Monday, November 19, 2018

#2105: David Perlmutter

David Perlmutter is a Florida-based celebrity doctor (neurologist) and author in the tradition of celebrity quacks and frauds like Dr. Oz (indeed, Perlmutter serves as medical advisor for The Dr. Oz Show), and is partially responsible for currently popular and myth-based gluten nonsense fads and for the pseudoscientific basis for popular paleo-diet advice. In particular, Perlmutter advocates a functional and holistic approach to treating brain disorders, and the false main claim of his 2013 pseudoscientific magnum opus Grain Brain is that gluten causes various neurological conditions. The book successful enough for Perlmutter to produce several equally shoddy sequels. He has also contributed to the Huffington Post,The Daily Beast, and Mind Body Green. Perlmutter used to be president of the Perlmutter Health Center until it was sold in 2015, and has also, tellingly, received numerous awards from various quack organization, such as the 2002 Linus Pauling Award of the Institute for Functional Medicine and a 2006 National Nutritional Foods Association thing, as well as a 2015 “Communications and Media Award” from the American College of Nutrition. He also made it onto this list.

It is no exaggeration to call Grain Brain enormously influential; it topped bestselling lists for an unnervingly long period of time (there is a decent explanation for its success here) and really made its author something of a star in the altmed pseudoscience community. In the book (good reviews here and here), Perlmutter ostensibly revealed “the surprising truth” that gluten is a “silent germ” responsible for declining brain health. This is demonstrably complete and utter bullshit. Even pseudoscience advocate David Katz called it a “silly book” that exhibits “the raw power of pop culture repetition, not the staying power of truth.” There is a decent, though sympathetic, summary of Perlmutter’s claims (and the rather serious problems with them) here, and a short summary here.
Meanwhile, real scientists, such as microbiome expert Jonathan Eisen, were not impressed with Perlmutter’s 2015 sequel Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain – for Life: “To think we can magically heal diseases by changing to a gluten-free diet and taking some probiotics is idiotic ... It resembles more the presentation of a snake-oil salesman than that of a person interested in actually figuring out how to help people.” The book was the result of his 90-minute TV special, Perlmutter’s “BRAINCHANGE”, which was aired on over 110 PBS affiliates and has continued to air on a regular basis since then. The book promises to help readers harness “the power of gut microbes to heal and protect your brain – for life,” and offers ostensibly groundbreaking preventative measures and treatments for allergies, autism, Alzheimer’s, ALS, dementia, Parkinson’s, and cancer. The claim, though false, is actually not particularly new; Perlmutter has for decades offered readers miraculous” treatments that can prevent and remedy all sorts of medical problems, and claimed that the various supplements and “detoxification” regimens he sells on his website are crucial to optimizing brain health. Needless to say, the data do not bear his claims out (there is for instance a fact check of some of his claims here). But then, Perlmutter is not really a scientist – he had a couple of solid publications (unrelated to his current efforts) four decades ago; the more recent stuff are either case reports or published in scam or bottom-feeding journals like the Journal of Applied Nutrition (listed here). He’s got anecdotes, though. His anecdotes do sound miraculous, we’ll give him that. Miraculous-sounding anecdotes is not exactly a credibility boost. It is worth pointing out that the anecdotes in his 2000 book BrainRecovery sounded equally miraculous (and exhibited a similar complete lack of actual evidence to back them up), only this time around cholesterol and saturated fat were culprits, things he recommends in his later work – in the previous work, nonsense like hyperbaric oxygen chambers (he even ran his own “Perlmutter hyperbaric oxygen center”) and special, proprietary supplements were the order of the day (the FDA was not impressed), including glutathione: it’s effectiveness in Parkinson’s patients, he claims, “is nothing short of miraculous”. His stock of anecdotes is at least remarkably flexible. 

Glutathione, by the way, is demonstrably useless (Perlmutter displayed a momentary lapse of judgment and actually contributed to real research showing that it is useless; he seems to have learned), a conclusion Perlmutter conspicuously aggressively neglected to mention in subsequent recommendations for it. Criticism of his recommendations were (and are) predictably dismissed as Big Pharma trolling.Meanwhile, Perlmutter was himself shilling for Protandim, testifying to its undeniable efficacy for treating and preventing many brain orders; the producer, LifeVantage, eventually revealed that it was a scam and wasn’t, as claimed, developed by a biochemist but cooked up by a business executive. So it goes.

Beyond conspiracies, Perlmutter is also fond of another familiar, general response to his critics: “Each progressive spirit,” he tweets, “is opposed by a thousand mediocre minds appointed to guard the past.” He is, in other words, just like Galileo; indeed, Perlmutter explicitly pulls the Galileo comparison, failing to notice the rather crucial bit of asymmetry that Galileo wasn’t opposed by the contemporaneous scientific community.

And of course, as his empire grows, so does the amount of bullshit. Perlmutter has pushed everything from “empowering coconut oil” to demographically tailored supplement blends (such as a $90 “Scholar’s Advantage Pack” for “young adults seeking to optimize cognitive function,” and a $160 “Senior Empowerment Pack”), his own organic foaming hand soap, as well as a $8,500 brain detoxification at a retreat he runs, which includes shamanic healing ceremonies. Recently, Perlmutter has been a devoted champion of the toxins scare.

To top it all, Perlmutter has also made appeals to the antivaxx community. In particular, he has advocated the “alternative vaccine schedule” nonsense (i.e. advising parents to ask their pediatricians about scheduling childhood vaccinations separately), which would put children and communities at greater risk of contracting preventable diseases. Of course, Perlmutter is advocating this against better judgment, but it resonates with his target audience, and Perlmutter is a disgusting excuse for a human being who apparently wouldn’t think twice about a few hundred dead kids a year if it pads his wallet.

Diagnosis: A remorseless snake oil pusher, and one of the most dangerous and vilest of those  in the US today.

Hat-tip: The Cut.

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