Exploiting the ignorant: From quack cures to the rise of Trump

I was reading today about a man called Braco (pronounced Bratzoh) who is the centre of a personality cult that believes his “gaze” (looking out into a crowd and not speaking for 5-7 minutes) can heal health problems and have a positive impact on people’s lives and the lives of their loved ones. He does free online gaze sessions, and cheap or free local events all around the world in order to market books, DVDs and items of jewellery containing his golden “sun symbol” (many for $500+ each). I see nothing more than a man who learnt how profitable it was to be a fake healer from a mentor in a similar line of work, and took on his audience and methodologies (but without the stress of having to give any advice, or the risks of making any claims about himself that could be proven false).

Yet, nonetheless he has a plentiful audience of believers. People claim remarkably diverse experiences and attribute all kinds of random positive events in their lives to his gaze. One contributor believes that Braco cured the hearing loss of a newborn whose parent and grandparents went and gazed (and bought the $500+ trinket). Unknown to them, 13% of children identified with newborn hearing loss spontaneously recover, without any superstitious interventions. It reminds me of Tim Minchin’s fantastic song Thank You God [link contains swearing] that describes alternative explanations for a “miracle” in which a lady’s cataracts are “cured by prayer”. These include spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis, a record-keeping glitch, a lie or misunderstanding. He mentions the power of confirmation bias, groupthink, and simplistic ideas of causality based on temporal correlation (as was the case with autism and MMR). On the internet there is also the significant possibility that the review is fabricated.

The same story repeats all over the world. People are paying something for nothing more than woo in numerous seances, palm readings, psychics, mediums, crystal therapies, quack nutritionists, chiropractors, reiki, all energy therapies, coffee enemas, homeopathy, reflexology, magical weight loss products, Bach flower remedies, most vitamin supplements, magnetic items making health claims and anything that promises to “detox”. In fact, any one of us could invent our own snake-oil or novel form of quackery. And then we could invent some titles and qualifications and go on TV as an “expert” to promote them. The trade is worth in excess of £500 million per year in the UK alone. Quackwatch is a good reference point – I check doubtful health claims there, just as I check doubtful internet stories on Snopes.

We are 250 years past the enlightenment in which the ideas of reason and science supposedly gained supremacy over superstition and liberty progress and tolerance gained traction over dogma. Yet here we are in so many ways believing in magic and witch hunts. The public doesn’t understand science, is wedded to superstition, or simply has overwhelming credulity and a lack of critical thinking. This is the same culture that created plausibility for Andrew Wakefield’s weird “measles immunisation” recipe that contained his own blood and goat colostrum and that pushed an appropriately skeptical professor of complimentary and alternative medicine into early retirement because he wouldn’t endorse homeopathy and reflexology on the NHS.

No wonder in the Brexit campaign and in Trump’s electoral campaign there has been such wide deviation from the facts. The public have been told to disregard experts and go with their gut feelings, or with the guy who they could imagine meeting in the pub. That is a very poor way to judge the evidence base, and (as we have discovered with Brexit) a very easy way to be sold a pup. I can’t understand why it is not a crime, or even a disgrace, to lie to the public. Why were there not enquiries and reprimands for people who knowingly lied about the £350 million pounds a week extra that was supposed to go to the NHS if we left Europe? The answer is because we have better protections against a drink being sold with false weight loss claims than we do over vote-changing political claims.

It is interesting to explore why people don’t trust experts, and here it seems that there are a few dimensions that are important. Knowledge is only trusted if it is coupled with a perception of benevolence, and presented in words that people understand and don’t feel patronised by. It is all too easy for people with expertise to use jargon or technical terminology that makes sense in their field, for readers of the journals they publish in or in conversation with their peers, but that makes the content inaccessible to lay people, who then think of the expert as being part of an intellectual elite who are sneering down at them from a position of superiority.

And some people seem to deliberately manipulate any show of expertise to make it seem that particular commentators are not connected with the experience of ‘the man on the street’. Michael Gove (linked above) was probably the pinnacle of this, but Trump also directly appeals to this distrust of experts, and seems to bank on his audience not caring about his content being proved to be factually incorrect later down the line. Tim Minchin captured my feelings and frustrations about this rising anti-intellectualism (and Brexit and even Donald Trump in passing) here [contains swearing, I’d recommend watching from 24 to 35 mins in].

