Sep 15 2008

An Important Victory Against HIV Quackery

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Comments: 16

Ben Goldacre – one of the pillars of science-based medicine in the UK, and a splendid chap – has recently emerged victorious from a libel law suit filed against him and his paper, The Guardian, by Matthias Rath. Rath recently pulled the suit. He is now responsible for the 500,000 pound legal expenses of The Guardian, and has already been made to pay half that amount.

Rath is a vitamin pusher – not unlike any snake-oil salesman, making unsubstantiated and far-fetched claims for his concoctions. He is a particularly insidious and odious quack, using populism and conspiracy theories to scare people away from science-based medicine and into his waiting arms. Look at his website, it is chock full of utter nonsense all presented as cutting edge science being oppressed by the powers that be – but he assures us we are at a turning point, looking upon the cusp of a brave new world where he is the king. Right.

One of the features of this brave new world, is that while Rath accuses the powers that be of trying to control information (Wikipedia is one such conspiracy, he claims) he is hostile to any open discussion or free debate on his claims. His hostility comes in the form of intimidating legal action. It is therefore particularly satisfying that he has so spectacularly lost – and in a country where he is automatically forced to pay his opponent’s legal fees.

What got Ben and The Gaurdian’s dander up was Rath’s claims that vitamins could be used to treat HIV/AIDS. He pushed this nonsense in Africa, where AIDS is at epidemic proportions – claiming that the current drug treatment for HIV/AIDS is “pharmaceutical colonialism.” AIDS in Africa is a complete tragedy on multiple levels, but the worst aspect is the failure of African governments to take proper action. This failure is fueled by pseudoscientific HIV denial, which is in turn partly fueled by self-serving agents hoping to make money off their “alternatives” – all the while decrying the profit motive of the pharmaceutical industry.

Ben sums up the situation thusly:

I trust that this episode will act as a very strong cautionary note to the more vicious UK figures from the very corporate $50bn food supplement industry some of whom have used bullying, smears, and legal threats in their desperate bid to prevent people from examining their ideas: this goes to the very top of the industry, you should know by now that it will not work, and unless you change tack rapidly, some of you will have some very interesting surprises to come. Play nicely now, they’re only ideas.

The important point for the public is that the populist appeal of the supplement industry is all a clever lie – it is just another industry making huge profits by selling something to the public. They just have a clever and effective marketing campaign. Like many industries, they have realized that you do not sell a product, you sell an idea – a lifestyle. Look at the iPod commercials – they are selling cool. Ads for fast cars are selling sex. Other companies sell prestige, or security – the products themselves are just the proxy.

What is the supplement industry selling? – Mainly, empowerment. This is the appeal of all conspiracy theories, seeing the conspiracy is meant to be empowering. The supplement pushers are selling the right of the people to take back control of their health from big business. But this is nothing but a huge lie – because they are just substituting their big business. From a marketing point of view this is all about brand loyalty – Coke vs Pepsi. (Of course in reality it is about science vs non-science.)

This marketing strategy is working. It is an enormous success.  All we can do is try to make consumers more savvy.

Hopefully The Guardian and other news outlets will be emboldened by this victory to take on more of the false claims of those who oppose science-based medicine. And congratulations to Ben for enduring a harassing law suit simply because he cares about what is right. A splendid chap indeed.

16 responses so far

16 thoughts on “An Important Victory Against HIV Quackery”

  1. Joe says:

    The Guardian has another case pending:

    PhD physicist and great science writer Simon Singh wrote an article in that paper about chiropractic, and is now being sued by the British chiro association. Let’s hope the Guardian stays with him.

    Singh’s latest book “Trick or Treatment: the Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine” (Oxford, 2007) is coauthored by Edzard Ernst, MD PhD.

  2. Cronan says:

    Why is it that chirpracters seem to prefer showing you a writ than showing you evidence if you challenge them? Is it because they have no evidence?

  3. Cronan says:

    Obviously, “chiropracters”.

  4. I don’t think Steve has ever used the word “chap” before either in his writings or the SGU. Steve, can you make sure to say that a couple of times (in full British/Australian) accent of course in the SGU? That would be hilarious. You guys could make it the secret word for that episode or whatever that thing is called. I can only imagine Jay saying chap. That would be splendid!….Indeed!

