We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of dangerous bullshit.

You know that handsome, charismatic, celebrity doctor that every stay-at-home mom secretly has a crush on? I won’t be naming him here, but let’s just say there’s a big fat clue in the title. Yes, he is a real doctor. A cardiothoracic surgeon to be exact. He used to be okay, saying common sense things about getting exercise and eating well, and doing his professional due diligence to make sure that what he recommended was based off of the best scientific evidence available. Alas, the maw of daytime television is just too gaping and bottomless for sincerity to fill, and apparently even good doctors aren’t immune to it’s corrupting power. Over the last few years, he has descended into lunacy, becoming a poster boy for supplements, complimentary, and alternative medicine (SCAM’s). His show has gradually devolved into an hour long, alt-med infomercial. Honesty and integrity have gone out the window, and all that seems to matter now is that the subject matter is sensational enough to attract viewership. If you’re a fan of him, I don’t expect to change your mind, as most people who watch his show are true believers. But I’ll try to convince you anyways that, for the following reasons, you shouldn’t trust a goddamn word he says.

1. He is almost always wearing medical scrubs. Do legitimate doctors wear scrubs outside of the hospital? That should be enough to make anyone slightly suspicious. It’s a transparent attempt to bolster his perceived legitimacy. Of course, this by itself isn’t reason enough to dismiss anyone as a hack, but it is undeniably a red flag.

2. He speaks authoritatively about things that are completely outside of his area of expertise, using his status as a heart surgeon to make strong clinical recommendations based off of little to no evidence. This takes advantage of people’s ignorance about medical specialization (many of us assume that doctors have a general knowledge about medicine, but in reality, most of them are highly specialized in only one area. They aren’t necessarily more informed than the average layperson when it comes to other areas.) Depressingly, it works.

3. The so-called “integrative” treatments that he promotes are not only outside his area of expertise, the majority of them are unsubstantiated by evidence and just plain wacky. For example, he uncritically promotes homeopathy, telling his audience that it works, however mysterious its mechanism may be. He misrepresents this as a non-controversial claim, even when all of the objective evidence shows that homeopathy does no better than placebo, because it has NO ACTIVE INGREDIENTS.

4. When he does admit that what he is saying is controversial, it is only in order to denigrate “Western” science for being unable to fathom alternative medicine. What exactly is it about mainstream science that is supposed to make it unable to detect the efficacy of alternative medicines like homeopathy? Maybe it’s because mainstream science, unlike a certain celebrity doctor’s quack modality, looks objectively at all the evidence and goes to great lengths to eliminate bias. And without subjectivity and bias, my friends, alternative medicine is dead in the water. However, don’t expect him to be blatantly anti-science at every turn. When studies are positive, he’s all for science. Heads he wins, tails you lose.

5. On account of his personal cultural bias, he vigorously advocates routine infant circumcision. This is contrary to the fact that no major medical organizations recommend it as a strictly preventative treatment (outside of of aids-ridden Subsaharan Africa), and the ethical concern that maybe it isn’t very nice to strap down your baby and chop the tip off his willy.

6. He makes gratuitous use of logical fallacies to artificially boost his rhetoric. Two of his favourites seem to be the argument from popularity and the appeal to antiquity. An example of the argument from popularity is when he frequently points out the widespread use of alternative treatments like acupuncture, as if their popularity logically makes them more likely to work (many people smoke, but is that reason enough to jump on the bandwagon?). Another favourite is the appeal to antiquity. I.e ” (insert alt-med modality) has been used to treat (insert implausibly extensive list of ailments) for thousands of years.” Ritual sacrifice and blood letting were age old, common practices in many places until not too long ago. Using similar appeals to popularity and antiquity I could promote them as well, and they would carry no more or less weight than when your favourite celebrity doctor wields them in the name of alternative medicine.

