Jul 22 2011

Pure, Slick Pseudoscience

I have been wading into the cesspool of pseudoscience for many years, so it’s difficult to shock me. I have become thoroughly convinced of the axiom that there is no claim so absurd that it cannot attract flocks of true believers. The default mode of human psychology is to think with our emotions, then deftly rationalize our decisions. As a result there do not appear to be any practical limits to human gullibility.

Even still, some pseudosciences are so slick that they can manage to catch my eye. Recently I was asked about a new product – just another in the endless line of dubious health products. Here is an excerpt from the e-mail:

I have thyroid cancer and am considering purchasing an expensive product made by Enzacta that may cure me.

http://www.enzacta.com/Customer/media/international/int_Enzacta_home/FoldPXP090514.pdf

Their representatives say that their product will probably cure my cancer and that I should get into their MLM business (it’s one of the fastest growing businesses in the U.S.) so that I can recommend it to other people because it also cures Autism, ADHD, Down’s Syndrome, Parkinson’s, and a lot more.

Their representatives tell me that I should go and see their presentations that are being given by M.D.s that support the product.

My friend tells me that the company is spouting a bunch of scientifically sounding non-science mumbo-jumbo, and that their M.D.s are either unethical or idiots.

I checked out the brochure – it is, in my opinion, a masterwork of health supplement pseudoscience. In fact it can be used as a textbook example of exactly what’s wrong with the regulation of such products. This past week, at TAM9, we presented a workshop on the major categories of medical pseudoscience – and this product hits almost all of them.

Multi-Level Marketing (MLM)

Immediately your skeptical radar should be raised by any product sold through MLM. This is a scam unto itself. It is essentially a barely legal pyramid scheme – sellers recruit other sellers below them and get a cut of their action, while you have to pay upstream to the top of the pyramid. Those at the very top make money, but almost no one else does. In order for the pyramid to sustain itself the number of downstream salespersons would have to grow far beyond what the market can bear, and soon beyond even the total population.

Many MLMs require that distributors buy a minimum amount of product each month, whether they sell it or not. Many distributors use the product and have to sell just to pay for their own consumption.

The bottom line is that it’s best just to stay away from MLM schemes. You are almost guaranteed to lose money. Products that have genuine competitive value do not need MLMs to sell them.

Reverse Aging

The Enzacta product, Alpha PXP forte, is a typical supplement product sold with unfounded claims and ridiculous hype. What is impressive about the product is the number of pseudoscientific claims they managed to pack together – it is almost worthy of an Onion satire. It states:

Alpha PXP Forte is the answer to premature aging and metabolic disorders. A true functional food, PXP’s nano-sized micro-nutrients deliver potent glyconutrients, second-generation amino-acids and antioxidants at the molecular level – directly to the mitochondria, the power plants of your cells that fuel cellular function, repair and restoration.

The product is playing off the “food as medicine” gambit. Beyond having overall good nutrition, and perhaps addressing specific needs or deficiencies, food is not medicine. The concept of “functional food” is meaningless, but it’s clever marketing.

Notice the sciencey jargon throughout – they use any excuse to throw in sexy buzz words. The micr0-nutrients are “nano-sized.” I wonder what size other nutrients are. Are the nutrients in regular food bigger than the same nutrients in this product? Their glyconutrients are potent. How do they make their glyconutrients more potent than regular glyconutrients (i.e. sugar).

Even more impressive, their amino acids are “second-generation.” I for one am tired of those first-generation amino acids. For billions of years life have struggled along with the same 20 amino acids as the building blocks of all proteins. It’s about time someone came along with a second-generation amino acid.

Of course their product also contain antioxidants – the still reigning champion of supplement hype. The fact that there is no evidence that antioxidant supplements are of any health value has not dented their reputation with the public, who are treated with a constant barrage of misinformation about them. Eat some fruits and vegetables and you will get more than enough antioxidants. You don’t need superfoods or functional foods or expensive supplements. Of course their antioxidants work at the “molecular level,” as opposed to regular antioxidants that work at the…hmmm. Well, at some other level, I guess.

At least they fuel mitochondria, as opposed to regular nutrition which fuels mitochrondia, along with everything else.

Indication Creep

The description above, full of misleading jargon, applies equally well to an apple. Apples contain nano-sized nutrients, amino acids, glyconutrients, and antioxidants that work at the molecular and cellular level to fuel your cells, including the mitochondria. The brochure simply restates basic facts about food using sexy marketing jargony buzzwords.

