Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Dr Aseem Malhotra: quackery's buddy

Dr Aseem "we must demonise junk food for the sake of our children" Malhotra has been getting his face around recently, popping up on Newsnight and in the pages of The Guardian bemoaning the existence of 'junk food' advertising. He is a cardiologist and therefore—in the eyes of the bovine media—a scientist and food expert.

But, as I never tire of pointing out, he repeatedly gets basic facts wrong and will take any junk statistic on trust if it furthers his vendetta against Ronald McDonald (and, more worrying, against physical exercise).

Today, he directed his Twitter followers towards the website of one Dr Joseph Mercola, which promises us "the truth about fast food".




The "article" in question begins thusly...

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at fast food restaurants? Fast-food insiders (i.e. former employees) reveal a slew of nasty secrets that may make you think twice about ever eating in one of these restaurants again …

I like the idea that anyone who has ever worked at a burger joint is a "fast-food insider". This sets the bar rather low for the reliability of the information to come (it's not as if burger chains ever have any disgruntled, stupid or deceitful staff, obviously).

And the bar needs to be set low, for what follows is a load of tommy rot.

Most Fast Food is a Mixture of Chemicals, Sugar, Flavoring and Salt

More precisely and succinctly, one could simply say "Food is a Mixture of Chemicals". As is the whole Universe, of course, but then this webpage is full of chemophobia, organic-worshipping, aversion to genetic modification and other tell-tale quackery. "Additives" and "preservatives" are assumed to be evil without any explanation of what they are or why they should be malign. Equivocation and speculation abounds. Chicken nuggets contain "corn-derived fillers and additives (most likely genetically modified chemicals)". Hamburger buns "allegedly contain" artificial flavours.

It is, in short, two-a-penny tree-hugging anti-science from a rinky-dink website written by an alternative medicine chancer who happens to sell various "natural remedies" and "dietary supplements". It would not be considered a reliable source by a stoned teenager, let alone Wikipedia.

Business Week says that Dr Mercola's huckstering comes from "an unfortunate tradition made famous by the old-time snake oil salesmen of the 1800s". He has been thrice warned by the FDA for making false claims and violating federal law. He thinks microwaves are dangerous because they supposedly alter the chemistry of food. He doesn't think HIV causes AIDS. Instead he thinks that "the severe, acute psychological stress of being diagnosed "HIV Positive" is quickly transformed into a severe, chronic psychological stress of living with a prediction of a horrifying decline that could start at any time. This causes a dangerous suppression of the immune system."

We've gone beyond 'free thinker' and 'maverick' here, I think, and entered 'fruitcake' and 'dangerous crank' territory.

I don't suggest that Aseem Malhotra necessarily shares any of Mercola's other wacky beliefs, but I do find it troubling that a man who is presented by Newsnight as an expert—a man of science, no less—could go to the website of a notorious quack and not smell the bullshit, let alone laud it as "the truth". It's no surprise that the Guardian's go-to man comes out with the whoppers he does if he gets his facts from this sort of lazy, indiscriminate googling, but if I were in public health I would be muzzling this guy because he's an ill-informed accident waiting to happen.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Christopher, here you are again having a go at Malhotra. Let the guy do his job. The point I think you are missing here is that Malhotra does not just accept Google search items nilly willy. He is a scientific mind and really you are in no position to judge him clinically. He exposes views he doesn’t necessarily accept them, he puts things out there for people to see, read and jidge for themselves. It is important that people understand the disgust behind fast food. Of course not every fast food ex-worker is a valid source but there are some facts there and the goal it that these things will put people off. The majority of people who hang out at Mc Donald’s, KFCs and Co need some seriously disgusting visuals and stories to realise how bad it is and this I can tell you for a fact. “I don't suggest that Aseem Malhotra necessarily shares any of Mercola's other wacky beliefs”. Really? Good then, we agree. ED

Snowdon said...

I do let the guy do his job. He's a heart surgeon. But if I ever need heart surgery, please don't let him operate on me. I'd wake up without an appendix.

Ivan D said...

It is extremely unfortunate that the media still fail to recognize that passing a medical degree and practicing medicine do not make a person a scientist or an "expert" in anything other than practicing medicine. I may be in no position to judge the man clinically but he chooses to claim expertise in areas outside his field of study so lays himself open to criticism on the basis that his utterances are illogical and scientifically speaking, utter drivel. He is politically motivated.

Ana Steele said...

