Thursday, June 23, 2022

#2547: Mark Berman

Stem cell quackery is big business – despite some efforts by the FDA to crack down on such quackery – and Mark Berman has managed to become something of a major player in the promotion and commodification of dubious stem cell treatments. As opposed to many promoters of such treatments, Berman is in fact an MD – a plastic surgeon based in Beverly Hills, in fact – and together with Dr. Elliot Lander, a urologist, he runs the website Cell Surgical Network, which works as a franchise for hundreds of dubious stem cell clinics in the US: For some $30,000, Berman’s company will train doctors to extract a patient’s fat, prepare it with his special centrifuge, and then inject it back into patients.


At least the website seems to be careful not to promise that such stem cell injections can cure or treat the diseases they strongly suggest they can cure or treat, including Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, congestive heart failure, lung disease, glaucoma, and muscular dystrophy – and Berman at least claims to make it clear to patients that the work is investigative and not FDA-approved. He’s also got some prominent, typical Quack Miranda warnings. After all, the patients who come to these clinics are often desperate enough to wish to go ahead anyways. Berman even (at least sometimes) admits that the therapies in question are not backed by evidence; instead, researchers are “currently studying” said therapies. But of course.


Berman has acknowledged that he has no published studies to back up his treatment, but nevertheless claims that he’s certain it works and is safe. As proof to back up his hubris, he has anecdotes. Meanwhile, dubious stem cell practitioners are of course performing what they themselves call “experiments”, though usually without clear protocols and without any sort of IRB approval. Apparently, since they charge their “subjects” directly for treatment, they can call it  patient-funded research” and then ethical guidelines apparently don’t apply. (In fact, at least one of Berman’s articles is approved by something called the “International Cell Surgical Society IRB”, a very unusual body most striking for the number of typos and unintelligible nonsense in their guidelines.)


As a lot of promoters of questionable treatments, Berman employs the shill gambit to dismiss critics. As Berman sees it, academics criticize him because they want to profit themselves by patenting stem cells and fear competition – especially competition in the form of revolutionary technologies that are shinier than their [the academics] own incremental research. Berman doesn’t seem to like incremental research; results in the long term can, after all, not easily be monetized now. There is a lot of projection going on in his criticism of actual researchers, it seems. The FDA, meanwhile, is, according to Berman, just a front for Big Pharma. Berman has had some trouble with the FDA (details here and here)


Meanwhile, scientists who are actually doing the research in the field point out that what Berman suggests is impossible: adult stem cells taken from fat (Berman’s technique) cannot replace cells in the eye, target injured areas of the brain or heal the immune system, contrary to what Berman suggests. In response, Berman asksWhy would I be doing this unless it was incredibly successful? The answer to that one should be blindingly obvious. Berman’s procedures cost around $9000 – and then there is the abovementioned $30,000 fee to join their network.


Diagnosis: A hugely influential figure who preys on vulnerable groups of people with unproven and unsupported crackpottery. He claims its his moral duty, but apparently struggles to distinguish moral duty from greed and self-interest. Fortunately, the FDA has taken some notice, but we’re not very optimistic that it’ll stick.


Hat-tip: San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, June 20, 2022

#2546: Burton & Arthur Berkson

The Berkson protocol, also referred to as ‘the ALA-LDN protocol’, is a relatively obscure type of alternative cancer quackery, pushed primarily at the Integrative Medical Center of New Mexico, where Burton Berkson practices together with his son Arthur Berkson, a graduate of a two-year fellowship at Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona (Andrew Weil’s cult organization). The treatment involves intravenous α-lipoic acid and low-dose naltrexone, as well as some other medications and a strict dietary regimen and exercise program. The Berksons have published a number of “papers” on their protocol, but the papers are primarily case reports (i.e. testimonials) published in garbage “complementary and alternative medicine” journals, and a far cry from constituting evidence remotely sufficient for taking their claims seriously. Indeed, the fact that they only publish the results of a few case series over a 20-year “study” period, and no data on overall survival rates for patients treated with ALA-LDN, is itself plausible evidence against any claims they might make for efficacy. You can read more about the Berkson protocol here. Nonetheless, they apparently have some fans.


Low-dose naltrexone is a familiar alternative medicine favorite – it had some biological plausibility, and its disappointment in real studies has predictably not prevented quacks from using it to promote it as a cure for virtually anything and everything. As for α-lipoic acid, it’s one of those compounds that have seen some promising in-vitro studies, but lacks evidence of efficacy in clinical settings. Burt Berkson himself published a book some 25 years ago with the title Alpha Lipoic Acid Breakthrough: The Superb Antioxidant That May Slow Aging, Repair Liver Damage, and Reduce the Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease, and Diabetes. Yup, another panacea. The book was shit then, and doesn’t seem to have been updated.


