As 9 p.m. approached on the Wednesday of the 2012 Republican National Convention, delegates in Tampa, Florida, heard from South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. On Wednesday, as that same hour approaches in Cleveland, Republican delegates will hear a speech from someone named Michelle Van Etten, the senior vice chairman marketing director for a company called Youngevity. Whatever your political leanings may be, Thune and Portman were at least sitting elected officials with a public track record. Youngevity sells vitamins, purported weight-loss pills, and, also, dog shampoo. While Thune and Portman themselves have a shaky relationship with science, by the standards of the company Van Etten works for, those guys were basically Watson and Crick.
As a physician, I can’t help but marvel over Van Etten’s appearance on the speaker list. She’s representing a company whose founder and CEO has advocated extremely questionable medical ideas for years. These are ideas that no credible national party should want to associate itself with, and yet, here we are.
Lately, the Republican Party has struggled to agree upon a science and medicine platform that simultaneously comports with its constituents—and reality. After the rise of the Tea Party, the GOP failed to make a strong and coherent stand for the vaccines that protect us all. When it comes to climate change, its otherwise understandable desire to protect business and industry has led to years of statements that do not accept established fact and have made enemies among the science community.
But giving the national convention stage to someone associated with Youngevity feels like a surprising low. The CEO of Van Etten’s company is a man named Joel Wallach: He’s not a medical doctor, and yet, according to him, he’s cured several diseases the rest of medicine has yet to crack. For instance, Wallach has claimed he has the cure for muscular dystrophy. He’s got the cure for cystic fibrosis, too, which you can conveniently get in the products his company sells. While we’re at it, in his book Black Gene Lies: Slave Quarter Cures he apparently explains that the reason some diseases disproportionately impact African Americans, including “hypertension, type II diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, etc.,” is simply due to deficiencies of trace elements that are “easily, safely and economically overcome by the use of simple nutritional supplement program and herbal remedies.” My only question, honestly, is what’s in that et cetera? Come on, now, we’ve got diseases to cure!
These “scientific ideas” actually could be funny if they weren’t being associated with a major political party’s national convention. But given that Trump and the GOP have such a history of denying any actual science, the inclusion of this pseudoscience is all the more infuriating. But it actually makes sense. In some ways, Wallach is reminiscent of Trump himself: Wallach says he can cure a slew of diseases with simple fixes. Trump claims he can deliver a similarly simple magic cure for what ails America. He’ll get Mexico to build a wall, reverse globalization, and reopen all the shuttered factories. How’s he going to do it? Don’t worry about it.
In addition to wanting to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has said it would be “great” if someone like Michael Savage were to head up the National Institutes of Health. Would he actually do such a thing? I’m not sure. But putting the likes of Van Etten center stage doesn’t reassure me.
Wednesday night’s theme is Make America First Again. While we’re definitely not high up in terms of personal health, at least America still stands as the world’s leader in the development of medical breakthroughs, some of which have saved millions of lives both here and abroad. We need to continue the work we’ve done in the fights against countless diseases ranging from HIV/AIDS and cancer to polio. In order to confront these challenges, however, we need a government that funds primary and clinical research, and values the pursuit of science.
For our nation to continue to lead the way, we need both political parties to respect, support, and highlight genuine science and medicine. We need both parties to embrace and feature the actual heroes of these important endeavors. And we expect both parties to emphasize these undertakings during their primetime televised conventions, when so many people are paying attention and thinking about our shared future. What we don’t need is yet another charlatan selling snake oil.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views and opinions of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.