Myth of the Wellness Warrior, Part 2: Supplements, Denial and the Birthday Problem

I’ve heard a lot lately about fears that a conspiracy is being perpetrated by the pharmaceutical industry and the government to keep natural cancer cures (and natural or holistic care in general) away from patients. It makes for a dramatic story with lots of Hollywood appeal, but examining the accusations leads down a more insidious path. To get there and understand the full extent of the problem, we need to step back and look at a range of sub-industries within the healthcare umbrella, what they provide and how they intertwine. We also need to understand some basics about statistics and probability that will clarify what some of the facts surrounding this conspiracy really mean. [And when you are done reading this, please continue on with the next chapter in this ongoing series.]

Supplementing the Truth

To begin with, let’s examine the hugely profitable supplements industry (mentioned in Forbes’ SportsMoney column as one of the fastest growing industries in the world). “Natural health” advocates and self-proclaimed gurus often have their own supplement brands which they sell as part of  treatment plans pushed on their web sites, or they have affiliate arrangements with a brand that they offer as being somehow superior to other brands. The supplement industry has grown from the notion that manufactured (or synthetic) vitamins could be used to supplement areas in the diet where a person was not able to consume adequate quantities to be healthy. In an indirect way, it can be traced back hundreds of years to the discovery that citrus fruit — particularly lemons — could prevent sailors from getting scurvy. It turned out that scurvy was a disease caused by a Vitamin C deficiency. By “supplementing” this vitamin, the disease could be avoided.

In a modern context, supplements are used medicinally in instances where a particular vitamin or mineral is necessary in higher quantities than a person could be expected to consume from his or her regular diet. Commonly, pregnant women are given extra folate or folic acid, for example, because these help the development of the brain and nervous system in the fetus. Likewise, for a cancer patient, folic acid may be prescribed to prevent nerve degeneration or stimulate recovery from minor neuropathy. As people continue to live longer, healthier lives in general, older people may need to supplement the Vitamin D and calcium necessary for bone strength because their bodies do not produce as much Vitamin D naturally and their dietary needs for calcium may increase. Also true for cancer patients, a small increase in Vitamin D and calcium may be necessary to prevent bone loss or weakening due to some forms of medication or treatment.

For most people, however, taking anything as a supplement will have no measurable affect on their bodies if they are able to eat a balanced diet. (Note: vegetarians may need to supplement Vitamin B-12, which is also commonly given as a shot to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.) The notion that high doses of vitamins can supercharge a person’s health is not founded on any actual science. Quite the opposite, most of what people ingest in supplement form is removed from the body in urine. It is easy to see this process, especially with B vitamins, as the supplements will turn urine a dark yellow rather than the very light yellow of typically healthy urine. Excessively high doses of vitamins can actually stress the liver and kidneys or even build up to toxic levels in the body. New research even suggests that high doses of antioxidants are more likely to cause cancer to spread rather than to prevent cancer growth. Still, the supplement industry is an intrinsic part of the natural health industry, in spite of the frequent controversies surrounding an astounding lack of regulation.

One of the cornerstones of the conspiracy against the natural health industry is that these do-gooders are being squashed because the products they peddle are natural and therefore inexpensive, and Big Pharma is all about profits — therefore, Big Pharma can afford to kill their poor competition. Looking at this objectively, however, it is clear that the natural health industry is big business in its own right. Estimates for the broad natural health and wellness industry hit $774 billion in sales back in 2014. A report in the Nutrition Business Journal revealed that in 2013, the smaller nutrition and supplements market alone was about $104 billion; it has continued to grow in the years since. That growth is in part because of how the industry circumvents regulation and has a willingness to take products that have been banned in one country and find ways to sell them in others. Many natural health advocates suggest that the trend for increased regulations is a sign that the conspiracy must be real, in spite of the fact that countries like the United States actually have laws in place to protect the supplement industry (or at least ensure enough loopholes where consumer protections are supposed to be offered). The supplement industry even has a high profile insider ally in Senator Orrin Hatch, one of many politicians who has sided with the natural health industry over the years. (It should be noted that the pharmaceutical industry is still a much bigger business, but with vastly higher “operating costs” and a dramatically smaller rate of growth, as noted in another Forbes article, which indicates that the supplement industry is currently a better investment if the aim is to get rich quickly.)

