Joe Mercola: 15 years of promoting quackery

Let’s travel back in time fifteen years.

It’s a time that, for me, at times seems as though it were just yesterday while at other times it seems like truly ancient history. Back then, certainly, I wasn’t the blogging powerhouse that I am today. I didn’t even know what blogging was because it was so much in its infancy that few people knew what it was. In fact, it was only around 14 years ago that I first discovered Usenet, that vast, sprawling, brawling assortment of discussion groups where I cut my skeptical teeth, so to speak, discovering, as I did, alt.revisionism (often abbrievated a.r. and whose main topic is Holocaust denial) and misc.health.alternative (m.h.a.). In other words, in Internet time, fifteen years ago might as well be fifteen hundred years ago.

Unfortunately, even so, apparently Joe Mercola was there. I learned this yesterday when i saw that that foremost promoter of quackery on the Internet is celebrating his fifteenth anniversary. In other words, the original wretched hive of scum and quackery, Mercola.com, sprang into existence eight years before the website that I usually refer to as a wretched hive of scum and quackery, The Huffington Post, was foisted upon a less than enthusiastic world. HuffPo, of course, immediately delved into antivaccine quackery, quantum quackery by Deepak Chopra, and eventually so many different forms of quackery that it’s really hard to keep track. However, as HuffPo became the new quack on the block, Mercola.com had been cranking out the quackery for years before. Worse, as Bryan Smith reported earlier this year, Mercola.com gets traffic on par with that of the National Institutes of Health website. As I put it, Joe Mercola is proof positive that quackery sells.

And it’s been selling for 15 years:

It’s been nearly 15 years since we started this journey together, when, in 1997, I combined my two primary passions in life ― health and technology― and made it my mission to share exciting new developments in natural health with you.

Thanks to you, this site has become the world’s No. 1-ranked Natural Health web site for the last seven years, and is now approaching nearly two million subscribers.

My motivation has always been to help make you as healthy as you can possibly be by sharing knowledge and simple tools that allow you to Take Control of Your Health. This involves:

  1. Providing up to date natural health information, research and resources, and
  2. Exposing corporate, government, and mass media propaganda that diverts you away from what is truly best for your health

Of course, that is not at all what Mercola is providing. Just type Mercola’s name into the search box of this blog, and you’ll see an incredible history on his part of promoting pseudoscience. Indeed, just the other day Mercola was doing what he seems to do best these days and attacking vaccines, basically pulling out every antivaccine trope in the book to try to convince his readers against all science, reason, and evidence that the acellular pertussis vaccine doesn’t work. Over the years that I’ve been aware of Mercola.com, it’s hard for me to pick out the most glaring example of quackery, although, if I have to pick just one, surely Mercola’s promotion of Dr. Tullio Simoncini has to rank right up there at or near the top.

You remember Simoncini, don’t you? It was four years ago that I first discovered this particular brand of ridiculous pseudoscience, and my mind still boggles at the utter idiocy of it. Where did I discover it? At Mercola.com, of course, in the form of an article by Joe Mercola himself entitled Fungus Causing Cancer? — A Novel Approach to a Leading Cause of Death. As I dissected in detail on more than on occasion, this particular claim is so ludicrous on so many levels that it’s hard to believe that Mercola doesn’t realize that it’s pure nonsense and sells it anyway. The CliffsNotes version is simple: Dr. Simoncini claims that all cancer is due to a fungus. Actually, he claims that cancer is a fungus. Not just some cancers. All cancer. What, you may ask, is his reasoning? Well, fungus is white, and cancer is white; so that means that cancer is really a fungus. You might think I’m joking or somehow misrepresenting his position, building a massive straw man, but I assure you that I am not. If you don’t believe me, watch the video that Mercola included with his article.

But that’s not all.

Let’s take Simoncini’s view (supported by Mercola as potentially plausible) that all cancer really is a fungus, just for a moment. If, as Simoncini claims, all cancer were due to a fungus, with the tumor being the body’s reaction to that fungus, how would you treat it? Logically, you might guess that a good way to treat cancer would, under such a scenario, be to administer antifungal drugs. In Simoncini’s world, you would be wrong. In Simoncini’s world, the correct treatment for the fungus that causes cancer is—get this—baking soda. Yes, Simoncini injects sodium bicarbonate directly into tumors, claiming that it is the “most potent anti-fungal substance there is.” Not surprisingly, it doesn’t work. That is the sort of “up to date natural health information, research and resources” that Mercola dumps on the blogosphere nearly every day.

