Critical Evaluation of Journalism: Deadly and Dangerous Pseudoscience

The terrible and heart-breaking death of Ezekial Stephan has received much attention from journalists throughout Canada.  Some of it has been unbiased coverage of the facts of the court hearings, but the public should be sure to apply critical evaluation of the sources of these news stories, as it is not always clear that the motivations of the journalists, or the people they choose to interview, are indeed fully transparent.

Dr. Terry Polevoy, a long-time friend and supporter of CFI Canada, has provided copies of his recent communications with Danielle Smith and Whitney Deane from Newstalk 770, an AM radio station in Calgary, Alberta.  On the April 20, 2016 “Afternoons with Danielle Smith” show (a podcast version of their show is posted on their website; the relevant section begins at approximately 1hr25min), Danielle Smith interviewed Ian Stewart, a spokesperson for the Stephan family.

Dr. Polevoy, a retired pediatrician, has closely monitored this news item and was alarmed by the coverage by Afternoons with Danielle Smith.

Who is Ian Stewart

Danielle Smith introduced Stewart as a spokesperson for the Stephan family and a consultant to their business; what Smith did not do was clarify Stewart’s relationships to the Stephan family, to the pseudoscience industry.  The following are several references that are easily obtained and should have been in Smith’s possession to inform her listeners:

  1. Since at least 2008, Ian Stewart has been an active lobbyist for Truehope Nutritional Support Inc: https://openparliament.ca/committees/health/39-2/28/ian-stewart-1/only/ . The above link quotes Stewart saying to a federal health committee: “Truehope Nutritional Support Ltd. is an Alberta-based non-profit organization that provides a unique nutritional supplement and program to Canadians who suffer from bipolar and other mood disorders. Truehope has had a long  struggle with Health Canada. Co-founders Anthony Stephan and David Hardy appeared before this committee on May 16, 2005……
  2. On the website of the Natural Health Products Protection Association page ( http://nhppa.org/?page_id=8363) it is noted that Ian Stewart and Shawn Buckley (the Stephan’s lawyer) both serve on the NHPPA “team”; Stewart’s biography states: Ian Stewart has served the business community for many years, with administrative roles in both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors….. Ian is one of NHPPA’s founding Directors,  he also currently serves as Director of Regulatory Affairs and First Nations Relations with the Truehope organization, and with Treaty Six Health Task Force Fundraising Committee. As the father of nine children, Ian  retains a passion for the rights of families to care for themselves as they choose.
  3. Daniel Loxton, in Skeptic.com, covered issues  relating to Ian Stewart. where Loxton  ”digs into a protest campaign that is fighting to block enforcement of Canada’s purity, safety, and labeling laws for natural health products — and discovers a shadowy business interest behind the faux consumer watchdog site organizing those protests.”

Statements by Danielle Smith when Challenged by Dr. Polevoy reveal her lack of both preparedness and understanding of the issue.

  1. …. if you think I’m going to take the position that we should be jailing parents who refuse vaccines, I’ll have to respectfully say I think that would be insane….

In the email exchange, Dr. Polevoy did not assert any specific position, he only questioned the journalist’s reporting.  Her statement reveals a bias that she did not directly communicate in the live interview.

  1. ….I don’t think it was relevant to talk about the association he is part of because I did not have him on to talk about the merits of natural medicine. I had him on to talk about the factual medical testimony of the former Chief Medical Officer, who offered an alternative opinion on how Ezekial died.  I am disappointed to see the media is selectively reporting testimony. I would have loved to interview an independent journalist on Anny Sauvageau’s testimony. Unfortunately no member of      the media saw fit to cover it…  

Here Smith reveals that she ignored her guest’s possible fiduciary motivations, which may be expected to have significantly influenced his opinions,  and indicated that the only other option for her show would have been another journalist.  In other words, her story appears to have been intended to be a re-statement of the testimony of Dr. Sauvageau and not a balanced investigation of whether Dr. Sauvageau’s testimony was factual and valid in the first place.

