Sep 15 2008

An Important Victory Against HIV Quackery

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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.

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