Jun 14 2012

Forces of Quackery

I get a lot of press releases in my inbox. I’m not sure why – I suspect it’s because of this blog. I actually find it helpful for the occasional blog topic, even though most of it is self-promotional fluff that’s little more than spam. Although, I find spam useful too. I keep a separate folder for all my spam and track the themes as sociological data. It’s also interesting to track the strategies that spam marketers and con artists are using the exploit the unwary.

Recently I found a press release in my e-mail that I thought I would have some fun with. This is one of those commercial press releases, just selling a new company or product. Here’s the opening paragraph:

SONOMA, CA – Forces of Nature® is singlehandedly changing the over-the-counter medicines industry by introducing the world’s first and only FDA Registered remedies that are 100% Certified Organicby the United States Department of Agriculture. Combining homeopathic materials with medicinal botanicals, the extensive line of all-natural, chemical-free treatments are guaranteed to heal warts, nail fungus, acne, eczema, psoriasis, varicose veins, athlete’s foot and many other ailments.

This is essentially the modern version of the snake oil salesman barking out of the back of their wagon selling their latest magic elixir. Let’s play find the logical fallacy. The first one is contained in the name, a clear example of the naturalistic fallacy. This theme is obviously central to the marketing of this company. The notion that something is magically safe and/or effective simply because it’s natural is a common logical fallacy in our culture, carefully cultivated by the supplement and other industries to remarkable success. There is, however, no operational definition of what constitutes “natural” and there is no scientific reason to think that a substance that occurs in nature should be safe for human consumption or have any medical qualities. Most natural substances are deadly poisons.

Related to this is the appeal to the “organic” marketing label. In this case “organic” does have an operational definition, one that is now specifically regulated. In order to be certified organic you need to meet a specific list of criteria, for example using only natural vs synthetic pesticides. My problem with the organic label is that it is used as a marketing and ideological device, rather than simply using evidence-based sustainable and healthy farming techniques. Rather, I find the organic concept to itself be mostly a manifestation of the naturalistic fallacy. They assume, for example, that plant-based pesticides are somehow better for the environment or the consumer than synthetic pesticides, but there is no evidence for this. In fact because organic pesticides are generally less effective, more needs to be used which might be worse for the environment. Further, after 50 years of research the evidence does not support the conclusion that organic produce is more nutritious or healthful than conventional produce.

Also along the “naturalistic” line is the claim that their products are “chemical free.” This is likely true of any purely homeopathic products, which are diluted to the point that they are free of any chemicals, and any ingredients at all. Most homeopathic products, depending on the actual dilution, are complete free of any ingredients except water, which is often then placed on a sugar pill. So homeopathic products are literally just placebos.

The claim that herbal remedies are “chemical free” is simply wrong. Plants are made of chemicals. The term “chemical” does not mean or even imply synthetic or manufactured. Herbs contain many chemicals, some of which might act as drugs. Herbal therapy is drug therapy, disguised with the naturalistic fallacy.

Next up we have the claim that the products are “FDA registered” – this is a false appeal to authority. The company wants to imply that they have the FDA seal of approval, and are hoping that their potential customers don’t notice the difference between “FDA registered” and “FDA approved.” The FDA does not require any testing for homeopathic potions or herbal remedies, nor do they approve any such products for any indications. In fact products marketed as supplements need to contain a specific disclaimer that says that their claims have not been evaluated by the FDA (this disclaimer is missing from the Forces of Nature website).

However – looking at specific products on the website and their “active ingredients” it seems that the products are all homeopathic, rather than herbal. You’re not getting any actual ingredients (so the fact that they are “natural” and “organic” is completely irrelevant). It seems this is just a clever way to market homeopathic quackery and blur the line (a line most people don’t know is there) between homeopathic and herbal products.

The press release continues:

“These powerful modern medicines are scientifically based, non-toxic and safe to use, affordable, and highly effective,” said Forces of Nature’s founder, Dr. Peter Klapper, a noted PhD Biologist. “Instead of merely suppressing symptoms or providing temporary relief, like most pharmaceutical drugs, these treatments actually help the immune system clear disease from the body. They’re so powerful that when 1-3 drops are applied to the skin three times daily, most users begin to see results in just a few days.”

“Scientifically based?” That is a false claim. Modern science clearly leads to only one conclusion – homeopathy cannot possibly work. Clinical scientific studies also show that it does not work. Homeopathy is pseudoscience.

