Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fellow Objectivists, Please Be Wary of 'Alternative Health News' Sites That Peddle Snake Oil (Some Red Flags)

Stuart K. Hayashi

To my great distress, a growing number of my fellow Objectivists have been citing, as reliable journalistic and scientific sources, "health news" websites that exist primarily for the purpose of peddling the modern equivalent of snake oil.  I am not speaking about websites that are ideological to the point of providing inaccurate information (although such ideological people are the sites' target audience).  Nor am I saying that the owners of these sites are honestly mistaken in their pronouncements.  Nor do I mean that the sites make unpopular claims in areas of legitimate controversy, such as the healthfulness or harmfulness of animal fats.

I mean that the sites make brazenly unsound claims -- rationalizing the claims' unsoundness as "suppressed by big business/big government establishment" -- for the purpose of bilking unsuspecting "alternative lifestyle" libertarian-types out of their money.  At this point, we are in Kevin Trudeau territory.  I am not going to criticize people's dietary choices.  But I am going to criticize an effort to make people shun modern medical treatments, such as vaccines, on the basis of grandiose conspiracy theories and defamatory accusations. 

Under normal circumstances, my position is "If people want to waste their money on quackery, I won't interfere with that."  On one of these sites, though, I found something so dangerously foolish, that I do have a make a big deal out of it.  I think that insofar as parents follow a certain site's advice, they are needlessly making life more dangerous for their children.

 A huckster website that seems rather popular among my fellow Objectivists is Mike Adams's (not to be confused with Nature News from Nature magazine).  But in this post, I will particularly object to Health Impact News at .  Health Impact News has an item titled "Study:  HPV Vaccine Linked to Premature Menopause in Young Girls."  This is at .  It cites two sources to "prove" that if you allow your child to be vaccinated for Human Papillomavirus (which causes cervical cancer), you are needlessly subjecting your child to an extreme risk of experiencing menopause at age 16 and becoming infertile for life.

Here are the two "sources" for the claim.

First, there is Dr. Deirdre Little. What this page neglects to mention is that Dr. Little has an explicitly Religious-Right agenda that interferes with her judgment on HPV vaccines.  The Religious Right objects to HPV vaccines out of the fear that if children receive HPV vaccines, they will take this as some sort of license to be more promiscuous as teenagers.  The Religious Right ostensibly believes that getting HPV always should be a risk in having sex, as the mere presence of this risk is somehow supposed to discourage adolescents from sex (teen sex would be morally objectionable even if these health risks did not exist).   The twisted reasoning behind this goes:

 (1) If we can inundate children with all sorts of scare stories about the bad consequences of teenage sex (like cervical cancer!!!), they are likelier to stay away from sex and remain sexually purer than they otherwise would be.

 (2) The existence of contraceptives, condoms, and HPV vaccines undermines the effectiveness of our scare stories.

(3) To protect the effectiveness of our scare stories, we also have to rationalize that contraceptives, condoms, and HPV vaccines don't work.  Even better, we ought to convince people that the HPV vaccine is actually more dangerous than the risk of HPV itself.

Here is an example of a Religious-Right website trumpeting scare stories about the HPV vaccine in order to preserve the "Nature will punish you for having sex" narrative:

 More important than Dr. Little's ideological bias, though, is the evidence.  Her argument is lacking in evidence.  See:

In its anti-HPV-vaccine post, though, Health Impact News cites a second source, not just Dr. Little.  It speaks of a "new study" with new evidence.  It links to this impressive-looking page from the U.S. federal government:

This is just anecdotes about three girls, though.  That is not a sample that provides statistical evidence of the HPV vaccine causing infertility.  In a controlled experiment, over 190,000 young women received dosages of the HPV vaccine, and none experienced adverse health effects from it:

One might say, "But it's true that even if you don't get the HPV vaccine, the statistical probability of you getting cervical cancer is small.  Therefore, when schools talk about the importance of being vaccinated HPV, they overstate the case."

Well, if that is your objection, just say that.  Just say, "On a cost-benefit analysis, I think that having the HPV vaccine doesn't reduce the cancer risk to the point where I think parents should go through a lot of trouble to have their children vaccinated." Saying that does not require resorting to the demagoguery of claiming that HPV vaccines make girls infertile at sixteen and that to receive the HPV vaccine is substantially more dangerous than going without it.