Diagnosis: Yes, another crackpot shit cure people in desperate situations are understandably lured into throwing money at. The Berksons presumably mean well, but good intentions just isn’t good enough.


Hat-tip: Respectful Insolence

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

#2545: Bela & Jason Berkes

Berkes elder at some
deranged conspiracy conference

Seasilver USA, Inc., is a California company that markets markets Seasilver,™ an expensive supplement product supposed to balance your body chemistry,” whatever that is supposed to mean, cleanse your vital organs,” whatever that is supposed to mean, purify your blood and lymphatic system,” which is a medically meaningless claim, oxygenate your body’s cells,” which is (fortunately for users) obviously false,protect your tissues and cells against challenges, in some radically unclear way, and “strengthen your immune system, which is (familiarly) medically meaningless. The company was founded by one Bela Berkes, who, like the alchemists of poorly written cartoons, developed the product after a lengthy quest to “learn nature’s secret to good health.” The company’s chief executive is apparently his son, Jason E. Berkes, who also heads the product’s manufacturer, AmericAloe. The scam is apparently run as an MLM and the product has been touted by numerous websites.


Of course, the company has a long history of conflicts with the FDA given the wild and false claims about the product’s ability to be “used successfully in the treatment of over 650 diseases.” As a result of FDA warning letters, the company toned down some of its marketing materials in the early 2000s, though its distributors still tended to continue to run wild. After significant legal troubles in 2004, the company decided to play it safer, but seems to have had enough fans to survive even without its most egregious lies in the marketing materials. There is a good recount of the story of the company and the preposterousness of their claims here. The company’s board of advisors included Daniel Clark.


Seasilver product contained a number of ingredients (in unclear quantities), including some of their proprietary ones:


-       Matrix Aloe Vera, a vitamin and mineral concoction that supposedly has powerful healing and soothing properties” and “contain more oxygen molecules than the fluids of any other known plant, which is apparently good because today’s air contains only half of what your body was designed for!” and oxygen levels are decreasing in many parts of the world. The claims is false on an interestingly high number of levels.

-       Sealogica,™ “a proprietary blend of 10 sea vegetables,”  that ostensibly contains every vitamin, macro mineral, trace mineral, amino acid, enzyme, and sea-veg phyto-nutrients in nature’s perfect balance. It most certainly does not, but the claim does show that the Berkeses haven’t really bother to try to figure out what an enzyme is. They do not try to explain what “nature’s perfect balance” could possibly mean either. Stasis?

-       Pau D’Arco, which has no demonstrated therapeutic utility – there has been some medical interest in its ingredient Lapachol, but it has turned out to be too toxic to be of practical use.

-       Cranberry concentrate

-       Phyto-Silver™ (seems to have disappeared from later iterations of the product), which addresses “silver deficiency”, which is not a recognized medical condition.


The evidence for the efficacy of the product included testimonials and, more interestingly, Kirlian photographies that distributors claime demonstrated that Seasilver affects the person’s “energy field.” Of course, whatever “energy field might mean in New Age speech, Kirlian photographies do not measure them but rather perspiration, finger pressure applied to the camera, and similar interference in the process of creating such photographies.


Diagnosis: Well, we suppose the Berkeses may be true believers in the quality, safety and efficacy of their product, but everything about it is practically indistinguishable from scam.


Hat-tip: Quackwatch

Friday, June 10, 2022

#2544: John Bergman

John Bergman is a (hopefully) obscure guy behind some silly conspiracy drivel and youtube videos. He is perhaps most familiar as the “doctor” behind the headlines on various conspiracy and pseudoscience websites, such as Meddaily, in 2018 that made claims to the effect thatDoctor blows whistle on flu shot: ‘it’s designed to spread cancer’.”


And yes, Bergman does claim, without a shred of evidence, that the flu shot spreads, and was designed to spread, cancer. According to the aforementioned conspiracy websites, he “has revealed the influenza vaccinations being used to combat the latest H3N2 strain, are virtually ineffective and being forced onto the public through fear tactics to spread cancer” – “reveal” being the crucial word, of course: Bergman has no evidence and hasn’t shown anything. (Of course, given that cancer is statistically a disease of old age, you could say that survival spreads cancer, and the flu shots are designed to increase chances of survival – but that wasn’t Bergman’s claim.)


