Jan 25 2010

Mike Adams Takes On “Skeptics”

Mike Adams, editor of Natural News, is, in my opinion, a dangerous conspiracy-mongering crank. There is simply no way to be kind to his views and the nonsense he spreads on his website. His intellectual sloppiness is indistinguishable from dishonesty, as he peddles dubious cancer cures, pseudoscience such as homeopathy, and attacks vaccines and effective therapies for AIDS and other serious diseases.

His shtick is familiar – the body can heal itself of anything, “natural” (whatever that means) is the miracle cure that allows that to happen, and just about anything considered standard and scientific is an evil corporate conspiracy. Of course, anyone who criticizes his views or claims must be part of the conspiracy – a shill for the bogeyman – “big pharma”.

One common ploy of those who choose to make their living on the fringes of science and reason is to attack their critics – what I call a “preemptive strike” against those in the best position to know that what they claim is nonsense. This usually means scientists, and increasingly activist skeptics who endeavor to educate the public about science and pseudoscience. I think it is a testimony to the growing impact of the skeptical movement that we are increasingly being targeted by the likes of Mike Adams.

Adams, in fact, has recently launched a broadside against “skeptics” ( he consistently uses the scare quotes throughout his article). This seems to have been prompted by a recent trouncing he had concerning the Shorty awards. Orac and Phil Plait have complete descriptions – but briefly, the Shorty awards are for Tweeting. Adams was up in the health category, but it was discovered that there was some ballot stuffing going on, and he was disqualified. Meanwhile, skeptics were alerted to the contest and this resulted in a flood of votes for my colleague, Rachael Dunlop, who was likely to win in any case. (If you already have a Twitter account, you can vote for Dr Rachie here.)

Adams reacted by launching into a rather childish rant, blaming the whole thing (of course) on a huge conspiracy. Even worse, Adams’ fellow “natural” guru – Joseph Mercola, who is also being outvoted for the Shorty award, like a schoolyard bully has decided to attack Rachael Dunlop personally. On his Facebook page he writes:

An arrogant group of science bloggers that have vilified me for the past few years have started a campaign to have an Australian shill to win a health award on Twitter. This overweight non-physician has arrogantly bashed nearly every alternative therapy and encourages reliance on drugs.

With that as background, let’s move on to the meat of this post – Adams absurd rant against “skeptics.” While Adams likely thinks he has made a stinging attack against his detractors, he has only revealed his own intellectual shortcomings. His post is the equivalent of dropping a crudely fashioned incendiary device onto a strawman factory of his own making. One of the most useful measures of one’s intellectual honesty and rigor is the manner in which they portray the positions of their critics and ideological opponents. With that in mind – take a look at Adams characterization of the skeptical position.

Adams gives no references or links to back up his claims, which is very telling. He writes:

Skeptics believe that ALL vaccines are safe and effective (even if they’ve never been tested), that ALL people should be vaccinated, even against their will, and that there is NO LIMIT to the number of vaccines a person can be safely given. So injecting all children with, for example, 900 vaccines all at the same time is believed to be perfectly safe and “good for your health.”

First of all – the phrase “skeptics believe” is misleading. Skepticism is not a set of beliefs, it is a set of methods for asking questions about reality. Skeptics are also a diverse group – but we do tend to come to similar conclusions on basic questions where logic and evidence is likely to lead a reasonable person to a particular opinion.

Let me also further clarify that I do not presume to speak for all skeptics or for skepticism. I can really only speak for myself. But I do have extensive familiarity with the arguments that my skeptical colleagues have put forth over the years, and will try to represent them fairly as well.

Now – I would not say categorically that “all vaccines are safe and effective (even if they’ve never been tested).” My position is that those vaccines that have been approved have been tested and found to be safe and effective. For many vaccines we have decades of experience with millions of doses – and that is an impressive data set of safety and effectiveness. And of course, any new vaccine has to go through proper testing before it should be recommended. That is the essence of evidence-based and science-based medicine – using scientific evidence to see if treatments are safe and effective before they are recommended – a philosophy Adams does not practice, given the treatments he recommends.

Regarding taking vaccines “against their will” – there is actually a broad range of opinions on this matter, which is more political than scientific. You can believe vaccines work and are safe, and still believe that individuals have the right to refuse them. I actually don’t recall any popular skeptic specifically saying they are in favor of forced vaccination. Generally, adults have the right to refuse any medical intervention. It is a separate question, and one of public health, as to whether those who refuse vaccination have the right to unrestricted access to public facilities – such as public schools. But never mind all that nuance – Adams has some strawmen to eviscerate.