Now all they have to do is tie that with “structure/function” health claims and they are off to the races. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) created a massive loophole for the supplement and (at the risk of being redundant) snake oil industry by allowing for unsupported structure and function claims. These are claims that a product can support, boost, enhance, or improve some structure or function of the body. They cannot make direct disease claims, however.

The brochure, in my opinion, crosses the line. They do give the entire standard list of structure function claims you will see for many products, such as: boosts the immune system, supports the circulation, enhances libido, and target hormonal imbalances. They really included everything. These are mostly meaningless and vague claims, but more importantly, they are precisely those claims that regulations allow them to make without any evidence at all. What a coincidence.

Where they cross the line is in listing specific diseases. They don’t make direct disease claims, but they certainly strongly imply them by asking, “struggling with metabolic disorders like:” and then listing: cancer, ADD, Diabetes, Autism, Mood disorders, and many more. They rebrand a long list of diseases as “metabolic disorders” and then imply that their product can treat them.

And that is what they printed on their brochure. The trouble with MLMs is that distributors can make even more irresponsible claims to sell their products, but the claims are just verbal. They aren’t documented anywhere. The e-mailer states that:

Their representatives say that their product will probably cure my cancer…

If this is true, then they are violating FDA regulations. One might also think that someone who claims, without evidence, that their product cures cancer is a complete scumbag. Whether they believe the claim or not, it’s irresponsible to the point of depravity.

The fact that there are doctors working with the company is, unfortunately, not reassuring at all. It is common, in fact, for an MD or two to put their name to such dubious products. They are often owners or highly invested in the company, but their degrees offer credibility to the claims made. Now we are talking about, in my opinion, not just irresponsibility but professional misconduct.

As a general rule, be highly suspicious of any product that claims it can treat or cure a long list of apparently unrelated diseases or conditions. Sometimes this happens naively. If someone is basing their claims on anecdotal evidence rather than scientific evidence, they will soon be led to believe that their treatment can cure anything. This leads to “indication creep.” At other times the long list of indications is deliberately crafted to create the maximal market for a product. If you are going to just make up indications for your product, why limit it? It’s good for whatever ails you.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, this is just one of hundreds if not thousands of such products being marketed at any given time. While the FDA and FTC and trying to protect the public, they do not have the power or resources to do an adequate job. The public is therefore largely left to defend themselves.

The best defense is to have the critical thinking skills and scientific literacy to put such claims into context. The point of this post is not just to describe a single product, but to illustrate the red flags that should make you suspicious of any similar product. And don’t forget to use common sense. No one has the secret to stop aging and cancer, and if such a marvel existed you would not learn about it through an MLM scheme.

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19 responses so far

19 Responses to “Pure, Slick Pseudoscience”

  1. Rikki-Tikki-Tavion 22 Jul 2011 at 12:59 pm

    enzacta isn’t a scam, it fixed my car!

    Cough is still bad, though…
    j/k

  2. jreon 22 Jul 2011 at 2:25 pm

    While the FDA and FTC and trying to protect the public, they do not have the power or resources to do an adequate job.

    This is true. However, while the mills of the gods grind slow, they grind exceedingly fine. It may take years for the FDA to catch up with a vendor of demonstrable flim-flam, but when they do, the result can be painful; ask Boyd Haley. A great resource for your correspondent is FDA’s searchable Warning Letter database:

    http://google2.fda.gov/search?q=enzacta&x=0&y=0&client=FDAgov&site=FDAgov&lr=&proxystylesheet=FDAgov&output=xml_no_dtd&getfields=*

    Nothing on Enzacta yet. Give them time. While you’re waiting, just for fun, try a search on “mercola.”

  3. jreon 22 Jul 2011 at 2:35 pm

    That was all-FDA search; sorry. For Warning Letters specifically, go here.

  4. Karl Withakayon 22 Jul 2011 at 2:42 pm

    You know, sometimes being known to your family and friends as a skeptic is a bit of a bummer because they may be reluctant to bring up certain topics for discussion, knowing that you will “spoil the fun” by bring critical thinking and skeptical analysis to the discussion. (Usually these are the people who equate skepticism with close-mindedness)

    Other times, though, it has the advantage that some people will know better than to try to involve you in their MLM ventures.