While statistics vary somewhat between sources when discussing alternative medicine, partly because some providers are either “underground” or operating illegally while many others are in foreign countries where they are not regulated. It is safe to say, however, that registered companies in the United States alone are expected to show revenue over $14 billion in 2016, part of a decades-long steady increase in this profitable and expanding market outside of the nutrition and supplement market (though there is crossover). This is far from a fringe industry that is being “kept quiet” by Big Pharma. Compared to the mainstream pharmaceutical industry, alternative medicine may be a niche market, but it is hardly a quiet or obscure one. Because of this explosive industry growth, we have seen a rise of self-proclaimed Wellness Warriors in recent years. In addition to these self-taught gurus, there has also been a burgeoning market in books and videos on alternative cures and natural healing. Many of these books and videos hinge on the theme that they offer free or low-cost solutions that are non-toxic alternatives to the “slash, burn and poison” approach of the medical establishment, especially in regard to the alternative medicine cash cow of cancer treatment.Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 3.53.21 PM

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 4.05.45 PMA rising star in the world of books and movies claiming to have all the real answers that your doctors are hiding from you, Ty Bollinger brings a new level of irony to the title of his video series, The Truth About Cancer. Bollinger is part of this particular breed of opportunist who offers false hope to the fearful — a fear he has helped to create and increase during his sales pitches and in the content of his books and videos by misrepresenting facts and presenting logical fallacies as “proof” of his ideas. Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 3.51.48 PMPeople like him are particularly dangerous and could lead patients down an irreversible road to death when a medical cure could be readily available.

Make no mistake, Ty Bollinger claims that you can cure cancer without surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. He makes claims on this page such as “Natural herbal supplement tested 100% effective at reversing 7 types of cancer.” But that statement, based on the actual content of his books and videos, is demonstrably false. Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 3.50.11 PMHe also makes this claim: “If you would like to learn how to cure your cancer permanently … without drugs, without risky surgery, without radition (sic) treatments, and without any side effects, then this will be the most important letter you will ever read. I guarantee it and I’ve got the results to prove it!” Double down on that guarantee, because he explicitly states that “It’s the same system thousands of men and women, just like you, used to cure their cancer and achieve permanent freedom from the this death sentence.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 8.29.11 PMWhen thousands of patients have cured themselves through some simple, natural, non-toxic method, this is not something that “greedy drug companies keep hushed up” because it would be impossible. The sheer volume of cures claimed by Ty Bollinger and people like him would present overwhelming numbers, incontrovertible evidence for efficacy, if they were true. But they are not. To put this in perspective, read this quote: “The alternative doctor with the 93% cure rate, based on his 32,507 cancer patients! Beats conventional medicine’s cancer cure rate of 2 percent.” Break the number down: At the claimed cure rate, that means this single doctor had cured over 30,000 cancer patients. Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 8.18.19 PMAssume a 25 year career of doing this and that would mean a single doctor cured over 1,200 patients each year. Even over a 50 year period, that would mean more than two patients were cured every day by a single doctor. It sounds suspiciously like the myth one “Dr. Leonard Coldwell” propagated about himself when he claimed to have cured 35,000 cancer patients beginning roughly 43 years before that claim. While the claimed numbers do not precisely jive, the nonsensical cures – like alkaline diets (or the famous “baking soda cure”), using herbs, completely mis-identifying symptoms (tumor reduction as a sign that treatment is not working? Yes, Ty goes there!) and of course hawking their own supplements — are in rare synchronicity. But that is the way of the con artists in the alternative therapy realm, they stick together.

But what if they are right about one of the basic tenets of their pitch? What if the essential truth about cancer treatment is that the medical establishment has simply ignored the cures nature has given us, that have been there and have been known all along?

Ancient Wisdom and the Traditional Cures of Our Ancestors

This would be a doozy of a conspiracy. After all, ancient texts are, by definition, in writing. And therefore they are easy to not only read, but also to copy and disperse. Look at the Bible, which is over 2,000 years old — that ancient text is fairly ubiquitous today. It is, after all, in virtually every hotel room across the United States and, I’m pretty sure, is available in multiple languages, not merely the dead ones it sprang from. (Okay, technically, those languages are not entirely dead yet, but our modern educational system seems to be doing its level best to ensure that inevitability.) There are even older texts floating around, too. Medical texts from India dating back something like 5,000 or 10,000 years supposedly have all sorts of useful information in them. Similar claims are made for texts from ancient Greece, Egypt and especially China.

Wow. That is a lot of really old, easily identifiable information. It seems perfectly reasonable that if those texts were being used to cure anything, especially if they could offer cures for cancer, that they would be the dominant texts in our medical schools. It would also stand to reason that, looking back through history, there would be no ongoing recurrence of disease because, you know, obvious answers through all that traditional medicine and ancient wisdom.

Or maybe, just maybe, those things failed. Maybe ancient wisdom is systematically replaced by better wisdom because new information becomes available. Maybe people live so significantly longer now — and we have better diagnostic tools — so that we see diseases like cancer that most people could never hope to live to see because they were too busy dying of so many other things that ancient wisdom and traditional medicine already had no hope of curing. Let’s face it: small pox and polio pretty much just killed and maimed large populations before modern science developed vaccines. The bubonic plague essentially wiped out towns every time it popped up before modern science had a cure. Guess what — polio and the bubonic plague are still around, but we are not all dropping dead as a result. Thank you modern science. As for cancer cures, it is even more relevant because until less than 50 years ago, we did not even really know what cancer was. That’s right, one of the reasons that we have made more progress with cancer treatment in the last few decades than in all of preceding human history is because we finally have a broad understanding of the truth about cancer.