  5. jonny_eh says:

    What is the supplement industry selling? – Mainly, empowerment

    Very true! I have a family member that loves his herbs, megadose vitamins, and chelation. He uses these in a vain hope to prolong his life. Why? My guess is because science doesn’t have a solution for death. He’s an engineer, he assumes that every problem has a solution. While science may have the answer, eventually, right now it does not. Therefore, he goes to the ‘alternative’ for the solution, unfortunately it’s all fraudulent.

  6. Fifi says:

    Let’s make that “false empowerment” – real empowerment always involves knowing the truth. So, what these people are selling is actually false empowerment.

    jonny_eh – Of course, the irony is that your family member is quite possibly hastening their demise by megadosing on vitamins, taking herbs that are quite possibly tainted with poisons and all the other dangers of taking candy from (unregulated) strangers.

  7. Good post, Steve. And I agree completely on Goldacre – fantastic guy…

    I hate to nitpick, but… erm, it’s really not a good thing to generalize so sweepingly about Africa. (As in “[Rath] pushed this nonsense in Africa” or “the failure of African governments to take proper action”). Africa is a really big and really diverse. Making any generalizations is problematic. Rath was operating mainly in South Africa and the SA government has been really bad on AIDS. Rath didn’t have much impact elsewhere in Africa (AFAIK) and many other African governments (e.g. Uganda) have exemplary AIDS policies.

    Just sayin’….

  8. Sorry, “a really big and really diverse continent“…

  9. wertys says:


    That’s actually a really helpful comment. When one looks at Africa as a whole though, one is struck by how many of the governments don’t seem willing or able to generate meaningful and effective programs for health on a number of levels. It’s easy to forget that many countries are trying as hard as they can, and current failures are no excuse for not supporting the governments who are really putting in the hard yards, against both corruption and superstition/woo/etc.

  10. Chap? Chap?

    Can crikey! be far behind?

    I took lunch with Ben Goldacre (and 15 other people) several years ago. Great guy.

  11. Chris Noble says:

    It’s worth highlighting Rath’s history of using lawsuits to shutdown criticism of his quackery.

    He has launched several lawsuits in Germany to stop the Axel-Springer group from publishing the truth about his involvement with the death of a nine year old boy after his parents took him out of conventional care and whisked him off to a clinic where he died taking Rath’s pills.

    He has also launched lawsuits against the conventional doctors that were trying to save the boy.

    Recently Rath was successful in a lawsuit against the BMJ for an article that described what happened to Dominik Feld.

    Rath has also launched several lawsuits in South Africa.

    It’s a wonder he has any time to discover the cure for AIDS/cancer/heart disease etc.

  12. Fifi says:

    “It’s easy to forget that many countries are trying as hard as they can, and current failures are no excuse for not supporting the governments who are really putting in the hard yards, against both corruption and superstition/woo/etc.”

    Well said and let’s not forget that it’s many non-Africans pushing their agendas in Africa and muddying the waters and exploiting a continent and many peoples that have already suffered massive exploitation. Amongst those exploiting AIDS in Africa to further their own agendas are the US government and how their anti-birth control/condom Christian abstinence programs are tied to AIDS funding, Big Vita/CAM types AND pharmaceutical companies, and assorted self-serving rock stars who believe their own hype (but marginalize African musicians!).

  13. kvsherry says:

    Good lord this man has a set of brass ones. I surfed over to his site and found this:

    He was asked by the International Journal of Cancer (i think that’s the title) to review an article about his field, i suspect, so that they could get a fair argument from both sides and fires off a letter found at the bottom of the page that reads more like a ransom note.

    It starts with him charging the editor in chief with being complacent in the deaths of cancer patients everywhere by not publishing his research then he goes on to dictate how the journal and board of directors should be changed to include a 50% share of his snake oil salesmen.

    The kicker is that after a letter that makes it sound like HE is editor in chief, he is shocked, shocked i tell you, to find that they retracted his invitation to review an article. CONSPIRACY!! he writes. I’m surprised he did not sue them as well.

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