Saturday, February 27, 2016

Into the belly of the beast. My day at an integrative health conference.

Displaying DSC05506.JPGStephan Neidenbach -  

Edited by - Nandu Nandini

"You here? Smells like woo and essential oils."

"It smells like kombucha or something."

Those were the texts I received from my two fellow science communicators as we all arrived separately at HealthFest 2016, an integrative health conference in Washington, DC. As I first entered the vendor room, I immediately realized that I was surrounded by pseudoscience. Acupuncture, reiki, chiropractic, healing stones, holistic dentistry, and also college recruiters for bachelors and masters degrees in pseudoscience. That pseudoscience stuff you read about online and think that people surely cannot believe in this, turns out they really do. The event was also graced by the transcendental meditation cult recruiters in the back corner.

As I collected the obligatory free pens, I noticed something odd about many of the vendors selling wares. I was expecting this would be like an arts and crafts festival I suppose, with homemade chakra stones and other merchandise. What I saw was a room full of victims of multi level marketing schemes. Essential oils, magic rub-on pain relievers, and organic versions of Herbalife. These were people suckered into buying products enabling a pharaoh somewhere to become richer regardless of whether or not any of these products ended up with a consumer.

But I was not there to engage the vendors, I was there to listen to the speakers. Specifically I was intrigued by the history of Charles Gant, a medical doctor and naturopath who was there to capitalize off of the Flint water crisis.

The workshop he held there was called, "Flint's Lead Poisoned Residents CAN Heal". I walked into the room and was fairly surprised to see that attendance was sparse, maybe about five people including myself. QuackWatch reports that Gant left New York for having his license suspended because he, "practiced the profession with negligence on more than one occasion, practiced his profession fraudulently, engaged in conduct which evidences moral unfitness, filed false reports, received consideration from a third party for patient referrals and failed to maintain accurate records." He now practices the pseudoscience of naturopathy in Washington, DC.

I purposefully sat in the front row so that there would be no doubt I was recording video of the entire session. In front of the "audience" was an elderly man who was so out of shape that he seemed out of breath just leaning onto a counter. If this is what worrying about chemicals instead of counting calories does to you, grab me a calculator. His lecture started late because of the lack of people in attendance. He kept waiting and made comments about how if everyone in the vendor room realized that 1/3, 1/4, 20% (the amount kept changing) of them were lead poisoned, there would be a stampede to get in.

Like many woo practitioners, he relied on blending fact with fiction. He explained why lead is a problem - Old infrastructures, especially in inner city areas, combined with some poor government decision making. But then he ventured into more familiar pseudoscience territory; the idea that even minute amounts of any substance is dangerously high, that even the amount of lead exposure deemed safe by every major scientific organization on the planet was giving children autism, depression, ADHD, and learning disabilities.  "I assume there is a connection, even if there is not," he states in a way that essentially sums up every crank out there. His solution to this lead poisoning epidemic appears to be some type of natural genetic modification. He believes that alternative medicine will be found soon to turn genetic switches on and off to prevent lead contamination in the body. His 10-day detox therapy includes colloidal silver (for turning into Papa Smurf), IV therapies (because vaccines needles are bad, but pumping your blood full of vitamin C is good), and oxygen therapy (for when the risk of death is worth getting rid of "toxins").
I would say that my favorite moment was this quote, "For thousands of years it was thought that.... the good spirits from the volcanic water would take the evil spirits out of the body. And in fact even though they had the terminology a little wrong, they were right! The hot sulfur water causes us to sweat, and sulfur penetrates the surface of our bodies and binds to toxins and out they come." Somehow he managed to actually prove the skeptics were correct. We have been saying that toxins are the new spirits for years!

Next up to speak was a holistic dentist. Dr. Terry Victor offers services for patients who fear chemicals in the DC area. Profiting off of fluoride fear-mongering, Dr. Victor told us with a straight face that he is proud of a certain chart in his office. He apparently explains to his patients with this visual how meridians from ancient Chinese medicine relate to their teeth. The meridians he is talking about comes from acupuncture, allowing "chi" to flow through the body. I get nervous enough as it is thinking about dentists and needles, the last thing I want is one who practices acupuncture. Especially one who says that a patient with prostate cancer has a tooth connected to it through these meridians. I promise you, I was sober when I wrote that sentence.

Unlike Gant, Victor opened up to questions from potential patients. One young lady who was prescribed specific things by her legitimate dentist, was basically told to stop what she was doing by Victor. Victor compared the minute amounts of fluoride we get for our teeth to the high levels detected naturally in Chinese groundwater. Steven Novella explains the problem. "Fluoridated water in the US has the same level of fluoride as the control or low fluoride groups in the China studies reviewed in the recent article, and the negative association with IQ was only found where fluoride levels were much higher – generally above EPA limits."