Adams is also a fan of absolutes as a strategy for distorting the position of skeptics. He says we profess there is no limit to the number of vaccines that can be safely given. I don’t recall anyone ever expressing that opinion, or that we can give children 900 vaccines all at once. I suspect that he is referring to Paul Offit’s statement that a child’s immune system could handle 10,000 vaccines. This statement was then taken out of context by the anti-vaccine movement. The point Offit was making was that vaccines do not represent an overload to a child’s immune system, in terms of antigenic challenge. Our immune systems face many more challenges every day than the entire vaccine schedule. However, this does not mean that other aspects of vaccines would be safe to administer in that dose, and Offit was not implying that at all – again, a nuance missed by anti-vaccine cranks.

Skeptics believe that fluoride chemicals derived from the scrubbers of coal-fired power plants are really good for human health. They’re so good, in fact, that they should be dumped into the water supply so that everyone is forced to drink those chemicals, regardless of their current level of exposure to fluoride from other sources.

Yes, Adams is anti-fluoridation. Notice the use of inflammatory language about the source of fluoride – an emotional rather than an intellectual argument. The source of fluoride is irrelevant. The evidence shows that fluoridation is safe and effective for preventing tooth decay.

Skeptics believe that many six-month-old infants need antidepressant drugs. In fact, they believe that people of all ages can be safely given an unlimited number of drugs all at the same time: Antidepressants, cholesterol drugs, blood pressure drugs, diabetes drugs, anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping drugs and more — simultaneously!

Now this is an issue about which there is much disagreement among skeptics – the use of antidepressant drugs. There is actually much to be skeptical about here, and the pharmaceutical industry is open to legitimate criticism of the ways in which they have promoted such treatments. A matter of particular scientific criticism has been the application of data on adults to pediatric populations. Having said that, I think there is a legitimate role for antidepressant medication in adults with severe depression and in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy (notice all the caveats).

I am also a proponent of rational pharmacotherapy – which means using drugs cautiously and with proper monitoring, understanding their mechanism of action and known and likely interactions, and limiting polypharmacy whenever possible. What I just described is, in fact, the standard of care. Saying that skeptics promote using antidepressant drugs in infants is absurd, and I would like to see Adams provide a reference for that. Saying that we or anyone promotes the use of  an “unlimited number of drugs” is so ridiculous that any reasonable reader should be able to see through such patent nonsense.

Skeptics believe that the human body has no ability to defend itself against invading microorganism and that the only things that can save people from viral infections are vaccines.

Again the childish use of absolutes. Medical scientists understand that the human body has a rather remarkable ability to heal itself and defend itself against infection. We call this latter ability our “immune system” – Adams should familiarize himself with that concept. Or is he claiming (yes, I am being a bit facetious) that skeptics deny the existence of an immune system. Now that’s a reference I would like to see. The well-established fact is – vaccines are an effective way of targeting our immune systems against specific viruses, so that we can mount a more robust defense against those viruses and prevent serious illness and the spreading of infectious disease.

Skeptics believe that pregnancy is a disease and childbirth is a medical crisis. (They are opponents of natural childbirth.)

Even Adams seems to recognize how unfair this characterization is – so that he has to qualify his statement with the clarification that skeptics oppose natural childbirth. He is blatantly exposing his deceptive strategy here – take the position of your opponent and then distort it beyond all recognition with inflammatory and extreme language.  Of course, no one believes pregnancy is a disease. Pregnancy is a natural condition, as is childbirth. I would also not categorically say that childbirth is a “crisis” – but it certainly can become one quickly if things go wrong.

This is where use of the term “natural” become nonsensical. The evolution of bipedalism and large brains in humans required a number of tradeoffs – the complication of pregnancy being one of them. Also, while evolution is amazing, it often produces suboptimal compromises. As a result, childbirth can be risky. Further, I do not favor any particular philosophy of childbirth. I favor what works, based upon the best evidence available. I do not oppose “natural” childbirth, because it is not clear what that even is. Rather, I favor evidence-based childbirth. I also acknowledge that childbirth is a deeply personal and emotional life experience, and many people may choose a childbirth option that suits them, even if it is not optimal purely from a medical risk point of view – and everyone should be absolutely free to make those choices for themselves. I favor only giving people accurate and unbiased information so they can make informed choices for themselves.

I do not recommend scaring them with false claims or confusing them with deceptive philosophy.

Skeptics do not believe in hypnosis. This is especially hilarious since they are all prime examples of people who are easily hypnotized by mainstream influences.

Again, where is he getting this stuff? Hypnosis is a complex phenomenon, and there is no simple way to summarize what it is or the evidence for its efficacy for any particular indication. I think Adams threw this in because he thought the second sentence was a clever dig – and in line with his conspiracy theme.

Skeptics believe that there is no such thing as human consciousness. They do not believe in the mind; only in the physical brain. In fact, skeptics believe that they themselves are mindless automatons who have no free will, no soul and no consciousness whatsoever.

This paragraph is such a mess of confusion it is difficult to know what to even make of it. Of course consciousness exists. I am perhaps the “skeptic” who has written most on this topic. The questions is not whether or not consciousness exists, but how to explain consciousness. The same is true of the mind – the mind exists. My position, which is, by the way, the position of mainstream neuroscientists – is that the mind and consciousness are manifestations of the function of the brain. There is no mind without brain function. This is not the same thing as being a “mindless automaton”.