  1. Cancer is not a single disease
  2. Different cancers require different treatments

The notion that cancer is an umbrella term for multiple diseases is a very recent development. It is also one that the alternative treatment hucksters have yet to catch up to. In fact, they tend to market their cures in the most general terms possible, applying them to any cancer, regardless of type. And this works heavily to their advantage because, aside from having no real grasp of science, these alternative providers need their patients to remain ignorant — and willfully so.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 5.02.10 PMDenial is the cornerstone of the perfect alternative treatment cancer patient. Especially in this day and age, when the Internet makes finding information so very easy, it is astounding that patients would purposefully select only sources that parrot one another (often through direct cut and paste) without providing actual case studies, clinical trial information or relevant scientific support. Yet many patients appear to get their information from poorly made YouTube videos or bad sales letters like Ty Bollinger provided. The reason that patients stick with this (lack of) information is in no small part because they are afraid. They choose to burrow deeply into the rabbit hole of alternative treatment rather than face the much less frightening reality that modern medical science (which they may not understand) offers better hope than the overly simplified silliness of alternative quackery. I feel sorry for these patients, mainly because their fears have been encouraged by unethical opportunists parading as experts and saviors. But the patients themselves must hold some culpability because holding that level of denial requires no small amount of energy and determination. Of course, the opportunists who profit off of these patients focus a lot of their own marketing efforts on keeping that fear dominant and promising miracles in a quasi-religious (or in the case of Ty Bollinger, actually fundamentalist Christian) manner. Essentially, the con artists turn prospective patients into True Believers. Then their work is mostly done, for a True Believer will never give up or give in, regardless of how clearly the face of reason shows itself. They forget, these True Believers, that belief and knowledge are not the same thing. No. Matter. What.

At this point, I am going to pause -- think of this as an intermission if you will -- and draw your attention to an example of what happens when you put your faith in something that is well-founded, proven and readily verifiable. I cannot read the posts on Emily Bennett Taylor's blog without tearing up most days, but clicking that link will bring you to a post written by her husband that shows what can happen as a result of modern medical science. It's a quick read, but it highlights the reality of modern cancer care and the promise it offers. Now, back to our regularly scheduled show, already in progress.

Murder, Black Ops and Cover Ups By Big Pharma

One more aspect to the overriding conspiracies being bandied about is that “holistic doctors” are being “silenced” in order for Big Pharma to protect its interests. Some people have been identifying a link between specific deaths and an ideological belief about the pharmaceutical industry. Jeff Bradstreet, an alternative healthcare practitioner whose office had been raided by the FDA and who was facing professional disgrace, killed himself in the woods. Because Bradstreet was fairly outspoken with regard to his feelings against vaccinations, he had developed something of a name for himself. His loss was noted among many in the alternative medical community.

Key among this community was Erin Elizabeth, who quickly began compiling other deaths that she noticed around the same time in 2015. These included chiropractor Baron Holt (who had “known” health issues) and Nicholas Gonzales, who provided his own alternative cancer therapy (based on a quasi-religious treatment devised by a dentist) comprised mostly of coffee enemas, high doses of vitamins and the myth of altering the acid/alkaline balance of the body. When Gonzales died, it was a natural fit with Bradstreet — even though their areas of “influence” were completely different. Plus, Gonzales was 67 and died of a heart attack. Bradstreet was being investigated for what appears to be insurance fraud and patient endangerment and he went out in the woods and shot himself. Chiropractor Holt died somewhat young, at just 33, but, with a history of health problems and no greater impact on public perception of alternative treatments. Initially, five doctors were grouped together, some of them shot (maybe even murdered). The group quickly expanded. But not all of them were necessarily “holistic” doctors. One, Lisa Riley, MD, was an emergency room physician with no connection to alternative practices. As the list grew, the percentage of actual “holistic” doctors shrank.

In the end, this murder conspiracy is not so much about a bunch of healthcare professionals being targeted as it is about the Birthday Problem.

This is where we get to look at statistics and what they really mean with regard to the five deaths that have been “drawn” together by Erin Elizabeth and other conspiracy advocates. Here are some facts to begin with:

  • There are nearly 1 million primary care doctors in the United States, just looking at MDs and DOs. That is, practicing medical professionals with medical degrees.
  • Doctors are more than twice as likely than the general population to commit suicide. (“Between 28 and 40 per 100,000, compared with the overall rate in the general population of 12.3 per 100,000” according to a paper from the Southern Medical Journal, which went on to state, “Each year, it would take the equivalent of 1 to 2 average-sized graduating classes of medical school to replace the number of physicians who kill themselves.”)
  • When you have 23 people in a room, there is a better than 50% chance that two of them will have the same birthday.