Since this blog is very much preoccupied with facts, lets get a few things straight here. Malhotra doesn’t open hearts he is interventional - that comes on Google Christopher. Secondly, if you have studied medicine you actually hold a degree in biomedical science and effectively you are a scientist. Thirdly, an expert is someone who has a particular knowledge in a field -not the Encyclopædia Britannica- which can be within their field or not. In this case obesity and cardiac disease are very closely related so Malhotra can safely voice his opinions on that. I am pretty sure he was well scrutinised before going On Air too. Well speaking about politics, there are clearly a whole load of it looking at the way the governments deal with that – see corporations sponsoring Olympics etc.- so effectively I guess you have to take sides. ED

Ana Steele said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard White said...

To be fair, what's written about fast food is hardly difficult to believe. Does anyone think it's gourmet produce? I think it's a bit slippery to sidestep fast food being laden with chemicals as saying everything is made up of chemicals. It's true, but it's a tacit suggestion that they're all equal, and they're not. Is there really any denying that certain foods are better for us and others are not?

As for Mercola, he is a qualified doctor who during his career started slowly turned to more natural methods of health and wellbeing, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's indeed true that he has been warned by the FDA, but it's not good practice to leave it there as though that's all you need to know - especially when you're aware of how popular it is to ostracise people who disagree with the accepted line. He's open about why he was warned, it's not like he was locked up for malpractice.

Granted, a lot of the things on his site are wacky, but i've read a lot on there that was reported much later in mainstream news and science sites. His articles on the HPV vaccine and bird flu were interesting, and he has some interesting content on GM foods. I haven't visited his site in many months now, but i do remember that he would reference science journals and published news stories, so "two-a-penny tree-hugging anti-science by an alternative medicine chancer" is not quite fair.

In any case, to be honest, if you have issue with the article shouldn't you be pointing out WHY it's wrong, rather than relying on the rhetoric of discrediting its author?

Henry Crun said...

"Instead he thinks that "the severe, acute psychological stress of being diagnosed "HIV Positive" is quickly transformed into a severe, chronic psychological stress of living with a prediction of a horrifying decline that could start at any time. This causes a dangerous suppression of the immune system."

Good grief, by that logic anyone diagnosed with the common cold could be worried about contracting Ebola and then die a horrible death. Still, if we let the loonies have their say at least us rational types are able to see that they no more tell the truth than TV evangelists.

Jonathan Bagley said...

McDonald's products have been analysed to death. There is plenty of nutritional information on the web. There beef burgers contain lean beef and their chips comprise potatoes and oil. That's one of the reasons plenty of athletes are eating them. There is no logic behind this vendetta, just ignorance, snobbery and an automatic dislike of large and successful businesses. Please can one of these commenters explain what is wrong nutritional with eating a quarter pounder and fries once a week.

Jonathan Bagley said...

Apologies, "There beef" s/b "Their beef."

Ivan D said...

Anybody who believes that medics are scientists lacks true understanding of either role. Malhotra in this context is neither. He is a political activist who is mostly interested in using the safe ground offered by his medical credentials to attack businesses he doesn't like. One of the fundamental differences between a scientist and a medic is that scientists are duty bound to be objective whereas medics tend to make the facts suit their theories /prejudices. Malhotra is guilty of that scientific sin on multiple occasions as you have correctly pointed out but that does not deter the "burn them at the stake" Guardianista who love him because of his politics. I would not want Milhotra anywhere near me professionally as, based on his outpourings, I would not trust him to make an objective decision. I would certainly not trust him to be accurate based on his limited grasp of the facts in an area in which he claims expertise.

Personally I am not a McDonalds fan and can't remember when I last ate there but unlike Milhotra and his mates, I don't regard that as an especially good reason to dictate to others what choices should be available to them.

Ivan D said...

Please excuse the typos above. He is of course Malhotra not Milhotra.

Ana Steele said...

Science can be a term open to interpretation but medics are scientist as they base their practice on it. Medics, well most of them do make objective decisions based on facts and in the patents' best interest. It is wrong to judge Malhotra as a doctor and the way he practices medicine at his hospital on a daily basis or any other doctor unless you have been treated by them or you have facts to support this. Malhotra does not claim to be a nutritionist and his job is not to prescribe diets - unless cardiac treatment related- but to mend hearts.
Why so much fury over Malhotra? What about all those journalists and reporters who have absolutely nothing to do with medicine and do documentaries and report on diet and obesity like there’s no tomorrow? What people fail to see is that the TV and the articles on the newspaper will tell you what’s out there, what research has been done ect. There are masses of papers published on that matter, it is impossible to talk about everything. You need days to cover the whole field. Anyone who wants to go and find out more can subscribe to pubmed.
Long story short, fast food is harmful and there is no doubt about that. Also, why one would not try to convince people to avoid McDonalds?

Jonathan Bagley said...

ASH UK just now has alink to a press release claiming public support for standardised packaging. The link as yet doesn't go to it.