Dr. Robert Burton was recently shocked to chance upon a health-quack infomercial on a Public Broadcasting Station, during pledge time, and explains how bad it was in a recent article in Salon. That fine online publication was big enough to give the target of Dr. Burton’s ire, a Dr. Mark Hyman, a chance to reply. In his response, Dr. Hyman expresses his opinion that he is not a quack and that his critic is all wet, but makes the mistake of hauling out one of the favorite quotations in the quack arsenal, Einstein’s “Great spirits often encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Dr. Hyman, I don’t think Einstein was referring to the likes of you; at least not with the first two words.
But I am surprised that Dr. Burton was surprised. PBS stations have a long and depressing history of using self-produced infomercials during pledge time to goad the more gullible contingent in their audience into forking over the cash, somewhat in the manner of the shameless televangelists elsewhere on the dial.
In fact, this Mark Hyman, who is, after all, a real M.D., seems to be relatively harmless compared with some of the characters that have appeared before in this context. The use, by PBS stations, of truly shady out-and-out quacks, such as the execrable Gary Null, even led to a public scandal and a round of self-critical soul-searching by PBS executives:
Such travesties...intensified my already-intense concern that we lack clear standards about what we put on our air when our desire is to raise money...What does it profit us to honor science in Nova, only to open the door to quacks and charlatans?
The travesty that the author of this quotation, past PBS President Ervin Duggan, was referring to was the case of a patient who had stopped chemotherapy after watching Deepak Chopra advocate “spiritual healing” on a PBS station. The incident is an example of why health charlatans who advocate ineffective remedies are not harmless: they divert people who might need real help from real medicine.
So what happened? Either PBS and its network of stations decided to not worry and take the money, like the Pacifica radio stations that still carry Gary Null and make him a prominent part of their pledge drives, or they decided that it might not be so bad if they avoided the worst of the lot and stuck with real doctors who, while pushing ineffective fringe remedies, might not go so far as to advocate coffee enemas. It is obvious, and saddening, that PBS still can not resist the profitability of the self-help infomercials, even if they might lately be trying to avoid the seediest of this bunch of hucksters.
I expect this practice to continue, along with the continually expanding use of ever lengthier corporate advertising by “publicly supported” tv and radio stations, despite the diligent efforts of public spirited experts such as Robert Burton. This is a miniature tragedy, as it casts the shadow of reduced credibility over their other fine programming, and especially over the excellent attempts at science education that have been, over many years, a great example of what public television can achieve.