Why does Dr. Mercola sell supplements? Cognitive dissonance at its finest

A characteristic of real doctors and real health care providers is that they usually don’t sell the drugs and remedies that they recommend. Indeed, physicians are generally not allowed to in most states, as it’s considered a conflict of interest. Also, the Stark Law forbids physician self-referral, which is the referral of a patient to a medical facility in which that physician has a financial interest, be it ownership, investment, or a structured compensation arrangement. The reason why it’s considered unethical for physicians to sell the drugs or treatments they recommend or to self-refer is that there is an inherent conflict of interest in such practices, and self-referral in particular encourages overutilization of services and the ordering of tests that might not be medically necessary.

These stritures, rules, and laws do not apply, to quacks.

I was reminded of this when I came across a recent article by one of the biggest, if not the biggest, quack on the Internet, Joe Mercola. Dr. Mercola, as you might recall, runs one of the highest trafficked “alternative” medicine websites in existence. There is one main reason that Mercola’s website, Mercola.com, is quite likely the most trafficked alternative medicine. That reason is simple. He got in early. He started his website back in the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was a new thing and people and businesses were staking their claims and figuring out how to take advantage of this new medium. Indeed, Mercola is celebrating his 19th anniversary, which he brags about here:

As painful as it is, I have little reason to doubt that Mercola truly does garner over 30 million visits/month, given what I learned the last time I looked at him as a phenomenon at his 15th anniversary of promoting quackery. By way of comparison, as far as skeptic blogs go, this one doesn’t do too shabby, but Mercola.com draws nearly 100 times the traffic I get here. What I’m more interested in, though, is his justification for selling what he refers to as “products” and what I refer to as quackery (at least the vast majority of it):

Listening to Mercola justify why he started to sell “products,” lo those many years ago, is both a study in self-justification and a glimpse into both the early Internet and the mindset of an Internet “entrepreneur.” Actually, it’s more a case of cognitive dissonance. Remember, cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort experienced when a person performs an action that is contradictory to his beliefs, ideas, or values or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs. Now witness his cognitive dissonance at work. Basically, Mercola says roughly (but not exactly) the same thing in his video above as in his article:

Many people ask why I sell products. When I first started this website back in 1997, it was with the intent to help people make informed decisions about their health and avoid needless suffering.

I had witnessed the positive effects of a healthy eating lifestyle on my patients, and I wanted to share this information and offer my insights into health information being spread by the media.

In fairness, two decades ago, this might actually have been true. Mercola might very well have had nothing but good motivations when he first started his website. What I wonder about is this claim:

It cost me upwards of $500,000 to run the site for the first few years, and I realized I could not afford to keep the site running without finding a source of revenue. I didn’t want to use paid advertising or investors, which could have compromised the unbiased information the site was founded on.

First of all, even though I know bandwith was much more expensive 20 years ago, is it plausible that Mercola would be paying a half a million dollars over the early years of his site. Assuming by the first “few” years, Mercola meant maybe 5 years, then we’re looking at bandwith charges of $100,000 a year. I’m going to appeal to the hivemind out there and ask: Is this plausible? How much traffic would a website have to generate in order to cost $100,000 a year, even counting costs associated with hiring programmers?

For the moment, let’s assume that Mercola did spend a half a million on his website. Let’s say that he really did have a problem and needed a revenue source. Now, consider. He didn’t want to use paid advertising or investers because it could have “compromised” the “unbiased information” the site was founded upon. Of course, it’s a load of fetid dingos’ kidneys that anything Mercola ever wrote on his site was “unbiased.” It’s heavily biased in favor of his unscientific views on health. But even if it were truly “unbiased,” let’s take a look at the choice he claims he faced. Either he had to find advertisers or investors or:

Instead, I started to sell high-quality products that I believed in and which I, my friends and family were already using. This revenue allowed the site to grow, and around 2010 I became involved in health activism in order to prompt real change to the health care model.

I formed the Health Liberty campaign and am now aligned with a number of highly effective non-profit organizations that are committed to protecting your health liberties.

A portion of the profits generated from the sale of the products I recommend goes to a variety of non-profit organizations. This year, in addition to donating a portion of our profits from product sales, I will donate $1 for every page view this article gets, up to $250,000.

