Antivaccine nonsense Medicine Quackery Science

The New Republic on a two decade war against medical quackery

A story is told in “The New Republic” about a certain entity that readers here might know well, at least longtime regulars.

As regular readers might have figured out, although the family situation has stabilized somewhat it has stabilized into a situation where I have less time for this blog than the beforetime. That is evident in the decreased posting frequency. That is why I like to grab a chance like this when it presents itself, namely an article in The New Republic by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, author of If It Sounds Like a Quack …: A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine (forthcoming in April), entitled A Doctor’s War Against the Right-Wing Medical-Freedom Movement.

The New Republic article starts out with a blast from the past:

Hulda Clark was at the convention, of course. At 76, the dark-haired Canadian naturopath was still going strong, attending natural health expos like this one to publicize and sell her “Zapper,” a unit that looked and operated like a scaled-down version of a car battery with jumper cables and was supposed to cleanse the body of cancer-causing parasites. Charlotte Gerson was there, too, talking about “Gerson Therapy,” a diet-based cancer treatment that can cost more than $15,000. Then there was Kurt Donsbach, an unlicensed chiropractor whose legal troubles had pushed him to locate his alternative cancer hospital in Mexico.

Plenty of healers of lesser reputation were also in attendance, hawking vitamins, minerals, energy bars, and healing crystals. The event seemed like classic L.A.—a consumerist expression of the region’s dedication to holistic approaches to health, wellness, and spirituality. But this gathering, the brainchild of Indiana-based supplements manufacturer Wendell W. Whitman, was different. It was 2005, and the expo was—arguably—the moment when alternative healers began to find a potent political voice.

Hulda Clark and her zapper? Charlotte Gerson and her late husband Max Gerson’s cancer quackery? Talk about a true blast from the past!

The year 2005, of course, was when Orac was just getting rolling with this blog, and the names there also sound familiar. The story that Hongoltz-Hetling tells might sound a bit familiar as well, but it’s never been told this way before.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

47 replies on “The New Republic on a two decade war against medical quackery”

“a situation where I have less time for this blog than the beforetime. That is evident in the decreased posting frequency.”

So your pro mRNA vaccine attitude is starting to make you unpopular?

No, I just don’t have as much time to devote to the blog right now. Blog traffic, oddly enough, is about the same as it was in the beforetime.

Fortunately pro vaccine is more popular than anti. Plus Orac is a human being with family as well. As a medical practitioner he has my utmost respect.

Read the New Republic article, much of it is about Orac. Starting with a few paragraphs giving a condensed version of this:

I “met” Orac on Usenet newsgroups like over twenty years ago. I enjoyed reading his takes on quackery. I had my own battles with the anti-vax crowd. And those who had super duper autism cures. My fave was the guy who posted on a listserv I was on that his magic soap would make our non-verbal kids talk. Plus I have a very treasured tribute page from John Scudamore:

Then there was the real life encounter with those who claimed that cranialsacral therapy would cure any brain issue. I usually responded that a homeopathic head massage was not going to fix either Broca’s or Wernicke’s areas of the brain. One particular “chiropractic neurologist” avoided me during a conference after I explained this to her during lunch.

“No, I just don’t have as much time to devote to the blog right now. Blog traffic, oddly enough, is about the same as it was in the beforetime.”

If this is your situation, taking care of dependent family members can be time consuming indeed; I found myself in such situation for ten years, due to medical mistakes. I don’t wish that on you.

Good article. It’s hard to see how to change our messaging to get better traction in the political and news media landscape. Those of us trained in science are accustomed to a hard-nosed, full-throated critique of ideas to sort out the wheat from the chaff. And in forums like RI and SBM it is useful to be clear in pointing out the flaws and dangers in So-Called Alternative Medicine.

We have no idea what the lurkers who occasionally read our articles and comments think or say to themselves except when one of them eventually comments. And the vast majority of non-regulars who show up here don’t even attempt to engage in an honest discussion.

But it is clear that we need to build bridges to our state legislatures and even local school boards to try to give our message an airing.

And we need to be ready for those occasions when we can do one-on-one discussion with the curious but unconvinced.

I’ve noticed somewhat respectable news outlets deal insouciantly with recent stories about Covid origins:
they didn’t give details about sources; they didn’t broadcast a Fauci interview entirely, leaving out relevant parts. They stressed one possibility over others. As they say whatever bleeds… well, they chose the bloodiest. **

What works against SBM reporting is that the average viewer may not be prepared to understand complexity and reality doesn’t easily fit into the restrictions of soundbite length.

Covid illness and vaccinology are highly detailed and updated frequently which makes them prime real estate for alt med scammers/ anti-vaxxers who can twist, distort and selectively edit actual research findings as well as disseminate their own fantasy systems to the public.

