There is a tool on Sayer Ji’s website GreenMedInfo.com that I wish I could recommend. I am sometimes asked by members of the public for a place to go to find scientific papers in order to figure out what is “science” and what isn’t, and the Research Dashboard on Ji’s website appears to be up to that task. With close to 50,000 research abstracts on over 10,000 health topics, it is sold as a “new workspace for results-driven, evidence-based natural medicine research.” You can pick a therapeutic substance or a disease, for example, and see a list of relevant research articles extracted from PubMed, the Google of biomedical research papers run by the National Institutes of Health. You can even look for papers on vitamin C as it specifically relates to pancreatic cancer, and download all the associated abstracts in one convenient PDF file. (The latter is for paying members only, but everything else is free.)
I wish I could endorse this fantastic tool.
Sayer Ji’s online footprint can hardly be ignored. His main website, GreenMedInfo.com, claims to have more than 1 million views each month, and its Facebook page shows half a million follows.
Ji’s credentials can look impressive at first glance. His website describes him as a “thought leader in the natural health and wellness fields”. He’s the editor of a journal on nutrition and medicine, the vice chair of a health federation, a member of the steering committee of a global coalition. He is also the co-founder of a (for lack of detail) thing called “Systome Biomed” that has something to do with making sounds visible. The sparse website puzzles the mind with obscurantist language. Their approach is meant to account for many “paradigm-shifting discoveries” and create a “phenomenologically and empirically grounded approach” to understanding life. Ji makes it sound like they’re onto biology’s equivalent of the Theory of Everything.
I watched a one-hour lecture Ji gave in 2015 to figure out what his thesis is. The talk is entitled “Let Food Be Thy Medicine”, and if we need to add more red flags to a list of words that strongly imply pseudoscience will follow, this aphorism should make the cut. (I do delight in pointing out that, contrary to popular belief, there is zero evidence Hippocrates ever said that food should be our medicine.)
Ji wants to vindicate ancient healing traditions by showing people that there are recent scientific studies that confirm this ancestral knowledge. He says that food is information that we put in our body and it interacts with our genes. When we alter this information, we’re introducing “bad information” into our body, which means our proteins get misfolded and we get ill, he claims. He thinks “heroic doses” of medication and nutraceuticals is the wrong approach; we need daily “culinary doses”. And he thinks that his god made things in nature look like what they are meant to heal, so that a walnut looks like the brain because it’s meant to help our brain function.
And here’s the twist. Ji is the curator of his website’s Research Dashboard. This means that not every study listed in PubMed on a particular topic will show up on Ji’s search engine. He chooses which studies to list and he headlines them with public-friendly titles like “Distant healing improves the symptoms of subjects with chronic pain”.
Can we trust Ji to curate the biomedical literature for us?
A colossal exercise in cherry picking
Ji’s LinkedIn page lists his major as philosophy.
The journal for which he is an editor (the International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine) is the brainchild of a naturopath/osteopath/chiropractor hybrid, Alex Vasquez. It publishes one issue a year, has no impact factor, and its website has interesting statements on genetically modified foods (they oppose the inappropriate use of “foodoid” products) and vaccines (they are not “anti-vaccine” but….).
The National Health Federation, for which Ji is a vice-chair, appears to be a lobby group. Its website lists petitions to “get Big Pharma out of the FDA” and to “help repeal Obamacare”. Its magazine, Health Freedom News, has ads for mineral supplements, magnetic sleep pads, and systemic pet detox products.
And it’s fairly easy to show that Sayer Ji, with his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, is not equipped to curate the biomedical literature. That distant healing study he lists was done with 16 participants in Missouri (a tiny sample) and a man essentially praying for them in Japan. One pain intensity scale showed a difference in pain perception between the prayed-for group and the control group, while another scale used in the study showed no difference. An underpowered study of a far-fetched claim with equivocal results on subjective measures is not worthy of praise.
But maybe Ji simply lists every study on a given topic without assessing their merits? That is not the case. If you look up homeopathy on his Research Dashboard and further filter for “allergic rhinitis”, you will find five abstracts, all of which indicate that homeopathy, a pseudoscientific dilution-based system of belief, has value in treating the symptoms of allergies.
