Paul Offit's New Book – "Killing us Softly: the Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

By Michael Edmonds 30/06/2013 9


Last week I downloaded a copy of Paul Offit’s new book, Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. It is a fascinating exploration of pseudoscientific beliefs and the terrible consequences that result when they are embraced. It is a well written, well researched book that explores various areas of pseudoscience, some of which I had not come across before (Chronic Lyme disease, Krebiozen and the surprising origins of the Rife machine to name but a few).

Paul Offit is no stranger to pseudoscience. For years he has argued against those who claim vaccines cause autism, a stand which has resulted in threats against his life and his family. As Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia he is well placed to comment on vaccines (and does so in his books, Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, Vaccines and Your Child: Separating Fact from Fiction, and Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All).

In Killing Us Softly (Also sold under the title Do You Believe in Magic), Dr Offit widens his gaze and critique to a  range of “alternative” therapies. Such therapies include a variety of dubious anti-cancer treatments pushed over the past century, the “anti-aging” industry created by Suzanne Somers, coffee enemas, cure all using bleach, and many other outrageous “cures”.

It is a revealing book, and one that has polarised the reviews at Amazon. When I last looked the Killing Me Softly version had received two 5 star reviews and four 1 star reviews with none in between. The Do You Believe in Magic version has nineteen 5 star reviews, sixteen 1 star reviews and a small scattering of 2 and 3 star reviews.

Reading some of the 1 star reviews, several reviewers claim that Dr Offit can’t be trusted because he has made money off of the creation of a rotavirus vaccine. The irony of such claims is palpable if one considers how those in the “alternative” therapy make their money, for example, from the book

“the anti-aging business has profits rivaling those of many pharmaceutical companies, making a fortune for its promoters. Suzanne Somers is an industry. On her website, she promotes only one brand of vitamins, supplements, and minerals: RestoreLife. There’s RestoreLife Formula Essential Mineral Packets, Supplement Starter Kit, Reveratrol, Omega-3, and vitamin D3, as well as RestoreLife Digest Renew, Bone Renew, Calm Renew, Natural Sleep Renew, and Sexy Leg Renew. Somers sells her own brand of foods, cooking utensil, and sweeteners (SomerSweet), as well as skin-care, weightloss, and detoxification products. She sells nanotechnology patches to control appetite. All of these have made Suzanne Somers a multimillionaire.”

I’ve given the book a 5 star review. It is well written and researched, and gives clear examples of the dangers of “alternative” therapies and how they are indeed “killing us softly”.


9 Responses to “Paul Offit's New Book – "Killing us Softly: the Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine”

  • Thanks for the link Grant, very interesting. I wasn’t aware of leftbrainrightbrain, it looks like a website worth checking in on every now and then

  • I would give Offits book something less than 5 stars for content, but 5 stars for relevance. There was one comment in the book where he mentioned dioxins in an “Offit-handed way”! In 1984 at a seminar on dioxins by Prof Otmar Wasserman of the University of Kiel, I became aware how many products of modern life have dioxins as impurities (“phenoxy” is the clue – and in most sunscreens and body creams at the chemist these days phenoxy ethanol is a preservative). Wasserman said that of about 100 molecules in the dioxin family, about 12 have toxicities on a par by weight with plutonium. In other words the mutagenicity, carcinogenicity and teratogenicity of these dioxins is, of all known chemicals, on a par with radioactive plutinium.

    Also, given the tragedy of the polarisation of what Thomas Kuhn would say are “incommensurable paradigms”, we need an authoritative critique of the commercial health sector which looks at how the American marketing system and culture distorts everything. In this respect – and this is what I gained from the evidence presented in Offits book – the corporate distotion of science or truth is something that “allopathic” medicine has spawned in “alternative” medicine.
    As the young Dylan wrote, “money doesn’t talk, it swears”.

    In Culture and Agriculture – the Unsettling of America Wendel Berry explored how corporations created distorted science and policy through their patronage of universities.

    • If ” “phenoxy” is the clue “, dioxin is not the correct answer. Dioxins are pervasive and also have naturally-occurring sources, however they all still require 2 – 10 chlorine atoms in each molecule. Unsubstituted phenoxy compounds, such as phenoxyethanol, do not include any chlorine atoms.

      • Thanks for that info Bruce: My late father was an industrial chemist. He used to like repeating the old saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Also my Chem 201 in 1968 is a long, long time ago and my memory of the Wasserman seminar sketchy.
        Good to know then that phenoxyethanol added to skin cream can be produced without chloro- dioxins as impurities and is otherwise harmless ?

        • Ouch. I did not want to imply that phenoxyethanol is “otherwise safe”. I just wanted to explain that dioxins were very, very unlikely contaminants. It’s quite possible that 1,4-Dioxane could be present in trace amounts in phenoxyethanol that is produced by ethoxylation ( phenol + ethylene oxide ).
          Maybe somebody confused dioxane and dioxin.

          It’s also known that phenoxyethanol, when ingested, can depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration in infants. The US FDA has banned Mommy’s Bliss nipple cream containing phenoxyethanol partly because of that concern ( it also contained chlorphenesin, which created additional safety concerns ).

          As always, use of any chemical has to be a considered balance of necessity, cost and benefit. Generally, the more we learn, the more we will restrict use of chemicals with marginal benefits. Many chemicals are not necessary for our daily lives.

          • Yes ouch, thanks Bruce. Honi soit qui mal y pense. I’m outa here, but just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to explain too – after I had clearly stated that I dont know much chemistry. The phenoxyethanol think is important because i have kids and grandchildren and a general interest in countering quackery on the one hand and unnecessary dodgy molecules in commercial products on the other. Snake oil by any other name…

  • Alastair.
    You don’t seem to know much about chemistry despite you trying to bask in the reflected glory of your father.
    How toxic is plutonium? Which isotope?
    With regards dioxin, its toxicity was overstated. Remember the Russians tried to poison that east European politician with the stuff supposed to have been about 1000 times the lethal dose. Just gave him very bad acne. The birth defects claims are pretty tenuous. I don’t think any of the compounds are left handed molecules, which makes the causal link hard.