Legitimizing Pseudoscience: What’s The Harm?

This column ran in The National Post on March 24, 2016.

(Response to Karen Selick’s lies found below this piece)

After weeks of trying “natural” extracts and homemade remedies like smoothies cut with ginger root and horseradish to cure a suspected case of meningitis, 19-month-old Ezekiel Stephan’s tiny body had so deteriorated that he was too stiff to bend. Unable to be sit in his car seat, Ezekiel’s parents, David and Collet, loaded a mattress into the back of their vehicle to take him to a health practitioner — not a doctor.

They planned to drive to Lethbridge, Alta., to visit a naturopath, whose clinic they’d contacted days earlier in search of something to “boost Ezekiel’s immune system.”

Only after their son stopped breathing did the Stephans think it wise to call 911. In a desperate bid to save time, they drove to meet the ambulance, performing CPR en route. According to Collet, Ezekiel “was blue by the time we met up.”

Now on trial for Ezekiel’s death, the Stephans pleaded not guilty to the charge of failing to provide the necessities of life, maintaining they’d pursued a legitimate, alternative course of treatment. And for those immersed in the pseudoscientific realm of “alternative health care,” this, indeed, seems to be a perfectly reasonable defence. The same government that is now prosecuting the Stephans has also granted the College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta (CNDA) the power to self-govern their industry — in essence, the state is now prosecuting parents for pursuing cures from a modern-day snake-oil industry that it licenses and legitimizes.

When it granted the CNDA its powers back in 2012, Health Minister Fred Horne said that he and his fellow elected representatives “believe the practices that will be engaged in by (naturopathic) professionals are safe and effective and meet the highest possible standard.”

Dr. Allissa Gaul, founding president of the CNDA, boasted the decision meant that “Albertans can have confidence … they have a Naturopathic doctor who meets stringent competency and practice requirements.”

It’s worth noting Dr. Tannis, the Naturopath who prescribed Echinacea for a child suffering a life-threatening illness, graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in 2003 and is licensed in “good standing” in Alberta. (In court, she said she told the Stephans to take their child to an emergency room.)

The profound suffering and preventable death of Ezekiel has rightly provoked heated discussion about the validity of so-called alternative medicine, prompting finger-pointing toward all who enabled and abetted the long deterioration and ultimate death of a toddler whose ailment was both vaccine-preventable and entirely treatable.

One thing is clear: Ezekiel is a casualty of pseudoscience; his death facilitated by the allure of alternative medicine.

Naturopathy, for instance, is not a form of medicine, but a system of belief; its approach to treating illness reliant on the theory of vitalism. That is, disease is viewed as being caused by an imbalance of vital forces and, thus, the treatment rests in the restoration of those forces.

Despite its claims to ancient roots, naturopathy was invented by Benedict Lust, a German immigrant to the United States and self-proclaimed “doctor” who was ultimately convicted for practising medicine without a licence. To this day, many procedures on its standard list of practices and cures have not passed scientific muster.

Naturopathy relies on dubious diagnostics — hair analysis and IgG Food Intolerance screening, for instance — to identify non-existent deficiencies or fabricated ailments. The prescribed interventions, conveniently, are on hand and sold directly by practitioners.

Treatments range from the proven-ineffective and largely innocuous, such as Vitamin C infusions and herbal supplements, to the far more dangerous and potentially fatal ozone and chelation therapies.

Naturopathy preys on the critically and terminally ill by peddling false hope and sham treatments with exorbitant financial and emotional costs; it fuels scientific illiteracy by accommodating those who misunderstand or distrust legitimate medicine, prescribing futile detox and cleanse regimens.

Naturopaths endanger public health by agitating against vaccination, selling homeopathic nosodes, which, to be clear, are entirely inert.

As Timothy Caulfield, professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta wrote in 2013: “There is no evidence that homeopathy works, and given the absurd nature of the proposed mechanism of action, no scientifically plausible reason that it should work.” None.

Although homeopathy was not prescribed in Ezekiel’s case, it remains one of the central tenets of naturopathy. And when governments capitulate to the demands of a pseudoscientific lobby, as Alberta did in 2012, such nonsense is granted authority.

Though undoubtedly lucrative, embracing and incorporating magical thinking into the realm of evidence-based medicine is both ethically questionable and professionally irresponsible.

If naturopaths, homeopaths, osteopaths or any of the numerous “natural” or “holistic” practitioners want to be regarded as heath-care professionals and afforded the same respect, opportunities and privileges earned by those working in the evidence-based medical system, they must agree to be held to the same standards in terms of education, certification and efficacy of their prescribed treatment.

