There have never been more options for those convinced that the medical establishment is hiding secrets from them. Look at the Google ads running down the sidebar of just about any website you visit, and you're almost certain to see ads about "natural" cures—gluten-free diets and alkaline water, superfoods and anti-GMO campaigns, right on down to magical berries, nuts and fruits that "your doctor doesn't want you to know about." Because, you know, people become doctors to keep people from becoming healthy.
Still, this instinct has existed for the entire length of human civilization. Charlatans have always been well stocked in magical roots, leaves and potions that could cure your cold, heal your injuries, help your digestion, and help you cure your male pattern baldness. Before the rise of modern medicine, these were an easy sell. But in the present day, advertisers have turned to paid endorsements by athletes: Power Balance Bands, Phiten necklaces, homepathy, KT tape, cupping, acupuncture, gluten-free diets, alkaline water, probiotics, detox cleanses, and many, many other products that range from medically dubious to thoroughly debunked—if you've got a product even tangentially related to health or fitness, you can get an athlete to co-sign it.
These are cynical, but typically harmless to the general health of any sucker who falls for the pitch. Occasionally, they're hilarious, like when the Sacramento Kings named their arena after the Power Balance bracelets ("Snake Oil Arena", as some called it). But of course, Power Balance bracelets do limited harm. They are $75 rubber bands with stickers on them. They won't help you in any way, but they don't have side effect other than lightening your wallet.
But that brings us to a much more dangerous brand of pseudoscience:
I first learned about Seth Davis's penchant for pseudoscience around two years ago, when he was talking up alkaline water. Alkaline water is a product that claims to raise the body's pH (it doesn't), with all sorts of health claims, from curing colds to slowing aging (try drinking bleach, it doesn't work). When I pointed this out to Seth, he defended himself rather poorly. Spencer Hall from SBNation ended up lampooning him. When I shared the article on twitter, Seth responded to me with a link to Joseph Mercola:
This is the same Joseph Mercola who the FDA has ordered, repeatedly, to stop making claims about the efficacy of various costly scam products claiming to cure, reduce the risk of, or "virtually eliminate" diseases as varied as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, Crohn's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. (Instead of complying, Mercola vowed to fight the FDA.)
Embarrassed by the encounter, Seth blocked me on Twitter. But I looked through his account and realized that he was promoting something much more insidious than alkaline water (which, after all, is just water; it's not going to hurt you). You see, Seth's mother, a cancer survivor, runs a website promising to cure you of cancer through the use of insider secrets:
This isn't simply a case of a son dutifully linking his mother's site once or twice, and these aren't the only times Seth has endorsed his mom's website (you can also check this, this, this, this,this, this, and many, many more). So, what advice does Seth's mom offer?
To read this, and the rest of her website, it would appear to most people that she beat cancer without the aid of Big Pharma: you can't find a single reference to chemotherapy or any other conventional cancer treatment on the site. But that isn't the whole story:
Wait. What? Well, okay, maybe she still offers some good advice...
In case you're wondering, the products she is selling do not work.
In fact, none of the products she is selling do any good for you. There is no science to back up a single statement on the cancer-fighting website Seth Davis promotes. But what's the harm? I'm sure if Seth were pressed, he'd point out that they're not explicitly telling people not to go to real doctors, too. That's how this sort of shop works—they'll say, on the record, that they just recommend these therapies as "complementary medicine."
But that argument is pure denialism. The fact is that chemotherapy and radiotherapy suck. They really, really suck. There's a reason many people with advanced cancer simply choose to live out their lives at home or in a hospice rather than go through absolute misery just to add a few months of being alive. So when websites and "doctors" promise magical cures that can prevent, halt, and even cure cancer? Well, a lot of people want to give that a shot first. Even Steve Jobs fell for this, spending the first nine months after being diagnosed with cancer trying a variety of goofy diets and magical foods. By the time he went back to real doctors, his very treatable cancer had become a significantly more difficult cancer to treat.
Talk to any oncologist, and they'll tell you stories like this. Cancer patients will sometimes spend years trying to fight cancer with bullshit "natural" remedies before finally giving in and being treated by real doctors.
How many Americans die every year because of scam cancer remedies? It's impossible to know for sure. But the effect is drastic. One study found that women with breast cancer in Northern Alberta who sought out alternative remedies saw their five year survival rates drop from 85% to 46%. A Swiss study found that mortality rates more than doubled for those who refused surgery to fight their tumors through other means. Another study found that of those who delayed or rejected surgery for highly treatable cancer in lieu of alternative medicine, over 96% saw their disease progress and 50% died within 10 years.
And lest you think you'll be fine if you try these alternative treatments in addition to conventional cancer treatments, a recent study found that some alternative therapies can actually have drug interactions that lessen the effectiveness of cancer fighting drugs.
Without a doubt, thousands of Americans die every year because of snake oil salesmen. It's hard to disagree with the statement like "people who sell fake cancer cures are murderers." Their behavior leads directly to the deaths of people who otherwise might have lived.
Is Seth Davis aware that his mother is profiting from desperate people, giving them bad advice that can lead to their deaths? Probably not. He's probably just scientifically ignorant. Or it could be that, as is the case in many instances, he and his family are compelled to change minds because they really do believe in this shit; that to not educate people about these alternatives would be the real crime. But that's immaterial: with such a large platform, he is reaching millions of Americans and selling them snake oil.
When Jenny McCarthy made herself the poster child of the anti-vaccine movement, websites like Jenny McCarthy Body Count drew attention to the damage she was doing. It put a public face on a nebulous, sprawling problem. Since almost half of the people on Earth will end up developing cancer at some point in their life, it can only do good for the world to expose people like Seth Davis for the harm that they do. And maybe, just maybe, we can educate Seth on the science, or apply enough pressure to get him to stop. Certainly, it's worth the effort.
Jeff Waksman is the author of Basketball Predictions Blog, a daily college basketball blog with a heavy emphasis on analytics. He can also be found on twitter at @BPredict.