  5. RyanJLindon 22 Jul 2011 at 2:44 pm

    The sheer breadth of these is amazing to me. My mom was/is caught up in one called Xocai, which is a “healthy chocolate” which apparently can help with everything from diabetes to back pain to anxiety to depression. It is sold through MLM which cost her hundreds if not thousands. I remember thinking at the beginning “isn’t it a big red flag when a company claims their product can heal literally anything. How does that make sense?” But there is literally no point in even trying to talk common sense with true believers.

    The gold line in your article which I want to highlight: “The default mode of human psychology is to think with our emotions, then deftly rationalize our decisions.” is absolutely true in my opinion and has been observed in many decision-making processes from buying products to hiring new staff.

  6. Karl Withakayon 22 Jul 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Major Red Flag of Inherent Low Plausibility:

    Any sliver bullet or golden BB modality/cure-all that purports to heal, cure, or treat a wide range of unrelated conditions, diseases, disorders, and conditions.

  7. nybgruson 22 Jul 2011 at 4:55 pm

    It does blow me away. Like this photo that I took of an anti-oxidant product. It claims to be “evidence based” and is sold by “dr red” – it jazzes it all up making it sound to the consumer like there is actually some sort of rational for what it claims to do. And people by into it by the boatload because of the way actual science has been bastardized by the media.

  8. RyanJLindon 22 Jul 2011 at 6:45 pm

    I think there’s a certain level of trust that people have in the government that they won’t consciously admit to but that leads them be more likely to believe in the legitimacy of these products. Before I began to follow the “skeptical movement” I certainly had no idea what percentage of products in pharmacies were utterly worthless. I think a part of me just assumed that if it was being sold in an actual pharmacy, it must be a legitimate product. I think most people aren’t aware of the lack of control that is in place for this sort of thing.

    I am still somewhat floored that pharmacies around the world sell homeopathic products, for example. Really?

  9. Mlemaon 22 Jul 2011 at 7:04 pm

    I, too, have seen this phenomenon whereby people believe that if it’s on the shelf for sale in the US, it’s safe (and probably does something) I’d really like to see it more publicized that there are so many products that aren’t regulated in any way. The public needs to know that in many ways, it’s still a free-for-all marketplace. Even meat inspection isn’t very thorough, but people trust it so much.

  10. SteveAon 22 Jul 2011 at 7:18 pm

    nybgrus: “It does blow me away. Like this photo that I took of an anti-oxidant product”

    Come on now.

    ‘Nutraceuticals’

    That’s gotta be good for you.

    Mmmm…Nutraceuticals.

  11. elmer mccurdyon 24 Jul 2011 at 7:31 am

    Sort of funny that someone who takes such pride in his skepticism can be so clueless when it comes to sussing out that an emailer is pulling his leg.

  12. BillyJoe7on 24 Jul 2011 at 9:40 am

    Sort of funny that you should think so.
    Or are you pulling our legs?

  13. Rikki-Tikki-Tavion 24 Jul 2011 at 9:46 am

    I have to agree, that the email does seem a little hard to swallow. Could be a troll/poe.

  14. elmer mccurdyon 24 Jul 2011 at 11:05 am

    Fine, forget it.

  15. jaydubyaseeon 24 Jul 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Whilst I realise that this posting is primarily about the pseudoscience I would like to point out that not all MLMs are scams.

    I am part of a business here in the UK which is sometimes described as a multi-level marketing business. However we are endorsed by the office of fair trading, the government office which protects consumers and ensures that businesses behave correctly.

    We do extend the opportunity to other people but at no time do we a) take a cut of their business or b) require them to buy products themselves.

    I accept that there may be many scams out there but please don’t tar us all with the same brush.

  16. nybgruson 24 Jul 2011 at 5:53 pm

    what does it matter if the email is troll/poe? The product referred to is real and is a scam. Plus, Dr. Novella talks about some generalities in terms of sussing out legit from BS claims along the way as well.

  17. RyanJLindon 24 Jul 2011 at 6:31 pm

    The post serves the exact same purpose whether the email is legit or not.

  18. BillyJoe7on 25 Jul 2011 at 7:10 am

    And, believe it or not, there are people who call themselves sceptics who are anythng but.

  19. Rikki-Tikki-Tavion 25 Jul 2011 at 8:48 am

    @ nybgrus, RyanJLind:
    Agreed

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