That Health Impact News would resort to such demagoguery on this issue is strong evidence that this website resorts to demagoguery on the other issues it discusses. People who read Health Impact News are under the misapprehension that following the website's advice will reduce the chances of themselves and their families having cancer.  But insofar as they follow Health Impact News's advice about HPV, they will actually increase the chances of their children having cervical cancer in the future.

"Health news" websites that peddle snake oil, follow a certain formula in making their pitch to you.  First, they announce "the problem" in literally dozens of mini-site articles listed on the front page.   They first say that all of modern medicine and modern industrialized agriculture is corrupt and only wants to exploit you financially, and therefore you should reject these institutions in general.  This sort of pitch appeals to people like us who are skeptical about government and the mainstream.  We can cite specific examples of the mainstream opinion -- including the official opinion of mainstream scientific bodies -- being wrong.  But it's one thing to say that the mainstream opinion is wrong in certain specific instances; it's another to say that the scientific, medical, and agricultural establishments are wrong and corrupt in general -- so much so that their assessments should be rejected out of hand (or at least most of the time).

Once "the problem" is identified, the snake-oil-peddling "health news" site presents "the solution."  The site says that you cannot trust the medical or scientific establishment, but you can trust the website's owners, who are scrappy, rebellious underdogs fighting for your interests against The System.  Once the website's owners have won over your trust, they tell you that you ought to go to them for health advice.  That is, you ought to purchase their dubious merchandise.

For instance, the "About" section of Health Impact News is at .  At the very bottom, the website's owners names are links.  Those links go to the much-more-important page at, where the site's owners hawk their own merchandise.

The implicit message of a huckster's website is:  "Don't trust the medical or agricultural establishment; it only wants to make money and exploit you financially.  Therefore, you should instead trust me and purchase my book for only $14.99."

Now, am I guilty of doing what the website's owners are of doing?  The websites's owners want you to doubt, on duty, everything that the scientific mainstream says. Am I saying that you have some duty to doubt everything that a dubious website says, just because the claims were made on a dubious website?  No.  Joseph Goebbels was a big liar.  But if Goebbels told you that gravity exists, you shouldn't doubt the existence of gravity just because a big liar like Goebbels affirmed it.

If you see something on one of these huckster sites, such as , that sounds plausible to you, I recommend that you seek a second opinion.  If Natural News says that eating genetically modified corn will give you tumors, I recommend that you check out a more respected journal, such as , , or even or .  (When I say "Please look for a second opinion," I don't mean that I recommend simply going to a second huckster website that pretty much repeats the claims of all the other huckster websites.)

I suppose one might say, "But those mainstream publications are part of the conspiracy to keep you ignorant of the truth, remember?"  Well, please indulge silly old me and check out those sources for corroboration anyway.  Once in a while, the "conspirators" slip up and say things that might partially corroborate the huckster sites (though usually in much more measured terms).

If you're unclear on what separates a huckster website from what is merely an earnest, non-mainstream-yet-attempting-to-be-honest journal, here are some tips that I have.   Below are some qualities that I think are red flags.  I understand that there are many cases where a single individual is right and the mainstream is wrong, and in which mainstream authorities ridicule and try to suppress the rebellious individual.  If you believe that an "alternative news site" genuinely believes in what it is saying, though, and is not trying to exploit you financially, then I think the following attributes below should largely be absent from that alternative news site.

1. It sensationalistically denounces an entire category of technology as inherently unsafe, without comparing unfamiliar risks against more familiar, more mundane risks.  New technologies really do impose certain risks to health and life.  But all risks are contextual.  When authentic scientists speak about a certain technology posing risks to health, they speak of risks in relational terms.  By that, I mean that to provide you perspective when speaking about a new risk, they will compare it to another, more familiar risk.  For example, it would give you no perspective if a scientist said, "Don't drink cola.  It gives you cancer. It's dangerous.  The end."  When someone tells you a technology is dangerous, we have to think, "Dangerous compared to what?"  For example, a scientist might tell you that consuming a single liter of cola every day for 30 years is so-and-so percent likelier to give you cancer than consuming a single liter of coffee every day for 30 years.  Likewise, living within a three mile radius of a coal-fired power plant might expose you to more millirems of radioactivity, on average, than living within a three mile radius of a nuclear power plant.  Making those comparisons make more sense than denouncing a whole category of technology as inherently dangerous.