I bet that last one threw you off. But it’s true, in terms of probability. And it is relevant when we get into tying together this seeming rash of “holistic doctors” suddenly dying within less than two months of each other. To understand why, I’ll walk you through a bit of the Birthday Problem. We know that if there are 365 days in the year and we have 366 people in the room (okay, 367 just in case one has a “Leap Year” birthday), that there is a 100% chance at least two people share a birthday. You have more people than birthdays to choose from, so it’s a safe bet, no question. But probability is a funny thing, so to simplify things, we’ll discount Leap Year altogether and skip the math (your welcome), and come to the surprising conclusion that if you want a better than even chance to have two people out of a group share a birthday, get 23 random people in there together. The more people you add to the room, the greater the odds that two of them will share a birthday. But here is where it gets really crazy: when you have just 75 people in the room, the odds are almost as good as having 365 people in the room. What?! That seems paradoxical! But really, it’s just math. That’s right, putting 75 random people together offers over a 99% chance of two sharing the same birthday. Not a guarantee, certainly, but very solid odds. Walk into any crowded bar and begin placing bets, because this is a pretty safe one.

And you may wonder what this has to do with a murder conspiracy. I will start by saying that five is a pretty small number. When you look at the odds in question — that five holistic doctors would die in the same six or seven week period — it initially seems like self-evident proof of a link because that seems well beyond the realm of coincidence. A couple of them were even in the same state, by gum! But, if we examine them more closely, we find that there is no professional connection between them, no consistency in terms of their professional practices, at least two of them were really not alternative doctors (one clearly was not, another was an MD who may have used some “holistic” techniques in addition to mainstream medicine), one was just a chiropractor doing what chiropractors commonly do, only two of them were known “fringe” healthcare zealots. Bradstreet was under heavy investigation for possible illegal and dangerous treatments, Gonzales had run an actual high-profile clinical trial that proved patients were likely to die more quickly under his treatment protocol than if they did nothing for their cancer at all.

Taking all of that into consideration, it is entirely probable that out of nearly one million doctors, two would be murdered in the same week. We should expect that the odds of having two chiropractors (out of over 45,000 in the US) die of natural causes in the same week would be fairly high — even if you account only for the state of Florida. There are, after all, over 2,000 chiropractors working in Florida, and even if you adjust for chiropractors who are fathers and Christians (the way the Health Nut News site preferred to report them, as though those details bolstered the conspiracy) there is still a high probability that it will happen in any single week of the year. (Another way to look at this is to look at any state’s murder rate and then figure chiropractors as a percentage of the population, then figure the odds of how many chiropractors should be murdered on average. Do it again with fathers as the demographic. There are a lot of fun ways to break down odds, but no matter what, you are going to find that it is entirely too probable that such deaths would occur and were statistically anticipated.)

You may never roll snake eyes, no matter how many times you let those dice fly, but it does not change the odds one bit. And if you close your eyes and miss it the one time you do, it won’t affect the odds of rolling it twice in a row. That Erin Elizabeth happened to notice a collection of unrelated deaths in a particular window of time is more of an indication that she was looking to make connections than anything else. Chiropractors and holistic doctors have died by the droves before and since, some murdered no doubt, some in suicides and probably plenty by accident or from natural causes. Dying is, after all, part of life and cannot be avoided. But every death is not connected and certainly such a small number of deaths in such a large demographic pool is evidence of nothing other than the odds being overwhelmingly in favor of it having happened.

More recently, Erin Elizabeth tried tying the brutal murder of a practitioner of Chinese medicine and acupuncture in Santa Barbara, California, to the conspiracy. She is combing far and wide to include anyone and anything that she can. But looking at these instances for what they are, there is not a shred of anything unusual to connect them. A conspiracy will always hold itself as true before there is any evidence, then search for selective evidence to “prove” it while ignoring anything that does not fit the conspiracy. More notable that any of that, however, is the idea that Big Pharma is killing all these people to protect its financial interests. That breaks down in an interesting manner.

If everyone stopped vaccinating (and even many “anti-vax” proponents — including Andrew Wakefield who started this controversy — only want to stop the MMR vaccine, reverting to three separate vaccines in place of the combined shot), it would still only amount to 3% of Big Pharma’s current profits. How much would it cost to orchestrate and cover up the murders of all the anti-vax doctors out there — and why only kill the one who was clearly in legal trouble already? That makes no sense. Beyond that, if everyone stopped vaccinating, then there would be a whole lot more money to be made in treating diseases that are currently all but eradicated. Sick people take more drugs than healthy people, so it would not be a total loss for Big Pharma.