Note on The New Republic article:
Orac’s a nerd? Never!

** in contrast: Ken Dilanian and Ari Melber

I’m not familiar with Ken Dilanian. But I often watch YouTube clips of Ari Melber. I especially like that he is clear about distinguishing what he is saying and what he is not saying. He specifically tries to avoid leading viewers into unsupported conclusions.

That’s the exact opposite of the JAQing off style of Tucker Carlson, for instance.

What works against SBM reporting is that the average viewer may not be prepared to understand complexity…

True, and add to that the fact that every discipline, at the highest levels, uses terms and definitions that can’t be sussed out in the limited allotted to news stories. Sometimes reality requires complex explanations, and it’s very hard to condense those.

@ Idw56old:

It’s difficult but possible to explain complicated material to non-experts.
Some of the reports I saw were misleading because they left out salient, simple statements. E.g. two agencies went towards a lab leak but others didn’t, they left out the second part entirely. If you play a video of an expert- Dr Fauci- don’t chop an important part of his message- he didn’t speak long. Don’t highlight a definitive statement when the facts aren’t conclusive. These news outlets were NOT the usual suspects.

Following reports like these, I notice that anti-vaxxers/ Covid denialists are crowing that they said the same LONG ago! Del Bigtree was amongst the most obnoxious in a coterie of truly obnoxious liars. I assiduously avoided Bill Maher’s commentary.

Much science based material can be stated in simpler ways: you don’t have to give a graduate/ med school level lecture. Orac often goes into great detail about complex matters but also provides a summary or another easier version in the same post. You can write an accessible article and link readers to original sources.

I’m an editor who is often tasked (literally) with making highly technical life sciences content accessible to the public at a comprehension level slightly beyond that of a US high-schooler. It is damned hard to yank some researchers into an awareness that you must write for your reader’s and audience’s level of presumed literacy. If you are insulated in your own peer group for long enough, you can forget that the majority of people who need your information will turn up their noses at the first hint of “elitist” jargon. With the prevailing glorification of anti-intellectualism and antagonism towards critical thought compounded by our pathetic educational standards here, this polarity is only going to get worse. Don’t write for your peers. Know your audience. It’s a constant struggle, and some people never get the point.

I was left wondering when I was reading the article how much climate change denial softened up the right to accept health freedom as an idea worth indulging in.

AlternativeNot medicine has outflanked medicine in the legislative arena. Prior to COVID-19, my thinking was that one good pandemic would cause governments to see reason, but once again I was wrong. In several places governments have used the pandemic to further undermine public health and medicine in promotion of the culture wars.

I don’t have an answer. Sense has to prevail eventually. Governments legislating π = 3 is only going to come back and bite them through higher costs. It is sad that people have to die in the meantime. At times I take solace in that I live in a country where evidence still matters in regulation, but even then I can see the stresses around the edges caused by those who are determined to not allow reality to get in the way of their opinions.

I was left wondering when I was reading the article how much climate change denial softened up the right to accept health freedom as an idea worth indulging in.

An interesting thought. There is a South African “News” website called BizNews ( that hosts Climate Change Denial and attacks on COVID vaccination and lockdowns. It’s crank magnetism in action.

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling writes,

“For the public, the dividends have been dramatic and tragic: billions of wasted dollars, countless assaults on the concept of science, and untold deaths.”

MJD (patent equality advocate) says,

One thing is certain, the patent system in the United States needs to be overhauled. U.S. Patent examiners have been a rate-limiting step to innovative cancer research. Here’s an example wherein the USPTO unwittingly inhibits novel drug discovery.

Cancer-related innovation and U.S. patent applications:

MJD (patent equality advocate)

That’s the strangest way of saying “serial promoter of quackery” I’ve ever seen.

Face it mjd: if you or your fellow quacks are pushing things that are so bad even our miserably weak patent system says “Nah”, you’re really pushing tripe.

But this article cost him a mere $30 for online hosting, although it would have been cheaper for MJD if he was based in India.

Cancer therapy must work. Having another patent medicine is not enough.

Aarno Syvänen writes,

“Having another patent medicine is not enough.”

MJD says,

Thanks for your insight. Yes, having a patent is not enough. I’d accept a “guest post” request here at Respectful Insolence describing improvements to USPTO practices to stimulate science-based research.

@ Orac’s minions,

Now that Orac is easily distracted and much less prolific…

Why do you think that making it easier to get a patent would “stimulate science-based research”?

Idw56old writes,

“They were too busy laughing.”

