I’ve frequently said that a tendency towards pseudoscience knows no political boundary. For example, antivaccine views, contrary to common belief, are not detectably more prevalent on the left than on the right, as I’ve discussed on more than one occasion. It’s just that for so many years, antivaccine beliefs were associated in the media with crunchy, back-to-nature lefties, and still are to some extent. (I’m talking to you Jill Stein.) However, last year the battle over SB 277, the new California law that eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, and the Republican presidential primaries helped illustrate the antivaccine views on the right, particularly the libertarian-leaning right. There were even three candidates for the Republican nomination who either pandered to antivaccine voters (Chris Christie) or outright espoused antivaccine views (Rand Paul and Donald Trump). One of them, Donald Trump, as we all know this week, is the Republican nominee for President, and he’s the most rabidly antivaccine of any politician I’ve seen, Republican or Democrat, with a long, sordid history of spewing antivaccine pseudoscience.
I must admit, though, that the election this year is making me wonder. The Republican Party and its nominee have embraced a slate of pseudoscience and quackery that goes beyond anything I can recall seeing before. I was reminded of this, to the point of thinking it a worthwhile blogging topic, by a story I saw yesterday about one of the speakers last night, Michelle Van Etten, who was portrayed as someone who “peddles pills that make Alex Jones ‘crazed.’” Now that’s saying something:
Michelle Van Etten was presented by the RNC in a Sunday evening press release as a “small business owner” who “employs over 100,000 people.” That’s roughly 1.5 times the number of employees Apple employs in the United States, making it a highly unlikely claim. For such a supposedly large employer, she has flown under the radar—until the announcement of her speech at the convention, there was no record of her business work in the press.
Van Etten is involved in selling products that claim to improve health and even fight cancer, all based on dubious science. And as you peel the story back, every single layer is fascinating: there’s Alex Jones hysteria, pyramid-scheme-style marketing, and questionable Clemson University research.
“The whole basis of the products and the claims are pseudoscience,” said Janet Helm, a nutritionist and registered dietitian who writes frequently about diet myths, nutrition trends, and misinformation.
It turns out that Van Etten works for a company called Youngevity as Senior Vice Chairman Marketing Director. It’s a company founded by a naturopath and veterinarian named Joel D. Wallach best known for his widely distributed audio tape “Dead Doctors Don’t Lie.” Basically, after seemingly having a reasonable career in research, he came to the conclusion that all diseases are due to deficiencies in trace minerals, hence his supplement company. In the early 1980s, he branded himself as a “Manner Metabolic Physician,” and treated cancer patients with laetrile, one of the favorite forms of cancer quackery back then. He also worked with Kurt Donsbach at his notorious quack hospital in Tijuana, and used chelation therapy. Hilariously, Wallach touts himself as a Nobel Prize nominees, which sounds impressive but is not, particularly given that he was nominated by the Association of Eclectic Physicians. (Eclectic medicine was a branch of medicine in the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century that advocated the use of botanical medicines and physical therapy.)
The whole Youngevity website is littered with red flags for quackery. For example:
Our Plant Derived Minerals™ are extracted from humic shale, which is a layer of earth formed from ancient, mineral-laden plants. Humic shale is superior to other commonly-used supplement sources such as bentonite (ground up clay) or dried sea beds (ground up rocks).
As in plants, Plant Derived Minerals™ have a natural negative electrical charge that has two important benefits. First, it may enhance the transport and bioavailability of other nutrients, and second, it may support the body’s natural detoxification of toxins and heavy metals.
Yep, any time you see the terms “toxins,” “detoxification,” and “heavy metals” on a website of a company formed by a naturopath, it’s a pretty good indication that there is no good science there. I could go on, but there’s more to cover; so I need to move on. I might come back to the Youngevity website in the future.
So what? you say. It’s just one speaker and not a star speaker at that, someone pretty much nobody’s heard of (certainly I had never heard of her before) whose presence on the main stage, given that, was actually rather puzzling. So how about the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, Mike Pence? It turns out that Mike Pence doesn’t believe that smoking causes cancer, or at least has been paid to say repeatedly that cigarettes, although “not good for you,” don’t kill:
Over his political career Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN) has consistently carried the tobacco industry’s water, denying the dangers of cigarettes, opposing government regulation, and slashing smoking cessation efforts. In return, they rewarded him with more than $100,000 in campaign donations.