Then, of course, there is the antivaccine angle. Mercola is rabidly antivaccine, so much so that he’s not only teamed up with the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), but he’s donated large sums of money to her organization in order to bankroll antivaccine ads on the CBS JumboTron in Times Square in 2011. At the time, I wondered how Fisher could possibly have afforded to produce and air the ad, but it became very clear when it was revealed how much money Mercola has been donating to “alternative” medicine advocacy groups. His rationale? This:

Mercola says he is simply trying to ask hard questions about the potential harm caused by inoculations and voice his opposition to government-imposed mandates. “There are virtually no safety studies done [on vaccines],” Mercola says. “We don’t know what the effects of combining them are. We don’t know what the long-term complications are.” He says the government and media downplay very real risks and either underreport or ignore serious adverse reactions. Meanwhile, “we don’t have the option to say no [to getting the shots]. It’s just insane what’s happening, and more and more vaccines [are coming] down the line.”

It is either misinformation or a lie to state that there are no safety studies on vaccines. I can rattle off dozens (and have blogged many such studies over the years). The problem is, of course, that Mercola doesn’t like the results of the safety studies that are out there.

Particularly amusing in Dr. Mercola’s paean to himself and his own self-perceived awesomeness is this claim:

Mercola.com is funded by me personally, and therefore, I am not handcuffed to any advertisers, silent partners or corporate parents. This gives me the freedom to report the facts as I see them, and base my recommendations on the available research and input from experts, without having to appease advertisers with conflicting interests.

When I offer or recommend products, I do so because I have actively researched them and find they are the best in that category for your health. I ignore substandard products, and products not directly pertinent to your health, regardless of any potential financial upside. I have a top-notch research- and development team to help me in this process.

Apparently this “top-notch” R&D team didn’t realize that cancer is not due to a fungus and that you can’t treat it successfully by injecting baking soda into it. In any case, I’ve heard this claim before. Mercola has made it several times, including on his appearance on Dr. Oz’s show. He tries to represent it as a decision to start selling supplements and other alternative health products to fund his website, which was costing him a lot of money. Perhaps that was true long ago, but his selling of such products rapidly turned into a huge moneymaker for him, and his website is the primary marketing arm to sell those supplements. There’s a reason that only “one short hallway” is dedicated to patient services at Mercola’s headquarters, while marketing and customer service take up the rest. It’s the same reason that Mercola lives in a large, well-appointed house in a tony suburb of Chicago and talks about flitting south to expensive getaways in warmer climes during brutal Chicago winters. Quackery pays. In Mercola’s case, it pays very well indeed.

Particularly self-aggrandizing are the claims that Mercola makes for himself. For one thing, he claims that it was he who first warned about Vioxx, when it was still in clinical trials. I searched his website but could find no evidence that this is true. Some of the first public criticisms of Vioxx were published in 2000, and these were scientists, not Mercola, leveling the criticisms, and the FDA had been asking questions about Vioxx safety in 1999. Mercola almost certainly had nothing to do with it. Another claim Mercola makes is that he “exposed the swine flu pandemic for the hoax that it was.” A better description would be that he parroted antivaccine misinformation to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the H1N1 vaccine. Unfortunately, it was effective, as Mercola brags, “That article ended up being among the top five pages viewed on the entire internet the day we posted it, and it crashed all our servers.”

That’s not something I would be proud of.

Other claims Mercola makes include that he was the first to “warn about the emergence of statin drugs” back in 2001. Of course, if you just bother to search PubMed, it’s not difficult to find many articles about the risk/benefit ratio of statins published in 2001 and earlier. Similarly, Mercola takes credit for “warning of the dangers of routine mammograms.” A better way of describing it would be fear mongering about imagined risks of mammograms and denying the known benefits of mammographic screening, all apparently to help him sell his thermography screening. Thermography for breast cancer screening, as I have pointed out before, is unproven and currently considered useless. Indeed, the FDA has warned Mercola to stop marketing a thermography machine.

Mercola is very much in a self-congratulatory mode right now, and why not? He’s become a semi-regular guest on Dr. Oz’s TV show, allowing him to spread his misinformation to millions in a way that even the web can’t accomplish. He’s rich and runs a highly successful business. Thus far, the FDA appears not to be able to touch him. He has what is probably the most popular “natural health” (i.e., quackery) website in the world. That’s why I’m interested in the worst, the most egregious abuse of science that Mercola has ever championed. I know my vote goes for his promotion of Tullio Simoncini four years ago, but I admit that I don’t know everything Mercola has promoted. Perhaps you can educate me by posting in the comments what you consider to be the worst quackery that Mercola has promoted over the last 15 years and why you think so.

There ought to be an award of some sort to “recognize” him.