Category Archives: Quackery

For the Sake of Society, Focus on Recent not Ancient History

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Perhaps in High School the curriculum should discard all ancient history, the dreary lives of Mesopotamians, the bible stories, the British Empire, the kings of this country and that country, and instead focus on recent history. The realities of recent history. How we lived and what we knew, and didn’t know, with special emphasis on the last 100 years.

I know for most teenagers, surviving and living in the present is paramount. They have little use for things that don’t seem to impact their own lives at this moment. But we could try.

And we could try to preserve that history and keep it visible. Perhaps in front of the city hall we should do away with statues of old queens and put up instead reminders of the epidemics of polio, measles, small pox, pertussis, chicken pox, the things and luxuries people didn’t have a mere 75 years ago, methods of communication and ways of living.

The names of wealthy donors now take the place of the names of pioneers of yesterday. In Hamilton the Henderson Hospital is now the Juravinski. Nora Henderson was a local pioneer in maternal, prenatal and perinatal care. At the time, in this rich part of the world, the infant mortality and maternal mortality rates were equal to those of present day poorest African nations. We should not forget this.

Over the past 150 years there have been many eureka moments in the advancement of medicine and the maintenance of health. Dramatic discoveries with incontrovertible evidence that something works. To name a few: treatment for some cancers, antibiotics, clean water supply separated from sewage, fluoridating water, iodizing salt, and vaccinations, with vaccinations being perhaps the biggest and broadest reaching discovery of them all. (the discovery that dead or attenuated viruses and bacteria can provoke our immune systems to prevent the same live viruses and bacteria from harming us).

And there have been remarkable improvements in the treatment of many chronic conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis, AIDS, some leukemias, hepatitis, serious mental illness, seizure disorders, trauma and injury….

All of these improvements have been the product of science and medicine, not homeopathy or naturopathy.

Dramatic eureka moments have become scarce. More often today medicine struggles with the equations of early detection, invasive treatment, the balance of positive effects vs negative effects of intervention, genetics and life style: e.g lowering blood pressure by a few points by engaging in the right amount and kind of exercise, losing an inch of waist size, to salt or not to salt food, and which is best at which age: two to four alcohol drinks per day or none? vs. taking pills to lower blood pressure.

My left knee is a candidate for replacement, or, or, I could keep my weight down and ride my bicycle almost every day.

For the first time in a century the children born today in North America do not have longer life expectancy than their parents. Some suggest this may actually decrease. The causes for this are obesity, life style, social determinants of health (poverty), addictions, and increase in suicide rate. And, even more dramatically, if the trend continues, the cause of much lower life expectancy for the babies born today will be the anti-science and anti-vaccination attitudes.

Right at this moment nurses and doctors are using a vaccine developed in Canada to stop the spread of Ebola, a disease that has the potential of spreading world wide and causing the kind of population decimation previously caused by the black plague and small pox.

Vaccine Reminiscenses

By Marvin Ross

Polio victims in iron lungs courtesy of google

I hate to do the old man thing of “when I was a kid” but I’ve just seen another study demonstrating that vaccinations don’t cause autism. That was followed by a report in my local paper that a 7 week old baby almost died from whooping cough before she could get her shot because so many are not vaccinated.

No end of studies showing the lack of connection between vaccines and autism will convince these dumb sods nor will heart wrenching stories of cute little kids almost dying from old diseases. That is where the old man thing comes in. These morons need to go back in time to when I was a little kid.

Just about every one of us got measles, mumps, chicken pox and German measles. I missed German measles but got all the others. They were bad but there were always houses in our neighbourhoods with quarantine signs for scarlet fever and whooping cough.

And that wasn’t even the worst. There was polio! Hot summers resulted in polio epidemics where mothers’ would not let us go to the beach or to the annual Canadian National Exhibition at the end of August. Returning to school in September often found classmates missing – dead, wearing huge braces on their legs from the weakened muscles of a polio attack, or in hospitals in iron lungs so they could breathe.

