Do You Believe in Magic? Topol, Offit on Alternative Medicine

; Paul A. Offit, MD


October 02, 2013

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In This Article

Editor's Note:
In this edition of Medscape One-on-One, Eric J. Topol, MD, and Paul A. Offit, MD, discuss Offit's new book, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. In his book, Dr. Offit takes a look at the billion-dollar, unregulated supplement, vitamin, and alternative medicine industries.


Dr. Topol: Hello. I am Dr. Eric Topol, Editor-in-Chief for Medscape. We have a great session of Medscape One-on-One today with Dr. Paul Offit, who is the head of the Infectious Diseases Division at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

He has written a very interesting book that takes on the whole supplement, vitamin, alternative medicine, and complementary medicine era. It's really a delight to be able to welcome Paul to Medscape. Welcome, Paul. It is great to be with you.

Dr. Offit: Thanks, Eric. Thanks for having me.

Positive Reaction to a New Book

Dr. Topol: Back in June, you published the book Do You Believe in Magic? What has been the reaction so far?

Dr. Offit: It has been overwhelmingly positive. It is surprising, actually, certainly from academics or those interested in communicating science or health to the public, it has been embraced. People are glad that somebody stood up and tried to explain this in a reasonable way. But not surprisingly, I have also gotten some pretty negative responses because, in a sense, I have attacked the church of vaccines and dietary supplements, and that belief system has been defended by some.

Exploring Linus Pauling's "Dark Side"

Dr. Topol: You have taken on an industry that takes in almost $40 billion a year -- just immense -- and it has a lot of constituents. I just finished your book. I thought it was excellent, and I learned a lot from you and the research that you did. You had a whole section on Linus Pauling,[1] and obviously he was a legendary scientist. But it seemed like he went over to the dark side -- that is, he believed in magic. Was he really the one that ushered in this era of all the alternative medicine and the vitamins? Or was it actually already there before Linus Pauling?

Dr. Offit: Well, certainly the notion of alternative medicine has been around for 5000 years. Things like acupuncture or using plants as medicinals have been around forever. I think what Linus Pauling did was give birth to the notion that megavitamins -- meaning these large quantities of vitamins greatly in excess of the recommended daily allowance -- have a vast array of beneficial activities. They could cure the common cold. They could cure cancer. They could prevent aging.

He gave that its impetus because he was a brilliant man. He is the only person ever to win 2 unshared Nobel prizes. In many ways he launched the fields of molecular biology and evolutionary biology. He received a Nobel Prize in chemistry as a very young man because he was able to formulate these secondary structures for proteins. He was amazing.

He was a rigorous, thoughtful scientist, and then something happened to him in his mid-60s. Maybe it was just the sin of hubris because he had been so right for so long, where he believed that his notions about megavitamins were correct even when study after study showed that they weren't correct.

Dr. Topol: I was amazed about how he was only 30 when he got the Nobel Prize in chemistry, but it seemed like he snapped along the way. Then, because he was so highly regarded, that had a big impact on American culture.


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