So let’s see. Paid advertising from outside sources is an unacceptable affront to the objectivity of Mercola.com, but supplement sales are not? What is more of a temptation to someone like Mercola? Payments for advertising or payments directly to him for products that he manufactures and/or brands? Putting myself in a position like Mercola’s, I can say that I’d be far more interested in money flowing into my coffers to pay for products I sell than I would be in money from mere advertising. I daresay any entrepreneur would say the same. For one thing, if you own the products being sold, as far as profits go the sky’s the limit, whereas there are definite limitations to what can be brought in by advertising, particularly in the Internet age. Indeed, it’s rather amusing that Mercola would try to justify his existence by claiming that selling supplements would be less likely to result in bias in the content of Mercola.com than advertising. Does Mercola really think that trying to sell supplements won’t influence him to present information that shows the claims used to sell his supplements in the best possible light?

Clearly, at some level, he realizes that he’s in it for the money now, but he still sees himself as that scrappy promoter of “natural health” 19 years ago who started a website back when the World Wide Web had only become accessible to basically anyone for a few years. Now he lives in a very expensive, fancy house and pulls in millions of dollars a year selling supplements. There’s no way in a normal human being that making millions of dollars selling something won’t bias that person in favor of his own products and in favor of the “natural health” world view that makes his products attractive. His views that commercial interests cause bias compete with his belief that he is promoting “unbiased information” about “natural health.” Mercola resolves that dissonance by arguing that he had to start selling supplements to keep his website going, the implication being that he still has to, and by touting how he’s using some of the millions he makes every year to support “natural health” causes, like the antivaccine National Vaccine Information Center and the like.

Consider this:

Just one of the claims is that Dr. Mercola’s liposomal vitamin D is somehow better than regular vitamin D:

Mercola Liposomal Vitamin D contains phospholipids from sunflower lecithin that create liposomes in your gastrointestinal tract. The liposomes deliver the nutrients directly into your bloodstream, ensuring better absorption of the vitamin D to its target organs and cells.

Liposomal vitamin D also utilizes innovative Licaps capsules. Licaps feature “Fusion Technology” to seal the capsule without bands, making oxidation and leakage virtually impossible — ensuring an extremely fresh product.

This is what I like to call “woo babble.” Its the equivalent of what Star Trek fans know as “technobabble,” only with woo instead. In other words, it’s meaningless, but it sounds very, very impressive. In fact, as ridiculous as Star Trek tehcnobabble can sometimes be, woo babble is even more ridiculous. Don’t believe me? Here’s some more woo babble from Dr. Mercola:

Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant that can cross the blood-brain and blood-retina barriers, which means it travels to parts of your pet’s body that other antioxidants don’t.

Astaxanthin may help support brain, eye and central nervous system health while helping to reduce DNA damage and support cardiovascular health and normal immune response. Our astaxanthin for pets uses airless pump technology, which is easy to administer to pets and keeps the product fresher, too.

Or, even more amusingly:

BioCharged Kitty Litter outperforms other pine-based litters, clay, wheat, and nut-based litters for absorbency, odor control and dust factors. It’s made from environmentally friendly ingredients and, with its organic biochar and recycled pine, is perfect for composting or adding to your garden after use in your cat’s box. Just make sure you remove all of the solids first.

What the hell does “BioCharged” even mean? Certainly we never find out from Mercola, even here, but you can be sure that there are no GMOs in this litter, as if that matters.

The bottom line is that Mercola is deluding himself and deceiving when he claims that somehow he is somehow more “pure” and less prone to “bias” by selling his own “products” in order to support the “unbiased” nature of his articles on his websites. While in the beginning he might very well have had the motivations that he describes, to help people, when he started his website and he might even really be selling supplements and “BioCharged Kitty Litter” because he thinks it is less likely to bias what he writes and publishes on his website, Mercola is deluding himself if he thinks he is not compromised by this commercial activity. More depressingly, his readers are even more deluded if they believe that Mercola’s selling of supplements makes him less biased than big pharma or anyone else. In fact, Mercola will never publish anything that casts doubt on the benefits of anything he sells. In that, he is no different from big pharma.

Of course, Dr. Mercola believes himself to be so much better morally than big pharma; so he tells himself and everyone else that he has to sell woo in order to promote his message and that that selling of everything from supplements to “biocharged” cat litter doesn’t taint his objectivity. That is cognitive dissonance at its finest!