7. He leans heavily on circumstantial, anecdotal evidence to support his claims, a glaring red flag for pseudoscience. He’s a very intelligent guy, and he’s well acquainted with the fact that anecdotes are an effective way of convincing people. In fact, he no doubt has realized by now that they are the most effective way of convincing people. We are story telling animals, hardwired to learn through the experiences of others. Thus, heartfelt testimonials from relatable people will always be more emotionally compelling to us than data presented by cold, calculating scientists. The problem is, anecdotes are only good for generating possibilities, not proving hypotheses. Anyone well versed in the scientific method knows this. Unfortunately, there are just some things that we are naturally terrible at, and recognizing that our fellow humans are far too good at self deception for us to be taking their word for anything, no matter how sincere they sound, is one of them. Does that sound insufferably cynical? Sorry, it’s true (just take my word for it). What all this means is, although everyone and their dog swears by echinacea to nip that cold in the bud, we still need data to prove that the bud has actually been nipped-and that everyone and their dog aren’t just making a false causal connection after dosing with echinacea and watching their health regress to the mean (they are).

8. Like I said, he is not stupid, not by any stretch. Nor is he immune to lawsuits, which is probably why he lets other people come on to his show to make the craziest and most dangerous claims for him. He has hosted a wide variety of people who have, uh, questionable claims to knowledge: psychic scammers, faith healers, anti-vaccers, even Deepak Chopra: the Quantum Quack himself. Any show that doesn’t avoid ex-playmate, anti-vaccer Jenny Mcarthey like the plague has lost what little credibility it ever had in my book (FYI, the plague literally avoids her, so she can continue to enable its killing of little children).

9. He names reiki as his favorite alt-med modality, stating that his family has been using it “for years.” Apparently, they “swear by it.” He allegedly even employs reiki masters in the operating room for his patients. However, reiki isn’t what bothers me, however silly it may be. As long as people don’t start substituting it for real medicine, it’s pretty harmless. It’s basically just faith healing without the religious aspect. What bothers me is, he’s married to a reiki master. People who are in to alt-med complain that doctors are shills for big pharma, but when an alt-med supporter is literally in bed with the promoter, that’s not a conflict of interest?

Conclusion:
When he speaks, millions of people listen. That’s a lot of responsibility to abuse, and it takes more energy and dedication than the average person could muster to abuse it so thoroughly and tirelessly. In a strange way, I’m impressed. Sigh. Am I not being charitable enough? Perhaps something really does happen to decent, respected professionals after someone like Oprah comes along and turns on the bright lights of showbiz. Perhaps the constant presence of hordes of smiling, nodding, starstruck fans causes them to start buying their own BS. Or, perhaps the man behind the glamorous curtain is just a greedy hack through and through, a ratings driven medical showman who wouldn’t be peddling woo if it wasn’t so bloody profitable. If only presenting good science was.

The end is nigh!

Whatever you do, don’t try to talk sense into a doomsday junky. They are fiercely protective of their belief in the apocalypse. Strangely enough though, they don’t seem to be picky about the precise details. Just as a conspiracy theorist will entertain almost any conspiracy theory (just as long as it isn’t the official story) a hardcore doomsday junkie will latch on to almost any doomsday theory. No matter how weak the evidence is, they will hang on the every word of the most inane doomsayers. This points to a profound desire to believe that the world is going to end. Interestingly, this desire isn’t strictly a feature of crazy doomsday conspiracists. Apocalipticism may be more pronounced in some, but it is nearly ubiquitous. There’s something fascinating, even appealing, about the end of the world.

Why would anyone enjoy contemplating something so horrible? There are many possible psychological explanations. Perhaps we draw comfort from nailing down the date and circumstances of our deaths, making them predictable and therefor less scary. Maybe it provides validation for those who have always had a strong sense of fatalism, giving them something to blame for their latent anxiety. Another possibility is that our inherent narcissism (which places us at the center of the narrative and can’t imagine a world without us) is comforted by the thought of the world ending with us. The thought of it continuing on without us is unbearable, like getting kicked out of a party with the knowledge that it will go on without you. Also, conspiratorial thinking, which is nearly always associated with belief in the apocalypse, has a wonderful way of making one feel special. The sense that you posses knowledge that others do not, and that you alone were clever enough to connect the dots, makes you feel uncommonly intelligent. Enlightened above all others, you can sit back and smirk as “sheeple” unwittingly go about their lives as if nothing is going to happen.

