Voodoo Science -- Vitamin O

(This column first appeared in the March 20 Buffalo News.)

    My annual visit to April Foolery will appear in two parts this year -- and for good reason. Robert Park, the author of VooDoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford) will be speaking at 8:00 p.m. next Saturday, March 25 at the Center for Inquiry on Sweethome Road. I read Park's insightful but disturbing litany of nonsense posing as science in page proofs (it will be published in May) and already planned to use it as the basis for my annual trek through the pseudoscientific wilderness. By adding this April Fool prequel I hope to encourage you to attend his talk. Next week I will return to his book to provide what I consider an even worse example of contemporary foolishness.

    Park has impeccable scientific credentials. He divides his time between the University of Maryland Department of Physics and Astronomy of which he is chair and the American Physical Society in Washington, where he directs its Office of Public Affairs. His major role in the capital is to "make the case for science." But Park found that he "kept bumping up against scientific ideas and claims that are totally, indisputably, extravagantly, wrong, but which nevertheless attract a large following of passionate, and sometimes powerful, proponents."

    Here are some of his comments about one of those claims -- Vitamin O.

    "There was a full-page ad in USA Today recently for 'Vitamin O' [that] said 'Vitamin 0' was helping thousands of people to live healthier lives. 'It's so safe you can drop it in your eyes, so natural it contains the most abundant element on earth, so effective you could spend hours reading the unsolicited testimonials of those who've used it with dramatic results.' Indeed, the ad included a number of testimonials, which said things like: 'After taking Vitamin O for several months, I find I have more energy and stamina and have become immune to colds and flu.'

    "According to the ad, it 'maximizes your nutrients, purifies your bloodstream, and eliminates toxins and poisons -- in other words, all the processes necessary to prevent disease and promote health.' A two-ounce vial, which sold for twenty dollars plus shipping charges, should last a month. According to a company official at Rose Creek Health Products, which marketed 'Vitamin O,' sales were running about sixty thousand vials per month and growing.

    "So what is 'Vitamin O'? The ad says exactly what it is: 'stabilized oxygen molecules in a solution of distilled water and sodium chloride.' In other words, it's salt water. At any solubility the recommended dose would provide far less oxygen than you get in a single deep breath.

    "The ad may be a cynical and apparently successful attempt to mislead, but for the most part it is literally truthful. It says the product is safe. What could be safer? It says oxygen is good for you. You certainly can't live without it. It says 'Vitamin 0' provides you with oxygen. I suppose it does -- but in an amount that is totally insignificant. Fish can extract the oxygen from water, but they don't get it by swallowing water. No warm-blooded creature survives without breathing air. An attempt to extract the oxygen you need from water is called 'drowning.'"

    Just do a little arithmetic: at 60,000 $20 vials per month, Vitamin O is taking in almost $15 million each year. The operative words there -- "taking in."

    Pseudoscience strikes yet again. I'll describe another example next week and Park's talk will provide still more evidence of our gullibility. (To reserve seats, call Barry Karr at 636-1425, extension 217.)-- Gerry Rising