The fundamental intellectual dishonesty of Eric Merola and his promotion of Stanislaw Burzynski

About a month ago, Eric Merola screened his second movie about “brave maverick doctor” Stanislaw Burzynski, Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2 (henceforth referred to as “Burzynski II”), a screening that Brian Thompson and an unnamed colleague from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) attended, took notes, and even managed to ask a question. At the time, I took advantage of Brian’s awesome commentary about his experience on the JREF Swift Blog, his copious notes, and my read on Eric Merola’s trailers for the movie, what he said in the first movie, and his own promotional material to write about how Merola dishonestly demonizes what he refers to as “The Skeptics” (i.e., us) and five major misconceptions about Burzynski, cancer, and skeptics promoted in Burzynski II, all with a heapin’ helpin’ of conspiracy mongering. In this post, I will delve into a little more detail about the fundamental intellectual dishonesty behind Eric Merola’s conspiracy mongering. Merola himself, thankfully (I guess) has allowed me to do this by posting an edited version of that original Q&A to YouTube:

In particular, note how everything I said in my previous post about what went on at the Q&A is verified, and in fact you now have the details. I will try to mention the specific time points to refer to as I go along. Also note that there is a segment at about the 47:45 mark in which JREF’s Brian Thompson (blurred out but still recognizable) speaks with the husband of one of Burzynski’s patients that is worth watching and that I will briefly discuss further into this post.

Two things got me to thinking that I was probably due to write about Stanislaw Burzynski and his propagandist Eric Merola again. The first thing, of course, was the video posted above. The second thing was a rather odd online encounter that I had with Eric Merola a couple of weeks ago. It was so bizarre that it left me scratching my head and thinking that Merola really needs to look at how he appears online. Regular readers probably remember that a couple of weeks ago I posted a shameless plug featuring a link to a YouTube video of a talk a “friend” of mine did for the National Capital Area Skeptics on March 9. After having viewed it, apparently in its entirety, Merola decided that I was either a white supremacist or some sort of puppy-eating monster. (Meanwhile, apparently Jake Crosby has taken note and, after a mere six weeks, published a hilariously inept response as well. But I digress.)

Merola’s ill-considered Twitter adventures got me interested in what he might be up to again, as did learning that he would be appearing at a screening of Burzynski II in Toronto. As with Merola’s screening at San Luis Obispo on March 10, this April 5 screening in Toronto was attended by at least one skeptic, who was kind enough to do the same thing our colleagues did in California and provide me with notes. I hope that my discussion of these Q&A’s will serve, along with my previous discussions, as educational background for skeptics who attend further screenings of the Burzynski movie, for example the upcoming screening on April 27 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, which will feature the same two Burzynski patients (Mary Jo Siegel and Tori Moreno) and where, we are promised, there may be a “surprise special guest,” which makes me wonder if ol’ Stan himself is going to show, given that we already know that his son Dr. Greg Burzynski will be there.

Eric Merola doubles down on the conspiracy mongering

The very first thing I noticed upon viewing the YouTube video of the Q&A from March was that the sheer conspiracy mongering that Merola engages in was not adequately captured by the notes. It is truly, truly over the top, fully into Gary Null, Mike Adams, and Alex Jones territory. For instance, take a look at the segment beginning at about the 13:56 mark, in which Merola discusses how former senior advisor to President Obama David Axelrod allegedly watched the film. I wrote about this in my first discussion of this movie a month ago, but the reports I got failed to convey the full scope of its true conspiracy theory awesomeness.

Here’s how Merola describes the alleged viewing and Mr. Axelrod’s alleged reaction to it:

David Axelrod saw a rough cut of my first film in late 2009, privately through someone who was old college buddies with him. I wasn’t present during the private screenings.

David Axelrod was President Obama’s Chief of Staff at the time and after watching the film, he said that “it’s very important but it’s just too big.” He said “we can’t face this in this country not for at least ten years” and, he even alluded that the economy had just tanked. He even alluded that it could possibly send the country into a further recession because of what it would do to companies like Amgen which is 90% reliant on cancer therapies. It would, the stock market would, plummet if this thing was released. And this comes from the pharmaceutical world. It’s just the sad reality.

