Alt med: win some and lose some

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2009 10:48 am

In the crazy topsy-turvy world of alternative medicine, the forces of reality win some and lose some.

WIN: An alleged quack who allegedly sold herbal cures for cancer has been slapped with a fraud lawsuit. The charges are that this ordained Pentecostal minister preyed on vulnerable terminal cancer patients using religious trappings. Nice.

LOSE: The Natural News altmed website — which promotes all sorts of nonsense, including connecting vaccines and autism — reports that a "health freedom attorney" (heh) has filed a suit against the FDA to halt the distribution of swine flu vaccine. However, their claims of this vaccine being rushed, untested, and so on, are all completely false.

Y’know, if people want to take tinctures and poultices and whatever that does nothing whatsoever instead of real medicine, that’s their right. But when they try to stop others from getting real medicine — medicine that can save many lives — because of their own gross misunderstanding of science, then that becomes a public threat. I hope the judge throws this case out of court, and then fines all those involved for frivolous lawsuits.

Not-so-incidentally, the Natural News website says this suit is being filed on behalf of Gary Null, and a perusal of his website shows him to be antivax as well as an AIDS denialist (someone who doesn’t think HIV causes AIDS)… and I am shocked, shocked, to find out he has his own line of alternative cures. These are the kinds of folks we’re dealing with, and why I get so very upset about all this.

So this really isn’t a "lose" yet, but it’s a lose in the sense that people with such a tenuous grasp of reality attack it with such fervor. They are putting everyone at risk: you, me, everyone. That’s why I am so vocal, and will continue to be.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: AIDS, antivax, cancer, fraud, HIV, vaccines

Comments (32)

  1. Elmar_M

    People like Mr Null (nomen est omen) are very dangerous. If he really believes in this nonsense, he should be submitted to a closed facility, seriously.

  2. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE
  3. PD

    You guys don’t believe that “Nutrition is the real medicine”, do you? The food we get here in America is processed , stripped out of all the good stuff.

    NaturalNews reported that “Top researcher who worked on cervical cancer vaccine warns about its dangers ” and “Teen girl suffers permanent brain damage after cervical cancer vaccine”. Don’t you believe those?

  4. Gary Ansorge

    Here’s a report from the CDC on the 79 deaths of pediatric patients so far this year in the US from H1N1.

    http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/update.htm

    But gee, it’s all about money, right?

    GAry 7

  5. Dan I.

    Well you can’t win them all. Hopefully the lawsuit loses on summary judgment.

  6. Sure, but what does all this have to do with astronomy? :-)

    Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let the real discussions continue.

  7. Anna

    While I absolutely agree that the quacks you’re describing should be taken out behind the chemical sheds and shot, saying that allopathic medicine is the only “real medicine” makes you just as narrow minded and foolish as the people you are blasting.

    Unfortunately there are a TON of stupid people in the world and lots that want to try to take advantage of others’ ignorance. However, science – REAL science – has proven the efficacy of many so called “alternative” treatments. Herbs and things that have been around since people existed have real proven effects, but they are not miracle cures and should not be treated as perfectly safe just because they’re natural. Nightshade is an herb, but you wouldn’t catch me ingesting it. Medicinal herbs are drugs just like any other. In fact, a large number of allopathic drugs are synthesized or isolated from compounds found in herbs. If nothing but modern medicine is “real medicine,” how did people treat illness before modern times? Be informed about things you have a strong opinion about before blasting everyone who doesn’t share your view.

  8. Kris

    Phil – new to your blog, which I found from CNN.com. What a great idea. Thanks for speaking out against the irrational crazies out there.

    One thing you failed to mention about the anti-vaccine paranoia is the loss of so-called “Herd Immunity,” which is nicely described in this article in the lay press:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/10/08/eveningnews/main5372523.shtml?tag=cbsnewsLeadStoriesAreaMain;cbsnewsLeadStoriesSecondary

    As a pulmonary/critical care doc I see the consequences of the loss of herd immunity all of the time, not just in flu season. I have seen 3 cases of severe pertussis (whooping cough) in adults already this year.

    We have a responsibility not just to ourselves, but to the public at large…

  9. Kris, I think that’s what Phil was implying when he said these people put everyone at risk.

    Good article. It’s certainly disturbing how prevalent these attitudes have become. My spidey sense indicates that arclight is about to make a good point, too.

  10. Anna, you do know what they call alternative treatments that have been proven to work, right?

    Medicine.

  11. @PD – With the amount of misinformation and blatant lies that have been put out by natural news, it’s hard to put any faith in any story they report. I’ve seen all the ones you’ve mentioned and tried to search up corresponding information, all I’ve found is other pro alt-med and conspiracy news sites parroting the same stories.