Then a miracle happened. Jonas Salk came up with a vaccine which was followed by an oral concoction so no one had to get a needle. Polio left and is now only in some very poor third world countries. The same for smallpox which was declared eradicated in 1980 as the result of a World Health Organization (WHO) immunization campaign.

When I first went to Europe, it was mandatory to show proof of having had a smallpox vaccination and it was not unusual to see people with vaccination scars on their arms. This is no longer needed thanks to the WHO. As an aside, when I first went to Europe, you could not drink the water or at least it was suggested you don’t. Then, thanks to the right wing Ontario government of Mike Harris and the removal of regulations, people in Walkerton, Ontario got ill and some died from e-coli in the water supply back in 2000.

And then there is the water supply in Flint Michigan.

If only we could send those anti-vaccine parents back in time so they could see a world before most vaccines were around.  I can’t think of anything that would convince them.

After drafting all of this, I came across a report of a 6 year old in Oregon who had been vaccinated for nothing and developed tetanus. This is what happened to him:

The child had to be sedated. A tracheostomy was performed so that he could be put on a mechanical ventilator to help him breath. He remained on the ventilator for more than five weeks. Because of the pain caused by the spasms, he required muscle relaxants as well as drugs to stabilize his blood pressure in addition to the medications to counter the tetanus toxins.

The boy spent 54 days in hospital — 47 of them in intensive care.

The bill for the hospital care came to $811,929, and that didn’t include the cost of the air ambulance, the stay in the rehabilitation facility, or follow-up care that was needed.

The parents should have been charged with failure to provide the necessities of life to their son and made to reimburse whoever paid for all that care. If parents are charged criminally and sent a bill for the needless services, more might actually vaccinate. But then again, probably they still would not.

Cockamamie Views From Anti-Psychiatric Advocate

By Marvin Ross

Bonnie Burstow, the anti-psychiatry scholarship donor at the University of Toronto, gave a lecture in December on her book called Psychiatry and the Business of Madness. The lecture is on youtube for those of you who have the stomach to watch it. I managed 38 minutes of the hour talk and it is so full of absurdities that, frankly, it defies reality.

I recently wrote about her scholarship on the Huffington Post and that was followed by a number of other critiques of that endeavour – none favourable. Tom Blackwell, the National Post medical writer, called it an affront to science that could do harm. “This is a case where academic freedom should be quashed,” Edward Shorter, a U of T professor and expert in the history of psychiatry, told Blackwell. Dr. Joel Paris, a McGill University psychiatrist, is quoted saying he is ashamed of the University.

I can only imagine what they would have said if they saw this lecture so allow me to summarize the first half and point out the errors.

Bonnie begins by saying that psychiatry is so inherently wrong that it just cannot continue. She points out that psychiatrists are so powerful that they are the only ones in society who have the right to take away someone’s freedom. They have king like power like those of the 16th and 17th centuries who had the power to exile citizens forever.

Now she says these views are based on thousands of interviews and attending 15 consent and capacity board hearings. If she really did attend those meetings, she could not believe what she said and by equating shrinks to autocratic monarchs, she suggests that there is no recourse to anything they do. Each jurisdiction allows for holding someone for observation and the rules differ but are all basically the same. For the purpose of this blog, I will comment on Ontario since Bonnie lives in Ontario as do I.

To begin with, psychiatrists are not the only ones to have the power to put someone in the hospital for observation. Any MD can do that based on very specific criteria. It is not arbitrary. The initial period is for 72 hours only after which the person is to be discharged, or can agree to remain voluntarily. If they still pose a threat to themselves or others, they can be held for a further 2 week period but that cannot be ordered by the doctor who originally signed the 72 hour committal. A second doctor must agree that it is necessary and sign the forms.

The patient is then told by the patient rights advocate that they can appeal if they do not agree and they will be supplied with a legal aid lawyer. This results in a capacity hearing before a board 15 of which Bonnie attended.

