I’ve made a blog post over on Weightology regarding an alleged pump-and-dump company and a natural sweetener that they sell. Check it out here.
RationalWiki has an excellent summary of the various characteristics of pseudoscience. I bring this up because a reader alerted me to a series of messages on Yahoo Finance about me and Cobroxin, a product which I’ve written about in past blog posts (see my past posts here, here, and here). Combine that with some of the comments recently left on one of my past Cobroxin blog posts, and you have an outstanding example of pseudoscience in the health industry. This example is too perfect to pass up, so I have decided to use it as an example for my readers on how to spot pseudoscience, and the degree of absurdity that comes along with it. Cobroxin and the claims made about it fit RationalWiki’s description of pseudoscience perfectly.
One characteristic of pseudoscience is the presence of vague and/or exaggerated claims and ambiguous language. As pointed out in this blog post, Cobroxin’s manufacturer makes a long list of ailments that Cobroxin supposedly treats, from cancer to addiction. As I stated in that post:
Another reason to be skeptical of Cobroxin is the long list of ailments that cobra venom or its components supposedly treat. In this document, the manufacturer lists the treatment of everything from pain to diabetes to cancer to addiction. Any time an ingredient is presented as a near “cure-all”, it should be viewed with skepticism.
Claims of a near “cure-all” definitely fit the pseudoscientific characteristic of exaggerated claims.
Lack of Peer Review
If an idea has not been published in a single peer review journal, it is safe to say it is not science.
One of my primary criticisms of Cobroxin, as stated in this blog post, are no double-blind, placebo-controlled trials on the product published in peer-reviewed journals.
Claims of Vast Conspiracies: Entertainment Galore
As mentioned in the Wiki article, claims of conspiracies against the product or idea in question are common. The Wiki article states:
In medicine it is common to blame Big Pharma for wanting to hide the fact that some natural product cures all known illnesses because it will hurt their profits – despite the fact that such a thing would generate more profit, and Big Pharma would be dying to get their hands on it!
Some amusing conspiracy theories have been thrown around the Yahoo finance message board regarding me, many of which are quite entertaining. One individual made the following comment:
You must of been reading the quack Dr. BS blog on the internet that he has to keep changing as he get’s proven wrong over and over again.
Already this individual’s ability to do research is questionable, given that he calls me a doctor when I’ve never claimed to be one. But what is more amusing is the conspiracy theories he espouses. He claims I “keep changing” my blog because I’ve been “proven wrong over and over again.” However, my blog posts have remained the same ever since this site was put up, and no one has proven my statements wrong yet. Perhaps he is referring to my old site, but even then, all I did was move the old blog posts to this site. I had four blog posts on Cobroxin on that old site, and I condensed them to three.
This individual goes on to say:
That guy is tied to Sykes and has been attacked by the public so bad for his ridiculous attacks that he had to close down his site and start a new one.
This individual apparently thinks my world revolves around Cobroxin. It only takes a bit of thought to quickly realize the absurdity of this individual’s claim. If I closed down my old site because of attacks by the public, why would I even bother with all of the work of setting up a new site, let alone one that I allow comments on? Why not just keep the old site and delete all the comments?
The other reason it’s absurd is that my old site dealt with many topics, not just Cobroxin. Why would I take down an entire site just because of some comments on a few of the blog posts? Why not just delete or hide the Cobroxin posts if they bothered me so much?
Unfortunately for this individual, the reality of why I took down my old site is much less sinister and much more boring. I had decided that I no longer wanted to market myself under the “BS Detective” name. On top of that, I wanted a site that was dedicated purely to weight loss, and then one dedicated to examining claims in the health industry, so I started two sites. In fact, I had bought the healthsleuth.com domain name many months before I even took down the “BS Detective” site, and thus had already been thinking for a long time about moving in a different direction…long before my old Cobroxin posts were flooded with comments.
He deletes the post he chooses and only keeps the ones that he wants. He has been challenged on many fronts and when he can’t back something up or unable to come up with an answer he removes the post.
As is usual of individuals prone to pseudoscientific thinking, this person has no evidence to back up this statement. The fact is I have never deleted a single post from this site. That also includes comments…I have not deleted any person’s comments from this site, and people are free to comment as they wish (unless of course it is spam). There are only two commenters that I have ever banned, and they were both over on Weightology and not here. One of these individuals was practically spamming one of my blog posts with comments, always trying to get the last word. The other individual was emailing me personally under different aliases as well as trying to spam my Weightology site.
