No Pseudomedicine for Women

women with microscope

For what is done or learned by one class of women becomes, by virtue of their common womanhood, the property of all women.

—Elizabeth Blackwell (The first female physician in the U.S.)

As a new blogger, I’ve been paying more attention to online health sources. I have noticed many of the media figures responsible for broadcasting false health information are female. This observation worries me: are women in the media taking advantage of female audiences?

When I practiced as a naturopath, the most common source of information that patients came in with was Dr. Oz. A patient, usually female, might have seen Dr. Oz chant about a specific miracle herb and wanted to give it a try. Perhaps they saw one of the many alternative medicine gurus he parades on his show and were inspired to establish me as their doctor. Female patients seemed drawn to me as a natural, non-toxic, and mindful type of doctor, so in that sense, naturopaths should be indebted to the Oz effect.

Lately, I find it refreshing to watch critics, trying to at least, hold Oz’s feet to the fire for his outlandish claims and unprofessional conduct. But I want to draw attention to a root issue, unlike Oz, who is but a symptom of the disease.

The Big O

American women seem most vulnerable to pseudoscientific health information. In 2013, the US Department of Labor estimated that women make approximately 80% of family health care decisions. It is no wonder women are being targeted for the big business of supplements, homeopathy, detox, and other pseudoscientific goods and services. Women have spending power, and influential women in the media seem to have a profound impact on consumer behavior.

We will never forget how Oprah propelled Dr. Oz into the spotlight, however I think it is fun to start with the most bizarre pseudomedicine she has promoted. Have you heard of John of God? She and her producer, who was “treated” by John of God in Brazil, show that John of God has superhuman healing powers. One of these abilities is to use his mind to perform “surgeries” on patients for almost any physical and mental condition. He also performs stage-tricks to fool patients into believing he is removing tumors from their bodies. (James Randi shows how this works.)

John of God is perhaps the most ridiculous pseudomedicine Oprah has promoted but is not the most dangerous. When she gave Jenny McCarthy a stage for her false accusations about how her son developed autism from the MMR vaccine, Oprah was playing with fire.

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The fear of vaccinations has led to many parents opting to vaccinate according to an alternative immunization schedule or not vaccinate at all. Unvaccinated subpopulations of children have contributed to the recent infectious disease outbreaks across the country, like the 2015 measles outbreak which began at Disneyland. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe, fringe ideas to the contrary were delivered by and continued to flow from Oprah’s media empire.

Oprah has also promoted The Secret, a book which espouses the virtue of using your mind to manifest your worldly desires; and Suzanne Somers, who promotes a painstaking regime of bio-identical hormones, supplements, and injections (some into her vagina!) to defy the course of aging.

Perhaps to make some episodes more legitimate seeming, Oprah has frequently hosted medical doctors who dabble in the woo. Dr. Christine Northrup, MD has discussed her belief that thyroid diseases are caused by a disruption of chakra energy in the throat. She also uses tarot cards in her medical practice to help diagnose disease.

Oprah has also given the stage to Dr. David Katz, MD, who argues that medical research needs to become more accommodating of lower quality evidence. This idea is particularly dangerous for patients. If doctors begin reinterpreting medicine by giving undeserved credit to data from poor studies, case reports, or anecdotal evidence, patients will receive worse care.

I see this effect in the naturopathic profession. Naturopathic care is stuck in a pit of history and ideology. Evidence of any kind is used to rationalize whatever therapeutic approaches that fit within these preconceived boundaries. If you are ever curious to see what naturopathic research is up to, check out the publication Naturopathic Doctors News and Review.

I know Oprah is philanthropic, and I appreciate her generosity and success story. As a minority woman, she is especially impressive to have made it in America. However, Oprah’s track record on science is dismal. She has given so much to many, but I think the time has come for her to get back to reality. Women all over the world look to Oprah for inspiration, and I am under the impression that the Oprah effect can rapidly influence public perception and action. I like to think that a more scientific Oprah could do many times more good than Oprah on woo-woo.

The Greek Goddess

It is not just on-screen personalities that use their fame to the detriment of women. Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post has grown an online media empire, which frequently publishes pseudomedicine. Huffington Post has a “naturopathic medicine” tag with which you can find dozens of articles that speak positively about the profession. It appears to me that since so little is known about naturopathic medicine, these media appearances seem to be instruments of legitimacy that naturopaths use to court lawmakers and the public.

A particular article from 2012 by Michael Standclift, ND struck a nerve. He attempts to explain to readers that licensed naturopaths are well-trained and scientifically oriented medical professionals. His description of the education and philosophy of naturopathic medicine, however, is a lazy replication of the falsehoods promulgated by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP). So, right there, the message of the AANP is reproduced by a massive media outlet.

In fact, naturopaths do not take the same medical coursework as students in real medical schools, and the number of hours ND students study in these basic science courses shadows by comparison. I also made it clear on ScienceBasedMedicine.org that ND clinical training is grossly exaggerated and cannot possibly train medical pracitioners who are competent and safe.