But it is becoming more and more common. I was listening to the radio earlier this week and flicked over from Radio 4 to Radio 2 to hear the host Vanessa Feltz tell a labour party spokesman that the word “narrative” when used in context, with four repetitions of the word “story”, was jargon that was beyond her and her listeners and proudly proclaimed that it was similar to the teaching that went over her head at university (listen at 15:00 for just over a minute). She seemed to want him to pitch his vocabulary lower, whilst showing her own insecurity about wanting to be clever by using the word “elucidate” herself in her instruction to him to do so! It was particularly notable in contrast to Radio 4, where the words that she criticised, such as “managerial”, “technocratic” and “narrative” would not stand out in the discussion or require definition. Maybe it is just a mark of my age and changing listening preferences, but I would always prefer to have conversation pitched at the level that I learn from, than patronisingly dumbed down.

It is also a reminder that, despite a natural tendency to consider ourselves pretty much average at everything, very often we fail to recognise our own levels of skew within the population. My politics are left of average, my income and intellect above average, just as my physical fitness is below average. But this deviation from the norm does not stand out to me as I have sought out a peer group of other professional, intellectual lefties. In my peer group, the remain preference was so strong that the vote to leave the EU was quite a shock!

Similarly, despite having written a book to try to make the scientific knowledge around attachment and developmental trauma accessible to care givers and professionals from other fields, and working hard to make psychological knowledge available through this blog and various forum posts, not everyone finds my writing accessible. For every ten positive views of the book there is one person who feels I pitched it too high. I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person of knowing the meaning I intend to convey, and therefore not always recognising when I have not communicated this effectively. So please do point it out to me!



How do we know what we need: differentiating evidence based treatments for the public

I am interested in making a website to help direct people at the right kind of sources of support when they are hitting a block or feeling unhappy with their lives. So I started to look at what was out there. I found lots of small silos full of professional jargon that would help people to identify a counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist if they knew that was what they needed. But I also found lots of sites that point people at all kinds of snake oil that has no evidence of efficacy at all. For example, Findatherapy.org lists the following categories as “therapies”:

Abdominal-Sacral Massage
Alexander Technique
Allergy Therapy
Arts Therapy
Autogenic Training
Bioresonance Therapy
Body Stress Release
Bowen Technique
Chiropractic Treatment
Clinical Pilates
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Colon Hydrotherapy
Colour Therapy
Craniosacral Therapy
Crystal Therapy
Emmett Technique
Emotional Freedom Technique
Energy Medicine
Flower Essences Therapy
Foot Health
Havening Techniques
Herbal Medicine
Hydrotherm Massage
Indian Head Massage
Life Coaching
Manual Lymphatic Drainage
Massage Therapy
Matrix Reimprinting
Maya Abdominal Therapy
Myofascial Release
Nutritional Therapy
Regression Therapy
Relationship Therapy
Sex Therapy
Speech Therapy
Sports Therapy
Structural Integration
Tension and Trauma Releasing
Thai Massage
Thought Field Therapy
Yoga Therapy
Zero Balancing

That’s a list of 70 “therapies” of which at least 40 are obvious quackery, and very few could be said to have any form of persuasive evidence base for efficacy*. But the practitioners of each are persuasive, and the websites use pseudoscientific rationales that might fool those who are not as cynical or conversant with the scientific method as we are. So how do the public know what kind of help to seek out? How does someone who is feeling miserable, has a job they hate, financial difficulties and problems in their relationship know whether to get financial advice, careers advice, life coaching or therapy? And if they pick “therapy” how do they know whether to get CBT, psychoanalysis, art-therapy or non-directive counselling? And how do they know whether to get it from a therapist or a psychologist or a counsellor or a mental health specialist or any of a hundred other job titles? And within psychology, how do they know when to seek a clinical psychologist, a health psychologist, a counselling psychologist or any of the job titles that the HCPC don’t register?

