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When Pseudoscience Kills PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Dr. Steven Novella   

Here's a safety tip from your friendly skeptical doctor - don't wrap yourself in mud andChantal_Lavigne 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.

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written by garyg, January 28, 2012
For more examples of how pseudoscience harms and kills people, see http://www.whatstheharm.net
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written by Willy K, January 28, 2012
From Wikipedia.
James Arthur Ray was convected of three counts of negligent homicide on June 22, 2011 in Arizona. On November 18, 2011, Ray was sentenced to two years in prison.
At least there is precedent set in the US. Hopefully the Canadian prosecutors will look at his case during their investigation.
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written by rjh02, January 28, 2012
The big question is when and if Frechette will be charged. Can this whole thing be shut down due to misleading advertising? In Australia there is such a thing as the trades practices act, which bans misleading advertising.
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written by Baloney, January 29, 2012
I'd like to start a "self-help cult" that promotes balanced meals, regular exercise, and yearly (or more) checkups with medical doctors. Also, it costs $10,000 to join.
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written by hobrev, January 29, 2012
I know I shouldn't be loving this post as a person dying is always a sad thing but I have to say being Finnish and all, I'm loving the way the writer talks about the hazards of keeping your body temp within certain levels.
Here in Finland it is customary for people to go to sauna every week, even more then twice a week, with the sauna being usually at temperatures of upto 80-90 decrees celsius. It's mostly used for cleansing your skin of inpurities, and only for a few minutes at a time. It's considered very healthy and I personally love it. Of course there are injuries but most of them are from burns caused by drunken finns stumbling into the furnace or something like that.
Also recently here in Finland there has been a significant rise in popularity for dipping in icy water, usually in a hole cut into ice, and swimming for a few minutes. Of course, the people who go icedipping don't stay in the water for very long and get immediately to warm environment once they get out of the water. Oddly enough, the participants are almost all senior citizens, the ones who you might reason would be in most danger. It is said to be very good for ones heart, and if I remember correctly, there have even been studies on the matter(don't quote me on this tho smilies/smiley.gif that seem to indicate that there's truth behind this.
I would like to hear your comments on these crazy customs of our little northern people
Sincerely, Janne J.
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It's a question of proportion
written by rosie, January 30, 2012
Janne, you answer your own question: it is beneficial to expose yourself to environmental challenges for a few minutes, but not for hours on end as in this sad case. Charlatans who talk people into dangerous activities should bear all the responsibility.
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@ Janne
written by LovleAnjel, January 30, 2012
In the USA, there are similar customs in the northern states during winter - there are "Polar Bear Clubs" in which people cut holes in the ice of a lake & go for a short swim. These seem to be promoted more for fun than health. I've never participated, but I enjoy soaking in a hot tub, then running outside & rolling around in the snow before going back into the hot tub. It feels exhilarating and weirdly refreshing.
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To watch the extensive TV report made about this (in French). Over 20 minutes.
written by PierrePilon, January 30, 2012
http://www.radio-canada.ca/emi...Doc=197019

The husband of Lavigne tells he might have to sell his house to pay for the costs that Fréchette asked for «her services».

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Excellent Article
written by Dustyisgodless, January 30, 2012
This is what skepticism is all about. Dr. Novella is a great asset to the skeptic's community and to randi.org. These are the kind of stories that shaped the way I believe.

I mentioned this story on my website also, because I believe everyone should hear about these things. http://dustyisgodless.blogspot...ve-in.html
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Core Body Temp
written by GuitKitty, January 31, 2012
@Janne J,
When the author talks about the body's regulation of temperature, and why that's important, I'm pretty sure he's talking about our core body temperature. Going into a sauna or swimming in ice water for a few minutes at a time is not dangerous (for most people) because the body automatically regulates it's core temperature. If you get in a sauna, you sweat. If you swim in freezing water, you shiver. If you stay in either environment for too long, those regulatory actions stop working (or can't keep up) and your core body temp. rises or falls. That's the danger discussed, and it sounds like the person leading the "self-help" retreat was doing everything imaginable to push the body beyond it's limits and a woman died as a result.
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