It’s almost as big as oil. I mean, countries have gone to war for a resource this valuable and it’s a really, really big deal in the market. They just can’t allow it and I can understand it from a market point of view. If I was a CEO or on the Board of pharma, from a purely preservation, self-preservation of the establishment point of view, I can understand where they’re coming from, but obviously from a morality point of view it’s much more difficult to wrap your heads around.

So what we have is a second hand story, in which an unnamed friend of Merola allegedly showed a rough cut of Burzynski I to Axelrod and then reported back that Axelrod thought the information was such a bombshell that if the Obama administration did anything about it it would risk tanking the economy again before it could recover from the 2008 financial meltdown by destroying major pharmaceutical companies like Amgen. This is not a mistake. Merola repeated this very same story near the very beginning of his Q&A in Toronto, although he apparently did preface it with a disclaimer to the effect of something like, “I have no proof of this. You can believe me or not.” Clearly, the David Axelrod story is going to be a regular feature of Merola’s movie publicity tour, and Merola plans on using it at every Q&A. I can only hope that my reporting on it last time led him to add that little disclaimer. More importantly, I would love to see whether David Axelrod will actually respond to this, particularly now that we have evidence that Merola is telling this story other than reports of promoters of science-based medicine who were brave enough to go into the veritable lions’ den a month ago.

The other thing that amazed me was how shameless Merola is about, in essence, publicizing Burzynski’s plan to break the spirit and possibly intent of the law. What I’m referring to is how Merola opengly brags that Burzynski wants to get antineoplastons approved for brainstem glioma through the accelerated approval mechanism (also known as “fast track”) and then to use that approval as the “foot in the door” to allow the use of antineoplastons off-label for other cancer types. While it is legal to use FDA-approved drugs off-label, openly planning to gain approval of a drug for one indication so that it can be used for a whole bunch of indications off-label is at least very shady to me. If it’s advertised in any way, it’s illegal; the FDA has come down on pharmaceutical companies for doing just that: Advertising off-label uses for their drugs. The double standard is also staggering, at least among Burzynski apologists. Can you imagine how some of them would react to a pharmaceutical company advertising off-label uses for its drugs? Oh, wait. We don’t have to imagine it. We already know. But somehow when Burzynski says he wants to get approval for one indication so that he can use antineoplastons for all cancer, suddenly instead of being a greedy sleaze, he’s some sort of hero of “health freedom.”

Next up, if you don’t believe me when I told you last time just how much Merola despises anyone whom he considers to be a member of “The Skeptics,” just mosey on over to the segments at the 21:25 and 35:45 marks. At the 21:25 mark, Merola is asked, “How did you discover the skeptics’ group and how did you gain access to the videoconference and do you know anything else about them?”

Merola’s answer:

Sure. Basically, these guys have no shame whatsoever. They have no problem letting everybody know their names and putting themselves out there. I really believe that the lower tier guys, like the guys that you saw, they put that on YouTube and were very proud of it. I went through a lawyer to get legal clearance to make sure I was safe. That’s why they’re blurred out and their names are hidden.

If you want to know the utter intellectual dishonesty of this answer, realize that the segment that Merola included in his movie was nothing more than a clip taken from the Virtual Skeptics podcast (episode 13, to be precise) in which Bob Blaskiewicz was talking about Burzynski and his plans to raise money . However, in the movie, he implied that it was some sort of secret conclave of skeptics plotting, blurred out their faces, and gave Bob Blaskiewicz an electronically distorted voice while creepy music played over the parts where he talks about Burzynski and how skeptics have to answer him online. Indeed, Merola’s segment in Burzynski II was apparently so over-the-top that the Virtual Skeptics recorded a segment in which Bob put devil horns on himself and proposed some “video extras” for Burzynski II. Also note the disconnect between the movie, which, according to reports, implies that skeptics—excuse me, “The Skeptics,” to use Merola’s term in his movie—are some shadowy cabal, while in the Q&A he admits that this stuff is on YouTube.

But none of that matters anyway because, apparently:

But the guys at the top, like the one guy who’s on all the payrolls, you know, it makes sense that there would be a paid group to try to dismantle this by using the media, the social media, to try to confuse everybody. So, working on the film, I wasn’t really too aware of The Skeptics until the patients kept complaining, saying, “I go on Twitter, you know, to help my fundraising, and I got attacked by all these guys calling themselves The Skeptics. I put something on Facebook, and The Skeptics attack my Facebook page. You know, I put my own blog up showing my MRIs. The Skeptics are attacking me there. Skeptics are calling me an actress or an actor. Skeptics are saying I’m laundering money. Skeptics are saying I’m pretending to have cancer. What is going on?” And as you saw with Ben and Laura, they went through psychiatric therapy because they were so terrorized by them. And you saw Pete and Hannah crying because of them.