I think apart from word of mouth and google, they don’t. Most people ask their GP or their friends for recommendations, and then go with something available locally within their price range. They don’t read the NICE guidance or understand the various professional bodies or regulatory systems. They trust that they’ll get a gut feeling as to whether it is going to help or not from the first session, and most of that “gut feel” is probably based on personality and charisma, and whether or not they feel listened to. The decision then rests on whether the therapist wants to work with them and has the capacity to take them on, and the price they ask for (assuming the service is in the private domain rather than the NHS).

Even the NHS itself isn’t very consistent about evidence based practise. For example, the NHS still funds some homeopathy – possibly wasting up to £5million per year on this placebo treatment that is entirely without evidence or credible rationale. Likewise I’ve seen NHS therapists who have done training in models of therapy that are implausible and without evidence (eg ‘energy therapies’ like EFT). Perhaps this is why the majority of clients doubt the efficacy of talking therapies. Yet, despite this scepticism, most would prefer to try therapy than medication yet the use of psychotropic medications has risen much more rapidly than the use of psychological therapies.

So where do we draw the line? If we only deliver fully evaluated treatments and those where we understand exactly how they work, then the amount the NHS can do when it comes to therapy will be much more limited. Lots of therapeutic interventions in practise are derived from other models or by combining aspects of various models. This allows individualisation of care. Similarly, there are many therapies which are being developed that have promising methodologies and are tightly rooted in scientific knowledge, but have not themselves been subjected to RCTs that prove efficacy yet (eg DDP). And many RCTs seem far removed from actual clinical practise where clients have a variety of overlapping conditions and clinicians deviate substantially from the treatment manuals.

The other confounding factor is that when it comes to talk therapy, it turns out that the modality or adherence to the manual matters very little compared to the relationship between the therapist and client. It seems the key ingredients are listening to the client, genuinely caring about them, giving them hope that things could be different, and giving them the confidence to try doing things slightly differently. Whether we have years of training and follow the manual diligently or whether we are newly qualified and muddling through seems to make much less difference than we think. In fact, therapist variables are much more powerful in influencing outcomes than modality, and even than the difference between treatment and placebo. That is no surprise to me as I’ve personally benefited from physiotherapy that included acupuncture – despite having read studies that show it to be no more effective than ‘sham acupuncture’ where random locations are pricked with a cocktail stick!

In the paper I’ve linked above, Scott Miller argues persuasively that we don’t need to focus on understanding how therapy works, or in using the medical model to work out what works for whom with endless RCTs. He shows evidence that experts are defined by having deep domain-specific knowledge, earned by a process of gathering feedback and focusing on improvement. So he argues that in the same way, expert therapists are those who collect and learn from client feedback. So his answer to the issue of evidence-based practise is for us each to collect our own outcome data to show whether our work is effective according to our clients (and by comparison to other options), and to see if we can improve this by using simple ratings within each session that check we are working on the right stuff and that the client feels we understand them, and that the working relationship is good.

So what does this mean for the proliferation of made up therapies? Does it mean that we should leave the public to buy a placebo treatment if they so wish? Or does it mean we need to focus on the modality and evidence base after all? The ideal would obviously be better regulation of anyone purporting to provide therapy of any form, but given the HCPC remit doesn’t even include counselling and psychotherapy, I think we are far from this being the case. To my mind it throws down a gauntlet to those of us providing what we believe are effective and evidence based treatments to collect the outcome measures that demonstrate this is the case. If we are sure that what we offer is better than someone having an imaginary conversation with an imaginary ‘inner physician’ by feeling imaginary differences in the imaginary rhythm of an imaginary fluid on our scalps then surely we ought to be able to prove that?

And what does that mean for my idea of making a website to point people at helpful places to start a self-improvement journey? To me, it shows there is a clear need for simple and accessible ways to identify what might be useful and to allow the public to differentiate between sources of support that have evidence of efficacy, professional regulation, a credible rationale for what they do, reputable professional bodies and/or personal recommendations. Maybe such a website can be one contribution to the conversation, although I’ll need both allies and funding to get it to happen.



*I’d say EMDR, physiotherapy, speech therapy, CBT and some types of psychotherapy and counselling probably reach that bar. Mindfulness is probably getting there. Art therapy probably suits some people with some issues. Yoga, sports massage, pilates, osteopathy, meditation, life coaching and (controversially) even acupuncture probably have their place even though the evidence for them as therapy modalities is limited. Most of the rest are quackery.