This is hardly imprisoning anyone nor is it done without respect for individual rights. Bonnie describes this as bringing the weight of the entire state, police, hospitals, families, universities who have been all sucked into this system. At the very centre of this conspiracy are the big pharma companies.

To illustrate what she calls the lack of substance to psychiatry, she recounts the experiences of her friend, Amy. For about 30 years, Amy has periodically taken off all her clothes and run down the street pounding on doors yelling “emergency, emergency”. Concerned homeowners call the cops who come and take her to hospital where she is locked up for a period of time. This has happened in various jurisdictions all over North America and Bonnie feels it is ridiculous. Her activities are simply “outside our comfort zone” so we define her as dangerous and sick. Bonnie does not even think people should call the cops.

I don’t know about you but if this happened in my neighbourhood, I’d call 9-1-1. I’m not sure what I would think but escaping a rapist would come to mind, or an abusive spouse or having been held against her will would be at the top of my thinking. The police are best able to deal with that. If they can find no reasonable reason for this behaviour, then of course they would take her to the emergency room.

This example led her to talk about violence of the mentally ill and a long discussion on the impossibility of psychiatrists being able to predict who may or may not become violent. She is correct on that score but her argument that is often heard about those with mental illness never being violent is absurd. Those who are untreated and those who are untreated and substance abusers are at far greater risk of violence than others. This link from the Treatment Advocacy Centre lists all the studies that demonstrate this fact.

She then goes on to talk about how mass shootings involve people who are often on psych meds and that it is the meds that likely cause these shootings. Psychiatrist Joe Pierre writing in Psychology Today argues that “In the vast majority of cases, we don’t have access to their medical records and we certainly don’t know if the medications, even if prescribed or otherwise obtained, were actually being taken.”

“And then, of course, there’s the issue of correlation vs. causality. After all, I’m fairly certain all known mass murderers were drinkers of tap water, which has also been linked to violent outbursts.”

At this point, Professor Burstow switches into “refuting” the concept of mental illness. She states that only a body can have an illness. A mind cannot be ill as it is only used for thinking. I kid you not! That is what she said.

She then goes on to say that the hallmarks of paranoid schizophrenia are paranoia and delusions of grandeur. What happens to the paranoia and the grandeur when the person dies and there is just a corpse. She asks her audience if any of them have ever seen a corpse with delusions and, since no one has, schizophrenia fails the test of an illness.

What can anyone say when confronted with this? Professor Burstow has failed the test of physiology. The brain is an organ that allows us the ability to think, speak, make decisions, and so on. Does she have any idea how it is that we can think in the first place? Obviously not. This summary provides an overview of the differences in the brains of those with schizophrenia compared to normal brains. There are numerous differences.

And this is a study showing the abnormalities in the brain of autopsied people with schizophrenia. Which of these abnormalities results in paranoia and delusions of grandeur is not known but the brains are different.

I gave up when she began talking about the longitudinal studies by Harrow in Chicago. This researcher followed a group of people with schizophrenia for 20 years and checked on them every five. What he found was that some people were able to go off meds and do well and they were doing better than those on meds. I’ve written about this a number of times and, in one of my Huffington Post blogs, I had this to say:

79 per cent and 64 per cent of the patients were on medication at 10- and 15-year follow ups. Those who were not on medication, did better on the outcome measures than those who were on but would that not be expected? Why they stopped the medication or were removed from it by their doctors was not explained, but we can presume that it was because they did not need the medication. In fact, Harrow states that not all schizophrenia patients are alike and that one treatment fits all is “not consonant with the current data or with clinical experience.” His data suggests that there are unique differences in those who can go off medications compared to those who cannot. In a paper Harrow just published in March, he points out that it is not possible to predict who may be able to go off medication and those who need the long term treatment. Intensified research is needed.

It just isn’t that simple, Bonnie. She did go on but I could not take anymore so ended there.

