The quickest way to convince me to dismiss someone as ignorant is when they support their arguments with links to Joseph Mercola’s popular alternative health website. Here’s the lowdown on quackery.

Whenever I write about health issues, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines against the virus that causes it, a small but vocal group of readers bombards the comments with endless founts of misinformation, antivaxxery and quackery.

A common trait of such people is that when they can be bothered to support their claims by citing a source, they don’t refer to the established medical literature. They rarely even cherry-pick a small study in an obscure journal that contradicts most published science but supports their position.

Instead, they’ll be very convinced of the strength of their position because they can cite an article on the internet that makes their case for them.

The great virtue of the internet is that everyone has a voice, relatively free of censorship. The great failing of the internet is that everyone has a voice, relatively free of censorship. It has never occurred to these people that someone might go on the internet and just… lie!

Amid rants about the greed and corruption of the pharmaceutical and medical industries, which are allegedly engaged in plots to sicken us, or keep us sick, so they can profit from our poor health, they’ll post links to sites like that of Dr Joseph Mercola.

Mercola himself is full of vim about the ‘medical-industrial complex’, describing pharmaceutical companies as ‘the thugs of the medical world’.

What his fans fail to realise is that Mercola is himself a greedy fellow driven only by profit, flogging overpriced alternative medicines, dietary supplements and natural remedies. Not only is this a serious conflict of interest, but it has netted him, by his own estimate, ‘in excess of $100 million’.

Link me to Mercola, and you go straight into a pigeonhole with a demeaning label. I don’t care if Mercola says the sky is blue. I will assume he is wrong, until presented with peer-reviewed papers in a reputable scientific journal that say otherwise.

(Of course, the sky isn’t really blue. This is just an optical effect of how different wavelengths of light are transmitted through a medium containing very small particles. And there isn’t even scientific consensus about that.)

One can only deal with so much misinformation in one day, and trying to reason with people who have outed themselves as being immune to reason, while perhaps amusing or even instructive to bystanders, gets tedious after a while.

So let’s take a look at why I automatically dismiss any argument supported by links to Mercola, in particular, and other quackery sites in general.

Osteopathy

Let’s start with his qualifications.

Joseph Mercola’s title of doctor is a bit of an oddity. He is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), which is a professional degree for physicians in the United States. In the US it legally confers the same rights and privileges as a real medical degree (MD) does.

This qualification is not universally recognised, although it has recently been recognised by the Association of Medical Councils of Africa, which includes South Africa. But then, South Africa – via the Allied Health Professions Council – also recognises a wide variety of other magical pixie dust, such as Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy, phytotherapy, therapeutic aromatherapy, therapeutic massage therapy, therapeutic reflexology and Unani-Tibb.

Some of these unscientific practices are even taught in South African universities as ‘alternative medicine’. To quote Tim Minchin (whose beat poem Storm on the subject of quackery is required viewing): ‘By definition, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work. Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.’

Developed in the mid-19th century by Andrew Taylor Still, who became disillusioned with the era’s conventional medicine (ring bells?), osteopathy holds that illnesses of the body have their roots in the musculoskeletal system.

He believed that manipulation of the spine, bones and joints could improve blood flow (as opposed to improving nerve function as the similarly esoteric practice of chiropractic maintains), thus allowing the body to heal itself.

So sure was he that the body would naturally tend to a healthy state, that he prohibited his patients from using conventional medicine.

The practice of osteopathy posited the existence of a ‘myofascial continuity’, connective tissue that links every part of the body with every other. This does not exist. Neither does the ‘osteopathic lesion’ that osteopaths claimed to treat before they renamed it to the exquisitely vague ‘somatic dysfunction’, which just means ‘there’s something wrong with the body’.

Modern osteopathic medicine has adopted many, if not most, principles of conventional medicine, except that they still believe manual manipulation of the bones is useful in minimising the need for intervention with drugs.