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Of course one of the biggest problems with pseudoscience dentists are filling removals. Like mercury in vaccines, they incite fear about mercury in amalgam fillings. Patients seek out these doctors to have their fillings removed, and new ones placed in. "But composite fillings have their own problems. They cost more than amalgam and often are not covered by insurance. Numerous studies have shown that amalgam significantly outlasts composite, while composite causes more secondary cavities and may contribute to plaque formation." This might be a nice circle of profit for these dentists, as this one spoke at length on tooth removal and what he uses to replace them. I wish I had access to data comparing cavity rates between holistic dentists and good dentists. He credits the Internet for allowing people to "do their research" and seek him out for filling removal.

Opposing alcohol based mouthwash and fluoride, what is left to put in your mouth? Oil pulling. This is where a person swishes something like sesame oil around in their mouth for 10 - 20 minutes. The term pulling is used to make it sound like "toxins" (evil spirits) are being pulled from your mouth. Swishing liquid around your mouth for that amount of time is probably going to remove some food particles from your mouth, and it may have a small role to play in oral hygiene in some developing parts of the world. People in developing parts of the world do swish water around in their mouth and spit it out after every meal, thus ensuring some food particles and sugars are washed off the teeth. But, again, as Steven Novella concludes, "Oil pulling for general health or any other indication is pure pseudoscience. Detox claims are based on nothing, as all detox claims are. There is no evidence or plausible rationale to recommend oil pulling for any indication other than as a poor substitute for oral care."

Victor ends the workshop with something that made my jaw hit the floor. He talked about a study that showed how the more teeth you have missing, the shorter your expected lifespan. Talk about a case of correlation vs. causation. Did he mean people with poor hygiene are very likely to live shorter lives and that is the only cause? Forget vaccines and other forms of modern medicine that can ensure longer lives. We just need to make sure those missing teeth get filled in everywhere. He went on some crazy rant about how the missing teeth causes you to not begin the digestion process properly leading to all sorts of health problems. Of course most people in the developed world with missing teeth are probably going to get fake ones placed in. The whole topic reeked of kombucha and essential oils.

Two people made that day worth it. The first was blogger Jenny Spitter who brought her son along with her. When her son asked her if everything Gant was saying was true, she didn't immediately say it was all BS like many skeptics would. She insisted on going home and looking for science and evidence based sources of information so he could come to his own conclusion. Pretty open minded for the author of, "Stop Telling Me I'm Poisoning My Kids."

The other was Ilana Seidel, an Integrative Medicine Family Medicine physician currently working at the Washington, D.C. Veteran Affairs Medical Center and the GW Center for Integrative Medicine, who approached my other science pal after the dentist's office manager mentioned his recording of the talk. "As an undergraduate, she shared Reiki with HIV+ patients at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York." With my We Love GMOs and Vaccines shirt I admitted I was a skeptic, but not that I was going to write about the event. At the time I wasn't sure if I was going to or not. We don't plan on actually distributing the audio and video at this point. But we had a very pleasant conversation, and she was not at all hostile about me not believing a word of any of the talk. I told her that in some cases placebos can be beneficial, and she tried to convince us that if we exercised or got massages we were already practicing integrative health. We left essentially agreeing to disagree, but on that day I came to a conclusion . These people are not lying. They are delusional. Vani Hari is not a liar. The dentist is not a liar. Gant is not a liar. Andrew Wakefield is not a liar. They actually believe all of this. You can be honest and wrong, which is something a lot of skeptics don't get. If this was all some giant scam set up with the purpose to deceive, they would have been hostile to us being there. She wanted to "save us" like a missionary going door to door. I am sure she just believed we were full of evil spirits, I mean toxins, that needed to be pulled out.

Into The Belly Of The Beast - My Day At An Integrative Health Conference by Stephan Neidenbach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. Perhaps you are correct when you state that these people are not liars, but ignoring reason,suspending skepticism and closing one's eyes to glaring irrationalities so as to believe an untruth in order to generate a personal profit needs to be condemned as well. MDs and DDSs have been trained in science, statistics and critical thinking and have a responsibility to their patients and the public to interpret the evidence honestly, fairly and critically.

  2. Half your images aren't showing, it is possibly due to the settings on the album in which they are stored.
    One persons solution was to change the album linked with their blogger from Public to Limited to Anyone with Link, and it was resolved. Possibly try that or an image host such as imgur.

    As to the blog, I've yet to finish reading, just stopped to scroll down and comment, going back to finish now!