The question of a soul is a metaphysical question, not a scientific question, and thus science is agnostic toward it. If one wishes to pose the hypothesis of a soul as a scientific question, then I think it is fair to say there is no compelling scientific evidence or plausible mechanism for a soul. The vitalism of the 19th century has been discarded by science as unnecessary.

The question of free will is more complex, and there is no consensus on this within the skeptical community. A subset, spearheaded I think by naturalism.org, does make the case that materialism does lead to the conclusion that we do not have free will in the sense that the function of our brains is deterministic. But even the most ardent promoters of the “no free will” position acknowledge that we make choices and decisions – they do not believe we are “mindless automatons.”

Skeptics believe that DEAD foods have exactly the same nutritional properties as LIVING foods (hilarious!).

I cannot even address this claim without an operational definition of “dead” vs “living” food. I think the burden of proof would be on Adams to show that there is a difference.

Skeptics believe that pesticides on the crops are safe, genetically modified foods are safe, and that any chemical food additive approved by the FDA is also safe. There is no advantage to buying organic food, they claim.

Finally Adams gets close to accurately stating the scientific position;  although there are plenty of skeptics who advocate organic farming – another area of disagreement among skeptics. I will state my own position: the safety of pesticides and chemical additives, like the safety of all things, is all about dose. So yes, they are safe at appropriate levels. The FDA is charged with the task of assessing the scientific evidence to determine safety levels. I do not claim that the FDA (or any human institution) is perfect, but the evidence does suggest that using pesticides and preservatives has benefit in excess of risk. You are more likely to be harmed by spoiled food than a preservative.

Genetically modified food – just about all food is genetically modified. We have been modifying our food for thousands of years. However, the latest technology of speeding up this process by directly inserting genes into food requires an appropriate burden of scientific evidence for safety before being added to the food chain. I would not categorically say that GM food is safe or not safe – but rather that each GM crop needs to be studied for safety. I think the pseudoscience is in scaremongering about “frankenfoods” and writing off all GM crops as unsafe.

There is no advantage to buying organic? Well – the evidence shows that there is no nutritional advantage to eating organic food. I also think that the promoters of organic food, if they are going to claim it is more nutritious (and charge more for it), bear the burden of proof that it is, and they have not met this burden of proof.

Skeptics believe that water has no role in human health other than basic hydration. Water is inert, they say, and the water your toilet is identical to water from a natural spring (assuming the chemical composition is the same, anyway).

So what is the difference between the water from your toilet and the water from a spring? What exactly is Adams claiming? Is this some weird homeopathy claim?

Yes – H2O from any source is the same as H2O from any other source – the only difference would be what is in the water (which is why I would not be enthusiastic about drinking from the toilet, although my dog does not seem to mind).

Skeptics believe that all the phytochemicals and nutrients found in ALL plants are inert, having absolutely no benefit whatsoever for human health.

Another string of absolutes. And again it is hard to know what Adams is actually claiming here. Like the last statement, he is saying skeptics deny a claim which he is not delineating. What does he mean by “inert?” I certainly don’t claim that chemicals and nutrients are biologically inert – by definition nutrients are biochemically active. And sure, nutrients derived from plants are great for human health. I suspect he is referring to claims made for the health benefits of phytochemicals that go way beyond any scientific evidence.


There is more, but this is the extent of the article you can access without registering, and I don’t want my readers to feel obligated to sign up for spam from NaturalNews. This is also more than enough to get an idea what Adams is all about. I also don’t want to beat a dead horse. It should be obvious from Adams’ post that his intellectual approach to these issues, and his critics, leaves much to be desired.

From a broader perspective, it seems the skeptical movement has really gotten under the skin of some purveyors of pseudoscience recently. They have responded by threatening to sue or actually suing for libel. They have tried to criticize science and science-based medicine. And they have tried to grossly distort the position of skeptics, and call into question our motives and our “faith.”

But the more we irritate them, the more they expose themselves, embarrass themselves, and do our work for us. Adams is just the latest crank to be goaded by skeptics into being hoist with his own petard.


Mike Adams has posted a follow up. In it he basically crows about how upset skeptics are by his original article. We are not upset – we are amused. Thanks for the blog-fodder. In his latest post he writes:

One such skeptic accused me of being a quack because he said that I believe “water is magical.” Was that supposed to be an insult? I do think water is magical!

I think pregnancy is magical. Human consciousness is magical. Plant life is magical. And water is at the very top of the list of magical substances with amazing, miraculous properties, many of which have yet to be discovered.

Thanks for the admission, magic man. I wonder – if the magical properties of water have yet to be discovered, how does Adams know they exist?

In any case, he still does not provide any links or references to back up his claims about what skeptics believe.

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