Here's a safety tip from your friendly skeptical doctor - don't wrap yourself in mud and then stay in a sweat lodge for hours. You may or may not remember from your grade school health class that the body needs to regulate its own temperature to keep it within a fairly narrow healthy range.
There are several mechanisms for regulating body temperature, but the most important is simply behavior. When you feel hot you take actions to get cool, like remove clothing or drink cold water. When you are cold you bundle up, seek out a warm location, and maybe drink some hot tea. There are also many automatic mechanisms of thermoregulation, such as adjusting metabolic rate, sweating, and shivering.
You can, however, overwhelm the body's automatic thermoregulation with behavior. Stand outside in below freezing temperature with few clothes on (or just swim in very cold water) and you will quickly get hypothermia. Or cover yourself in some material that will reduce the radiation of heat from your skin and the removal of heat from evaporating sweat and stay in a very hot environment - you will quickly suffer from hyperthermia (also called heat stroke).
This happens accidentally to people just from sitting in the hot sun during a long event without proper hydration. Once they become dehydrated their sweating is significantly reduced to conserve water, but then they cannot adequately cool down and they become overheated.
This is the kind of basic health information everyone should know. It's mostly common sense and common experience. You can never underestimate, however, the power of belief to trump common sense and scientific knowledge, even when self-preservation is on the line.
The latest such victim of pseudoscience to have their personal tragedy splashed across the headlines is Chantale Lavigne, a Quebec woman who recently died from pseudoscience. This is, of course, a sad story made worse by the fact that it has been made so public - but concerns of privacy are trumped by the need for such stories to serve as cautionary tales.
Lavigne was apparently a member of a self-help cult, and had "completed 85 sessions and paid more than $18,900." According to reports:
"Lavigne died in hospital after she and eight others in a personal-development seminar called Dying in Consciousness were covered with mud, wrapped in plastic, put under blankets and immobilized with their heads in cardboard boxes for about nine hours, under instructions to hyperventilate.
"Lavigne was removed, unconscious and with a body temperature of 40.5 C, from the Ferme Reine de la Paix in the Drummondville, Que., area after a 911 call that Radio-Canada said had been made by Gabrielle Frechette, a self-styled therapist who was the seminar's operator."
Frechette, who claims that she channels Melchisedech, a Biblical figure, is denying that she has any culpability in Lavigne's death.
In my opinion, Frechette is completely responsible for Lavigne's death (if the reported details are accurate). She was running the group, she positioned herself as an authority figure, and even used bogus channeling to enhance her authority. Then she instructed those under her tutelage to do something that was blatantly dangerous, and in fact appears to have directly resulted in the death of Lavigne.
Generally we hold professionals liable for their own competence and ethics, and in some professions hold them to established quality standards. But alternative medicine gurus and self-help cranks seem to exist in a gray zone. They are not held to any standard, because they exist outside of science and reason - so what standard can there be. Yet they are often given the imprimatur of authority. In some cases they are even licensed by states or other governments. They are given professional authority without the professional standards that should accompany it.
In such cases the last line of defense is a prosecuting attorney, who can hold such grey-zone professionals accountable after they have caused harm. It's hard to think of a more clear cut case than the death of this woman. Prosecutors have yet to review the case and decide if they will press charges.
Imagine if Frechette gets away off without being held to any responsibility. The last line of defense will have failed. It will be springtime for charlatans.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s new Science-Based Medicine project.
Dr. Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society and the host and producer of the popular weekly science show, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. He also authors the NeuroLogica Blog.