No, there is no conspiracy here, even with death threats reportedly being phoned in against the occasional “activist.” Outspoken people are simply likely to get death threats. It happens, largely because there are crazy people all over the political and social spectrum. Sometimes, sadly, crazy people act on their threats. But more often than not, situations like the conspiracy being discussed here, any connections are purely coincidental and even tenuous at best. It is a huge stretch to link any of the deaths that Erin Elizabeth has brought together and unless she has some smoking gun that really ties this imaginary underground cabal of holistic doctors together in revolution against the Government run Big Pharma (or is it Big Pharma run Government?), the public would be best served if this whole conspiracy would just disappear. (If you really want to see some pretend journalism, here is an pro-conspiracy interview with a distinct lack of critical investigation skills on full display for your viewing pleasure. It’s particularly cute how the interviewer and Erin Elizabeth both throw away the comment that it could all be coincidence, but… While propagating the links, Elizabeth disavows responsibility for fanning the conspiracy fires. She repeatedly and cleverly insists it isn’t her idea, but that others keep coming back to mysterious connections.)

Not All Questions Are Equal

A letter from Senator Feinstein promising to look into the health risks associated with Dihydrogen Monoxide, or water, as it is more commonly known.
No offense to Senator Feinstein, who has a tremendously important job. This is clearly a formula response letter and, once the EPA got wind of the request, at least one person should have had a good laugh.

There is a meme that runs amongst conspiracy theorists that if enough people are asking a question, that it should deserve consideration. This is a false premise, because people can ask questions that are utterly stupid just as easily as questions that are thoughtful and well-founded. Getting a lot of people to ask the same silly question (such as, “what is being done to protect us from dihydrogen monoxide, the world’s leading killer?”) does not make the question any less silly (dihydrogen monoxide is H2O, or water, which does account for a massive amount of drowning deaths each year but is also, it turns out, essential for life to exist). And many people who push a conspiratorial agenda keep coming back to it, again and again, with the same refuted or debunked evidence, claiming that “all  they want to do is start a dialogue.” In many cases, that dialogue has not only been “started” repeatedly, but heavily engaged and ultimately closed. Yet, there it is again, from the same mouthpiece, with the same data and in the end, the same conclusions.

Contrails are a good example of conspiracy theories gone wild. A “documentary” was made some time back claiming that the government, possibly, or some unknown organization like the Illuminati, perhaps, was spraying chemicals, or something, could just have been metal bits, but whatever it was, it was being sprayed by planes and you could see it, plain as day, everywhere in the sky, some days, but everywhere, especially over farmland, or cities, or wherever planes were… And the term “chemtrail” was coined, and the video went viral and the guy who slapped together this home footage with some “interviews” (I put that in quotes because almost everything that comes from a legitimate source is taken out of context and the rest is just misleading nonsense from people who are not experts in what they are talking about or who are just nuts, and I say that in the most kind and loving way that can be said about nuts, with no offense meant to almonds or their kin), that guy went on to sell the videos and make money off them and then made a sequel of sorts and pushed that video and made more money. And all he basically did was ask a bunch of disconnected questions over and over and say, hey, enough people are asking questions about this — and there are certainly lots and lots of questions being asked here — so this needs to be taken seriously.

Of course, it should not have been taken seriously. The main reason to write it off was that he had no solid thesis, no singular purpose for creating chemtrails, no evidence that anything was actually happening and no science to back up his many incongruent claims. In fact, one of the most laughable aspects of the videos (which I did watch, all the painful way through) was that the theories he presented negated one another. If it was one thing, all the “evidence” he was fabricating of another went out the proverbial window. It was nonsense. That still did not stop people from demanding action. Much like the enormous amount of people trying to take action against dihydrogen monoxide over the years, it spurned letter writing campaigns, got into the media underbelly and became a “thing.”

Scientists even bent over backward to explain why chemtrails do not exist, why contrails were sometimes more visible than other times and also why they may be cropping up in more places now than in previous decades. Most of this should be painfully obvious to anyone with even a basic high school education. Contrails are visible at higher altitudes, more so when the proper atmospheric pressure and temperatures are present. That means, the same plane may leave a visible trail one day but not another. But the contrail is there regardless, every time. Then consider that we have exponentially more airports now than we did fifty or sixty years ago, so more flight paths over more parts of the country with decidedly more planes — and bigger planes that have greater contrails. Yet, visible contrails are nothing new and there are archival photos showing the skies over major cities filled with contrails — just like today — that date back to the 1940s. Plus, there was WWII, a highly documented time of air battles and early jet planes. Why did contrails not show up prior to the 1940s? Well, propellers act differently than jets. The more jets, the more contrails. Just cannot change the science to fit the conspiracy.