Dr. Klapper in his statement repeats the common CAM slander against modern medicine that it merely suppresses symptoms. In fact, science based medicine is the only form of medicine that has made a serious and systematic attempt to understand the actual cause of disease and to treat those causes whenever possible. Taking an antibiotic to eradicate an infection is not simply suppressing symptoms. Medical treatments fall into several categories: curative, therapeutic (disease modifying), prophylactic (preventive) and symptomatic. All are valid and useful treatments. Of course we try to cure whenever possible, but many chronic diseases cannot be cured by our current technology. Many can, however, be significantly modified. We cannot cure diabetes but we can significantly alter the course of diabetes with various treatments (lifestyle and medicines). Many science-based treatments prevent complications or reduce the risk of disease or the negative consequences of disease. I cannot cure migraine, but I can give treatments that will significantly reduce the number of migraine attacks. And finally many treatments are symptomatic, something which is very important to quality of life and greatly appreciated by those who need them.

CAM apologists often whitewash all this complexity with the smear that modern medicine is all symptomatic. This is demonstrably false. This claim is often coupled, as above, with the claim that the snake oil currently being sold does treat the underlying condition – based, of course, on no science at all. There is absolutely no credible evidence that any homeopathic potion does anything, let alone help the immune system clear disease from the body. This is simply made up nonsense.

Conclusion

There is nothing new in the marketing hype of this company that claims it is “singlehandedly changing the over-the-counter medicines industry.” This is all recycled marketing snake-oil hype. It is completely evidence-free. It is, if anything, a great example of how dysfunctional the industry is and how inadequate our current regulations. Homeopathy is magic water marketed with a host of health claims that are not supported by scientific evidence, and in fact often contradicted by scientific evidence. This is, in short, a scam. It’s scam, however, with the imprimatur of the FDA, not based on any science or testing but on anti-consumer laws that have given the homeopathic snake oil industry a free pass for over half a century.

 

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17 responses so far

17 Responses to “Forces of Quackery”

  1. bluedevilRAon 14 Jun 2012 at 9:25 am

    Sounds like a bad Ben Affleck movie.

  2. rsmathers8on 14 Jun 2012 at 9:31 am

    “Most natural substances are deadly poisons.”

    That’s a typo right? I mean, “Many” sounds pretty reasonable, but “Most”? What are you basing that on?

    Rick

  3. bluedevilRAon 14 Jun 2012 at 9:33 am

    And yet, amazingly, Rand Paul, Gary Null, etc are arguing that the FDA is too powerful and needs to be deregulated even further!

    http://reason.com/blog/2012/05/24/rand-paul-calls-for-an-end-to-the-fdas-i

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-Zz5GjUcQ0

  4. Skepticoon 14 Jun 2012 at 10:36 am

    Also along the “naturalistic” line is the claim that their products are “chemical free.” This is likely true of any purely homeopathic products, which are diluted to the point that they are free of any chemicals…

    Strictly speaking that isn’t true – water is a chemical.

  5. nybgruson 14 Jun 2012 at 11:03 am

    ….so is sugar used in the pills. And nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen. Boy oh boy would it be tough to live a chemical free life.

  6. bluedevilRAon 14 Jun 2012 at 12:22 pm

    It probably already exists but I would very much like to make or find a t-shirt that says “100% pure organic” and have a random organic molecule on it.

  7. Steven Novellaon 14 Jun 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Rick,

    OK, I cheated a bit – because everything is a deadly poison if taken in sufficient amounts.

    But look at it this way, a small percentage of plants in nature are safely edible. And for those that are edible, it is usually only part of the plant that is edible, while other parts are not – apples seeds are toxic. Some foods have to be treated to be edible. Raw almonds are toxic, for example.

    So most parts of most plants are not edible by humans, some are toxic in small amounts, other in larger amounts.

    For example, I would seriously not recommend going into the woods and eating random plants you cannot identify.

    All herbal medicine are toxins, but if they are useful that means at a certain dose and in certain situations their toxicity can be exploited for a medicinal purpose – because they are drugs. All drugs are toxins, only with a useful dose range.

    So there is some ambiguity in the question, but it’s safe to say that more than 50% of plant parts out there are not edible or toxic if injected as food.

  8. locutusbrgon 14 Jun 2012 at 1:28 pm

    @ Steve
    Sorry someone will say this ingested not injected. The injected rate its probably more like 99%.

  9. jreon 14 Jun 2012 at 7:02 pm

    I read the story and comments at the link supplied by bluedevilRA.
    In my view[1], it’s typical of much libertarian commentary: breathless exaggeration on the descriptive side, founded on some frankly goofy ideals on the normative side.

    Rand Paul is steamed that the GubMint is sending “armed FDA agents into peaceful farmers’ land and telling them they can’t sell milk directly from the cow.” Hey, that’s nothing — where I live, we have armed highway patrol officers telling peaceful drivers they can’t do 75 in a 55.