  1. …. .As you know bacteria and viruses are not the same thing: you seem to be confusing the two. If Ezekial had indeed died of bacterial meningitis, a vaccine would not have helped. Vaccines are for viruses. Antibiotics are used to treat bacteria. It is also not easy to diagnose bacterial meningitis, despite what you claim. You need to do a painful spinal tap, and that was not done in Ezekial’s case….

Smith apparently felt comfortable enough in her knowledge of medicine to attempt to educate a retired pediatrician!  An attempt that ultimately fails given that the Hib vaccine, which protects against what once was the “leading cause of bacterial meningitis among children under 5 years old”, acts against the Haemophilus Influenzae Type B bacterium (http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/hib.html)Also, of the 4 standard infant vaccines (dipptheria, polio, tetanus, pertussis), all but the polio vaccine are  against bacteria!

  1. It is irresponsible for the media to only report one side of this story, especially when the parents face the potential of going to jail. You can disagree strongly all you like,  but railroading this couple in the court of public opinion is not good journalism in my opinion.

Smith appears to understand the responsibility journalists have to avoid reporting only a single side of a story.  However, this does not mean that equal measure must be given to all interested parties.  The practice of “false balance” has been abandoned by responsible journalists as it provides equal weight to undeserving views.  Smith also failed to:

  • Disclose her personal bias during the broadcast
  • provide balanced coverage in the interviews
  • Disclose all of her guest’s background and history that directly relate to the story.
  • interview experts who are in a position to evaluate the testimony of Dr. Sauvageau
  • understand the medical information, which she revealed as she attempted to correct  a qualified physician
  • establish Stewart’s credentials  as someone qualified to comment on Dr.  Sauvageau’s testimony
  • establish Stewart’s ability to state (as a witness) what did or did not happen at the time of Ezekial Stephan’s death

While CFIC retains copies of the extended dialogue between Dr. Polevoy and the team at Afternoons with Danielle Smith for our records, it is not pertinent to this article to publish all the material.  Whether Stewart was adequately identified as a spokesperson for the Stephan family is a debatable point, but Smith’s comment to Dr. Polevoy that listeners “could factor that in as they listened to the interview” (referring to his bias) is very questionable given Smith’s enthusiastic engagement of Stewart.  CFIC would support Smith’s implied interest to avoid “railroading”  The Stephan family.  All Canadians deserve full, transparent and unbiased journalistic coverage of science, health and criminal matters.  It appears unlikely that they will find it at sources such as “Afternoons with Danielle Smith”.

 

 

Further Inquiry

  1. https://apicazo.com/2016/04/26/re-death-by-pseudoscience-the-misinformation-campaign/

 

Jerry Coyne talks about his new book “Faith vs. Fact” in Ottawa (February 26, 2016)

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Audience for Jerry Coyne in Ottawa talk “Faith vs. Fact”

 

Over 170 people crowded into Centrepointe Friday night to hear Jerry Coyne talk about his new book “Faith vs. Fact”.

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Jerry Coyne lectures in Ottawa discussing his new book Faith vs Fact.

Jerry Coyne talks very well and drew some great questions after his talk.

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Jerry Coyne being asked a question

Discussion continued at the reception afterwards.

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Audience members at reception after Jerry Coyne’s talk “Faith vs. Fact”

 

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Merchandise table was kept busy

All in all a very successful evening!

Canada’s Standing Committee on Health (HESA): Report 13

Canada’s Standing Committee on Health (HESA) is a tool of the Canadian parliamentary system and is intended to help guide Canada’s position on matters of health policy  As such, it is a significant and influential voice on health priorities in Canada.  For the 41st Parliament (the current Parliament of Canada), the Chair of the Committee is Huron-Bruce MP, Mr. Ben Lobb.  According to the Canadian government website, the HESA committee is

empowered to study and report on all matters relating to the mandate, management, and operation of Health Canada. This includes its responsibilities for the operations of the internal body called the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). The Committee is also responsible for the oversight of four agencies that report to Parliament through the Minister of Health:

The mandate of the Standing Committee on Health also includes reviewing and reporting on matters referred to it by Orders of Reference from the House of Commons relating to Health Canada and its associated agencies such as health-related bills, the budgetary estimates of Health Canada and its associated agencies, study of reports tabled in Parliament that relate to health, and examination of the qualifications and competences of Order in Council appointees.