Searching for “homeopathy allergic rhinitis” in PubMed itself, however, generates 66 hits, including as the top hit a systematic review published in a journal biased toward homeopathy which states that the quality of the evidence is low or uncertain. You won’t see it on GreenMedInfo. Similarly, searching for essential oils on the Research Dashboard will give you the impression that aromatherapy is a cure-all. GreenMedInfo is a highly selective slice of the biomedical literature, biased toward positive results for natural ingredients and spun to make bad studies look better.
Here’s a fun example of Ji’s lack of critical assessment of current biomedical research, an example that takes me back to my grad school years. Because Ji believes that nature provides the means to protect us from all diseases, he has latched onto an emerging field in molecular biology: the study of microRNAs. These short molecules help regulate the expression of our genes. If a gene is like a baker making bread, microRNAs are part of the system that controls how much bread is being made and when.
In Ji’s 2015 talk, he references two papers that seemingly show that the microRNAs present in plants can have a profound effect on our metabolism when eaten. “And there’s no drug that can do this without disrupting hundreds of different pathways; this is food that is able to do this,” he says.
The problem is that the first study he references, in which scientists claimed to have found rice microRNAs circulating in the blood of humans, came under criticism. The original researchers claimed to have shown that one of these rice microRNAs could interfere with the removal of unhealthy cholesterol in mice which, if true, would be a game-changing discovery. Researchers wanted to replicate these results because it could lead to the generation of food engineered to help fix health issues. But the results could not be reproduced and a number of discrepancies were found in the original paper. It looks as if the rice microRNAs that were detected came from contamination of their lab equipment. Also, for the results to be true, a human would have to consume 33 kg of rice per day.
The second study to which Ji alludes holds the promise of using microRNAs against prostate cancer. The problem is that a study aiming to replicate these results came up with completely different findings earlier this year.
Jumping on preliminary results that justify your narrative—in Ji’s case, that food is medicine—is usually a recipe for wrongness. As a grad student, I took a look at all the microRNA “signatures” that had been published for a variety of cancers and found that few of them overlapped. Biology, as it turns out, is extremely complicated, and early findings tend to be wrong.
Biotechnology and “the dark spectre of cannibalism”
There is a comparison to be made between Sayer Ji’s web presence and Mike Adams’ empire of misinformation.
Both claim to be one-stop shops for accurate medical information, yet the positions their creators take run afoul of established science. Ji’s website has called the fluoride added to the water supply a “toxin”. He has twisted genuine critiques of scientific research to fit a narrative that we are at the mercy of a “pseudo-scientific medical dictatorship” that might as well flip a coin when making decisions. And he has called “cannibalistic” any genetic modification, as well as vaccines that were originally developed using aborted fetal tissue. His website has published an article claiming there is apparently “no overwhelming evidence that vaccines work”.
Both Ji and Adams love to play the “freedom of speech” and the “victim” cards when their distorted takes on health backfire. Ji recently wrote that “anti-vaxxer” is a “bigoted slur” and that social media companies are censoring dissenting and alternative views on the topic of immunizations. Pinterest and MailChimp have “deplatformed” Ji, and he claims to have been “shadow-banned” from Facebook, Microsoft Outlook, Gmail and Google. The gambit is always that Ji and his associates shout out inconvenient truths, so the establishment tries to shut them down. This attempt at censorship must mean they are doing the right thing, or so goes the argument.
Modern scientific research is too complex for the average person to correctly interpret its findings and their implications. And it’s not even a “scientists” versus “non-scientists” dichotomy. I would have great difficulty assessing the quality of a paper in physiology, and my degree is in molecular biology which is not that dissimilar. A paper in physics, meanwhile, might as well be written in another language.
A guy who majored in philosophy simply is not up to the task. Especially when he has a clear agenda.
- Sayer Ji is the founder of a website called GreenMedInfo which features a search engine that allows you to find scientific studies on a variety of health topics.
- Ji’s search engine does not list all studies and seems to be biased toward scientific papers that claim natural food and alternative medicine can prevent and heal diseases.
- Ji, who is anti-vaccination and anti-GMO, has no scientific training.
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