Until the alternative health industry is required to demonstrate the validity of its existence, the corpses that refute it will continue to mount. And all who overtly or indirectly enable the spread of pseudoscience share the blame for the casualties.

 

————

 

On April 2, the Lethbridge Herald published an incredibly irresponsible and non-factual response to my column written by Karen Selick, a woman who is involved with the alternative / naturopathic (and conspiracy-minded) industry, and who has received financial contributions from Naturopaths for her raw milk lobbying efforts. She has also appeared at numerous naturopathic/alt-med conferences and events.

She believes Monsanto (glyphosate, in particular) is the cause of autism, along with along with vaccines, of course. She is a strident anti-vaxxer and thinks there’s a global conspiracy (thanks Big Pharma!) to prevent people from accessing natural remedies for things like cancer. (see bottom FYI for more)

Below is a line-by-line correction of her op-ed, ironically titled Clearing up factual distortions

Everything bolded is mine

——

The National Post recently published an opinion piece that exemplifies how moral panics get started.

If by “moral panic” Selick means “necessary scrutiny of an industry which, at this moment, claims (among other things) that cancer has an “emotional cause” and is cured by proven-ineffective (and expensive) ‘alternative’ methods,” then OK.

Alheli Picazo’s March 24 article, entitled “Alberta Shares the Blame” (the online version was called “When naturopathy kills”), dealt with a criminal prosecution currently before a jury in Lethbridge. David and Collet Stephan have been charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life to their son Ezekiel, who died in 2012 of meningitis.

Correct. Also: I do not write the headlines.

So far, only the prosecution has called witnesses. The case stands adjourned until April 11, when the defence will begin. But Picazo has already rushed to judgment.
She calls Ezekiel’s death “preventable” and labels him a “casualty of pseudoscience.”

Yes. Ezekiel’s death was 100% preventable, and yes, as he did not receive the vaccination to prevent the form of meningitis he died from, nor did he receive legitimate medical care before it was too late to allow him to be treated for, and recover from, said meningitis  (due entirely to his parents’ extreme anti-vax stance and belief – and personal business – in “holistic” remedies) he was a casualty of pseudoscience. 

More on the Stephan family business HERE 

Very thorough (and unvarnished) reading on this from evidence-based medical perspectives HERE and HERE

HERE and HERE are just a pair of examples of the father’s anti-vax musings. HERE and HERE from the mother. 

HERE is the father on an anti-vax radio show pleading his case 

Here are the “facts” as Picazo placed them before readers:

“After weeks of trying ‘natural’ extracts and homemade remedies like smoothies cut with ginger root and horseradish to cure a suspected case of meningitis, 19-month-old Ezekiel Stephan’s tiny body had so deteriorated that he was too stiff to bend. Unable to sit in his car seat, Ezekiel’s parents, David and Collet, loaded a mattress into the back of their vehicle to take him to a health practitioner – not a doctor.”

Those parents must be monsters, right? Actually, no. What’s monstrous is the number of factual distortions that Picazo packed into a single paragraph, with not even an “alleged” kicking around to hint that there might be another side to the story.

Notice not a single “factual distortion” was directly pointed to… because there are none. These are knowable – and known – facts. That Selick has decided she doesn’t want to believe said facts doesn’t make them any less true or warrant the addition of “alleged.”

There is no ‘other side’ to a ‘story’ here. 


Ezekiel’s “suspected meningitis” did not go on for weeks. He had started exhibiting symptoms of a cold, or at worst croup, around Feb. 27, 2012. Over the next two weeks, his symptoms disappeared and returned twice, sometimes appearing like flu, but never including seizures or rash.

Actually, yes. The meningitis did go on for weeks. In February, when Ezekiel first started showing signs of illness, his parents thought it was a croup. And it was a steady deterioration from that point – from the bacterial meningitis – until his death. 



Further, “never including seizures or rash” is meaningless.

It was not until March 12 that a family friend – a nurse who coincidentally knew that there had been a recent case of meningitis in her hospital – mentioned the possibility of viral meningitis. But based on Ezekiel’s mostly asymptomatic condition that day, she said, he’d probably be turned away from a hospital emergency room.

No, that’s not what the nurse-friend said. She told the parents to take Ezekiel to see a doctor.

The parents chose not to, and in their re-telling of the story now, they’re claiming (and allowing others, like Selick, to claim) they’d have been turned away ‘because our socialist healthcare system does that.’



Those were not the nurse-friend’s words.

Picazo makes it sound as though Ezekiel was getting progressively stiffer over a period of weeks until he was loaded rigor-mortis-like into the car to visit a naturopath.