In fact, Bergman has spread false claims about a range of things, especially diabetes and “NATURAL health alternatives. He likes random capitalization – after all, when you’ve got no data or evidence, you need to SHOUT YOUR CLAIMS VERY LOUDLY TO MAKE THEM TRUE.


And of course, Bergman is, contrary to what’s stated in the headlines of those articles on various conspiracy sites, not a doctor. Rather, he is a D.C., a doctor of chiropractic”. You shouldn’t take your advice about flu and the flu vaccine from an anti-vax chiropractor. We shouldn’t have to tell you that.


Diagnosis: Yes, an anti-vax chiropractor. That’s all. Don’t listen to him about anything whatsoever.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

#2543: Dara Berger

Dara Berger is a long-time antivaccine activist, blogger for Age of Autism, antivcaccine podcast host (Every Choice Counts), at least one-time Board Member and Co-Chair of the Programming Committee for the National Autism Association NY Metro Chapter, and on the Advisory Board for the 2016 documentary Documenting Hope, a deeply lunatic pseudoscientific conspiracy flick produced by the Alliance for Natural Health that purported to “document” recovery from autism and “other” chronic conditions (and possibly where Marianne Williamson got some of her many nonsense myths about children’s health).


Apparently, Berger is also the author of the anti-vaccine screed How to Prevent Autism: Expert Advice from Medical Professionals, which we haven’t read and you probably shouldn’t either. It did, however, garner some controversy upon its release (but a glowing review from Jenny McCarthy; meanwhile, Berger’s publisher, antivaccine activist Tony Lyons at Skyhorse Publishing, responded to the controversy by yelling “censorship”). Of course, according to the book, you prevent autism primarily by avoiding vaccines, which Berger falsely blames for the imaginary “autism epidemic”. She also alleges that detox regimes can prevent your child from contracting ASD. It should be completely needless to say that they cannot. The “experts” in question were of course selected from the usual crowd, and included people like Anjum Usman and James Lyons-Weiler.


Berger is perhaps most notable for her strikingly melodramatic expressions of her persecution complex. You see, according to Berger (like other antivaxxers), antivaxxers are being bullied. Now bullying is bad, but “what happens when an entire country is bullying individuals?” asks Berger. “I find that this is the case for Vaccine Bullying.” Yes. Doctors, pro-vaccine friends and family members and skeptics: by showing that the claims and arguments offered by antivaccine activists like Berger are false, even crazy and harmful, they’re engaged in bullying. In particular, the entire US government is bullying her because they don’t accept her claim that “vaccines are hurting adults and children even though they secretly pay out billions of dollars in their not well disclosed Vaccine Court.” Of course, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has a rather prominent website that is easy to find and full of information, including detailed statistics. But then, of course, Berger, who otherwise “found” that it is all Vaccine Bullying, is evidently not very good at finding. Other bullies include pediatricians who strongly recommend vaccines, school administrators who act according to the law on issues related to school mandates, and a cousin who responded to Berger’s claim that vaccines caused her child to have a stroke that “you can’t be sure it was the vaccine.” (In her own words: “I felt very angry how she could even think to question me not once, but three times […]It is her own brainwashed views on vaccines that caused her to try to bully me at a dinner party […] It’s just incredible how pervasive vaccine bullying can be.” Yes, one imagines a lot of things feel pervasive to Berger.) And perhaps the worst bully of all: an acquaintance who linked to a book about autism that correctly states that vaccines don’t cause autism – the book, as Berger sees it, “undermines what has happened to so many children like my son,” (whom she falsely thinks is “vaccine injured”) – and then ignored her barrage of comments and messages about how bad of a person he was (“Your insensitivity explains why you are still alone”); “I felt silently bullied,” said Berger. She has also compared the pro-vaccine “movement” with the 2015 Colorado Springs shooting at a Planned Parenthood facility.


Beyond accusations of bullying and oppression, Berger is of course very fond of employing shill gambits, no matter how unconnected to reality the claims she makes might be. There is, of course, a clear connection between the two rhetorical strategies: after all, Berger can’t engage with the facts, so the most obvious move left is to try to present the people stating them as evil: either they’re bullies, or they’re corrupt.


Diagnosis: Clearly a terrible person, even beyond from her insane, wrong and harmful conspiracy theories and disinformation. Avoid at all costs.

