Respectful Insolence

America’s quack: Dr. Mehmet Oz

Sometimes, when you’re blogging, serendipity strikes. Sometimes this takes the form of having something appear related to something you just blogged about. Yesterday, I discussed one of the biggest supporters of quackery on the Internet, Mike Adams, a.k.a. the Health Ranger, proprietor of NaturalNews.com, one of the quackiest, if not the quackiest site, on the Internet, NaturalNews.com. This time around, I was simply using one of Adams’ wonderfully incoherent defenses of alternative medicine thinking to demonstrate how much magical thinking exists at the core of alternative medicine and how akin to religion those beliefs can be.

Here’s where the serendipity comes in. Yesterday morning after I got up, as is my wont I checked my e-mail to see what had arrived overnight. Because I subscribe to a number of quack and antivaccine mailing lists to provide me with blog fodder, I happen to subscribe to Mike Adams NaturalNews.com mailing list. What to my wondering—a better word is probably “despairing”—eyes should appear but this: “Health Ranger appearing today on famous TV doctor’s show to discuss toxic heavy metals,” which lead to this: Health Ranger appears on Doctor Oz show to discuss toxic heavy metals in superfoods.

My jaw dropped. My eye started twitching. Just when I thought that Dr. Oz couldn’t go any lower, couldn’t invite a bigger quack on his show to fawn over and publicize, couldn’t sell out more to the forces of quackery, he does. I mean, seriously. Joe Mercola, who’s been on Dr. Oz’s show on multiple occasions, has nothing on this guy, and at least Joe Mercola has an actual medical degree. True, that could make Mercola more dangerous in the long run, but he’s got it. Indeed, when Dr. Oz first invited Mercola on his show, as quacky as Mercola is, I figured he’d never invite Mike Adams on his show too, because Mercola can at least walk the walk of seeming to be medically authoritative while Adams is an out and out conspiracy loon. How wrong I was! In fact, when I recently quipped that Dr. Oz’s evolution into Mike Adams was continuing apace less than two weeks ago, never did I imagine that the two would be teaming up to promote Adams’ mercenary attack on his competitors in which he tests their products for “heavy metal” toxins and then publicizes the results in order to undermine their sales in favor of his own “clean superfoods.” But Oz did.

So, my heart was heavy and my brain dreading what I knew I would have to do last night. I would have to watch the Mike Adams segment on a DVR’d Dr. Oz Show, because I didn’t want to wait a couple of days for the segment to show up on Dr. Oz’s website. (Fear not, when the link goes live I’ll add it to this post. ADDENDUM: The links are live. See ADDENDUM.) And watch it I did. Fortunately, it was relatively brief, but sometimes the briefest pain is the most intense. As expected, it was a fawning puff piece, painting Adams as a “whistleblower” (he’s nothing of the sort; he’s a supplement entrepreneur), as someone who “bucks conventional wisdom” and “researches the truth” in his “quest to be ahead of the curve.” We also learn that Adams is someone whose website gets 7 million unique visits per month, which makes Mike Adams the Dr. Oz of the quackosphere. Adams is even described—with a straight face, even!—as an “activist researcher,” complete with background shots of him allegedly working in his laboratory.

Somehow, I can’t help but mention at this point this video of Adams in his lab that he released a couple of days ago in an article entitled Health Ranger releases expanded video tour of ICP-MS food research lab and shares passion for Clean Food Movement. The link can also be accessed here, as it has been pointed out to me that there seems to be some sort of redirect funkiness going on such that clicking on a link to NaturalNews.com from here results in a different page coming up, even though the URL is correct.

This video is hilarious in that Adams seems to be practically screaming, “Hey, look at me! I’m not a fake! I’m a real scientist! There’s no green screen here!” Seriously, he takes half the video demonstrating that he isn’t sitting in front of a green screen and that his scientific instruments are real. Of course, no one’s really questioned whether his instruments are real. We question whether he has the first clue how to use them properly, and certainly there’s nothing in the video to suggest that he does. Hilariously, he goes on and on about how he has a “real lab,” at one point saying that, if this wasn’t a real lab, then his numbers wouldn’t be real. Of course, he seems oblivious to how much of a non sequitur that is. That could certainly be a real lab, and Adams’ numbers could still just as easily not be real.