Yes, that’s because he was. Those are the facts, and entirely knowable based on the autopsy.  

Here is a thorough read of this from one who knows.

In fact, on the morning of March 13, he had been in his car seat, perfectly able to bend.

No, that’s not a fact. It’s a flat-out lie, actually. The parents’ own statements to RCMP (played in court) refute Selick’s assertion.

But he was cranky and uncomfortable, so rather than aggravate his distress, they removed him from the car seat and let him lie on his foam crib mattress on the back seat.

“Crib mattress”. That’s cute. No, it was not a crib in any way. It was just a mattress and the parents never attempted to present it as anything but.

When a crisis arose that evening – Ezekiel temporarily stopped breathing – his parents called 911 and set out for the hospital. Picazo says, “Only after their son stopped breathing did the Stephans think it wise to call 911.” But wait – 911 is for emergencies. People who call 911 because their kid has a cold can be fined up to $10,000 in Alberta for making a frivolous call.

Yes, 911 is for emergencies — as in a deathly-ill child. Can Selick point to any case where a person suspecting their child needed medical attention (even if it were a simple cold or flu) called 911 and was subsequently fined/charged?

Nope.

The unfortunate truth that Picazo omits is that meningitis is an illness that can strike suddenly and kill within a day or two. Usually, the symptoms progress very quickly from bad to worse. Ezekiel’s waxing and waning cold symptoms are not typical, and might indeed have indicated nothing other than a cold at that time.

There was no omission. I have a word count to adhere to. I’d love to have gone into great detail about the illness itself.

Also: the “Ezekiel’s waxing and waning cold symptoms” line is, again, intentionally misleading. Ezekiel’s symptoms were not mere cold symptoms, and the extent to which they fluctuated is in doubt.

Again: Autopsies don’t lie. (See above hyperlinks to physician/surgeon SBM writers)

(More on the symptoms according to testimony) 

The Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada’s website contains dozens of stories of meningitis cases that killed or seriously disabled their victims within days. In numerous cases, doctors had examined the victims not long before and sent them home with diagnoses of cold, flu, food poisoning, ear infection, gastroenteritis, pneumonia, etc.

And here Selick reveals her true motivations. She is an activist against the Canadian medical system, and is a documented agitator against ‘socialized health care.’ She regularly pulls the “but doctors make mistakes too! Hospitals kill too!” line to distract from scrutiny of the alt-med industry — one to which she belongs and believes in religiously.

(The Stephans use the same tactic)

The only definitive way of diagnosing bacterial meningitis is a spinal tap in which fluid is drawn from the spinal cord and tested. This excruciatingly painful procedure exposes patients to additional risks. Doctors do not ordinarily inflict it upon patients who appear to have merely colds or flu.

Yes, a spinal tap is a necessary diagnostic procedure, because that’s how real medicine works. And no, it’s not “excruciatingly painful.” It’s uncomfortable yes (I’ve had a few) and gross to think about if you’ve never had one, but nothing more.

And again: Ezekiel was not simply ill with – or exhibiting mere signs of – cold or flu. Further, that fear of a spinal tap was one reason the parents avoided the hospital.

So far at the trial, none of the prosecution’s doctors has claimed that they could have definitively diagnosed meningitis from the symptoms Ezekiel exhibited at the time. None has claimed that Ezekiel could definitely have been saved, even if he had received aggressive treatment.

Not true at all. They could not speak definitively on a child they had not seen, but it was testified and is knowable what the outcome would have been for a child in the exact same circumstance as Ezekiel if properly treated.

Picazo says the Alberta government shares the blame for Ezekiel’s death because it licences naturopathy.

However, she fails to mention that the ambulance that met the Stephans on their drive to hospital had been stripped of some equipment by that same Alberta government approximately a year before. Consequently, it had no air mask small enough to treat Ezekiel en route to hospital. He spent eight and a half minutes in the ambulance without air. A later CT scan showed brain injury consistent with lack of oxygen.

No, actually. That’s another lie from Selick. The CT confirmed that lack of oxygen was NOT to blame.

A week after Ezekiel’s death, infant air masks re-appeared in ambulances. I can’t help wondering whether the Alberta government is prosecuting these parents to divert attention from its own possible liability.

Gee, that sounds familiar.. 

Quite familiar, in fact. 

Karen Selick is a lawyer and writer based in rural eastern Ontario. During her cold symptoms last week, she did not suspect meningitis and did not rush to the hospital demanding a spinal tap.

Another attempt to confuse cold/flu symptoms with advanced bacterial meningitis.

Also, even if Selick had meningitis and rushed to hospital demanding a spinal tap, only a doctor can decide whether one is warranted. And only a doctor can order one.