As an example, be wary of "health news" sites that tell you that genetic engineering technology is categorically dangerous because of "the precautionary principle."  There can be risks in using genetic engineering but, again, these are contextual risks -- risks that can be compared against other risks.  One might say that there is a risk that herbicide-resistance GMOs might cross-pollinate with weeds and create a new strain of weed that is herbicide-resistant.  That is not the same, though, as force-feeding a rat three times its own body weight in GMO corn -- an experiment rigged from the outset to give the rat tumors -- and then citing this as "proof" that eating modified corn-on-cob once a month is going to give you tumors.  The sweeping claims about GMOs that we find out and are what respectable scientists consider to be wholly unprofessional. 

2. The website denounces the establishment for caring about making money off of you, and then, soon afterward, tries to sell you its own merchandise.  You see this on all of the huckster websites, and this is what separates them from people who are merely just ideological and misguided.  If the website's owner thinks Big Pharma and Big Agribusiness are so bad in trying to profit, then why is the website's owner so eager to sell his own merchandise to you?

3. Almost all "articles" on the website fall into two types: "Extreme problem (mainstream stuff gives you cancer!)" and "Extreme solution!" Note that on , there are only two types of articles.  There are lots of articles about how something mainstream (like a vaccine or lipstick) will give you cancer.  This is framed in the most dire terms possible.  The second type of article is the Extreme Solution -- if you follow a certain health formula of the website's owner, you will be really healthy.  In the case of Health Impact News, eating coconut-based foods is touted as a cure-all.  I am not going to tell you to not eat coconuts, but I do not recommend that your entire diet revolve around coconuts.  It makes more sense to have a balanced diet.  Anyway, the second type of article touts the author's solution, which is the coconut diet.  Naturally, if this solution appeals to you, you will want to read about it in more detail.  That's when the pitch works -- you're going to purchase the website owner's book, which is the whole point (even though the website's owners revile the money-grubbing mainstream!).

In real life, science is more nuanced.  In real life, too high a dosage of almost any substance (even oxygen) can be toxic to you.  What determines toxicity is the dosage.  Instead of talking about how a new technology is inherently dangerous, authentic scientists will normally talk about moderation and about their estimates of what constitutes a safe dosage.  For example, if I drank ten cups of coffee every day, that might cause certain health problems for me after a ten-year-period.  By contrast, if I drank one cup of coffee every day for teen years, that might not produce noticeable adverse consequences.  

Again, I am not saying that the mainstream or consensus is always right.  We individualists, libertarians, and Objectivists often pride ourselves on how we stand up to, and challenge, mainstream opinion, even in the hard sciences.  Sometimes we can become susceptible to scams that try to appeal to our contrarian tendencies.  If you want to look for information in a non-mainstream source, then go ahead and do so.  But I ask that you please keep on the lookout for the demagoguish tactics mentioned above. That brings us to the next one.

4. Grandiose Conspiracy Theories.  We're skeptical of the government and of the mainstream.  Huckster websites can take advantage of that in another way.  Many of these huckster websites express views that are very skeptical of government, gun control, etc.  When we see that someone else agrees with our political views, it makes us more apt to agree with them and then trust them in other areas . . . such as how big government enables big corporations to give us cancer!  The political views on these websites, though, are often expressed in grandiose terms, speaking of New World Order conspiracy theories.  The implication is that by subscribing to the health site editors' worldview and getting into the lifestyle they promote (for which we pay them good money), we are fighting against the influence of the New World Order and the establishment. That makes things more exciting.  Sadly, it is also a manipulative method of indoctrination.  It makes us more emotionally invested in believing our "alternative health news sites."  Big offenders in this area are and G. Edward Griffin at


Someone who has a Ph.D. in the hard sciences might cite, online, these huckster websites as credible news sources and recommend them to fellow opponents of statism (and also tacitly agree with the grandiose conspiracy theories about the Boston bombers being puppets of President Obama).  This really breaks my heart.  If you have a Ph.D. in the hard sciences, people trust your judgment when you give them health advice.  If you teach a hard science at the college level, people trust your judgment when you give them health advice.  It may seem fine and safe to place oneself in this "alternative health news" echo chamber to rationalize certain things, such as preferring a certain lifestyle that involves more-traditional farming methods, which, evidently, I am told that industrialized "factory farming" methods are encroaching upon.  But when one reaches the point where one is endorsing anti-vaccine demagoguery, this proves to be a very dark, regrettable path.  This is not the best way to capitalize on one's educational achievements.  This makes my heart ache, and I hope you realize that you don't have to go on like this.  :'(


* Kevin Trudeau

* G. Edward Griffin

* Mike Adams from http;//

* Joseph Mercola

*Jeffrey Smith