There is very limited evidence for the effectiveness of osteopathy in the treatment of, specifically, musculoskeletal disorders, and none at all for its effectiveness in the treatment of any condition not directly related to the bones or joints, such as asthma, pneumonia, dysmenorrhea, or paediatric conditions.

Inasmuch as modern osteopathic medicine differs from conventional medicine, it is quackery. Inasmuch as it coincides, it is superfluous.

Mercola himself has a curious view on osteopathic medicine. On the one hand, he emphasises the fact that DOs are essentially equivalent to MDs, except that they ‘treat the person as a whole’ and manipulate the musculoskeletal system.

This is a common piece of misdirection by alternative medicine practitioners, who like to emphasise their ‘holistic’ approach. Yet when you take a health complaint to a regular MD, you are equally likely to get advice about diet, lifestyle, sleep, exercise and coping with the stresses of modern life.

On the other hand, Mercola laments the fact that most DOs ‘fall into the drug and surgical solution trap’, prescribing ‘toxic drugs’, instead of prescribing natural remedies. He refers readers to the American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM), which offers courses in all sorts of medical magic.

ACAM is notable for promoting chelation therapy for a range of conditions. Chelation is a procedure for removing heavy metals from blood. In 1998 the Federal Trade Commission accused ACAM of making false claims about chelation and ordered it to cease promoting it as a treatment for atherosclerosis, and for any other ailment for which there was no reliable scientific evidence. Yet ACAM continued to promote chelation as a treatment for heart disease in diabetes patients, well into the 21st century, despite a paucity of evidence of how it works or whether it works at all.

Violations

Mercola, besides offering advice that a small-print disclaimer admits should not be mistaken for medical advice, sells dietary supplements, natural remedies and medical devices, many of which are controversial. He deftly employs a well-honed arsenal of snake-oil sales techniques, such as misrepresenting science, scare tactics, psychological manipulation, conspiracy theories, and pseudo-science.

Who doesn’t want to believe that instead of taking expensive medicines with potential side-effects, they can cure whatever ails them with vitamins, greens or common ingredients from the kitchen pantry?

As recently as last month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told Mercola to quit hawking unproven remedies for Covid-19: ‘The FDA has observed that your [Mercola’s] website offers “Liposomal Vitamin C,” “Liposomal Vitamin D3,” and “Quercetin and Pterostilbene Advanced” products for sale in the United States and that these products are intended to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure Covid-19 in people. Based on our review, these products are unapproved new drugs sold in violation of [the law]. Furthermore, these products are misbranded drugs…’

At the time of writing (17 March 2021), Mercola had not complied, and was still advertising the offending products as ‘synergistic therapy for Covid-19’.

This isn’t the first time that he has fallen foul of regulators for selling quack remedies. In 2005, the FDA warned Mercola to quit making claims about the medical use of supplements that were not supported by clinical trials and were not approved by the FDA. In 2006 it repeated the warning about a different set of products. In 2011 it barred him from marketing a thermal camera as a diagnostic tool that he claimed could detect cancer before conventional cancer screening tools would do so.

In 2016 the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement with Mercola in terms of which he would cease all unproven health claims about ultra-violet devices and would cease selling tanning beds, which Mercola said could ‘reverse your wrinkles’ and ‘slash your risk of cancer’. He also agreed to refund millions of dollars to the customers he defrauded with his claims.

Mercola follows a common pattern. Find some research that suggests a given compound might be effective against a certain condition, in humans, in animals, in the lab, or even just in computer models. Extrapolate from these speculative or preliminary findings and bottle whatever it is, be it some herbal concoction, vitamins, or a chemical compound. Forgo the cost and bother of clinical trials and regulatory approval, and sell your product as ‘alternative medicine’. Throw in a judicious ‘the cure the medical industry doesn’t want you to know about’ and you have all the makings of a $100 million business.