Yet, changing the science to fit is the hallmark of medical conspiracies. The “truth” shown in arguments that vaccines are bad is based on altering the science to support the conspiracy. This is also known as scientific fraud. The following video from the New York Times highlights the absurdity of the anti-vaccination movement, for example. In 13 minutes, it does an excellent job of showing how hysteria (among a frightened population looking for a scapegoat) can be generated by an opportunist and picked up by a disingenuous media, in spite of sensible voices clearly stating that if you look at this problem scientifically, you see there is no problem at all. Just substitute “vaccinations” for “Dungeons and Dragons” in your mind as you watch. Or, just as easily, substitute the “pharmaceutical industry” — you will not have to change much else to mimic these current conspiracies and how they are playing out.

Dungeons and Dragons: Satanic Panic

When we insist on looking at everything with a level of skepticism, it becomes increasingly easier to separate the fact from fantasy and, more importantly, the good questions from the time wasters. A good question would be anything that furthers a discussion to a productive end. We need to ask questions. Science demands that we strive for new and better questions all the time. But ignoring the evidence we have available, ignoring repeatable, verifiable evidence, just to push an agenda that does not build on accumulated knowledge is a waste of time. Questions about chemtrails are a waste of time. Creating new questions about debunked claims of any sort is a waste of time.

The process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. There is no better definition of skepticism, and no better way to approach any problem. Although at odds with fundamentalist religious teaching, skepticism is by no means relegated to atheists. Nor does a skeptic necessarily take a negative approach toward any belief or any topic at all, for that matter. Being a skeptic merely means that, first and foremost, before a conclusion can be made, reason and critical thinking must be applied. And, as any true scientist knows, such a conclusion may be fluid as more information becomes available. When a study that a conclusion was based on turns out to be flawed (or downright fabricated), that conclusion is reversed. Conversely, when information is offered that has no substantiation or is based on faulty logic — or has been clearly debunked — it need not alter conclusions, no matter how many times this information is put forward, because it is not supported by critical thinking.

The only conspiracy that exists surrounding alternative practitioners, natural health care and holistic doctors is the concerted efforts amongst some of them (I would even say a very small, if vocal, minority of them) to engender fear of mainstream medical practices. This is a true evil, as it puts their profits and personal celebrity ahead of the patients they pretend to want to help. Creating fear through the process of inspiring ignorance is a low-point in human nature. We should all collectively rise above that, and how we do so will help to reveal our highest selves.

Next up in this series: The Truth About the Truth About Cancer

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16 thoughts on “Myth of the Wellness Warrior, Part 2: Supplements, Denial and the Birthday Problem

  1. If you want to *see* some of these ideas — at least the ones about critical thinking and real science — from another perspective, check out this Last Week Tonight video from John Oliver and HBO: Especially good if you watch to the end is the show’s version of TED Talks for those not interested in rigorous scientific inquiry.

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  3. Excellent post, and outstanding blog. I’m sorry I didn’t discover it earlier. I’m going to add a link to this post to my own 2014 post about the legendary NOT-doctor and conspiracy nutcake Leonard Coldwell and his long-time participation in the myth of the alt-health hero/Wellness Warrior/Brave Maverick Doctor. In that post I discuss, in my usual profoundly superficial way, why people are so attracted to that myth that they are willing to overlook blatant lies and inconsistencies. Basically the title sums it up: “The facts don’t matter if the story is good.”

    As it happens, over the past four years I have become an unwilling expert on Coldwell and his complete lack of credibility, and have written at length about him on my blog, focusing not so much on scientific/skeptical arguments against his claims as on his general credibility problems and his fondness for the most outrageous conspiracy theories. He first came to my attention because he was (though no longer is) a highly paid spokesman for serial scammer Kevin Trudeau’s big hustle, the Global Information Network (GIN).

    In any case blogs like yours are invaluable because they focus on the scientific/critical-thinking aspects of hucksters’ claims, and therefore cannot rightfully be accused of “attacking the messenger.”

    I think I also need to add a link to your post on a more recent entry in which I touched upon the dead-holistic-docs-conspiracy saga and Erin Elizabeth’s attempts to fan those flames, even as she continued to insist that she never uttered a word about a conspiracy (it’s under “Health Nut goes nuts over Snopes piece”).

    Thank you for taking the time to write such an engaging blog.

    1. And thank you, Connie. It’s always good to hear from others who are out there trying to rid the world of disinformation and spread the joy of critical thinking.

      1. Its not critical thinking its pessimism. Pls be positive, being positive comes before any cure.

        1. While I am not sure, exactly, you mean by “being positive comes before any cure,” I think that I should correct any assumptions being made about either my own positivity or the tone of this blog in general. If you read through the posts on this blog, you will find that “positivity” and “positive approach” are frequent tags on my posts — along with “reason,” “sense,” “education,” and “wellness.” In fact, the primary thrust of this blog is to encourage patients and caregivers, to let them know that it is possible to live a fulfilling life while dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

          But part of this process involves embracing the reality of a patient’s situation. I know this intimately, because I have a metastasized cancer of my own, for which I have been receiving treatment for over two years. Without a positive outlook, I dare say this would have been a much more difficult process. Throughout, however, I have strived to educate myself and share what I find with others. This isn’t just about saving time — it is about possibly saving lives.

