Deconstructing a Flawed Defense of EMPowerplus Quackery

False Hope

Alternative medicine proponents defend their pseudoscientific quackery by a number of different means. Sometimes they claim that their alleged “treatment” is actually science-based and put forward studies that make trivial errors when it comes to experimental design, statistical analysis or the appropriate interpretation of the results in the wider medical context. However, this is typically rare since it requires a very deep level of intellectual self-deception. Other methods include claiming that although the preparation is just placebo, it is still very powerful through some mystical mind-body process that science can never understand. Quite often, however, they do not even make a serious attempt at sounding reasonable and instead merely claim that it “works for them” and that it is therefore unreasonable and immoral to object to alleged “treatments” that either has no evidence of safety or efficacy or has evidence of harm.

This article examines one such attempt to prop up an alternative medicine product called EMPowerplus (by Truehope) for psychiatric conditions such as autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety and bipolar conditions. However, these claims have never been evaluated by the FDA and the company uses the classic quack Miranda warning that their product is “intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” There is no credible scientific research supporting efficacy and safety of the product (the only RCT was terminated before completion and results were never reported), it has potentially dangerous drug interactions, the company makes invasive follow-up calls, and even promote the notion that Candida infection causes diseases in otherwise healthy individuals. Not only that, but the company tries to recruit friends and family to manipulate the patient to stay on the “treatment”.

When mental health writer Natasha Tracy pointed this out in a series of blog posts, they threatened her with a lawsuit, but she refused to back down. This is covered in additional detail in the article Truehope Threatens Critic Natasha Tracy with Frivolous Lawsuit. Now, a person decided to post a comment on that post that was filled with the same old ignorant canards that proponents of alternative medicine often try to fall back on. This is a point-by-point refutation of that nonsense.

Critical evaluation of flawed health claims is not “shocking”

I was actually pretty shocked to find this article.

Why? A critical evaluation of an alternative medicine product that has never been evaluated by the FDA, that probably does not work and has dangerous drug interactions is hardly “shocking”. Quacks regularly make these same claims about modern medical treatments that do in fact have substantial evidence of safety and efficacy, so again I do not understand why this should be considered “shocking”, apart from the shocking fact that they threaten an Internet critic with a lawsuit for exposing them.

No, you were not “skeptical at first”

Another common method to argue for quack “treatments” is the so-called testimonial, which is the testimony of a single or a few individuals who claim that the treatment “worked for them”. This cannot be independently verified and companies often pay people to make such testimonials, or even outright invent them from scratch. This is done due to the persuasive nature of single stories about human experiences. For good measure, they appear to be “skeptical” at first, but then “convinced” by their own personal experiences:

I was pretty skeptical about taking the product in the first place but now I have been taking EMPowerplus for over a year and it has worked wonders for me.

However, personal experience is a bad method for trying to figure out if a product works or not. This is because of the insidious nature of placebo effects (particularly such as regression to the mean whereby people try quack products when they are feeling particularly bad and the regression to the mean correlates with taking the product). This is why we need randomized, placebo-controlled trials to figure out if the product actually works by the golden standard of modern medicine, or if the improvement seen is non-specific and relates to other factors than the active ingredient in the product.

Sometimes these quacks even try to fool you into thinking that their relatives also tried this, thereby completing the testimony into complete hearsay:

It has worked even better on friends and family that I know with other mental health issues.

How do you know? What methods did you use to eliminate the possibility of non-specific placebo effects? Who are these relatives and friends? Can we talk to them? Look at their medical history and test results? If not, it cannot be considered scientific evidence. It could just as well simply be a made-up story.

Selling untested stuff and threatening critics with lawsuits is the problem

This is a clear indication that the commenter did not even bother to read the post.

It may not work for everyone but it does a lot of good things for a lot of different people so there is really no reason to tell people it won’t work for them just because it hasn’t worked for yourself.

The argument is not that the product does not work because it happened to not work for Natasha Tracy. The argument is that it is not well-tested, it is not evaluated by the FDA, it has potentially harmful drug interactions and the company behind it threatens Tracy with a lawsuit.

What “extensive research” are you talking about?

I guess I can’t really blame a company who has done extensive research for decades and had amazing results in return for asking someone with NO real proof that the product that doesn’t work to not bash their work.

What “extensive research”? Show me a randomized, placebo-controlled trial that shows that is clinically significantly better than placebo published in a serious, peer-reviewed scientific journal. You do not have any? What a shame.

The evidence for all claims Natasha and I made are in the post linked above and the links therein.

The real cost of fake treatments

Why would you want to prevent someone from trying to better themselves and others? If the doesn’t work for someone then they simply will not continue to take it but if it does work it could change their lives for the better.

Because fake treatments are ineffective and dangerous and companies that peddle these “treatments” are emotionally and financially exploiting vulnerable people. Not just because the product itself might have toxic effects on their own, but also because it might dissuade people from using science-based treatments such as medication and psychotherapy.

Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and others?

I want people to have access to science-based treatments that has been shown to work in proper clinical trials. You just do not get this from alternative medicine “treatments”. If you had, it would simply be called “medicine”.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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