The Standing Committee on Health may also study matters the Committee itself chooses to examine. It holds public meetings and considers evidence from witnesses. At the end of a study, the Committee usually reports on its findings and makes recommendations. The Committee may request a Government response within 120 days of the tabling of the report.

Detailed information on the role and powers of House of Commons committees can be found in the Compendium of House of Commons Procedure and in Chapter XIII of the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

It is ironic and unfortunate that HESA – a committee established to report and inform health policy matters - has issued a report (Report 13) entitled Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Radiation and the Health of Canadians.   This is, however, what has occurred effective June, 2015.  CFIC is concerned with the contents of the report and the process which supports the generation of this report.  We are particularly concerned that a report of this nature may influence Canadian health policy – a potentially problematic move away from proven science-based medicine that Canadians need.

 

CFI Canada Does Not Support HESA Report 13

CFI Canada has sent a letter to HESA Chair, the Honourable Ben Lobb regarding our concerns with Report 13.  We excerpt that letter here for our members’ reference:

Centre For Inquiry Canada is a registered Canadian charity with the mandate to provide education and training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational and humanistic inquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library.  One of our central priorities is to educate Canadians about the importance of science-based medicine to our health system – and that unproven health claims and practices are dangerous and costly for our publicly-funded system.

We are deeply concerned about the process by which a report regarding Wifi and Cellphone radiation ( Report 13 – Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation and the health of Canadians)  was prepared and that its recommendations, not based on evidentiary science, will mislead the public and cause unnecessary fear.  The introduction states that the study was driven by the concerns of witnesses who attended hearings but does not acknowledge that the hearings were strategically packed by “anti-WiFi” activists and MPs sympathetic to their lobby efforts. Unfortunately it appears that committee members were swayed more by voices of fear and misunderstanding than by those of reason and science. 

The report refers to a few low-quality studies that purport to show a link between cancer, autism or other ailments and cell phones or UHF radiation but omits the thousands of high-quality studies that conclude the opposite.

In fact, brain cancer incidence in the US has been steadily decreasing since 1992, despite the steep rise in cell phone use (http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/brain.html).  Dozens of expert panels from virtually every industrialized country have reviewed this literature and have reached the same conclusion (http://www.emfandhealth.com/Science%20Sources.html).  

It is unfortunate that the report relies heavily on quotes from Dr. Magda Havas, an activist for people who claim to have electrohypersensitivity (EHS). There is a rich literature showing that EHS is the result of the nocebo effect, and has no relation to actual EMF.  In dozens of sham studies “sufferers” are unable to tell the difference between real and fake devices, for example, and develop symptoms whenever they believe they are “exposed”, whether they are or not.  Since researchers have not yet found any subjects who can detect or respond to EMF, we can conclude that there is no such condition, yet Dr. Havas claims otherwise. Her research on EHS has been highly criticized and she should not be considered as expert testimony by the committee (http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/11/magdahavas-new-ehs-study-has-serious-flaws/).  The links on Dr. Havas’ website to several companies selling products that profit from the public’s fear of EMF are red flags.

The anecdotes from individuals believing they suffer from EHS carry no scientific weight, yet the report includes them as if they did.  It goes further by recommending that EHS be recognized as a functional disability, which would be utterly ridiculous.  The nuisance and financial costs for the government and business to be required to accommodate such sufferers in the work place would be unbearable. Instead of reviewing the published literature, the report calls for EHS questions to be included in a National Health Survey. We might as well include questions about Bigfoot or ghosts. 

There is no need to call for more research because there is already a rich literature indicating that EHS does not exist.  The Canadian Medical Association and other health organizations have already considered the lack of evidence for EHS.  We do not need recommendations to change policy based on anecdotal evidence.

Canadians require health policy based on scientifically valid evidence and verifiable facts – not the lobbying efforts of individuals who refuse to acknowledge repeatable and valid science.

It is unfortunate that the voices of Prof. Tarzwell, Bernard Lord and Tom Whitney were not given more weight. 

