If you have grandparents or older relatives, you are probably familiar with all the old clichés and sayings in the book, like, “there is nothing new under the sun”. It’s actually an old idiom that isn’t true for a number of things but is so accurate when it comes to others, like con-men, quacks, and charlatans. From the dawn of time there have been people who have used our vulnerabilities and biases against us to turn a profit. You can find these types everywhere but one on the most sinister places they hide is in the business of health and wellbeing. A thoroughly documented history of this can be seen in the United States prior to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that led to the eventual formation of the FDA. Many”medicines” contained a number of ingredients from cocaine, to toxic compounds, and oftentimes compounds that caused little to no effect at all. These “medicines” claimed to cure joint pain, venereal disease, or tuberculosis,while some claimed to be panaceas- cure-alls for every type of ailment there was. The salesmen of these products employed a number of propaganda techniques to attract people to their products. Many even concocted stories to give their products an exotic flavor. A little more than a century later nothing much has changed.
Everywhere you look today people are concerned about health and wellness. Television programs are covering the latest discoveries, commercials are selling you the latest gadgets or supplements, even our neighbors and friends like to let us in on little tips on how to get healthy. And everywhere there are men and women ready to profit from the ignorance, fear, and mistrust of an uninformed public. And among the most vulnerable of these people are minorities, specifically black people who have a troublesome history with medicine and science. This history is fraught with demoralizing, dehumanizing, and alarming episodes that resulted from a combination of unevolved ethical views and racial discrimination. This environment, unfortunately, is a breeding ground for misinformation, a lot of which may be dangerous.
And although not all the people who are promoting inaccurate information are intentionally trying to harm people, their actions still can and will cause harm if people don’t take the time to be skeptical and inform themselves. I know it seems counter intuitive because most people who attempt to give you advice concerning health are genuinely trying to be helpful, but unfortunately good intentions aren’t enough to support good health. And while, there are many good people looking to help you, there are as many, if not more,who are looking to fleece you as well. This brings me to “Dr.” Sebi.
Who is he? According to his
mythology biography, he’s a herbalist and purveyor of pseudoscience which he blends with paranoid conspiracy theories tinged with racial subtext. I call him Sebi because I refuse to preface his name with doctor- a title he hasn’t earned. According to his own website, he never even completed kindergarten. Although inexplicably he claims to have a degree in thermodynamics and to be an engineer. His website also says he has expertise in pathology and biochemistry. But despite his lack of credentials, he has convinced many people that he can almost any disease. Does that claim sound familiar?
It seems Sebi’s fame began during the 1980’s when the HIV epidemic was beginning to come to light. In the 1990’s Sebi was arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license. During the trial Sebi brought several witnesses who testified to being cured of HIV by his treatments. In the end Sebi and his followers took his acquittal as vindication and proof of the effectiveness of his “treatments”. However, there are at least two problems with drawing this conclusion. The first problem is that the regulation of dietary supplements was then and still is a matter of debate. Contextually a number of quacks in the 80’s took advantage of the HIV epidemic to advertise and sell products that supposedly would cure or prevent HIV infection. These products ranged from injections with processed urine to vitamin regimens and other ineffective if not dangerous products. Many of these products contained heavy metals and other poisonous substances. Sebi like many others during that time were making claims that their products could prevent and cure disease, which constitutes a medical claim. Medical claims like all scientific claims must be substantiated with evidence and that evidence must be subjected to the scrutiny of the FDA (a lengthy process I will address in a future post). This introduces our second problem is that the scientific validity of a claim cannot be determined in a courtroom. Regardless of whether a judge was convinced by the testimony of patients of Sebi, a courtroom deals with matters of law and not science. And anecdotal evidence is insufficient in a scientific context for several reasons none the least of which is that people lie. But even when people do not purposely deceive others they are subject to self-delusion, telling stories in such a way as to highlight the parts they hope will be convincing and diminishing or omitting facts which may cause others to doubt our conclusions. This last part is one of the many reasons its difficult at this point to determine what happened in this case and whether the final verdict is really a victory as the followers of Sebi see it, or merely the result of a legal loophole (which I think is more likely), or some other unknown issue. Either way, Sebi has altered the way he markets his products, none make any references to curing or preventing any specific diseases. And like most supplements he markets them with vague descriptions of how they support the health of or “cleanse” various parts of the body. Vague descriptions should always raise red flags when your health is concerned.
Despite his arrest and trial Sebi has garnered a number of celebrity clients such as Steven Segal, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, and Michael Jackson. Sebi claims to have cured “Left Eye” of herpes, which is a serious ethical violation of patient confidentiality in the professional medical community, but is also unlikely to the point of being absurd. He also claimed to have cured Michael Jackson of his addiction to pain killers when he sued him for failing to pay him for services rendered- which were clearly ineffective. Use of celebrities as role models or authority figures is a technique used by many quacks and con artists to promote themselves and their products.
Many blogs and forum post praise and laud this man and his work to the extent that his exploits read like tall tales. Each testimonial seeking to out do the last. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that any of it has even a kernel of truth. From his teachings regarding science and the nature of disease, to his implausible and more importantly unsubstantiated claims about his products, Sebi offers nothing but distortions, overgeneralizations, and downright falsehoods. The more I listen to Sebi the more I think I’ve heard it all before and the more I think this man is more of a hack than a healer. Sebi is no different than the snake-oil and patent medicine salesmen of old. And I hope you will see what I mean when I delve into his claims more specifically.