          There is nothing in my post here that is “pessimistic.” Willingly believing lies is not optimistic, it’s foolish. And taking advantage of patients in order to profit isn’t offering hope, it’s taking advantage of fear and confusion. Because I care about my fellow patients, I’ve dedicated myself to being a voice of reason and clarity, even when I want desperately to believe that there is a magic pill out there that will clear away the tumor in my lungs.

          There may not be a magic pill. But there is hope offered by actual science at legitimate research institutions. I’ve watched the number of available treatments for my own cancer rise exponentially over the past two years, with far better results than anything offered by “alternative” practitioners.

          Meanwhile, I remain positive about my belief in the critical thinking skills of my fellow patients. I’m optimistic that most people who read these pages will avoid falling into the rabbit holes of alternative treatment at the clutches of these purveyors of snake oil. Critical thinking not only trumps pessimism, it opens the way to truly embracing a positive approach to the disease.

  4. We are so eager to help unmask someone than to figure out some treatment for the dreaded Cancer. Since we dont have any thing better to do the easiest way is to say so & so is fake his theories are incorrect, but unfortunately we ourselves dont have any theories. Incase its true that modern medicine can cure just 2% of the overall cancer patients its safe to assume that the 2% number is an accident and not any form of treatment. Treatment is something that should minimum cure 50% of its people preferably more.

    1. First, Vikram, I would like to thank you for reading all the way through this post (I know it’s a long one), and then taking the time to reply twice! I truly do appreciate it, even if you take issue with what I wrote.

      I should clarify something for you, however. I was not eager, by any stretch of the imagination, to “unmask” anyone. In fact, I did not particularly want to write this piece. But I felt I had to, because so much misinformation was being directed at me — mostly by well-meaning people — that it was getting more and more time consuming and difficult to weed through it all and engage productively in conversation after conversation about every new topic. Then I started to realize that being deliberately lied to in order for someone to make a profit, usually by scaring patients into buying something, was making me angry. I wanted to do something helpful for my fellow patients, many of whom were sharing my experience of frustration about being constantly confronted by these scam artists.

      And no, this wasn’t easy. This didn’t just take a few hours to toss together. And neither did the next piece I wrote, which goes into even more specific depth about some of these charlatans. It took a lot of dedication, patience, and, unfortunately, time actually watching these people on video as they spread fear and confusion and misinformation as easily as frosting a cake.

      I don’t know where you get your 2% number from, but it has no bearing on the state of modern medical science. I’ve seen statistics showing between 60 and 70% of cancer patients are effectively cured, meaning that they show no sign of disease after five years. If you are buying into the 2% cure myth, then you are buying into the pessimism sold by hucksters and opportunists who want your money but don’t actually care about your health. I love that you think treatments should cure 50% or more patients, but that has never been the way any form of medicine has worked. Sometimes, the best treatments only save a small percentage of lives or only extend lives a short while — but the beauty of science is that it builds upon knowledge and treatments improve over time. Eventually, hopefully, treatments get to the 100% mark (or close to it). But cancer is not like other diseases, and sometimes 20% is the best that a patient can hope for. Still, for some types of cancer, the 20% rate offered by some new drugs is a vast improvement over the 0% success rate from five or ten years ago. This is complicated because every cancer is different, every patient is different, and there are about 300 base-line cancer types to begin with, many of which cannot be treated the same as others. It is amazing, then, that overall success is still in the 60-70% range. Science is wonderful.

      Truth is greater than lies.

      I put a lot of effort into supporting those who work for an actual cure. Those who espouse ineffective treatments that put patients in harm’s way, however, deserve to be “unmasked” and held accountable.

      I hope that you have also read the follow up post on this subject. If not, please do! Here is the link:

        1. Interestingly, if you read the full comments on the Research Gate page, you would see the fallacy of the claims associated with the study you referenced. Yes, there was a published article making claims that chemotherapy was innefective. However, aside from flawed methodology, there is a heavy amount of flawed logic involved. Cancers for which chemo is known to be ineffective were grouped in with the study, artificially skewing the results. When you look at why chemo is recommended for appropriate cancer types, it is overwhelmingly effective and oncologists are in near universal agreement that they would, indeed, undergo chemotherapy themselves when appropriate.

          It is false to suggest chemotherapy only has a 2 or 3% success rate. The rate varies depending on cancer type and purpose. But the reality is, chemo remains one of the most effective tools in oncology.

