Folmsbee: Presidential candidates need to support science-based medicine


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

During last week’s Republican presidential debate, the topics of science, medicine and business all intersected in a single, important question. Dr. Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is currently in first place according to the latest national polls, was asked about his professional involvement with Mannatech, a company that sells supplements it once claimed could cure both cancer and autism. In 2009, Mannatech was forced to pay $7 million in a settlement for this illegal marketing scheme, but the company and its products still exist today.

At first, Dr. Carson simply outright denied the connection, stating that he “didn’t have any involvement with them,” and he described the notion of any relationship he may have had with Mannatech as “propaganda.” However, he did eventually contradict himself, admitting to having “paid speeches” for the company and that he still currently uses Mannatech’s supplements, which he calls a “good product.” The line of questioning was dropped after it was clear the crowd grew hostile toward the moderators. Unfortunately, the public lost a real opportunity to hear Dr. Carson defend his past. This is not just about Dr. Carson’s proximity to a shady company, it illustrates the real dangers of potentially having a president of the United States who lacks a firm understanding of both science and medicine.

The evidence tying Dr. Carson to Mannatech is robust and troubling. As far back as 2004, Dr. Carson appears in a video where he attributes a cure for his prostate cancer to Mannatech’s products. But this relationship is also relatively recent, when as late as 2013 he received $42,000 to give a speech promoting their products. Although Dr. Carson has now terminated any relationship with Mannatech, he doesn’t deny his support for the purported health benefits of its pseudoscientific treatments. Even his own campaign manager Barry Bennet stated that Dr. Carson is a “believer in vitamins and supplements.”

This sets a dangerous precedent for those who see him as a political and medical role model. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002 and, initially, he even considered forgoing the evidence-based medical treatment of surgery and relying entirely on Mannatech’s products to fight his cancer. He ultimately chose to get surgery, but not without continuing to support Mannatech’s products’ ability to treat his own cancer.

Furthermore, Dr. Carson isn’t the only Republican contender endorsing non scientifically-backed medicine. Governor Mike Huckabee was once a spokesman for a “Diabetes Solution Kit” made by Barton Publishing. He gave testimonials where he decried the science-based interventions of insulin and other medications in favor of the “natural secrets” described in the kit, which include a rather bizarre recommendation of eating a mixture of cinnamon and chromium.

Understanding how both science and medicine work together is fundamental for any president. And falling into the trap of pseudoscientific medicine doesn’t just link these candidates to questionable companies, it also creates an overly simplistic view of the complex nature of healthcare. During the debate, Huckabee stated that to fix Medicare we must “focus on the diseases that are costing us the trillions of dollars. Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Eradicate those and you fix Medicare and you’ve fixed America.”

While curing all disease is a rather ambitious goal, it is an absurd promise and betrays a real lack of understanding of how medical treatments work and how advancements are made through research.

On the other hand, having this kind of knowledge of medicine can help build real progress, evident in the rhetoric seen on the Democratic side of the presidential race. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called for the reform of pharmaceutical drug pricing, especially in the wake of the infamous gouging of the anti-parasitic drug daraprim from $13.50 to $750 by Turing Pharmaceuticals. Hillary Clinton recently released a plan to allow Medicare to negotiate down prescription drug prices, and Bernie Sanders supports improving access to generic drugs and transparency in the price and cost of drugs from pharmaceutical companies.

Whether you agree with the role of government in regulating the healthcare market or not, we should at least vote for candidates who understand that hard science is the foundation for effective medicines and focus our discussion on how to bring new and better treatments to those who need them, rather than making money off selling pseudoscientific medicine to a public in need of true healthcare reforms.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.