ScienceChek-Draft03

As an educational charity with a mandate to provide education and training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational and humanistic inquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library, CFIC encourages a skeptical and rational review of the report and the process supporting its creation.  As a program to promote scientific skepticism, CFIC has launched “Science Chek” to encourage Canadians to  use a skeptical approach when faced with extraordinary claims.

From time to time, people in the community – whether driven by fear, competitive business models, or other factors – make health claims or statements that do not have scientific evidence backing them.  CFI Canada and the scientific skeptic community has an important role to play in questioning not only the claims themselves but also the processes which encourage further incursion of pseudoscience into the healthcare system.

Further Inquiry

  1. https://extraordinarybus.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/emf-electro-magnetic-fields/
  2. http://www.who.int/peh-emf/about/WhatisEMF/en/index1.html
  3. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/emf/ http://www.emfandhealth.com/
  4. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/radiation/cons/electri-magnet/index-eng.php
  5. http://scientificskepticism.ca/tags/wifiemf
  6. http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/Inspections/InspectionGuides/ucm071626.htm
  7. http://www.arrl.org/fcc-rf-exposure-regulations-the-station-evaluation
  8. http://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/interagency-committee-on-health-effects-on-non-ionising-fields-may15.pdf
  9. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/04/green_bank_w_v_where_the_electrosensitive_can_escape_the_modern_world.html
  10. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32758042

Muti: Traditional Medicine Practice in Africa

Synopsis:  CFI Canada is an educational charity whose mandate includes providing education to the public about science and the important of evidence-based healthcare.  Sometimes that means we also speak out against superstitious and/or pseudoscientific practices that we find frustrating and wasteful.  Often the skeptical, scientific community is brushed aside with a “what’s the harm” attitude when it comes to such practices as homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine and others.  We contend that superstitious thinking does cause harm here and around the world.

 

Muti: What’s the Harm?

Muti is a traditional medicine practice from Africa; a cousin to traditional medicine systems from ancient cultures around the world, it is a mix of herbal medicines, witch-doctoring, cultural norms, ignorance and the deadliest black-market practices.  The people most vulnerable to muti are people with albinism.  CFIC’s National Executive Director, Eric Adriaans wrote a blog post on Canadian Atheist on April 16th, entitled “The Heinous Depths of Superstition” with reactions to the horrible truth that people with albinism are hunted for their body parts in parts of Africa.  On May 8, “Muti” joined other Extraordinary Claims on CFIC’s Extraordinary Claims website.

The ignorance and superstition which underlies the hunting of human beings for use in traditional “witch-doctoring” can only be defeated by education; simultaneously, people with albinism may only lead a comparable life to their family and neighbours through well-thought medical care and support.  Leading needs for people with albinism include low vision clinics and skin-cancer care.

Whether in the appropriate medical care for people with albinism or in defeating the brutal black-market practices which sees them hunted – education is the key.

 

CFIC’s Experience with muti and Helping People with Albinism

On May 8, 2015, Eric Adriaans spoke with Under The Same Sun’s Don Sawatzky about UTSS’ work, people with albinism and what Canada’s secular and scientific community might do to help.  We are discussing strategies today to mobilize Canada’s humanist and skeptical community to help alleviate what can only be described as one of the most egregious harms of superstitious thinking on our planet today.

 

Community Action

Announcements to come shortly; all the latest bulletins will be posted.

May 10, 2015 Malawi – The Association of Persons with Albinism calls for tougher penalties for people found guilty of abducting, attacking or killing people with Albinism.

May 8, 2015 Kenya –  The Albinism Society of Kenya has launched the ‘Niko na Haki’ awareness campaign.

May 8, 2015 Nigeria - Nigeria’s government urged to retain free cancer treatments for people with albinism.

May 7, 2015 Nigeria - Urges to criminalize the stigmatization of albinism.

August 2015 Canada – CFI Canada contributes an auction item to a secular fundraising auction held by Benjamin Radford

 

Our Conclusions

Muti is a deadly form of traditional medicine which sees human beings hunted by a black-market which preys on ignorance and superstition.    Muti is significantly different than other unproven pseudo-sciences (particularly those making claims related to health and wellness) only in the extremes of its victimization.