His agenda is nothing more than a personal attack against the CEO of NPHC
Designing two web sites, and creating many blog posts and articles (most of which have nothing to do with Cobroxin), is certainly a lot of work just to personally attack a CEO of a penny stock company. Just the website design alone took me countless hours of work. Why go to all that work just to attack a CEO, especially when others have already thoroughly done the job?
Mr. Cobroxin Conspiracy Theorist goes on:
when asked if he had given the product to anyone he knew to try and get their response, he deletes that message. That is why he has his blog, this is how he can control what is posted.
Having a blog just to “control what is posted” is a pretty stupid reason to have a blog, particularly because people are free to post things anywhere on the internet. And, contrary to this individual’s assertion, I haven’t deleted any messages or comments from this site.
The entertainment continues:
Studies were presented as far back as WWII using cobra venom, but refuses to acknowledge any of those
This individual apparently missed these paragraphs from this blog post:
Cobroxin’s manufacturer provides a list of studies that supposedly showed cobra venom or its components to have pain-relieving effects. However, the majority of the studies they list involved injection of cobra venom or its components. Only 7 out of the listed studies used oral delivery, and only 1 used topical delivery. Of the 7 that used oral delivery, 6 of them did not report the dose used. 1 of them was only presented as an abstract at a conference and was never published in full form in a peer-reviewed journal. There is no reference for another one (Xu et al, 2001). 2 more of them were presented in a Chinese journal (Journal of Snake), and there is no mention of placebo controls or blinding. 3 of these didn’t even look at pain.
The fact is, the research presented that supposedly supports the use of Cobroxin is of extremely low quality (even the injection studies). Many of the studies listed don’t involve blinding, placebo controls, randomization, or any of the other things that are necessary for an adequate study. Many of the studies presented are of so low quality, they would never be accepted in today’s peer-reviewed journals (particularly in American or European journals, which are more stringent than Chinese journals). Also, none of these studies involved Cobroxin itself; they are just studies on cobra venom and its components.
He deleted every single response to his old Cobroxin blog post. Look at the dates of the Cobroxin comments on his new site – they all have dates *after* he closed down the old one. If he has nothing to hide, why did he delete the dozens (hundreds?) of posts defending the efficacy of Cobroxin by REAL USERS OF THE PRODUCT?
This individual is referring to comments on my Cobroxin posts on my old site. I actually didn’t delete the comments; I simply hid them (Blogger gives you the option to hide comments). And the reasoning for hiding them is much less sinister and much more boring. Since I was starting new sites, I wanted people to come to these sites and focus on them rather than trying to comment on the old one (and I was still getting people trying to comment on the old one). I decided to close off comments and hide all of them to redirect people to engaging in discussion on the new sites. That’s also why all new comments have dates after I stopped the old site. This individual also fails to realize that I hid ALL comments on ALL posts, many of which had nothing to do with Cobroxin. Of course, nothing will stop these people from thinking that my world revolves around Cobroxin. I guess these people probably think I have “something to hide” by hiding comments on my old “single versus multiple sets” post?
The best part of the conspiracy theories are when these individuals start claiming I’m in cahoots with Timothy Sykes as part of some sort of conspiracy to bring the stock price of NPHC down by criticizing Cobroxin, such as in this post here or this post here:
Sykes uses him and his site to try and discredit NPHC every time it starts moving up
Now ask yourself if this Kreiger was so involved with his Weightology program and protecting consumers against products he feels are unproven, why would he be spending his time promoting Sykes.
To “prove” this conspiracy, this individual links to a blog post on my trading website where I state that I am a Tim Sykes affiliate and how I have used his trading strategies.
Of course, a closer analysis reveals just how ridiculous this conspiracy theory is. First, I’ve only made $50 off of my commissions from being a Tim Sykes affiliate since 2008…hardly what I would call a very profitable affiliation. In fact, I haven’t received any commissions since 2009. Second, anyone familiar with Tim Sykes’s trading style will know that Tim doesn’t hold anything longer than a day or two. He is usually all cash. Third, Tim, whose trades are all verified, hasn’t held a position in NPHC since September 2009. Fourth, I’ve repeatedly stated in this blog that I’ve never held a position in NPHC, and you can verify that by going to my trading blog where I openly discussed all of my trades. I also now use profit.ly to verify my trades and you won’t see NPHC there either. Fifth, I don’t have a lot of trading capital. I have about $19K spread among 4 trading accounts. Only one of those accounts (Interactive Brokers or IB), in which I have $5K, allows me to short OTCBB stocks under $3 per share. IB requires that you have $2.50 in cash for every share that you short. NPHC is an 18 cent stock. The most I could short is 2000 shares, which is a $360 position. Why would I tie up all my trading capital in one account to hold a long-term short that would need to go to $0 just so that I could make $360?
