Dr. Corso's med blog: Real Vs Junk Science

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Real Vs Junk Science

This is a copy of the email response I gave to a friend who asked me to review the “science” behind a supplement made of volcanic rock:

“I listened to the on-line "scientific discussion" of the product. I get asked to participate in teleseminar discussions of this sort a lot and no longer waste my time. I'll tell you what I tell most of my patients and friends who ask my scientific/medical opinion of such a product.

Let me just say first, that I don't want to offend anyone, especially, you. But you have directly asked for my opinion so I'll share it with you. In looking at what I wrote below, I find that I am going on a bit - but I hope you'll take it in the spirit of a friend who happens to understand the science part of health.

I am a scientist; I understand the math, the statistics and the methods that are meaningful for establishing scientific evidence and I also recognize those things that aren't. I only dwell on this because I want you to realize that understanding the science of a health study is very complicated and most people who don't do this kind of thing for a living don't have a clue. It's not about brains, but it is a specialized area of knowledge. It's easy for people in companies like this to sound scientific to the average, intelligent person, but to still be talking nonsense. And that's what they’re talking.

I find this company/product to be typical of the industry, that is, advertising and selling a substance as a "toxin remover" and claiming scientific evidence to back the claim. But they can't have it both ways. It's OK to claim some mystical power for your product and sell it to "believers," claim that individuals who take it say they feel better, etc OR you can claim that real science backs your claims. But they try to do both.

There is real science, and there is sham-science and theirs, unfortunately, is the latter - it's nonsense. They quote three studies in goats or sheep (ruminants) where all the animals got a supplement, 50% their brand, 50% brand "X" and their goats had "better nutritional status" at the end of the study proving that they not only remove toxins but are "nutrition enhancers." No placebo control. No genetic homogeneity in the animal (a MUST in animal studies with small numbers) and no prospective endpoints defined before the study begins. I could just as easily say that their study only showed that brand “X” was a “nutrition detractor.”

This is a typical snake oil show for those who do not understand real health studies. My book talks a bit about the difference between retrospective and prospective studies (their's doesn't qualify as either!) and how carefully each study must be constructed and carried out to be able to actually make a claim at the end. And claims from real studies NEVER generalize with stupid words like "toxins" or "nutrition enhancers." Real science is about details. What toxin are you referring to, sir? What nutrition marker(s) are you quoting and why? Where are the hundreds of references that establish the validity of the toxins and nutritional measurements you use? Real studies are difficult to set up, to justify, to carry out, to get reviewed by the experts and to get published in reputable journals.

To draw an (admittedly obnoxious) analogy, I would ask you: Would you rather get on the maiden voyage of a plane built by scientists who carefully and accurately calculated things like the true tensile and ductile strength of the metal used to build the wings, the maximum shear tolerance the wings can handle in a sharp turn, the real atmospheric turbulence data about how our skies actually behave, the thrust range of the engines, the results of hundreds of wind tunnel simulations and every other one of the millions of real details that allow an airliner to fly successfully 99.92% of the time?

Or would you get on a brand new, untested plane, beautifully painted, (as it's being rolled off a cliff and into the sky for its maiden voyage) which was designed by an enlightened artist who used his intuition and sense of style and who claims to have divinely solved the problem of how to "avoid problem zones of sky - sky daemons" and to "flow with nature's beautiful healthy lines of force" by using a special ancient icon taken from a Mayan pyramid which has protected people for centuries! and so can be counted upon to gently transport you in health and happiness?

There's a reason the planes made using real science fly, and why you won't see many functional flying machines of the latter kind. But many of us who look at the so-called science behind a health supplement choose not to use the same rigor and criticism we might bring to bare if we were deciding to put our child onto one of the two contraptions described above. The rules of science are the same - the stakes are just so much smaller when it comes to "eating washed volcanic ash" which the FDA has noted isn't absorbed into the body and doesn't seem harmful. So we let our belief system decide what we swallow and try to delude ourselves that there is science behind our choice.

So there you have my take on this product from what I've seen so far. There is no science at all. Whenever a sales person talks about "toxins" but cannot name the exact molecule(s) and the exact effects of the so-called toxicity, they are either liars or they're ignorant.

Many of my friends believe in such products - and I have no trouble at all with that or with them, because if someone believes they will be healthier, they will be. I don't want to threaten them in any way with my opinions (I don't care what others choose to believe) and I don't claim these products aren't at all good. I claim that SCIENCE has not said anything about them one way or the other. That's all. So my opinion as a scientist is unnecessary. There is no science - just hype - in the claims they make.

When salespeople choose to lie and distort the facts about real science as it pertains to their product, I must view them as dishonest profiteers. That's what I found on the web site of this company and dozens of others like it. I believe history will look back on the supplement craze and the multilevel marketing that drives it with an unkind eye. Hope you're not sorry you asked, but I'll always answer honestly to a friend."



Thank you for a balanced view of the issue. You are more tolerant than I am. I'm not even a scientist, but I detest this non-scientific approach to doing medicine. I have complained to the AMA ethics committee about Dr. Oz (man, what an appropriate name for a man who purveys nonsense). And don't get me started on alternative medicine. Ask Steve Jobs how that worked out.

9:18 AM  

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