Cancer lies

According to Mercola, lots and lots of things cause cancer. Here are just a few, courtesy of Melissa Dahl at The Cut: root canals, tattoos, birth control, bras, microwave popcorn, the H1N1 vaccine, the HPV vaccine (which prevents cervical cancer), actually, most vaccines, cellphones, landlines (if they’re cordless), wearable tech with 3G connections, fructose, antiperspirant, tamoxifen (a cancer treatment), heartburn medications, tap water, power lines, burning incense, electric blankets, hair dye, Pringles, carbs, ‘dirty’ electricity, and cereal.

So almost everything Mercola doesn’t sell causes cancer, except the tanning beds he did sell, and which real doctors warn increase one’s risk of getting skin cancer.

Mercola has a whole lot of strange ideas about cancer and cancer treatment. He climbed onto the bandwagon of the Italian quack Dr Tullio Simoncini, who had a theory that all cancer was caused by a fungus similar or identical to candida. He claimed it could be treated with sodium bicarbonate, commonly sold as baking soda.

This is the same treatment, from the same doctor, that the late Inkatha Freedom Party MP, Mario Oriano-Ambrosini, claimed had stopped his terminal lung cancer in its tracks, eight months before he killed himself to escape the suffering in 2014.

Ambrosini was a good man, and a smart man, but he was desperate. This led him to a strong condemnation of conventional medicine and strong advocacy for Simoncini’s treatment, even though it had caused him ‘horrendous recurrent infections’ and ‘several intimate discussions with the Grim Reaper’.

Long before he died, Ambrosini’s highly visible campaign in support of alternative medicine was roundly, and rightly, condemned by Nathan Geffen, the editor of GroundUp and former treasurer of the Treatment Action Campaign. Geffen concluded: ‘[A]rticles that encourage people to make bad choices about their health-care are potentially deadly.’

I referred to this incident myself in a column about homemade cures for cancer a few years later.

The original Mercola article from 2008 about the baking-soda cancer cure has disappeared, and mysteriously diverts to a 2012 anti-GMO article. A comprehensive defenestration of the claim survives on a now-defunct blog by professor of surgery and oncology David H. Gorski. Gorski is a venerable debunker of myths and quackery who these days writes at the highly recommended Respectful Insolence and Science-Based Medicine. Another debunking of the fungus-bicarb myth can be found on the website of Cancer Research UK.

Mercola hasn’t quit purveying half-baked and downright dangerous cancer treatments, however. These include a ketogenic diet or fasting, and detoxification ‘using a far-infrared sauna coupled with a near-infrared light’ (which he sells), ‘organic coffee enemas’ (which he sells), and ‘taking regular baths with Epsom salt, baking soda and clay’.

He also promotes ‘Gerson therapy’ to cure cancer, which consists of an organic, vegetarian diet high in potassium and low in sodium, plus plenty of Mercola’s own vitamin supplements and coffee enemas.

Detoxing is, of course, a myth. Other than as a medical procedure for the treatment of acute intoxication with alcohol, drugs or poison, it does not exist. The healthy body has plenty ways to get rid of both environmental toxins and toxins generated within the body, and no diet or cleanse materially improves on this process. Harvard Health has compiled critiques of a variety of detox claims. Here’s another debunking of detoxification.

Gerson therapy also does not work. ‘Based on one methodologically flawed retrospective study and several case reports, there is no clear evidence that Gerson therapy is an effective treatment for people with cancer,’ says CAM Cancer, a group that provides high-quality, evidence-based information on complementary and alternative medicine for cancer.

Anyone who claims to sell you detoxification is, by definition, a quack. It’s an instant red flag. So are diet-based cures for cancer. Mercola is lying to you, to benefit his own pocket.

Homeopathy lies

Mercola claims that ‘the effectiveness of homeopathy is confirmed daily in the work of homeopaths’.

The core principle of homeopathy is that ‘like cures like’. If this sounds absurd, that’s because it is. But it gets worse. It makes ‘medicine’ by diluting a tincture so many times that not a single molecule of the original content could plausibly remain, and then activating it by tapping it ten times against leather stuffed with horsehair. If this sounds like magic, that’s because it is.