This is not to mention the absurdity of using a health-related blog to try to bring a stock price down. If I wanted to bring a stock price down, why not criticize Cobroxin in my trading blog, which is read by traders and investors, rather than a health blog which isn’t read by traders or investors?
No matter how you look at it, the conspiracy theories are pretty crazy, just as crazy as the fake moon landing conspiracy (which I wouldn’t be surprised if these Cobroxin conspiracy theorists believed that too).
The purpose of this blog is to help move the health industry to a more evidence-based industry, very similar to the blogs of Alan Aragon, Jamie Hale, Lyle McDonald, and Martin Berkhan, who are all colleagues of mine. Or maybe these guys are all a part of the great Cobroxin Conspiracy too?
Poor Standards of Evidence
RationalWiki notes that pseudoscience is accompanied by poor standards of evidence. It states:
In science evidence is valued when it is collected in a rigorous manner and is as divorced as possible from personal bias. The classic example is a controlled, double blind study. Though naturalistic observation is sometimes used, it is not proof of a theory. Furthermore, when it is used, a substantial quantity of data is usually involved. The use of statistics and an emphasis on statistical significance is also a strong hallmark of legitimate science.
In pseudoscience the importance placed on the value of evidence is almost reversed. Rigorous and controlled experiments, large data sets, and statistical reasoning are replaced with an emphasis on personal, anecdotal evidence and testimonials.
Cobroxin fits this description perfectly. Not only are there no double-blind, placebo-controlled trials on Cobroxin, but supporters rely heavily on personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and testimonials. In fact, here’s a comment from one Cobroxin supporter that I mentioned earlier:
If he has nothing to hide, why did he delete the dozens (hundreds?) of posts defending the efficacy of Cobroxin by REAL USERS OF THE PRODUCT?
This person places more weight on personal testimonials than he does on rigorous scientific research…a hallmark of pseudoscientific thinking.
Same Ol’ Pseudoscience
The fact is that arguments in favor of Cobroxin show all the characteristics of pseudoscience. Out of all of them, the conspiracy theories are the most amusing. I debated whether to bother writing a blog post about the conspiracy theories after seeing them, since they’re on a message forum that probably gets very little traffic. But they were just so ridiculous that I thought it would be entertaining for my readers. Plus, they give good insight into the pseudoscientific mentality. Unfortunately this mentality is all too prevalent in the health industry.
If anyone else has any good conspiracy stories from the health industry, or good anecdotes regarding pseudoscience, please post them here in the comments section!
Sorry for the lack of posts lately…I’m hoping to have some soon. In the mean time, here’s a few things for you to check out.
In 2006, I was in Chicago attending an A4M conference. A4M Is the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
Yes, this was an anti-aging conference. Might as well call it a PAA conference….People Against Aging. This is a conference of people who don’t want to get old. I was expecting to see an angry mob of old people carrying picket signs outside the conference center.
“NO TO AGING!”
“JUNK YOUR GERIATRISM!”
“HELL NO! WE WON’T GROW!…OLD”
Like foreign countries burning posters of George Bush, they probably burn posters of themselves. Just when you thought Beverly Hills was the only place where everyone and his mom has had plastic surgery, along comes one of these conferences. Except in this case it’s the grandmoms and the great grandmoms.
Now, I have nothing against wanting to look and feel younger. Hell, I’m 36 and people think I’m in my late 20′s and I’d love it to stay that way. But the priorities of these people didn’t seem quite right. I’m sitting there, looking at people who will get botox injections, or take the latest snake oil, all in the effort to look younger. Yet, as I look at them, I can tell they don’t exercise or eat healthy. Those two things will go a lot further in making you look and feel younger than a couple shots in your cheek (which will make you look like a cross between the Joker and Joan Rivers….oh, wait, Joan Rivers does look like the Joker). These people were like smokers who worry about pesticides on their apples.
Speaking of snake oil, it was abundant.