Reflections on the Death of an 11 Year Old Aboriginal Girl Who Was Allowed to Forgo Chemo

stone of madnessBy Dr David Laing Dawson

I can think of a few metaphors that aptly express why one shouldn’t blog about this subject: mine field, thin ice, bramble bush, angels fear to tread. But…

We decided many years ago that we, (and by “we” I mean our organized educated societies, our western countries ruled by civil law), should protect our children, even protect them from their own parents if necessary. Well, truthfully, it wasn’t that many years ago, just over a hundred, and it seems we decided we needed to protect our pets and our farm animals a full generation before deciding we also needed to protect our children. But we did decide we really shouldn’t allow child labour, or pretend that sex is consensual before age 14 then 16, or marry off unwilling teenage females, or cage and beat or starve our toddlers. We know we should not allow a 13 year old to fly an airplane because she wants to, or drive a car before age 16, and even then only with training and supervision.

We expect parents to take their children for adequate medical care, and if they are not doing this we intervene. If we find that a hyper religious Christian couple have caged their 10 year old in a rat-infested basement for two weeks as correction for lying, or taking the Lord’s name in vain, we intervene. We take the child away. It is not a process without complexity but we do act. We do not allow parents to refuse treatment for TB if their child suffers from this disease.

So why on earth do we allow a ten year old, or a 12 year old, to decide with her parents, to forgo life-saving cancer treatment? Why this incredibly deferential attitude toward primitive thought and quackery when it is coming from a person or persons of First Nation Heritage? We wouldn’t buy it from a Roma, a Seventh Day Adventist, a practitioner of Santeria, an Irish healer, a Celtic priest, a new-age diva. So what makes us so cautious, so generous with the fictions of the ancient healing practices of First Nations?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against ritual and faith and any kind of spiritual or psychic healing practices if they give comfort and hope and do not replace actual proven treatment when such treatment exists. Go ahead and burn the incense, do the cupping, chew the wheat grass, wear the garlic, swallow the echinacea, and acupressure to your heart’s content, but if a bacterial pneumonia is the problem, for God’s sake take the antibiotics as well.

I will try to answer my own question because if that were my child, or grandchild, Family and Child Services and the court would have, I’m sure, taken my child into temporary custody and ensured that she be treated.

I think it is the problem of lingering racism and guilt, the guilt being a response to our own history and perhaps lingering hints of racism. My and your ancestors certainly did not treat the First Nations people well. Even when our intentions were basically good, the solutions proved destructive: residential schools, Reserves. So we feel guilty, and angry. Guilty that we still have people living in our rich country in third world conditions. Suicide is endemic, alcoholism epidemic. Many of the young men are in prison, many of the young women disappear or die prematurely. The fire truck does not work; the water treatment system fails. Nepotism flourishes.

I had dinner with the chief of a Northern Ontario band many years ago. He was in a wheel chair having lost his legs on a rail road track in what is often called “an alcohol related accident”.  He was clever and wise and had something of a sardonic sense of humor.  For some reason I was curious about the apparent lack of curse words in his language, and asked about this. He smiled at me and said, “You must remember that the Indian had nothing to be angry about before the white man came.”

Well, I know that is not really true, and I know that they are no more likely to be in touch with, in harmony with, the mysteries of the universe, energies of the wind and rain, the forest animals, the living earth itself than I am (or at least David Suzuki). Though I am sure their ancestors were more in touch with night and day and rain and wind and birth and death, with drought and storm, as were mine living  in their sod huts, cooking over peat fires and herding their sheep through the rocky pastures of the Orkney Islands, unaware, I’m sure, of Galileo’s discoveries, or of Dr. John Snow  staunching the spread of Cholera in London.

No. They don’t have any special lock on the magic of the universe, the spirits of the animal kingdom, the nature of healing, the mysteries of the our cells and organs, of our mortality. They are merely human, like you and I. And Canadian. Living in the twenty first century, in centrally heated houses, with TV and the internet, driving cars, burning fossil fuels. And their children deserve the same protection as mine do from the superstitious beliefs of our ancestors.