One of the most prolific naturopaths on Huffington Post is Amy Rothenberg, ND. She is a board member of the AANP and president of the Massachusetts naturopathic association. If you watched any of the recent FDA hearing on homeopathy you might have seen Rothenberg argue that homeopathy is a safe and effective medical system and integral to the health of millions of Americans. Since homeopathy is pure magic, by which I mean it doesn’t work without breaking the laws of chemistry and physics, you get the sense for the level of scientific expertise that naturopaths bring to the table.

On Huffington Post, the word “homeopath” returns 228 articles, mostly written by homeopathy cheerleader Dana Ullman. A quick look through these articles reveals almost unanimous support for homeopathy and only lip service criticism to the fact that a system of medicine cannot be based upon sugar pills with Latin names. Ullman often claims that homeopathy works at the quantum level in our bodies to promote healing. Yet, as physicists are still trying to work out the complexities of quantum mechanics for themselves, and there has yet to even be a working quantum computer, how does Ullman or any other homeopath already have this quantum medicine breakthrough pinned down?

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Arianna Huffington, you can do better.

Other Ladies in La-La Land

Oprah and Huffington are two prominent examples of female media moguls pushing snake oil medicine. There are many more examples of aspiring women who are fully swimming (or drowning) in the sea of woo.

The Food Babe is an easy target. She once warned us all that the air we breath in airplanes is dangerous because it is full of nitrogen. She must not have known that the air we all breath standing on planet Earth is mostly nitrogen. From Yvette d’Entremont (a.k.a. SciBabe) recently handing her a royal can of whoop-ass, Food Babe seems quieter and has attempted to erase past gaffs, but I doubt she will ditch her fear mongering. Her messages are simply too attractive to an audience that is not comfortable with science.

Most appalling is Belle Gibson, the Australian blogger who faked brain cancer in order to profit from alternative cancer cures. In her blog, Gibson describes how avoiding conventional medicine and choosing natural medicine cured her cancer and kept her in remission. She went on to drive a nutrition enterprise based on dietary fixes for severe diseases. My stomach churns at the thought of cancer patients following her advice, buying her goods, and not treating themselves with scientifically backed therapies. Gibson is a complete disgrace and should be considered a criminal.

Looking around the blogosphere, I’ve noticed other media outlets focusing on women empowerment that also promote pseudomedicine. One group is EmpowHer.com, which was founded by a woman who sought alternative medicine after undergoing a hysterectomy. Her site often features health advice written by naturopaths trying to promote themselves online and in private practice. On Twitter, I was contacted to pitch a story for them, but I’m not so sure.

EmpowHer.com frequently encourages women to explore alternative health options for illness and medical issues, as you can see:

I’m not sure EmpowHer.com would want publish my take on alt-med or naturopathy, but I might consider writing an EmpowHER-ing anecdote about women in science and medicine. The group’s naturopaths will probably not be so happy.

Conclusion

I am stunned by what seems to be the exploitation of women by other women. It might be considered female-to-female intellectual violence. I use strong words because I am under the impression that the women in the media promoting pseudomedicine must know what they are doing. At least, they should know what they are doing. Someone, a producer, writer, or executive, must know these messages are hurting women.

I do not buy arguments that the media has a responsibility to cover both sides of a story on fringe medical topics. This is a classic example of false equivalency. The media has a social responsibility to get things right and cover issues with due diligence and accuracy. They should not give detoxification and superhuman healing powers equal weight to the corpus of knowledge gained from the careful application of the scientific method to health. It seems that the media has catastrophically lowered the bar.

Women deserve better because we largely remain mistreated by society. In America, we make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes doing the same job. We are underrepresented in politics, and our bodies’ freedoms are contested. I don’t think a female politician has ever said anything about how a woman’s anatomy can spontaneously reject pregnancy from rape. Yet, there is something very gross about Oprah promoting Suzanne Somer’s regime of injecting bioidentical hormones into the vagina that makes me feel violated.

It has been suggested by Jennifer Baumgardner, the Executive Director/Publisher at The Feminist Press that there may be a fourth wave of feminism happening now. She argues that this wave is interwoven with the rapid-fire media and social technology like blogs and Twitter.

I agree with Baumgardner. Social media has an impact. We need to identify this effect and translate it into accurate criticism of irresponsible health information.

We need more women in science. We need them to conduct more research and make important decisions where funding is allocated. We need young girls to develop an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. We need women to embrace science and use it to make our lives better.

I am humbled to see that many women are already working on it. Rebecca Watson, founder of Skepchick.org, is a great example of a woman strongly advocating women’s issues through the lenses of science and critical thinking. I’d say my views are more suited for Skepchick than EmpowHER.

I also stumbled upon this podcast produced by Science for the People which nicely discusses some of the history and current trends of women in STEM fields.

I don’t think it’s too idealistic to say that women should and will lead in science.

One day, we may usurp the Winfrey Wizard of Oz.

Image credits: 1) USAID, some rights reserved. 2) Surian Soosay, some rights reserved. 3) Screenshot of HuffingtonPost.com.