In fact, looking at him fumbling with various instruments, I asked myself why Adams went to all the trouble to put a lab together like this when it would have been a lot less trouble and almost certainly a lot cheaper just to send the samples he wanted to test to a reputable lab to do the mass spectroscopy. The answer that seems most likely to me is that all that equipment (which is really not very much) is all there for show, and that the show is far more important than actually getting accurate measurements. If Adams wanted to convince me that he could run an actual mass spectroscopy assay and produce accurate results, he could accomplish that by videotaping a real analytical chemist watching him do a complete assay, from start to finish, from sample preparation and the running of standards to running the samples and analyzing the data. I predict that Adams will never show us this. Instead we get silly videos in which he throws things around to prove there’s no “green screen” and says that “everyone who’s tried to refute our numbers has failed, which is funny because I haven’t seen any independent laboratories confirming Adams’ findings.

In any case, the contempt Adams has for his audience is palpable, as he shows rows of sample tubes as though that would be enough to show that he knows what he’s doing, while blathering on and on about doing “real science.” In reality, even if he is getting numbers that are accurate he’s functioning as no more than a technician doing measurements, not a scientist designing experiments to test hypotheses. He’s also apparently working with nitric acid, which is a scary thought. I certainly wouldn’t want to be anywhere near him when he’s “working,” having once accidentally splashed myself with aqua regia (1:3 ratio of concentrated nitric and hydrochloric acids) in college. Even though it was just a couple of tiny drops, it ate right through my lab coat, and I still bear two small scars on my arm from the burns. I learned my lesson, and nothing like that ever happened again, which is why I won’t go near someone who is working with dangerous chemicals but clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing.

In any case, a lot of nonsense and kissing of Adams’ posterior are packed into Dr. Oz’s brief segment with him. I never knew Oz could do a colonoscopy with his face, but he’s certainly made sure that Adams doesn’t have a single suspicious polyp all the way up to his terminal ileum. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist. That’s doctor humor there.) Oz begins by pointing out how he frequently gets an “earful” from his mother-in-law about what the “Health Ranger” wrote, which is unfortunate. Adams is very popular. The segment then goes on and on about how Adams is adored by the alternative health set but “reviled” by scientists. Given how far down the rabbit hole of quackery Adams has gone, it’s not surprising that it never occurs to him that there are very good reasons why scientists and physicians who support science-based medicine revile Adams. He promotes pseudoscience. He’s the Kevin Trudeau of his generation, now that Kevin Trudeau is going to jail. His business model is basically the same.

What’s not known by many people is that Adams got his start selling a Y2K scam, basically a “preparedness site.” Indeed, it’s been a consistent pattern throughout his entire misbegotten “career” to use fear mongering to sell product or to sell himself. He did it with Y2K. He did it with Fukushima. Oh, and he also made a lot of money selling spam software.

Obviously, Adams’ next money making scheme is to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about supplements, the better to sell his “clean” superfoods, supplements, and other products. His appearance on Dr. Oz’s show is clearly designed to promote his brand, and promote it he did, with Oz’s enthusiastic help. The segment had a scary title about “poison in America’s food.” There was plenty of conspiracy-mongering about companies trying to shut him down and the FDA being clueless, with Adams finding cadmium, tungsten, lead, and arsenic in all sorts of samples. Perhaps the most hilarious part was when Oz included aluminum in a list of metals that “shouldn’t be in food.” I thought Oz was supposed to be a doctor, and a doctor should know that aluminum is ubiquitous in the environment. Of course it’s in our foods. There’s lots of aluminum in food, and at the levels typically seen it’s safe. Surely, as a doctor, Dr. Oz should know that, shouldn’t he? But instead, he lumped aluminum in with cadmium, lead, and tungsten. In fact, we need certain metals to survive, like iron, for instance.

Perhaps the key example of how intellectually dishonest Dr. Oz’s approach is comes later in the segment when he discusses how Adams has analyzed various protein powders derived from rice. To be fair, Adams did say something that is probably true, namely that metal levels in such products that come from China were much higher than in products from the US. In any case, these rice protein extracts were said to contain “alarming levels” of lead, cadmium, and tungsten, and Dr. Oz stoked alarm almost as well as Mike Adams can by telling his audience that there are no standards for cadmium in food. It’s not true, of course. The FDA does have guidelines for lead and cadmium (among other metals) in foods, and the FDA has established Provisional Daily Total Tolerable Intakes (PDTTI) for several at risk groups. What Oz decides to focus on is the legal limit for lead declared by California Proposition 65, which is 0.5 μg/d. This is shown graphically, with Oz standing in front of two bars declaring that the rice protein powder is 20 times higher. What does that mean? Who knows? One can assume that he means that if one were to eat a certain amount of rice powder considered a day’s intake you’d get 10 μg of lead, but it’s not at all clear.