If you’ve ever been to any type of scientific conference, there’s usually a big commercial section where companies set up booths to hawk their products. Of course, I’m being overly kind by calling this conference scientific. If snake oil is what you want, the commercial booths at an anti-aging conference are the premium places to get it.
I walked by one booth where there were a couple old ladies from Covington, Washington. This piqued my curiosity as I wanted to know what type of snake oil my home state was producing.
At this booth, there was a lady that was soaking her feet in a bath about the size of a small duffel bag. The water was bubbling as the bath made a slight buzzing sound. However, this wasn’t some cozy bubble bath for your feet; the water was brown. It had a thin layer of gunk on top. It looked like the woman was soaking her feet in bubbling diarrhea. It looked like a shit bath for your feet.
Curious as to what this bath was supposed to do for you, I eavesdropped on the conversation. The bath was a salt and mineral water bath with a light electrical current running through it. This combination was supposed to draw “toxins” out of your body and into the water. The proof, of course, that these toxins were being drawn out of your foot pores was in the shitty-looking water. The brown stuff was supposed to be the toxins.
People were lining up to try this thing out. I walked by another booth with a similar device called the “Aqua Detox.” There were three lines of people waiting to use this thing. One guy sat there reading the paper as he soaked his feet in diarrhea.
Where was Penn and Teller when you needed them? This thing smelled of bullshit, and certainly looked like bullshit…watery, runny bullshit.
Of course, it WAS bullshit. There are numerous reasons why. First, your body does not eliminate toxins through your skin pores. In fact, your skin is quite impermeable to most substances, and for good reason. If toxins could easily pass through your skin, the human race wouldn’t have survived to this day. Well, maybe Joan Rivers would’ve survived because her plastic skin would be impermeable, but the rest of us would be dead. Your body eliminates toxic substances primarily through your liver and urine; your liver modifies the chemical structure of toxins so that they can easily be filtered by your kidneys and passed out through your pee. In other words, you piss out toxins…you don’t sweat them.
In fact, whenever someone in the health and wellness industry uses the word “toxin”, it should raise red flags. “Toxin” is usually a pseudoscientific buzzword for “I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about but I want you to buy this and I’ll just tell you it eliminates toxins from the body so it sounds remotely scientific.” The next time someone tells you they have a product that gets rid of toxins from the body, ask them to identify specifically what toxins are being eliminated. I doubt they’ll be able to answer you.
What about the shitty-looking water? Isn’t this proof that toxins are being eliminated from the skin pores? Hardly. The brown water is nothing more than rust. The metal electrodes in the device are sitting in salt water; when you run an electrical current through them, the iron in the electrodes starts to oxidize. In other words, the electrodes start to corrode. The rust finds its way into the water, turning it brown. You can produce the same effect by taking a car battery and sending a current through two metal nails placed in salt water (don’t try this at home…I don’t want my ass sued because you were stupid and got electrocuted. Don’t try this at work, either. Don’t try it anywhere).
Want further proof that the brown water is not due to toxins coming out of your feet? Run the foot bath without your feet in it, and the water will still turn brown.
Here I was, watching people soak their feet in rusty water and enjoying it. I was so tempted to say something to these people, but since I was representing the company I worked for, I had to remain professional and I decided to hold my tongue. And let me tell you, it looks pretty damn funny when you stand there holding your tongue.
How much do one of these units cost? $1600. Yes, folks, $1600 so that you can regularly soak your feet in rusty water.
I’m in the wrong business.
“No Artificial Colors or Flavors!”
“No Harsh Chemicals!”
…so reads the labels of many foods marketed towards your health and well-being. The implication, of course, is that natural food ingredients are inherently safer than artificial ingredients. Artificial ingredients are supposed to be bad for us. They are supposed to cause cancer, and headaches, and hyperactivity in kids, and depression, and unemployment, and poverty, and traffic jams, and Paris Hilton.
OK, maybe they’re not that bad, but you get the idea. Natural ingredients are supposed to be safer, and healthier. We eat an “all-natural” product and we feel good and confident that we are doing something healthy for us. Natural ingredients are supposed to make us glow and bring happy joyful faces to all of the world and an end to all suffering and make dogs and cats live together.
OK, again I’m exaggerating but I’m sure you get the point. Natural is better….right?
Here’s a list of some natural substances that people have consumed in the past.
What do these natural substances all have in common?
They have all been banned from the market by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for being unsafe for humans and are not legal as food ingredients.