Nice narrative, though.

FYI:

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Ugh Canadian health care, amirite?! 

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HERE she is pushing the Shona Holmes lie. And HERE are the facts.)

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( Facts on glyphosate HERE, HERE and HERE )

FTR: This is something the Stephans believe as well. Here’s the mother:

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(Links to THIS )

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(Links to THIS

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(Links to THIS

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I’ll leave it for you to judge the merits of Selick’s piece, and the wisdom of the Lethbridge Herald in running it.

—-

Update:

On April 14, the Lethbridge Herald ran my response.

The op-ed in its entirety can be found below:

On April 2, the Lethbridge Herald published an incredibly irresponsible and inaccurate op-ed by Karen Selick, a woman who’d taken issue with a column I wrote for the National Post centred around the death of Ezekiel Stephan — a preventable tragedy for which his
parents are currently on trial.

Selick accused me of “factual distortions,” yet failed to specify a single one. Why? Because there were no inaccuracies to identify. All the information in my column was accurate — and verifiably so — unlike the numerous false claims Selick resorted to in the effort to rebut my piece.

For instance, Selick wrote that the nurse-friend who paid the Stephans a visit had counselled against taking Ezekiel to hospital because “he’d probably be turned away from a hospital emergency room.” This is a fabrication by Selick. In fact, the nurse-friend suggested the child might have meningitis and specifically instructed the
parents: “I think you should take him to a doctor.”

Selick also asserted “on the morning of March 13, (Ezekiel) had been in his car seat, perfectly able to bend.” This, too, is not true. According to the parents’ own statements to RCMP — which were played in court — Ezekiel’s body was so stiff from illness that he could not sit in his car seat, which is why he was placed on a mattress (and not a specially-made “crib mattress” as Selick portrayed it as — just a small mattress) in the back of the family vehicle.

Selick then parrots a narrative directly from the father’s own PR offensive — taken either from a conspiracy-laden radio interview or one of many social media updates — alleging that Alberta Health Services was to blame for failing to revive Ezekiel once they were
finally, albeit it far too late, called upon.

“The ambulance that met the Stephans … had been stripped of some equipment by that same Alberta government,” Selick wrote. “Consequently, it had no air mask small enough to treat Ezekiel en route to hospital. He spent eight and a half minutes in the ambulance
without air. A later CT scan showed brain injury consistent with lack of oxygen.”

While it’s true the ambulance lacked a properly-fitting mask for Ezekiel, Selick’s claim of brain-death from lack of oxygen is yet another falsehood. What the CT scan confirmed was that lack of oxygen was not to blame for the child’s death. As medical examiner Dr. Bamidele Adeagbo testified, Ezekiel was brain dead when EMS met up with Stephans. Adeagbo explained what differentiates a brain deprived of oxygen from one suffering meningitis, and concluded there were no signs Ezekiel’s brain died from lack of oxygen.
Ezekiel, he confirmed, was dead before EMS intervened.

Why did Selick feel the need to respond to something I wrote in a publication other than the National Post, the paper which ran my column? I would hope it’s because, like any responsible news outlet, Selick’s submission would be seen as questionable due to the misrepresentations of the case and additional inaccuracies to the ones detailed above.

Readers should also know that Selick is an adherent to, and an affiliate of, the alternative/natural health industry and has appeared at numerous naturopathic/alt-med conferences and events. She is a long-time agitator against the Canadian health-care system, and played a prominent role in pushing the Shona Holmes story and scaring Americans into believing health-care reform was not in their best interest.

Selick seems to believe there’s a government conspiracy to keep treatments and cures from the public so that the pharmaceutical industry can profit off disease, and she is a full-fledged anti-vaxxer who believes vaccines cause autism.

Selick is free to believe what she wishes, of course. But her disregard for evidence, dismissal of science, and embrace of pseudoscience isn’t merely another point of view for a newspaper to print. Nor was her op-ed, as she argued, “another side to the story”
to be presented. Selick’s misrepresentation of the case was a dangerous effort to grant legitimacy to a modern-day snake-oil industry — one in which she has a personal stake.

As I argued in my initial column, people who view the world as Selick does, when reading such nonsense as Selick wrote, are led to believe that there is an alternative to evidence-based medicine.

This, in turn, leads to naturalistic fanatics feeling confident in their deeply-held beliefs that some mythical ‘alternative’ exists to necessary medical intervention should they, or their children, come down with a serious illness — the consequence of which is on display
in a certain Lethbridge courtroom.

More facts about this case and further information on Selick’s connections to the Stephan family and her role in their co-ordinated misinformation campaign can be found  HERE. 

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