People with albinism are often stigmatized by extremes of superstitious thinking – treated as supernaturally good or bad.  Clearly they are nothing other than human beings with a medical condition which places them at risk of harm from the sun and from the predation of other people.  Whether in Canada or around the world, CFIC is proud to play a role in assisting in the de-stigmatization of people with albinism and the humanization not only of the victims of muti, but of all victims of pseudo-science.

 

Further Reading

  1. http://www.timescolonist.com/life/islander/author-challenges-the-stereotypes-of-albinism-1.1930147
  2. http://allafrica.com/stories/201505090118.html
  3. http://allafrica.com/stories/201505080490.html
  4. http://www.ngrguardiannews.com/2015/05/govt-urged-to-continue-free-cancer-treatment-for-albinos/
  5. http://www.thisdaylive.com/articles/albino-foundation-charges-national-assembly-to-criminalise-stigmatisation-of-albinism/208671/
  6. http://www.visionfortomorrow.org/albinisms-impact-on-vision/
  7. http://mg.co.za/article/2015-05-14-albinos-in-tanzania-fear-death-as-polls-near/
  8. http://www.wral.com/albino-girl-faces-rehab-after-robbers-take-her-leg/14958085/
  9. http://www.wthr.com/story/30223186/tanzanian-albino-teen-survives-attack-seeking-her-magic-bones
  10. http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/10/09/tanzania-albino-teen-los-angeles-bones-sidner-dnt-nr.cnn
  11. http://www.manicapost.com/chimene-comes-to-albinos-rescue/
  12. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/gallery/2015/oct/09/tanzania-albino-children-new-limbs-vicious-attacks-witchcraft-elections-in-pictures
  13. http://www.msn.com/en-za/travel/news/albino-teen-attacked-for-her-body-parts/vi-AAfgOYN?refvid=BBgFMme
  14. http://theweek.com/speedreads/582631/tanzanian-teen-whose-limbs-cut-because-albino-finds-hope
  15. http://citizen.co.za/815732/albino-killer-pastor-wants-bail/
  16. http://www.voanews.com/content/tanzanias-coming-election-raises-threat-to-albinos/3005711.html

 

 

About DIY.org

CFI Okanagan’s Kids for Inquiry program uses the DIY.org website.

DIY.org is a website that helps kids learn skills of many different kinds, and share their work with others. It’s easy to use. With a parent’s help, kids sign up to the website. They do not use real names and do not provide any private information. An adult account is associated with each child, so you can see what your child uploads and also make sure that they do not share any information that should be kept private. The adult has to provide confirmation of their own identity, using a credit card (which is not charged).

Kids choose a skill they’d like to work on. Let’s say they choose the Astronomer skill. Each skill has a number of different challenges associated with it.

The kids then decide which of the different challenges they’d like to try. Some of them can be done at home (with or without parental help); some they can do at a KFI gathering. In May, for example, KFI collaborated with the Royal Astronomical Society to make solar viewers and sundials — while learning about the related science.

When the kids have completed each challenge, they take a photo or video and upload it to the website to share it with the world! When they’ve completed three challenges associated with a skill, they earn a patch for that skill. (Sew-on patches can be purchased at the DIY Market for $4 each, plus shipping.) They can, of course, go to complete more challenges.

The skills at DIY.org are very varied; there is something for everyone — IllustratorCamperWriter,Sailor… They even have a Philosopher patch! KFI focuses on the science-related skills, such asPhysicistBotanistEntomologistMeteorologist. However, plenty of the other skills and challenges lend themselves to learning about science too. The Bake a Loaf challenge provides an opportunity to learn about chemical reactions; the Meditation challenge provides an opportunity to learn about the brain; the Develop Strength challenge provides an opportunity to learn about the physiology of muscles.

As well as learning about science, and engaging in projects and experiments, it’s great for kids to realize that science doesn’t happen only in the lab. Scientific thinking can be applied to the world all around them!