Time for Rapid Rebuttal Technology

I hadn't realized until recently that the United States is in the grip of a mania.

Richard Gallagher(rgallagher@the-scientist.com)
Oct 23, 2005

I hadn't realized until recently that the United States is in the grip of a mania. But then I caught an infomercial that led me to books, a Web site, CDs, news coverage, and finally, to the writing of this editorial. I've discovered an irresistible and infuriating phenomenon: Kevin Trudeau.

Trudeau is the doyen of snake-oil salesmen. His current triple play, in which the television infomercial sells a book that in turn sells a Web site, reveals a virtuoso scam at work. What I watched is currently the most-shown infomercial on television, according to a report in the online magazine Salon.1 While he drops big hints about problems with the safety of the food supply, talks up natural cures for a multiplicity of diseases, and suggests that the pharmaceutical industry is suppressing said miracle cures, Trudeau's main purpose in the infomercial is to promote his book, Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You To Know About.

The strategy has been remarkably successful. The $29.95 book has topped The New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks and has sold close to three million copies. But it gets better. The book is little more than a sales pitch for the Web site, NaturalCures.com, where the "real cures" are to be found, for a lifetime membership of $499 or a monthly fee of $9.95.

The Trudeau phenomenon is interesting for a number of reasons. For a start, it shows that, in this age of supposed cynicism and instant access to information, an old-fashioned racketeer can still make billions. That there is a market for a book that claims to be "suppressed by government and big business" is understandable, but the work has been denounced as a sham by hundreds of these initially hopeful readers, on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and yet continues to sell in huge numbers. Indeed, on Amazon.com it is the twelfth-best seller.

For the desperate, gullible, and ignorant consumers of Trudeau's credo, there is danger. For instance, he recommends that you should stop taking all prescription drugs; tells you that if your body pH is alkaline you cannot get cancer; that heartburn is caused by too little acid in your stomach; and that an herbal supplement can cure diabetes. Yet no responsible action has been taken by distributors, publishers, or anyone else. The Amazon Web site positively purrs about the book, telling us that "Kevin has risked government prosecution to bring you the full story of an intricate conspiracy" and "Kevin reveals the shocking truth of how drugs ... are actually the cause of illness and disease climbing to near epidemic levels." Meanwhile, HarperCollins, a publishing giant, is cashing in in the most contemptible way by repackaging a previous Trudeau book as being "By the bestselling author of Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You To Know About." Ironically, HarperCollins also publishes The Best American Science Writing 2005.

Enough of the finger-pointing, is there something practical that can be done? I am reminded of US and UK political campaigns that used rapid rebuttal systems to counter opponents' attacks as soon as they emerged,2 where previously "a lie could be halfway around the world before the truth had got its trousers on." Might the same principles be applied to Trudeau and other perpetrators of untruths about biology and medicine? If there were a rapid, highly organized, and overwhelming response from a respected source, could it squash the Kevin Trudeaus of the world before they did any damage? A coalition of science and medical advisers, along with some talented PR folks, could make this a reality at little expense. It's something for the nonprofit medical research sector to think about.