They are just shameless, spineless people. And it was really, quite frankly, the patients just kept mentioning them. Well, OK, this is clearly part of the story. And as time went on I noticed that they started going after me as well, for obvious reasons. But what’s interesting. About two years ago, they were nonexistent, not even two years ago. It’s been the last 18 months they’ve come out of nowhere, and I think it’s because of the success of the original film. They accuse me of making an infomercial. They come up with these conspiracy theories that I was paid by Burzynski. So, it’s fascinating. There was only one or two things up until 18 months ago, and now they’ve come out in full force, as you’ve seen.

I wonder if I’m one of the “guys at the top.” If I am, this is the first I’ve heard of it.

Gee, Merola says that last bit as though it were a bad thing. He goes on to complain about how skeptics have “completely hijacked” Burzynski’s Wikipedia page and how he really really wanted to “call them out,” but for “legal reasons” and “running time.” Of course, I explained why it is that “The Skeptics” are so much more active this time. The reason is quite simple. About 18 months ago, Burzynski made the huge mistake of siccing his attack Teacup Chihuaha Marc Stephens on a teen skeptic in the U.K. by the name of Rhys Morgan. In doing so, he invoked the Streisand Effect in full bloom. It was such a fiasco that the Burzynski Clinic was forced to disavow Stephens. Because Merola’s movie was such a major component of the propaganda machine supporting Burzynski at the time, it was only natural that “The Skeptics” started to take notice of him. Given his increasingly hysterical statements and the amazing degree of conspiracy mongering in Burzynski II, even compared to Burzynski I, coupled with Merola’s pre-release promises to “expose The Skeptics,” it’s only natural that the skeptical movement in general, and those of us who’ve been commenting regularly on Burzynski in particular, would continue to take notice. Why wouldn’t we? When someone like Merola promises to slime me in a movie that will see international distribution, I take notice. Wouldn’t you? Merola’s either foolish, deluded, or intellectually dishonest to think that it would be otherwise.

The conspiracy mongering about “The Skeptics” continues. Around the 35:45 mark, Merola is asked who is paying “The Skeptics” and whether it’s been investigated. Merola’s response:

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of that myself, but frankly as you can imagine for legal reasons I just didn’t want to call them out. I’m not going to call them out. Not yet. I know who most all of them are. I know what they’re doing. One of them did try to hack the Burzynski web page—successfully hacked it. It was down for three days. But for legal reasons, because these guys are vicious and do not care about the truth—they only care about winning—and I don’t want to give them any reason to damage me any further or at all, frankly. So, yes, it’s been done, but they’re slippery, slippery people, and I’m not going to go any farther than that. But that would be a great thing, to have someone do a separate investigative report on just these guys, because most people—the festival staff, most people that watched it—said, “I’ve never even heard of these guys. I didn’t even know they existed.” Then they go back online, and they realize, wow, so they’re the ones doing all the damage online. They’re the ones doing this and that. That’s the best I can answer that. I’ve been trying to be careful myself, because they’re really nasty people.

I was struck by how paranoid this sounded, even more so than I had expected based on reports I received. I was also further struck at how Merola describes Burzynski critics, who according to him are more than happy—proud, even—to “put their names out there” as “spineless,” when he himself has decided for legal reasons not to “name names.” Of course, maybe the reason his lawyers told him not to “name names” is because they realized that much of what he says is likely to be libelous. Certainly, I consider it so from what I’ve been able to gather. I’m also struck by how Merola refers to “The Skeptics” as “vicious, vicious people,” and then can go on Twitter and refer to me as a white supremacist and someone who’s too busy eating puppies to bother reading the scientific literature about Burzynski. Of course, what really bothers Merola is he knows damned well that I’ve actually read nearly every paper I can get my hands on about antineoplastons. I also have the skill set to analyze them, and I wasn’t impressed.