    [1] And, let me note, I was strongly sympathetic to libertarian views in my younger days. I’d still be, were it not for the apparent majority of libertarians who seem to prefer a comic book reality to the one I inhabit.
    John and Belle may have said it best: http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/2004/03/if_wishes_were_.html

  10. ccbowerson 14 Jun 2012 at 9:01 pm

    “And yet, amazingly, Rand Paul, Gary Null, etc are arguing that the FDA is too powerful and needs to be deregulated even further!”

    Those are not fact based opinions, but primarily driven by ideology. That mention did remind me that Gary Null was poisoned by his own crappy supplement. I think it was a vitamin D toxicity, and he took legal action a couple years ago when it contained amounts much higher than labeled. This desire that people have to take supplements still perplexes me

  11. step backon 15 Jun 2012 at 7:13 am

    Use of the word “natural” is part of a broader class of logical fallacies that I have recently run across that involve mixing grammatically valid constructs with “meaningless” words or phrases.

    I am interested in unraveling the neurobiological basis for why these logical fallacies work.

    Consider the following sentence:

    “More people were swept away by the blinding insight of the idea than I could have imagined.”

    Totally meaningless and yet it appears to be grammatically correct and therefore a meaningful assertion.

    One reason why it is meaningless is because there is no limit to what “I could have imagined”.
    However the cliche grammatical construct of “More/ than” creates the illusion that a valid comparison is taking place.

    Why does it work?

  12. Donna B.on 15 Jun 2012 at 11:43 am

    I didn’t watch the Rand Paul video, but if Reason’s text was correct — that one amendment was solely to prevent the FDA and Health and Human Services agencies from carrying guns and making arrests without warrants — then I approve no matter the political ideology of who proposes it.

    It’s apples to oranges comparing state highway patrolmen to FDA agents. How many FDA agents have been killed in the line of duty? That’s not to say that police powers shouldn’t be closely watched at every level of government right down to village constable.

  13. bluedevilRAon 15 Jun 2012 at 2:14 pm

    @Donna, I agree that the arming part is not really the issue. I have no problem with de-arming FDA agents. I did not even know FDA agents could carry weapons till this story. My problem is with the spin that Paul, Null, et al put on this issue. Apparently the FDA is a rogue agency, some sort of militant wing of the Big Pharma. Dr. Paul does not outright say this (he is not as extreme as Gary Null), but he is without a doubt calling for less regulation regarding supplements. He said that vitamins should be allowed to be marketed for specific health benefits, giving the example of prune juice for constipation. I think this is a downright dangerous idea and it has been discussed many times on this blog, SBM and others. People are still under the mistaken impression that Airborne (nothing more than a megadose multivitamin) can fight off the flu years after those ads were pulled.

  14. mumadaddon 15 Jun 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Hope this is okay, but can I interject and point everyone to this article by Steven Novella in 1999, it’s hilarious:

    http://www.theness.com/index.php/alternative-engineering/

    I know it’s off topic, so my apologies, but it’s well worth a look. You could cut the irony with a knife.

  15. mumadaddon 15 Jun 2012 at 2:34 pm

    If you don’t believe me, here’s a sample:

    What has this new approach created? Well, Natural Design’s newest model sedan, the Millennium 2000, does not use air bags, or even seatbelts. “Seatbelts are dangerous, and air bags are kid killers,” complains Wiere. So he has come up with something better. The interior of the Millennium 2000 is coated with a patented psychoactive material, called Natural Safe. “All a driver or passenger has to do is think safe thoughts, and this miraculous material will do the rest. In a crash, the material will gently repel any safe thinking person in the vehicle, leaving them free from injury.”

    Consumers are convinced. Not to be outdone, GM and Ford both have started putting Natural Safe coatings in their cars. Amy Zinger, of Arkansas, survived a 40 MPH head on collision in one such vehicle. “I was wearing my seatbelt, and the air bag did deploy, but I know it was the Natural Safe that saved my life.” Motivated by such testimonials, more and more consumers are insisting on only buying cars treated with Natural Safe.

  16. jreon 15 Jun 2012 at 2:54 pm

    How many FDA agents have been killed in the line of duty?

    You’d be surprised. Here’s an account of USDA inspectors shot to death while inspecting a sausage factory: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/06/ceremonies-to-honor-meat-inspectors-killed-in-2000/

    I have myself had the, um … memorable … experience of an FDA audit, performed by a uniformed member of the US Public Health Service. She was not armed at the time, but told me that she always carried a weapon when inspecting food plants. Rand Paul’s excitement over armed FDA inspectors seems overblown. Inspectors carry weapons under circumstances where they might be needed — just as highway patrol officers do, and for the same reason.

  17. BillyJoe7on 17 Jun 2012 at 12:40 am

    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/06/ceremonies-to-honor-meat-inspectors-killed-in-2000/

    The owner was a clever chappie – convicted by evidence on his own security camera!

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