For Discussion: Should I Write Only About Fake Stuff If It Is Well-Known?

A person who describes himself as a “pseudoscience fighter” e-mailed me to chastise me for writing about Prodovite last week. He felt compelled to offer me some advice. He made some good points; but they were things I had already thought about, and they didn’t change my mind. I thought it might be useful to open up the discussion and see what others think.

He praised SBM for its approach to pseudoscience and falsehoods that are well-known or well-publicized; but he argued that if the fake stuff is not really well-known, it is best to quash it silently (by ignoring it). He said he had seen thousands of scams similar to Prodovite, but not Prodovite itself; he would not have known about it if I hadn’t written about it. So he thinks I am providing free publicity and may inadvertently influence people to try it. He mentions the Streisand effect and the danger that some anti-scientists will post rebuttals on their own blogs.

He says that by telling the world that I responded to an email I may encourage scammers to write me, get me to critique their offerings, get me to provide free advertising, and then decry my harshness and negativity as a rejection of things science can’t understand. He says granting a response implies there is worth in investigating such junk. And critiquing bad studies is counterproductive because readers will learn that those studies exist and will cite them as “evidence.”

As I usually do, I ended the Prodovite article by pointing out that it’s impossible to know whether a product is safe and effective if it has never been properly tested. He thinks scammers will pick on this and say it shows I’m actually not really sure that Prodovite does not work. Well, I’m not. And the sellers and customers can’t really be sure that it does work. I think that’s an important point to make, even if some readers fail to understand.

He urges me to make my assertions as precise and uncompromising as possible. I try not to make dogmatic assertions because they are seldom warranted by the evidence. It may be impressive to assert “vaccines have been proven not to cause autism” but if I wrote that it would discredit me and make people who understand science discount the rest of what I wrote. It’s more precise and accurate to say, “Scientists have studied this extensively and have found no evidence that vaccines cause autism. In fact, the evidence doesn’t even show a correlation.”

He didn’t mention one problem that I worry about: the backfire effect, where confronting believers with evidence against their belief only makes them believe even more strongly and encourages them to think up more rationalizations to justify their confirmation bias.

I had not heard of Prodovite before, and I didn’t want to waste my time writing about a product that only a handful of people had heard of. How am I to judge whether a product is well-known? I tried to get some idea by searching online. I did a Google search for “Prodovite” and got 102,000 results. It seemed obvious to me that it was fairly well known. Is 102,000 not enough? How many are enough to consider it well known?

The results were all favorable information and testimonials. There was no negative information, no skeptical comments, no application of critical thinking skills. That’s the problem with dietary supplements like this, and with CAM treatments in general: most scientists don’t take them seriously enough to bother investigating them or commenting on them (hence the need for the Science-Based Medicine blog).

My search told a one-sided story. I couldn’t find a single website questioning the claims for Prodovite. Not a single comment about the nonsensical claims in the advertising (like the “molecule” they observed that was larger than the blood cells, or the abnormally small white blood cells that quadrupled in size in a mere five minutes). Not a single criticism of the only clinical study, no hint that it was junk science. No criticism of their choosing bogus live cell analysis for a “scientific” test.

Now, when potential customers search the Internet, they will find my article in the first page of results. They may ignore it, but at least now there is the possibility that inquiring minds will learn that Prodovite is not universally accepted as a superior, science-based nutritional supplement. I think it’s worthwhile putting that information out there. My SkepDoc’s Rule is “before you believe a claim, find out who disagrees with it and why.” And you can’t do that if no one has bothered to disagree with it yet.

Other articles I have written are ranking high on Google searches and I know they have reached a lot of people because many of them have contacted me to thank me, to ask questions, to tell me about other studies that they think constitute proof (they don’t!), or to offer testimonials about their own good or bad experiences.

Sometimes I can tell I have really hit a nerve and upset the true believers. It doesn’t change their minds, but it may worry them a bit. I can hope I have planted a tiny seed of doubt that may be fertilized by information from other sources over time and may eventually bear fruit. I once got an email from an acupuncturist who had stopped acupuncturing and found another career because of what I wrote. I said it wasn’t supported by the evidence. He “knew” it was and set out to find the evidence and prove me wrong. Instead, he proved himself wrong. In fact, he said one of the textbooks he had relied on had no references to supporting studies at all – just bald assertions.

I still regularly get emails from Protandim distributors every time a new study comes out. The response to my Isagenix article was so hilarious it generated another article.

Sure, there are thousands of similar products. I couldn’t possibly write about all of them. My hope is to educate readers and give them ideas to help them evaluate similar products for themselves. My goal is to encourage readers to ask questions, to teach them how to think, not what to think.

Does writing about things like Prodovite do more harm than good? I don’t think so. Your comments are welcome.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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