Coumarin used to be found in many artificial vanilla flavorings until the FDA banned it in 1978. While coumarin was found in artificial vanilla, the substance itself is quite natural. It is a natural toxin found in many plants, particularly tonka beans and bison grass. Coumarin is moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys. In fact, it is used as a rat poison. It is also used to make the drug warfarin (Coumadin), an anticoagulant drug (it helps stop blood clots).
Calamus oil, which is a natural oil that comes from the Calamus plant, was banned as a food additive by the FDA in 1968. It was banned because it was found to be a carcinogen (a cancer causing agent) when ingested by mouth.
Ephedra, a natural herb used for weight loss, was banned by the FDA in 2004 because of accumulating evidence of adverse health effects and possible deaths due to the stimulant.
The point is that all of these products are “natural” products, yet are not safe to consume. There are many other things found in nature that are also not safe to consume. For example, aflatoxin is a naturally occurring toxin produced by a fungus. It is known to be toxic and carcinogenic in high amounts. All commercial peanut butter has minute quantities of aflatoxin, but not in amounts that are high enough to be harmful.
Ironically, some artificial food additives may in fact be safer than some natural food additives, simply because artificial additives must go through very stringent testing to be approved for use. For example, many of the artificial sweeteners on the market went through over 100 studies each to be approved. These studies covered everything from how the sweetener is metabolized by the body to whether it could cause cancer to what the effects on the reproductive system would be.
Also, what exactly is a “natural” ingredient? What separates “artificial” from “natural” ingredients? If you think about it, there really is no clear cut way to determine this. One way to define “natural” is any product that would appear on its own without human intervention. Based on this definition, stevioside, a popular “natural” sweetener, could not be classified as natural, since it requires human intervention to extract it from the stevia herb. Another way to define a “natural” product is one that is made from natural ingredients that exist on their own, but the product itself would not exist on its own without human intervention. By this definition, cake is a natural product. While cake does not exist on its own in nature, it is made from ingredients that do exist on their own (sugar, eggs, etc.). However, by this definition, aspartame (Nutrasweet) is also a natural product. Aspartame is created by combining two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and methanol, all of which are found naturally in the foods we eat. Yet many people consider aspartame as “artificial.”
When it comes to flavorings, the FDA defines “natural flavor” as “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” Any other flavor added on top of that is considered artificial. However, flavors (artificial or natural) are made by scientists in a laboratory by blending either “natural” chemicals or “synthetic” chemicals to create the flavorings. So, again, the line between “artificial” and “natural” is not distinct. Gary Reineccius, a professor in Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, once said “The distinction in flavorings – natural versus artificial – comes from the source of these identical chemicals and may be likened to saying that an apple sold in a gas station is artificial and one sold from a fruit stand is natural. Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized….consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.”
Also, if you look at an ingredient list, would you even be able to tell what was natural and what was artificial? Let’s take a bar of soap, for example.
The ingredients for this bar of soap might read:
“Olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, water, sodium hydroxide”
If you saw this list of ingredients, you would think that this product is mostly natural. You then look at the ingredients for another bar of soap, and they read:
“Sodium olivate, sodium palmitate, sodium cocoate, glycerine”
Looking at this list, you might think that this product is mostly artificial. However, these are the exact same ingredients as in the other bar of soap!!!!! It’s like labeling something as “water”, or labeling something as “dihydrogen monoxide (H2O)”. They’re the same thing.
The take-home message is this: don’t assume that natural ingredients are inherently better than artificial ingredients in regards to health. Rather than worrying about whether an ingredient is natural or artificial, you should worry about its safety record and whether it’s been thoroughly tested. The line between what is artificial and what is natural is more like a fuzzy haze than a line anyway.
P.S. I can already sense a bunch of strawmen coming my way, including claims that I’m somehow insinuating that ALL artificial or synthetic products are perfectly safe in any amount. I’m not saying that. For example, there is plenty of evidence that industrial fats (like partially hydrogenated fats) or highly processed foods, when consumed in high amounts, can contribute to health problems. But evidence is the key word here. My point is, whether something is artificial or natural is not evidence of its safety. You need to look at what the scientific research indicates.
Jamie Hale recently interviewed me on his website. You can check out the interview here.
I’ve started a new series of articles over on Weightology. It is entitled “Thinking Better”, and delves into common fallacies in our thinking. Recognizing fallacies is important when examining claims made in the health and wellness industry. Check out the first article, “The False Dichotomy”, by clicking here.