Oz finishes the segment by referring viewers to Mike Adams’ test results. Naturally, I couldn’t resist moseying on over to take a look. For lead, I saw concentrations ranging from around 0.05 ppm to 0.533 ppm. For comparison, the action level for lead in drinking water is 0.15 mg/L, or 0.15 ppm. Of course, food and water aren’t exactly comparable. So some of those powders have concerning levels of lead? Probably. That’s assuming you trust Adams’ numbers, which I do not.

In any case, by having a scammer like Mike Adams on his show and representing him as some sort of “whistleblower” and “food safety activist” is akin to having Andrew Wakefield on a show and portraying him as a “vaccine safety activist.” Adams is no such thing. By supporting Adams, Oz has become a scammer himself. I highly doubt that Oz’s producers are so ignorant or incompetent as not to be aware of Adams’ background, his appearances on Alex Jones’ network, and his conspiracy mongering rivals that of Jones himself. They didn’t care and chose to ignore the blindingly obviously unsavory elements in Adams’ past and present schtick, all in search of providing bread and circuses to their readers and thus bringing ratings to the show.

You might wonder what Dr. Oz thinks of all the criticism. In fact, I wondered the same thing myself last year when Michael Specter wrote a highly critical article for The New Yorker about Dr. Mehmet Oz. Of course, Oz doesn’t care about what a nobody blogger like myself or even P.Z. Myers (who, as popular as his blog might be, is still small potatoes compared to Oz’s reach with his television show) might say about him. But apparently he does care when a major magazine says something bad about him. I learned this when I found out over the weekend that Dr. Oz had been interviewed by Larry King for Ora.TV:

So that’s where Larry King ended up. Who knew?

In the segment above, King asks Dr. Oz how he would respond to the criticism Specter leveled at him in his article. Although he takes pains to say that parts of the article were “fair” and reasonable, Dr. Oz doesn’t look too happy about the question. In response, he then goes on to construct a false dichotomy, portraying Specter as “biased” in favor of the position that you should have strong scientific evidence to support a medical statement before making it in front of millions of people—as if that were a bad thing. Oz then tries to take the high ground by claiming that there are a lot of things that we don’t have a lot of evidence for (true) and that all he does is to do what every doctor does and extrapolate, “jumping to the next level” to give you “advice you can use.” Oz claims it’s the “extrapolation” from where “we know we are safe to where you need advice” that defines the art of medicine. As far as it goes, that’s not entirely unreasonable. The science of medicine is the scientific body of knowledge that tells us what treatments work, which ones do not, and which ones are uncertain. The art of medicine is applying that science, that knowledge base, to individual patients in order to treat them. That is the real personalization of medicine, not the “integration” of quackery like naturopathy, homeopathy, or traditional Chinese medicine into science-based medicine. In his response, Dr. Oz reminds me very much of Dr. David Katz.

I recently described how David Katz posits a false dichotomy: Either embrace quackery or be less than a “holistic” physician. In other words, the argument is that a doctor must embrace the quackery that is “complementary and alternative medicine” or “integrative medicine” if one wishes to take care of the “whole patient.” In just the same way, Oz is more than implying that one can’t properly extrapolate scientific evidence and clinical trial data to patients who might not “fit” without embracing quackery. Let’s put it this way. Dr. Oz has aired shows in which he has promoted quacks like Joseph Mercola (and now Mike Adams), enthusiastically recommended The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy) to his viewers, promoted faith healing quackery, and even suggested that faith healers like John Edward and the “Long Island MediumTheresa Caputo can be therapeutic counsellors after losses. More recently, Oz has tried to fan the flames of a discredited link between cell phones and cancer. If there’s a quackery out there, Dr. Oz has probably embraced it on his show, the only exception being (mostly) antivaccine quackery, and even then he’s definitely a bit squishy on the issue, thanks to his reiki master wife. Dr. Oz would have you believe that these are “extrapolations” but the only thing they are “extrapolations” from is reality—in exactly the wrong direction.

King finishes by asking Oz to respond to the idea that doctors should be optimists and that no doctor should tell a patient that he is terminal, because “no one knows.” To this, Oz responds that we “actually have to be more than just optimists, but irrational optimists.” Well, Dr. Oz has the irrational part down cold, at least when he’s on his television show. Sadly, my original quip about him becoming more like Mike Adams turned out to be more true than I could ever have imagined.

ADDENDUM: Holy hell. The links to the Mike Adams segments, The Whistleblower Who Found Poison in America’s Food are live (part 1, part 2, part 3). I warn you. It’s truly painful to watch.