MJD says,

Wrong, for Patent Examiners it’s all about completion points and making bonus. There’s a financial incentive to drag down applicants with 103 (Obviousness) rejections to catalyze abandonment or a continuation-in-part application. Thus, filling their pockets with bonus money is a rate-limiting step in science-based medicine.

@ Orac,

Don’t you find this interesting? Wake up and discover the “real” problems that inhibit science-based medicine.


MJD thinks the patent office is in a conspiracy to make MJD’s ideas look dumb.

Perhaps MJD should consider why he continually has to pay to have his thoughts hosted by predatory journals, rather than having them accepted by quality peer-reviewed journals.

The problem is not with the patent office.

Wrong, for Patent Examiners it’s all about completion points and making bonus. There’s a financial incentive to drag down applicants with 103 (Obviousness) rejections to catalyze abandonment or a continuation-in-part application. Thus, filling their pockets with bonus money is a rate-limiting step in science-based medicine.

No surprise here: just another quack into conspiracy pushing because his worthless ‘treatments’ get no respect.

Yes, having a patent is not enough.

That’s not what “patent medicine” means, Doucheniak.

@ David,

Thanks for the questions. Many can be answered by reading the reference MJD disclosed above. For your convenience, the patent pending application is below:

Note: Tomorrow (3/6/23) this application is orally discussed in front of the board of appeals. Cancer research is hard…

It’s too vague and generally not well written. You are trying to patent trillions of things. Pretty much any topical treatment is covered.

For example, you mention cat dander. Not everyone is allergic to cat dander. Is it helpful, or not? How would you decide?

Great question Christine Rose! It could be a useful immunogenic material if its linear or conformational epitopes mimic endogenous proteins (cross reactivity) critical for cancer growth an proliferation.

@ Sara,

Sometimes it’s impossible to simplify the language.

@ Christine Rose:

I noticed that you have a read quite a lot of material until you come to Hevea brasiliensis.

“could be a useful immunogenic material if its linear or conformational epitopes mimic endogenous proteins”

Don’t forget the half-seized sprats and brass fitted nickel slits.

Have you considered contacting Mike Tyson and InventHelp for assistance with your patent woes?

@ Dangerous Bacon,

I’d only contact Mike Tyson if I was trying to invent a dangerous-bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich (DBLT).

Sorry, meant George Foreman. He should be an inspiration, what with his grill invention.

I don’t have a George Foreman Grill, but I did buy a Frank Bruno Toaster. Useless. Two rounds and it was f***ed.

Good article highlighting someone named Dr. David Gorski, Orac.

It also shows how the Missouri evidence demanding phrase “Show me”, once a saying of pride for non gullible Americans, has fallen into disrepute replaced by the gullible, woo filled “We believe anything.”
That politicians and their constituents are embracing fantasy over fact is a sad commentary on humanity.

Stay bitingly snarky and keep demanding – “Show me!”

I tend to think of myself in that way. I’m willing to be convinced but you need to show me the evidence. I’m not just going to take your word for it.

I’m a tad disappointed that, in the brief mention of reiki, “direct energy” didn’t come with scare quotes.

The TNR author also described reiki as therapeutic touch rather than mere handwaving. Which is”handwaving” of another sort maybe ;- )


“As a medical practitioner he has my utmost respect.”

Based on what exactly?

He is a qualified, highly respected medical practitioner. Also due to my lifetime experience with medical practitioners who have stitched me, treated me and saved my life.

There’s a story today in the Boston Globe that should be right in Orac’s wheelhouse. The Jaime Leandro Foundation, working with “commercial partners” and the Washington University School of Medicine, is charging patients $83,000 each for experimental, personalized neoantigen cancer vaccines.

The ethics of this practice are…questionable.

(article may be behind paywall)

Interesting article, lots to think about, mostly around the how and why we skeptics are loosing.

Shared this with a few friends of like mind, one said ‘for those who are interested in tracking the decline and fall of western civilization and how we, not some outside force, will be the cause, its a good read’

Granted its a US perspective and more extreme than in most western countries, though we see it here to small degree in Canada and in my home country of the UK, quacks abound, but the libertarian need to dismantle everything to the detriment of everyone appears much more of a US problem.

As I’ve noted before, libertarians are like cats, believing themselves to be ferociously independent while neither recognizing nor understanding the system built around them and keeping them.

A “funny” observation sparked by the TNR piece:

Both Drs. Gorski and Novella appear to have meatspace personas opposite their blogosphere voices, and mirror images of each other. The introverted Dr. G. let’s it all hang out in his posts and effusively so, while the extroverted Dr. N. is clinical, dry and fairly terse.

I don’t know if there’s a point here — I suspect there could be, maybe several, but I’m not sure what, or whether it/they would be worth anything, whatever it/they might be.

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