    @Anna – Herbs are the foundation of conventional medicine. Yes, many current medicines are based on compounds extracted from herbs and first discovered in them. “Herbal medicine” generally is barely different from conventional, it just sounds more naturalistic and plain herbs have uncontrolled dosages as well as other unrelated compounds which could also add to any side effects, so conventional medicines are actually safer for people.

    @Kris – That has been mentioned numerous times before, if he were to include every caveat such as that then the article would be pages long which I assume is the reason that factoid was skipped. It never hurts for people to be reminded of such things though, so thanks for making the comment. :)

    Another fine but tear wrenching example of the affects of lost herd immunity which Phil has spoken about numerous times is young Dana McCaffery from here in Australia. If you’re seated and have tissues nearby, check out her sad story as told by her heartbroken parents at http://www.danamccaffery.com/ – there’s also a nice piece from the local media a few weeks ago here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYelpIXV6hc

  12. Marilyn Mann

    Just a clarification on the doctor who was advertising herbal treatments for cancer. She is being charged criminally.
    http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2009/10/09/doctor-charged-with-fraud-for-prescribing-herbs-to-cancer-patients/
    “Christine Daniel, a California physician offered something that every terminally ill patient yearns to hear – the promise of a possible cure. But now the Mission Hills, Calif. doctor stands accused of using her influence as an ordained Pentecostal minister and inducing dozens of desperately ill people nationwide to buy her expensive brown liquid infused with herbs. Daniel was arrested Thursday at her home in Northridge and charged with breaking several federal laws, including committing wire fraud. Daniel appeared in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles Friday where her bail was set at $150,000. She’s set to be arraigned on Oct. 19.”
    “At least three dozen who followed the regimen have died, some after they stopped conventional therapies, sometimes at Daniel’s urging, an official said.”

  13. Lawrence

    Kris – welcome. Herd immunity is spoken of here, quite a bit actually.

  14. Phillip M

    @ PD

    If you think the food in the US is so bad for you, feel free to travel somewhere the food is not stripped of “all the good stuff”. I hear Ethiopia has a 100% organic agricultural policy. But, then again the free time have to talk bad about the food supply and farmers would now be devoted to farming 365 days a year 18 or so hours a day, just to stay alive.

  15. Yojimbo

    PD sounds like another graduate of Sound Bite University.

    And @Anna
    Q. ” how did people treat illness before modern times? ”

    A. Not terribly well.

  16. Arclight, you beat me to it. “Alternative medicine” is a term that needs to be left out in the middle of the Sahara with no food or water, after being stamped on by elephants. Or something. There’s medicine that works (and can be shown to do so in proper unbiased studies), and there’s the rest. It Does. Not. Matter. whence it originates: drug companies or alt-med; if it can be demonstrated to be safe and effective, we will adopt it. We’re not idiots, or money-grubbing ar53holes as the alt-med crowd like to portray us. We actually want to help people get well and live better.

    Thing is, as much as we’d all like there to be some wondrous 100% safe and effective and free “natural” cure for there isn’t. Not yet, at any rate. That includes “natural” remedies (btw have you looked at what’s involved in some of these so-called “natural” treatments?? O_O ). – And the fact is, many of these “alternative” treatments have been tested, and cannot demonstrate benefit over placebo. Ergo, they Do. Not. Work. – Or at least, they have no specific effect. To quote Han Solo: “It’s all simple tricks and nonsense” :-p

  17. James

    One simple fact that all these alt-med and conspiracy theory nuts gloss over is: if all these alt-meds, homeopathy, herbal tinctures and what not were so effective and scientifically valid, why are Merk, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, et al not trying to profit from them? Why spend tens of millions developing and marketing a new drug when they could just stuff some mugwart compound in a bottle and charge the same?

    I’m no fan of the big-pharms’ history of aggressive marketing, rushed clinical trials, and misinformation and attempts to circumvent the FDA. But, really, follow the money folks. If this stuff worked, someone, many someones, would be aggressively trying to profit. However, the fact is this junk is no more effective than placebo (often less), and those who are trying to profit are those with no scruples or the delusional.

  18. JoeSmithCA

    So does Gary Null have a partner named “Void”

  19. April

    @Anna I presume you mean to describe osteopathic medicine as a means of contrasting with the various “alternative treatments” available. Allopathy is generally regarded as a pejorative and poorly represents modern medical practices.

    As for older herbological treatments, they were tested for effectiveness, and the chemicals in them were purified and/or synthesized (e.g. asprin). Isolating the active ingredients in compounds that have proven effective is an important step, because fewer chemicals in a drug lower the chances of an unusual or bad reaction (as with the shift away from horse-produced insulin).