Friday, June 3, 2022

#2542: Alex Berenson

Generally known as the pandemic’s wrongest man, Alex Berenson has managed to become one of the most cited and influential anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and COVID-19 denialists operating in the US today. Berenson used to be a reporter for The New York Times as well as a novelist, although his latest fiction book, the hilariously deranged 2019 fantasy screed Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, somehow ended up being marketed as having anything to do with reality; it most certainly does not. At present, Berenson is a mainstay feature of articles, who has fortunately taken upon themselves the arduous task of trying to clean up some of the toxic waste of delusional, pseudoscientific nonsense Berenson vomits all over the internet.


COVID denial

During the coronavirus pandemic, Berenson made frequent appearances in right-wing media to spread false claims about the disease and the vaccines (despite, of course, having absolutely no background or competence in any remotely relevant subject matter). Much of his efforts during the earlier stages of the pandemic were devoted to asserting that the seriousness of COVID-19 was overblown and attacking face masks, but he shifted his focus to conspiracy theories and disinformation about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines once they started being rolled out.


In particular, his early 2020 rants focused on expressing his belief that COVID-19 posed little risk and warning of alleged mainstream media alarmism and how the latter was used as a cover for government overreach. Predictably, Berenson falsely asserted that masks were a useless measure to curb the transmission of COVID – indeed, Berenson has been shown to be one of the core anchors in the anti-mask disinformation networks in the US, and probably internationally. In May 2020, Fox News even announced that Berenson would get to host a TV show called ‘COVID Contrarian’ on its online platform Fox Nation; by July, however, the number of COVID deaths made even Fox uncomfortable, and they removed the announcement from their website.


Throughout 2021 and early 2022, Berenson carefully “mischaracterized just about every detail regarding the vaccines in a concerted effort to get people to avoid them, having in the effort “proved himself the Secretariat of being wrong”. For instance:


-       he blamed the vaccines for causing spikes in severe illness, by pointing to data that actually demonstrate their safety and effectiveness.

-       he asserted that in country after country, “cases rise after vaccination campaigns begin,” in obvious contradiction with available evidence at the time, citing studies that showed absolutely no such thing. It is emphatically not the only time Berenson has misunderstood and distorted studies to promote antivaccine conspiracy theories.

-       In particular, he accused vaccine manufacturers of foul play by failing to include “suspected but unconfirmed” COVID-19 cases in their final efficacy conclusions, with reference to cases of suspected COVID that were tested negative. (In fairness, Berenson presumably didn’t actually try to lie here; he misunderstood the reports because he is stupid, arrogant and completely incompetent at reading such reports.)

-       he blamed the vaccines for suppressing our immune systems, by misrepresenting normal immune-system behavior; Berenson argued that “the first dose of the mRNA vaccine temporarily suppresses the immune system” and “transiently suppress lymphocytes,” which to anyone who knows how vaccines and immune systems work is close to a world record of silly – the closest analogy is claiming that workouts are dangerous because they ruin your muscles, except that muscles do indeed tear at the gym whereas lymphocytes aren’t destroyed by vaccines.

-       he suggested that countries such as Israel suffered from their early vaccine rollout, in direct contradiction with the facts, easily available at the time, showing that deaths and hospitalizations among vaccinated groups in Israel plummeted. (Berenson linked to a news article in Hebrew that didn’t remotely say anything resembling what he claimed it said; most of his followers presumably don’t read Hebrew.)

-       he promoted the conspiracy theory that a Danish soccer star who suffered cardiac arrest during a game had received the COVID vaccine just prior to collapsing, which was completely false, of course, but you probably know how antivaxx disinformation works by now. It was, needless to say, not the only Berenson has cited unfounded rumors to promote antivaxx nonsense.

-       he implied that for most non-seniors, the side effects of the vaccines are worse than having COVID-19 itself, in direct contradiction with the fact that the pandemic already by April 2021 had killed tens of thousands of people under 50 and the vaccines not conclusively killed anybody.


And of course, if anything makes its rounds in antivaxx circles, you can be more or less sure that Berenson will pick it up and use it to spread antivaccine disinformation, such as a Salk Institute study on spike proteins that he cited, even though obviously didn’t read or at least didn’t remotely understand. (The alleged deadliness of spike proteins has been a mainstay in antivaxx circles, despite the utter nonsense and lack of scientific support for the claims – studies that say the opposite of what you claim they say aren’t scientific support for your claim) In 2021, Berenson also tweeted that COVID-19 vaccinations had led to 50 times more adverse effects than flu vaccines based on comparing absolute numbers of vaccines given – and still getting it wrong.


