was a very small study with only 29 participants, but statistically very strong.
What’s Right With Sanjay’s Book
Gupta demonstrates appropriate skepticism about vitamin supplements and their potential contribution to slowing the aging process.
He correctly identifies healthy behaviors – daily exercise, a calorie-reduced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates, and stress reduction techniques (including good sleep hygiene, maintaining a positive attitude, engaging in mentally challenging activities throughout the life cycle, and being married to a supportive spouse).
On the quackometer scale (where zero is Barker Bausell’s Snake Oil Science, and 10 is anything written by Suzanne Somers) I’d give this book a 5. Not exactly full frontal quackery, but also some really concerning misstatements and an openness to snake oil that scares me. Can Sanjay Gupta be drawn out of shruggiedom and back into science-based medicine? Only time will tell – and since he claims to be following all of his own longevity principles – perhaps we’ll have 1000 more years to decide. What do you think?