Even if you aren’t obsessed with the apocalypse, it still strikes a nerve. When the next doomsday craze comes along, the shear repetition of doomsday related discourse can’t help but plant a seed of paranoia. There’s no shame in this, as long as you use it as an incentive to educate yourself as to what the facts actually are behind the torrent of nonsense. Thankfully, for whatever reason a person believes that the end is nigh, the preponderance of the evidence points to them being wrong.
The last great doomsday scare was the “Mayan apocalypse.” Various authors said that the Maya predicted that there would be some kind of important, world-wide event on December 21st, 2012. According to some of them, the fact that the long count calendar was going to reach a round number meant that some sort of spiritual awakening would occur, according to others, the long count calendar was going to end, bringing the end of the world. Well, 2012 has come and gone, and neither happened. It’s obvious why. Like every doomsday, the Mayan Apocalypse was a complete fabrication.

Even if the Maya had been able to forecast thousands of years in the future, we had no reason to think anything would happen on December 21st, 2012, because the Mayans didn’t think the world was going to end on that date. Mayan writings refer to dates as late as 4772, so clearly they thought that the world would still be around then. People ignored this, invoking pseudosciences like astrology and numerology to bolster their claim. For the 2012 apocalypse, they even attempted to resurrect planet X (which would already have been visible to the naked eye long before December 21st if it had truly been coming to get us).
By the far the most common reason people gave for thinking the world was going to end was that they believed the Mayan calendar was coming to an end. This reasoning is similar to that used by those who believed that digital calendars rolling over to zero on the millennium would somehow spark technological armageddon. It’s like thinking that you’re car is going to explode once the odometer clicks over to some number that you’ve arbitrarily attached significance to. However, we haven’t even reached the end of the current “baktun” cycle, for that we have to wait for the year 4772. None of that matters though, because the Mayans actually considered reaching the end of the cycle something to celebrate!

Whether or not ancient people believed that the world would end on a predetermined date, I think the question that we should actually be asking is, who cares? There would be no reason for concern, even if the Maya had predicted the world was going to end today. While interesting, it would just be another pre-scientific superstition. We’re talking about a culture that practiced ritual bloodletting and human sacrifices. Yes, for such an ancient culture they had advanced astronomy, but our modern astronomy has reached a level of sophistication they couldn’t have comprehended. To make astrophysical statements about the world today, you don’t reference ancient cultures like the Mayans, you reference modern science. If something was going to happen, we would be the ones predicting it, not them.

“Y’all should know by now that if the World were going to end for any cosmic reason, I’d tell you how and I’d tell you when.” -Neil Degrasse Tyson on Twitter

Antioxidants

In the last twenty-something years, there has been a great deal of scientific speculation about the role of oxidative stress and antioxidants in degenerative disorders and even aging. Many scientists wondered if antioxidants might treat or cure everything from Alzheimer’s to the ravages of old age. However, before any legitimate research could even be done, an industry popped up out of nowhere, marketing antioxidant products much like traveling salesmen used to market snake oil: as if they were a panacea, or cure for everything. Today, vitamins and supplements are sold to us by an unregulated industry, floating upon a sea of anecdotes and disingenuous marketing, and under no legal obligation to prove claims or admit risks. And it is all marketed using a term that has weapons-grade sales impact, a term that is right up there with other effective yet vacuous buzzwords like “natural” or “organic”:antioxidant. Billions are made capitalizing on the overly simplistic and dangerous false dichotomy stating that antioxidants are good and oxidants are bad. However, obscured by the public fervor for antioxidants, the truth has emerged, and it is more complicated. Oxidation is essential for life. One of its important roles is facilitating immune responses to bacteria and cancer. Yes, having too many oxidants is bad. “Reactive oxygen species” have the potential to do damage to cell membranes and other components. But having too many antioxidants is also bad. There is a strong association between supplementation of antioxidants and a higher mortality rate. What we require is equilibrium between the two, which can be accomplished through a normal, reasonably healthy diet.
Admittedly, no one person can get a grasp on every nuance of a subject this complicated, and many scientists think it is still reasonable to continue to conduct clinical research on possible therapeutic uses for anti-oxidants. There may be hope yet for an antioxidant to prove efficacious for some obscure degenerative disorder, but until then, the antioxidant craze seems pretty bunk to me.