In July 2021, Berenson spoke at CPAC, prompting loud cheers from the crowd when he boasted thatthe government was hoping that they could sort of sucker 90 percent of the population into getting vaccinated, and it isn’t happening.” Yes, it’s worth a moment of reflection. In August, 2021, he was permanently suspended from Twitter for repeated violations of its policy on COVID-19 misinformation.


In January, 2022, Berenson appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show (but of course) repeating his claim that existing mRNA vaccines are “dangerous and ineffective” against COVID-19 and demanding that they be withdrawn from the market immediately. (Carlson, who has a famously proven track record of COVID misinformation himself, of course left Berenson’s assertions unchallenged.)


Cannabis conspiracy theories

Berenson’s 2019 screed Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence is an alarmist piece of conspiracyranting characterized by numerous false assertions based on misrepresenting research, inferring causation from correlation (and directly contradicting the research he cites in the process), cherry picking and selection bias, relying mostly on (distorted) anecdotes to back its points. The book garnered consistent criticism from those who actually have any idea what they are talking about, like these people. (You can watch what is more or less the documentary version of Berenson’s book here). Since Berenson was not a household name at time, some commentators even wondered whether the whole book was a trollingeffort. It wasn’t, of course. But it does display Berenson’s combination of utter lack of integrity with incompetence in the service of FUD tactics aimed at the scientifically illiterate but paranoid, on which he would capitalize in the upcoming pandemic. Despite the claim having been shown to be false, Berenson continues to claim that “cannabis causes psychosis causes violence”.


The whole pot legalization movement is, according to Berenson, really a conspiracy that has managed to get the media onboard (“it’s a lot of the elite media that’s bought into this”, said Berenson on Fox; note the insertion of ‘elite’). And who’s really behind it all? Why, Soros, of course: “The number one group that’s encouraged legalization over the last 20 years is the Drug Policy Alliance, which is a well-funded group – actually, George Soros is its largest backer.” At least he understands his audience.


Diagnosis: Berenson knows very little and is generally incompetent at fact gathering, but we admit that he is something of an expert at sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt among scientifically illiterate and paranoid groups already prone to view anything they see through the lens of politics. It’s relatively easy, given sufficient confidence and the sort of staggering lack of integrity Berenson evinces, and it has made him one of the most influential sources of disinformation in the world today.


Hat-tip: Derek Thomspon @TheAtlantic

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

#2541: Cammy Benton

Cammy Benton is a physician and “integrative medicine practitioner, anti-vaccine activist and anti-masker, who is best known for anti-vaccine and COVID-19 conspiracy screeds published on the unhinged antivaccine propaganda blog The Thinking Moms’ Revolution (yes, it’s mommyblogging, and yes – this is a hoary one – they had to put ‘Thinking’ in the name since there is no shred of evidence in the contents that there is actual thinking happening between the drone-like reproduction of anti-vaccine and pseudoscience talking points). Her article ‘To Mask or Not to Mask’ is discussed here. It’s … not an impressive display of intellect. In the article, Benton attempts to play the “reasonable” middle, claiming that 'both sides have good points', before lamenting the bullying tactics of the pro-mask crowd and suggesting that there is a conspiracy since “large sums of money and power” are at stake (ostensibly the ones who stand to benefit, power- and moneywise, are they).


Benton runs Benton Integrative Medicine, an “integrative medicine” practice that offers various wellness products and questionable injectables and supplements, including some to “prevent coronavirus.” She is a promoter of functional medicine, which is popular among spineless quacks because of its reliance on expensive and meaningless lab tests. As for her antivaccine activities, Benton is also a Founding Director and the Treasurer of Physicians for Informed Consent, an antivaccine physician’s group, and she pushes Paul Thomas’s antivaccine book in her practice. Moreover, Benton embraces homeopathy, anecdotally claiming it cured her daughter, and naturopathy, apparently thinking that there’s no real difference between naturopathy training and MD training. There definitely is (assuming that her own MD training wasn’t a complete scam, which is a kind of speculation we will refrain from engaging in).


In 2016, Benton was one of the physicians who rallied in favor of Bob Sears – under the slogan “stand with Dr. Sears” – when the Medical Board of California initiated proceedings against him, an anti-vaccine sympathizer, for failing to live up to the standard of care for two of his patients. Anti-vaccine and woo-promoting physicians understandably do not like systems that hold professionals accountable for their actions.


Diagnosis: Wild-eyed crackpot and promoter of more or less everything false, woo and pseudoscience. Stay far, far away.