  5. Hello Jeffrey,
    Really enjoying your blogs, for their clarity. i too have been diagnosed with cancer, this time for the 3rd time and it has metastased to my lungs. I also have had much experience with google “research”, and people like Ty Bollinger constantly pushing their solutions into my email box. One very basic question I ask myself is why does someone need to advertise so much? and right there is his agenda.
    I have thought long and hard about the “natural” versus chemical debate, having taken both an allopathic and alternative approach to my healing. After all why not try everything you possibly can, especially as i too want to see my daughter grow up. After my first surgery i rejected radiation and chemotherapy and focused on alternatives. I was then re-diagnosed 1.5 yrs later. So i did the whole allopathic route, mastectomy, lymphectomy, chemo and radiation. i used alternative medicine, including acupuncture, to deal with the many side effects of treatment, as it was really the only modality that helped.
    5 years later I have metastases in my lungs and bones, and again I am going down the combined route. Last time i suffered terribly from chemo, but this time round i wanted the doctors to start me on it straight away, even knowing the possible effects. It actually isn’t so bad, (different drugs), but a big part of this was my acceptance of it. I realised that every substance we injest into our bodies has been altered in some way by human intervention, but it is all made from an original plant source. We “process” almost everything, apart from raw food. By this definition I would say that most substances we take into our bodies are drugs. And yes, some are stronger than others. For me coffee is a real killer! Alcohol is pretty much no-go as well.
    So the difference for me this time round is that i have come to an appreciation of chemo that is almost spiritual, in that it is also something that we humans make out of natural materials, for our benefit, and as such, can be viewed as a healing substance, as “natural” as mistletoe, or B17, wheatgrass juice, or Vitamin C.
    I also wondered what you thought about Ralph Moss. i got a report from him in the beginning, and it seemed to me to be researched well, and most interested in finding out the truth behind the myths in cancer research, in both allopathic and alternative medicine.
    Anyway thanks for your honesty, and please continue. There are not enough sane balanced viewpoints out there, too many people making money on both sides of the fence, and not enough in the middle.
    Yours Sonia

    1. Sonia,

      Thank you very much for the thoughtful comments. Getting a message like this is one of the main reasons that I continue this blog. I am so glad that you are enjoying it and I hope that you continue to read as long as I’m writing.

      You asked my opinion on Ralph Moss and, I’ll be honest, I don’t know that much about him, but I know enough to have an opinion… The fact that he charges about $300 for his “report,” which is slightly tailored to specific cancers, is egregiously high for what you are getting. I don’t know if you paid that much, but I find it hard to believe that it would be worth that amount (and I won’t even touch his phone consultations). While it is clear that he has built a career on writing for cancer (and I would not begrudge anyone that, of course), I don’t see anything to suggest his level of expertise is exceptionally valuable. On his website where he sells his services, he also manages to make some false statements, such as this: “There are scientifically valid treatment programs unknown to the conventional medical establishment in the US. What these non-US clinics are doing promises substantial benefit to cancer patients, even those with advanced disease.” The false part is the entire first sentence: there are no scientifically valid treatment programs in other countries that have not been shared with researchers in the US. It is a common lie used by alternative practitioners to solicit business from frightened patients, but without any evidence to back it up. Quite to the contrary, all major US research institutions routinely work with their European counterparts, share data, run clinical trials together, etc. If a treatment option is “scientifically valid,” then it would necessitate the sharing of data and the scientific process of clinical trials. This is true all the time and not just when it is convenient.

      I am also pretty sure that Moss is still pushing Laetrile, which is basically a scam, a bad chemotherapy with no positive results and a lot of documented bad ones — a few years ago he worked with a dodgy filmmaker who promoted Burzynski (a dangerous doctor who has had numerous run-ins with the law and who has scammed a lot of money from the government and patients for clinical trials that led nowhere) on a “documentary” promoting Laetrile/amygdalin (aka “Vitamin” B-17). This is a huge red light. Anyone who tries selling B-17 or Laetrile is a con artist or is woefully uninformed. That drug (which is not a vitamin by any definition) has been around for pretty much the history of chemotherapy and has never been shown to be effective — in spite of going through clinical trials (which actually showed it to be harmful).

      Lastly, while he seems to have quite a prolific career and has focused his energy on writing about cancer, the reviews of his work and the small amount that I have read indicate that he tends to cherry pick information that is sensational while leaving out important facts. In other words, he may be a good writer, but he is a poor journalist. More likely, he is simply a profiteer, trying to take advantage of a niche audience. This notion is reinforced by the way he sells his “reports” and his phone consultation services. I would avoid him completely. Anything of merit that he has to offer should be freely accessible through many other sources.

      That said, I want to compliment you on your current approach to chemotherapy. It sounds like you have found a very healthy way to look at the situation you are in, and that is fantastic. Yes, acceptance is essential! Being able to move through the treatment experience is a lot easier if you are not fighting it or second-guessing it every step of the way. Good for you! I hope that you continue to find the options for your treatment that serve you best.

      I wish you well. And I look forward to hearing from you again, preferably with good news about the progress of your treatment.

      All my best,

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