In trying to explain it, Mercola quotes a homeopath, saying: ‘The mechanism of action comes from the fact that water molecules take on a photographic image of the energy footprint and vibration of the substance’.

Mercola even claims that his article, which relies heavily on dubious testimonials rather than scientific research, is ‘fact checked’. Well, here’s a proper fact check, by scientists. By citing high-quality clinical studies, it concludes that ‘there is neither evidence to support a claim of clinical efficacy with homeopathy nor a plausible mechanism by which homeopathy could work’.

Perhaps to gain sympathy as the victim of persecution by the evil medical-industrial complex, Mercola recently claimed that the FDA had declared homeopathic remedies to be illegal. This claim proved to be false.

While it would be fraudulent to claim that homeopathic remedies have any medicinal qualities, they are not inherently dangerous. How could they be, when they are water that contains literally nothing but the supposed ‘memory’ of what it once contained (but conveniently forgot the sewerage that passed through it)?

The only way in which homeopathic remedies are harmful – and this is a very significant risk – is that, like with quack cancer remedies, they might persuade people to forgo or postpone real medical treatment, leading to avoidable health complications or even death.

Like with detoxification, anyone who claims homeopathy works is a quack and a fraud.

More lies

Here are some more fact-checked claims by Mercola:

  • ‘WHO admits high-cycle PCR tests produce Covid false positives”; the WHO’s new guidance includes lower PCR thresholds.’ (Inaccurate.)
  • ‘Vitamins C and D are now finally being adopted in the conventional treatment of SARS-CoV-2; Vitamin C at extremely high doses acts as an antiviral drug, actually killing viruses; vitamin D helps the body fight SARS-CoV-2 infection and can cut infection risk.’ (Partially correct.)
  • ‘Studies have repeatedly linked fluoride to reduced IQ and brain damage.’ (Misleading.)
  • ‘Vitamin D is more effective than [the] flu vaccine.’ (Unsupported.)
  • ‘The Silicon Valley company, Profusa, in partnership with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has created an injectable biosensor capable of detecting the presence of an infection in your body.’ (Misleading.)
  • The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes Covid-19 was ‘genetically engineered in the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s P4 (high-containment) lab in a program supervised by the Chinese military’. (False.)
  • ‘I’m 61 and I’ve never had a colonoscopy and have no plans of ever getting one. While I believe they can be valuable as a diagnostic tool, I feel confident that with my diet (which includes daily amounts of raw turmeric) and lifestyle it’s highly unlikely I would develop colon cancer.’ (Wishful thinking.)
  • ‘[Mercury is SO toxic that entire buildings have been evacuated for a mercury spill smaller than a standard dental filling.’ (Hypocritical, since the Himalayan crystal cooking salt Mercola sells contains, among its ‘84 trace elements’, poisons like mercury, arsenic, lead, and thallium, and radioactive elements like radium, uranium, polonium, and plutonium.)

Mercola is also a major donor to and partner of America’s leading anti-vaccine misinformation network, and worries that the Covid-19 vaccine will ‘make you transhuman’. He is one of the major players in the anti-vax industry.

Red flags

These are just some of the red flags that signal why Mercola cannot be relied upon for factual, evidence-based information. A complete survey would take a book. He is a quack, a fraud and a liar, and makes millions out of the misinformed, the gullible, the ignorant, and the desperate.

He is not alone, of course. There are endless other sources of medical misinformation. A glaring example is ‘Health Ranger’ Mike Adams and NaturalNews, whose lies, conspiracy theories and quackery could fill another book. The ‘Food Babe’, Vani Hari, plumbs depths of ignorance that defy credulity. Robert F. Kennedy’s antivax group Children’s Health Defense is so bad that his own family members denounced him. What these quacks peddle is not science. It’s nescience.

QuackWatch, a guide published by Stephen Barrett, a medical doctor, offers a useful list of 28 ways to spot quacks and vitamin pushers.

I try to spot those signs, which is why if someone refers me to a site such as Mercola’s swamp of quackery, they go in that pigeonhole, and the conversation is over.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.