In 2000, Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN), then running for an open U.S. House seat, came out against a proposed settlement between government and the tobacco industry, calling it “big government.” In a shocking editorial, he wrote: “Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” Pence acknowledged that smoking is not “good for you,” but claimed that two-thirds of smokers do not die from smoking related illness and “9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer.” He warned of a slippery-slope in which government would soon seek to discourage fatty foods, caffeine, and SUVs.
In a debate that September, his Democratic opponent pressed him on the suggestion that smoking does not cause cancer and noted his contributions from tobacco companies. According to the Indianapolis Star’s coverage of the exchange, “Pence clarified that he wrote that there was no causal link medically identifying smoking as causing lung cancer.” While cigarette manufacturers might have been still claiming that there was not causal link between smoking and lung cancer, medical science had settled the question years earlier. A landmark report by the U.S. Surgeon General had documented the link — in 1964.
The original editorial is still available, thanks to the almighty Wayback Machine.
Actually, the link between smoking and cancer was strongly suspected at least a decade before that—actually for more than two decades before that if you take into account little known studies done in Nazi Germany that were the first to find the link between smoking and lung cancer. But let’s look at two of the things he said. First, he said that nine out of ten smokers don’t get lung cancer. That’s true, but a stupid thing to say. According to the American Lung Association, citing scientific data, male smokers are 23 times more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers, while women who smoke are 13 times more likely to get lung cancer than women who do not. Smoking contributes to 80% of lung cancer deaths in men and 90% of lung cancer deaths in women. In other words, If roughly 90% of smokers do not get lung cancer, at least 99% of nonsmokers do not get lung cancer. As for his claim that 2/3 of smokers do not die of smoking-related illness, that’s even dumber, because the converse is that 1/3 of smokers do die of smoking-attributable diseases, the vast majority of whom would not die of those causes if they didn’t smoke. That’s a huge number of deaths among smokers caused by or contributed to by their addiction! It’s widely accepted in the medical and public health community that eliminating smoking would prevent more cancers and more death than any other single preventative intervention, with the possible exception of vaccines. Seriously, a man this innumerate should not be Vice President.
But it goes beyond that, of course. Mike Pence doesn’t accept evolution, doesn’t accept the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding human-caused climate change, has stated that condoms are “poor protection” against sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV), and believes that “morning after” pills are very dangerous.
Of course, Donald Trump himself is very much anti-science in more than one area. I’ve documented in depth his many, many antivaccine utterances. He’s a die-hard believer in the long-debunked idea that vaccines cause autism. He has called climate change a “Chinese hoax.”
All of this pales in comparison to the Republican platform, which features gems like:
Information concerning a changing climate, especially projections into the long-range future, must be based on dispassionate analysis of hard data. We will enforce that standard throughout the executive branch, among civil servants and presidential appointees alike. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution. Its unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy. We will evaluate its recommendations accordingly. We reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, which represent only the personal commitments of their signatories; no such agreement can be binding upon the United States until it is submitted to and ratified by the Senate.
America’s healthcare professionals should not be forced to choose between following their faith and practicing their profession. We respect the rights of conscience of healthcare professionals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and organizations, especially the faith-based groups which provide a major portion of care for the nation and the needy.
It also opposes embryonic stem cell research and states:
America’s healthcare professionals should not be forced to choose between following their faith and practicing their profession. We respect the rights of conscience of healthcare professionals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and organizations, especially the faith-based groups which provide a major portion of care for the nation and the needy. We support the ability of all organizations to provide, purchase, or enroll in healthcare coverage consistent with their religious, moral, or ethical convictions without discrimination or penalty. We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.
As regular readers know, my philosophy with respect to health care and religion is that patients deserve science-baed medicine. If your religion prevents you from administering any science-based treatment, you need to find a different profession, instead of imposing your religion on patients who might not believe the same things you do.
I understand that Democrats aren’t without their antiscience contingent. For example, Hillary Clinton has embraced Mark Hyman and the quackery that is “functional medicine,” and Bernie Sanders likes the pseudoscience “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) to the point of trying to promote CAM programs in the VA. I also understand that Rublicans aren’t entirely wrong. For example, their platform opposes GMO labeling laws. (Of course, one could argue that they are correct on this, but for the wrong reason.) Of course, the Republican Party and many Republican politicians held views that were in stark conflict with science before. This is nothing new, but it’s gotten much worse this cycle. Even so, the differences this year between the two parties on science are so striking that, compared to the 2016 Republican Party, the 2016 Democratic Party could well be made up of Nobel Laureates in comparison to the Republican Party.