Dying to believe: alternative medicine and the brutality of charlatanism

Robin Ince is impressed by The Merseyside Skeptics' podcast looking at the perils of trusting in alternative medicine, focussing on the tragic passing of a young musician

Scepticism is often confused for cynicism, a lip-curl sneer rather than a furrowed brow of investigation. Sometimes, sceptics groups can be guilty of an air of superiority, a dismissive elevation above the herd who are consuming magic water or who sit unsteadily on a flat Earth.

The best scepticism comes from curiosity and human concern, a desire to alert people that they may well be being misled, often for financial gain. The frequently furious author Harlan Ellison said: “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”

An opinion is not worth much if little effort has gone in to arriving at it. An opinion becomes dangerous if you decide to use it to persuade other people to take decisions on their own wellbeing based on it.

It can be very easy to feel like a killjoy when questioning alternative therapies

The most recent episode of the Merseyside Skeptics’ podcast Skeptics With a K took an informed look into the heartbreak and destruction which can occur when people are misled. Charitably, it could have been said to be a story of incompetence; to me it was a story of the brutality of charlatanism.

It can be very easy to feel like a killjoy when questioning alternative therapies. What’s the harm in the street-corner purveyors of dreamscape cures and tree-root memory potions? If it is to deal with minor aches or runny noses, probably not much. If it is alternative therapies to treat cancer, then the cost could be far greater.

Michael Marshall has been investigating cases of people who chose to reject traditional cancer treatments and be guided by alternative therapists.

The case of Sean Walsh (above) was recently highlighted in the BBC3 documentary, False Hope? Alternative Cancer Cures. In the podcast, Marshall was able to enlarge on some of the worrying evidence of that documentary.

Sean Walsh was a young musician in possession of a wonderful spirit of chutzpah and joie de vivre. Diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma as a teenager, he had six months of chemotherapy.

In his early 20s, the cancer returned. Unsurprisingly he wished to avoid chemotherapy another time and he took another, unofficial route to health, one which led to him rejecting the health service’s advice and instead going increasingly deeply into untested depths of alternative therapy.

This included the advice and treatment of someone who claimed to have cured their own cancer, though it is highly possible they never had cancer in the first place, as they were never officially diagnosed.

This is a story of radicalisation and of how a constant drip feed of exposure to pseudo-scientific claims can lead people to extreme ideologies

Marshall describes the ways that people can become “radicalised” by those peddling alternative cancer treatments.

Theirs is a conspiracy theory mindset that can lead to all official tested healthcare being seen as part of a grand scam. It preys on people already facing the most difficult days of their existence.

Being a charismatic individual, Sean became something of a celebrity in the alternative community. One clinic was still using him to publicise their integrity long after he had died.

When Sean was diagnosed, the doctors gave him a 50/50 chance of living a long life if he had treatment. By the time it was no longer possible to cover up how much worse his cancer had become, it was too late for conventional medicine to do much at all.

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Sean’s family and his girlfriend are now campaigning against the therapy and treatment businesses that, at the time of writing, are still trading. Sean’s partner says she feels she lost her boyfriend to cancer conspiracy theories.

Marshall says: “This is a story of radicalisation and of how a constant drip feed of exposure to pseudo-scientific claims can lead people to extreme ideologies. That radicalisation is even more effective when it comes to vulnerable patients.”

This is one of the most impassioned episodes of Skeptics With a K and rightly so, but that passion never gets in the way of clearly laying out a tragic story – one that needs to be heard.

merseysideskeptics.org.uk/podcasts