Lessons for those who oppose Burzynski

The Q&A session at San Luis Obispo and what I’ve learned about the Q&A session after the Toronto screening of Burzynski II provide many lessons for skeptics. First and foremost, to me, at least, is the lesson that Eric Merola can’t be trusted. He is a true believer, and he despises skeptics. For instance, he clearly plans on repeating an unbelievable story about David Axelrod. He demonstrates time and time again that he does not understand science, clinical trials, or why science-based oncologists do not take Burzynski seriously. He’s using every tool at his disposal to promote Burzynski and is willing to cherry pick and distort information, use what I consider to be dishonest filmmaking techniques more akin to the slimiest political attack ads than to even activist documentaries, and in general demonstrate no regard for the truth. He’s also willing to use whatever contacts he has gained over the last three years to try to publicize Burzynski. Indeed, at the Toronto Q&A, Merola bragged about how Burzynski had apparently signed a deal for a biopic, even going so far as to suggest Sean Penn or Christoph Walz as actors to play Burzynski. At least, so Merola claims, adding that the next step will be to try to convince a studio to “have the courage” to get behind it. Given that the vast majority of such deals never result in a movie, no doubt if this effort fails, Merola will view it as “evidence” that the pharma cabal succeeded. In other words, one thing that anyone who wants to criticize Burzynski should know is that Merola is not convincible, not trustworthy, and likely to use whatever media contacts he has to attack, and anyone who wants to confront Merola at a Q&A with a skeptical question needs to be prepared for the types of spin he will bring to bear. In particular, that includes not giving him what I like to call a “weasel” opening that allows him to attack based on one mistake and ignore everything else. He’s very good at that.

Perhaps the sharpest lesson in just this sort of error and about how deceptive Merola can be occurs at the end of the video, around the 47:20 mark. It is there that Brian Thompson is portrayed trying to engage Steve Siegel. I must say, I truly admire him for this effort, but I also must reluctantly say that, as well as he did on everything else, he fell into a really basic trap that anyone who has immersed himself in Burzynski lore could have seen coming a mile away. Go and watch and see if you can see what it was. On the plus side, Thompson stayed calm, respectful, and made some really great points about how Burzynski seems to think that the rules don’t apply to him and the balance between personal freedom and protecting desperate cancer patients from pseudoscience. That was awesome. Unfortunately, at one point, Thompson said that Burzynski doesn’t publish, and that there is this thing called Medline/PubMed where you can search for peer-reviewed publications.

I cringed. I knew what was coming next, and Burzynski’s defenders didn’t disappoint.

Predictably, Steve Siegel pounced, offering to take Thompson to lunch and show him reams of “peer-reviewed publications.” Merola pounced, following Thompson with a shot of a PubMed search. Of course, I couldn’t help but laugh because the very first article on the PubMed search was one that I’ve blogged about before, as self-serving a bit of nonsense as I’ve ever heard from Burzynski. Certainly, it shows no new data, no clinical trials, no science other than Burzynski’s claims to be some sort of pioneer in “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” that M.D. Anderson and other renowned cancer centers are only now following. The whole thing closes out with a shot of Steve Siegel and Eric Merola gloating about how skeptics “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Ouch. It’s an incredibly easy trap to fall into if you aren’t intimately familiar with Burzynski, and unfortunately Thompson fell into it.

In fact, Burzynski does publish. That’s not the problem. The problem is that he publishes in bottom-feeding journals and has not yet published a completed phase II clinical trial. That’s plenty bad enough. Burzynski has only published abstracts and partial reports on phase II trials, none of which are particularly convincing. His publications are all, as far as I’ve been able to tell, crap, and I’ve read nearly all of them.

Indeed, I get the distinct feeling that all the criticism is starting to have an effect. According to the report on the Toronto Q&A, Burzynski is having difficulties. Apparently the clinic is struggling. Merola admits as much. He even openly talks about the clinic moving to other countries, which I presume he would not be able to do if Burzynski didn’t want him to. He even openly speculates that after Greg Burzynski takes over for his father might be the time for the Burzynski Clinic to go full “cancer tourism.”

If there’s anyone who personifies the term “delusion of grandeur,” it’s Eric Merola. As skeptics, we need to remember that. We also need to stay utterly science-based in our criticism as possible. In other words, when it comes to reason, science, and medicine, we need to be the anti-Merola.