Feb 27, 2016

Spa Death and the Dangers of Pseudoscience

Steven Novella
Neurologica Blog
February 1, 2016

Three Quebec spa workers were just sentenced to prison for their role in the death of Chantal Lavigne. During their “spiritual” treatment, Lavigne was wrapped in mud, then is cellophane, covered in multiple layers, and her head put in a cardboard box, on a hot summer day, for nine hours. It will probably not shock you to learn that this treatment resulted in dehydration.

The dehydration was so severe that she had to be rushed to a hospital, where she suffered multiple organ failure and eventually died. The three spa workers were given 2-3 year sentences, which seem fairly light.

This is not the first time that this has happened. In 2011 James Ray, a self-proclaimed guru, was sentenced to two years in prison after the sweat lodge death of three people. That’s less than one year per person.

Cases such as these get filed under “What’s the Harm.” It is important to frequently remind people that pseudoscience is often dangerous. Sometimes these cases are dismissed as extreme examples, but that misses the point. What leads someone to think it is a good idea to be wrapped in multiple insulating layers for hours on a hot day? It is a thought process that is divorced from reality, that is not overtly based in logic and evidence.

These extreme examples illustrate the phenomenon that exists across the entire spectrum, from blatant to subtle. These examples are useful because they represent direct obvious physical harm, but there is also indirect harm, and psychological and financial harm, or perhaps direct but not-so-obvious physical harm.

For example, Hot Yoga is all the rage. This essentially consists of exercising in a hot environment – you know, to maximize the risk of heat stroke and dehydration. Hot Yoga is a fad, it is not based on any reasonable medical reasoning, it is not based on any evidence. It represents a basic failure of reasoning and judgement. It also likely causes some harm. Becoming dehydrated, for example, puts a strain on the kidneys.

Unless someone drops dead in the middle of a hot yoga session, however, the potential harm will likely be overlooked.

There is one form of indirect harm, however, that is often overlooked by those not steeped in the skeptical narrative, and that is belief in nonsense itself. The psychological evidence we have suggests that belief in nonsense begets belief in more nonsense. Of course it is difficult to tease apart cause and effect.

Fostering a society in which magical claims are taken for granted, and where pseudo-authorities (like sweat lodge gurus) are given respect, creates an environment in which people are more likely to believe in magic. It creates an environment in which someone would subject themselves to a slow death by dehydration because (insert spiritual nonsense) and because they trust someone who calls themselves a spiritual guide or a guru.

Instead we should be fostering a society in which people think critically, challenge claims, demand evidence, and question authority.

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