Science, Quackery, Received Wisdom, Cherished Belief.

David Laing Dawson

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Are these just competing yet equally valid ways of understanding our world and our selves, our health and our illnesses, treatments and cures?

There are two moments of clarity in my education that stand out in my mind. The first occurred during, I think, my second year of medical school. The second during a last year of residency training. I will talk about the second moment first because it reveals something very fundamental about science, perhaps the most important characteristic of a scientific way of thinking about things.

A wise colleague, a born teacher and storyteller, a scholar who always conversed in thoughtful sentences and paragraphs, told a story about a German physician who lived in a small village hundreds of years ago. This historic physician had, according to my teacher, the first recorded scientific thought in Western Medicine. Now, I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, and in what year it happened, and so because of the very nature of this discussion, I will present this story as apocryphal.

The story is that in this man’s village there was a girl who lived but did not eat. To live and yet not eat is clearly a miracle. The mother told the priest, the priest told the bishop, and soon people came from far and wide to behold the miracle of the girl who lived but did not eat. The village doctor asked himself this question: “How do we know she does not eat?”

He invited himself into this family’s home to observe for 24, perhaps it was 48 hours. And what he observed, of course, was the young woman, though not eating during the day, would come down to the pantry to eat after midnight.

This is the question we need to put to every bit of quackery, miracle cure, exotic treatment, cherished belief, and story told to us. “How do we know this to be true?” “How do we know this wheatgrass diet cures cancer?” “How to we know that house is haunted.” “How do we know that insanity increases when the moon is full?”

Sometimes it is easy to answer that question and sometimes not so easy, especially when money and prestige are at stake. But it is the important question. “How do we know pulling the goalie in the last two minutes of a hockey game helps more often than it hurts.” Curiously, even here with an abundance of statistics to support pulling the goalie early in a tie game, coaches remain reluctant.  Whatever we are being told – how do we know it to be true?

The first moment occurred in Medical School. The professor of psychiatry was giving a lecture to the class of 60. Only ten minutes into his lecture one of the yahoos in the class, to the amusement of his buddies, challenged the professor of psychiatry. “Sir,” he inquired, “Psychiatry is not really scientific, is it?” They bantered a bit, the student grinning at his friends, the professor developing his own wry smile. Then the professor said, “Perhaps Mr. Jones would like to explain to the class the nature and philosophy of science?” Of course Mr. Jones could not do this. Whereupon the professor closed his lecture notes and proceeded to deliver an hour talk on science, the history of science, the philosophy of science, the methods and methodologies of science. And I realized, at that moment, that though I had studied chemistry, physics, biology, and physiology at advanced levels, no one had ever explained actual science to me. What it is.

And from this I must assume that few others have ever attended such a lecture, and that it must be a very small segment of the population that actually understands the fundamental ideas of a scientific way of thinking.  Which are, if put very succinctly:

Observe (a phenomenon, a claim)

Hypothesize (an explanation, a cause, a mechanism, a likely result)

Test (design an experiment to test this hypothesis)


There are caveats to this of course. Observation should be as objective as possible, while understanding objectivity is not a common human trait. One should formulate one’s hypothesis based on current scientific knowledge of the universe and leave any leaps past this to the Einsteins and Hawkings in our midst. Testing can range from  mind experiments (based on current scientific knowledge of how things work), observation of outcome, to particle accelerators to double-blind large population outcome studies. And repeat (replication) to rule out compounding variables and observer bias.

For example, the claim that a diet of raw carrots,  wheat grass and a positive attitude cures leukemia is contrary to all we know to date scientifically about leukemia; a hypothesis of how it would work requires new laws of physiology and cell growth, and testing such a hypothesis would require a (probably unethical) large comparison study of three populations: no treatment vs. current medical treatment vs. a wheatgrass diet.

On the other hand, those placebos you are taking to ward off colds and flu viruses are probably doing no harm.