    If you’re interested in the evolution of medical science and the process by which it incorporated evidence-based-medicine I recommend you read Singh & Ernst’s 2008 book, Trick or Treatment. It is a wonderful resource: it address both the historical ways by which people treated illnesses and examines current alternative treatments usings “REAL science.”

  20. Wes

    In the interests of common economic sense, there is no reason for the drug companies to spend money and run tests on something that can’t be patented. That’s the reason they ignore herbal and other natural remedies. It has nothing to do with whether they work or don’t. And to claim that natural remedies are dangerous compared to prescription is to ignore the 3 pages of fine print that comes with every drug.
    And as for beating a placebo, read the current Wired mag for the article on how prescription drugs are having a harder and harder time beating a placebo, too. You will note that no one is spending any money to see how to use the placebo effect to heal people even though it works better than many drugs. I think that’s a lost opportunity.
    I’m not taking a fundamentalist position either way. There’s a time and place for both natural and prescription remedies. The key is education. And there’s quacks in both communities, too.

  21. When I see an article on unNaturalNews that references an expert, I do a serch and read some of their work. When I see clearly that uNN is bogus, I occasionally contact that expert and ask them if they are being misrepresented. So far, it is a 100% yes. Unfortunately, uNN is not a blog, and you cannot post there. Bloggers should adopt this tactic, and, perhaps offer a guest blog.

  22. Wes, check out who owns several of the larger manufacturers of supplements.

  23. I'd rather be fishin'

    James, # 18 is completely correct. If the herbs worked, Big Pharma would have cornered the market on ginger, oregano, garlic (why am I carving Italian food now?) farms. Yes, the basis for modern drugs came from herbal remedies after scientists figured out what in the herbs did what they did. Quinine, Aspirin and digitalis for example.

    I have had the same ‘discussion’ with a couple of cousins. They think if something is organic is MUST be good for them; just like nicotine and strychnine which was used to treat deafness and cholera.

  24. Steven

    Actually ginger was the only one of quite a few ‘natural remedies’ that did work. Phil did a post about it a while ago.

  25. SpriteSuzi

    Phil, I just found another example of fatal woo…

    2 Die and 16 Are Sickened at Spa in Arizona
    Two people died and at least 16 more were hospitalized after they fell ill while sitting in a sweat lodge at a New Age retreat center in Arizona, the authorities said Friday.

    The Associated Press reported that some of the guests had paid up to $9,000 for a multiday program run by James Arthur Ray, the former AT&T sales manager turned self-help expert who co-wrote the best-selling book “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/10/us/10spa.html?ref=global-home

    Sad, sad, sad.

  26. If the herbs worked, Big Pharma would have cornered the market…

    Big Pharma has already cornered the market on much alternative medicine.

    Many of these “natural medicine” dimwits will happily shell out to a multinational corporation, whilst excoriating a different (or the same) multinational corporation for producing drugs and vaccines (which in many cases are generic and manufactured at a hairline profit).

    Big pharmaceutical companies have a lot to answer for, but the criticism they receive from the medicine-truthers misses the mark completely.

  27. Jupiter

    There’s a lady in Aus who is blind from a reaction to an unregulated over the counter herbal remedy. She was on TV last week.
    Herbs can be effective but they need regulation and evidence based analysis just like any other – and especially since mixing one with another with your prescribed medicine can cause unknown and extremely serious reactions.

  28. Does Null still work at Fairleigh Dickinson University? Can we start a campaign to get his psychotic ass fired?

  29. TheBlackCat

    @ Wes: What makes you think that herbal remedies cannot be patented? If they can extract and isolate the active ingredient or ingredients, they most certainly can (and do) patent them.

  30. Cairnos

    What does it matter if herbal remedies can be patented or not? (Most) Fruits and vegetables aren’t under patent but that doesn’t stop companies making profit from them.

    Just think of any add that shows someone wandering through fields or a greenhouse saying something like “Here at Big Pharma Farms we get up at the crack of dawn to make sure that you get only the very best {stuff} carefully picked at just the right time, so remember if you want quality in your {stuff}, buy they best…buy Big Pharma” …fade out to a picture of a bottle of tablets with a colorful label with vines and shi….stuff on it with a logo at the bottom of the screen saying something like “Because your family comes first”.

    If they (you know, that they…Big Pharma, The Man, The Cryptofascist Illuminati…..those guys) can make money on it (and they can) without being sued out of existence (which is the sticking point), you can bet they would.

  31. DennyMo

    One thing that bugs me about Natural News is that if he’s right, senior management at Big Pharma/Big Ag/et al shouldn’t be getting cancer, heart disease, etc. If there is some “grand conspiracy” to foist illness on all of us and then profit from it, seems like they’d have a Fourth Directive built into the system that would protect them from the maladies.

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