Dr Caroline Leaf – Serious questions, few answers (Part 3) – “Flirting with heresy”

Following on from the last 2 posts discussing the various teaching points of Dr Caroline Leaf at Kings Christian Church, here is my final post on the points that she raised.  Tonight, I conclude by proposing that in equating ‘toxic’ thoughts with sin, she seriously weakens her own argument, or she flirts with heresy.

TOXIC THOUGHTS ARE SIN

Probably the most disturbing of all she discussed was her point blank statement that, “Toxic thoughts are sin.”

This is an astounding claim, and it was said in such an off-handed manner. It was like she threw a grenade and calmly moved on. Her claim not only has psychological ramifications, but deep theological connotations.

Her statement has the effect of ADDING to the stress response of her audience. Indeed, it sets up a feedback loop of self-perpetualising existential distress – the spiritual struggle switch. Crum et al (2013) showed that negatively framing the concept of stress leads to an increase in the subjects stress response. What could be more stressing that telling a christian that they have sinned every time that have had a persistent stress?  More stress is then equated with more ‘sin’ which then gives rise to even more stress. And so the cycle continues.

She then attempted to redeem her statement by declaring that we can transcend the guilt from the sin of stress, because her 21-day brain detox program would fix it. But on the surface, it seems an arbitrary premise. Inducing guilt to then offer to fix it is like a supermarket marking up a price so they can claim to offer a discount when they reduce it again.

More importantly though, in making the link between stress and sin, she brings herself undone. She either unravels her entire argument, or she flirts with heresy. Because if a thought process which results in prolonged or severe fear/stress is a sin, then Jesus himself sinned.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, the gospels record that Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, about to be crucified for the sins of all mankind, was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34, Matthew 26:38), and became so distressed by the ordeal he was about to endure that he literally sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

Where do you think Jesus was on the stress spectrum according to those accounts? I’d wager that it wasn’t “healthy stress”.Rev Bob Deffinbaugh wrote that,

“Jesus spent what appears to be at least three agonizing hours in prayer.” He also noted that, “Never before have we seen Jesus so emotionally distraught. He has faced a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee, totally composed and unruffled. He has faced demonic opposition, satanic temptation, and the grilling of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, with total composure. But here in the Garden, the disciples must have been greatly distressed by what (little) they saw. Here, Jesus cast Himself to the ground, agonizing in prayer.” (https://bible.org/seriespage/garden-gethsemane-luke-2239-46)

There is no other way to explain it – Jesus suffered severe and prolonged mental anguish to the point that it had physical effects. By Dr Leaf’s definition (Leaf 2009, p19), Jesus had “toxic” thoughts. So the crux is: either toxic thoughts and emotions are sinful, in which case Jesus was a sinner and our salvation is invalid, or toxic thoughts and emotions are not sinful, which directly contradicts her teaching.

There is at least one further example from the life of Jesus that significantly weakens Dr Leafs definition of ‘toxic’ thoughts. In her book, Dr Leaf states, “hostility and rage are at the top of the list of toxic emotions”, and that “Stress is the direct result of toxic thinking.” (Leaf 2009, p29-30)

In John 2:13-17, it says, “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

So Jesus saw the sellers and the money exchangers, then in a pre-meditated way, took small cords and fashioned a whip out of them, then proceeded to use that whip to violently and aggressively overturn the tables of the merchants and spill the money of the money changers. John adds a post-script – “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  So Jesus wasn’t mincing words. He drove them out of the temple in a rage.

Again, was Jesus acting in sin?  Of course not.  Instead, perhaps God has designed normal human beings to experience rage, anger and stress – emotions that are not curses passed down in genetic material and are not learned behaviours as a result of our sin nature.

Further, God himself displayed anger.  God also made us in his image, and in his likeness. Dr Leaf stated that we were designed to function in optimism and love, and again, negative emotions like anger and fear are learnt from living in sin. Yet it is interesting that God the Father regularly kindled his wrath, and smote Israelites or their enemies (Numbers 11:33, Deuteronomy 11:16-17, and in 2 Kings 23:25-27, “Notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.”)

If God regularly displayed anger throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus displayed it in the New Testament, then anger and rage can not be the perversion of God’s ultimate design as Dr Leaf proposes.

Therefore, ‘toxic’ thought is NOT sin, because Jesus suffered prolonged mental stress and anguish and he did not sin.  Emotions that are deemed to be toxic by Dr Leaf and her definition are not toxic, since both God and Jesus displayed them and they did not and do not sin. Such a suggestion is incongruent with the Christian faith.

We were made in the image of God, so therefore we mirror all the emotions of God, which includes anger.  This shows that Dr Leaf’s proposals and the assumptions on which they are based, are incongruent with a logical interpretation of scripture.

In conclusion, Dr Leaf has been gathering quite a following.  From the pulpit at least, her claims of evidence of studies from peer-reviewed sources have been lacking. From what I saw on Sunday last, her reputation is excessive, her arguments unsupported and her theology is questionable at best, dangerous at worst.

Personally, I would welcome Dr Leaf’s response to these posts.  I have written these posts over a few days from her teaching at one church, so perhaps I have misunderstood her.  I have not been able to go through all of her books in such a short time, so she may have references to her teaching.  But she needs to clarify each question that I’ve raised and respond with current peer-reviewed science and sound theological resources.

References

Crum, A. J., P. Salovey and S. Achor (2013). “Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response.” J Pers Soc Psychol 104(4): 716-733.

Karatsoreos, I. N. and B. S. McEwen (2011). “Psychobiological allostasis: resistance, resilience and vulnerability.” Trends Cogn Sci 15(12): 576-584.

Leaf, C. (2009). Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. Southlake, TX, USA, Inprov, Ltd.

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17 thoughts on “Dr Caroline Leaf – Serious questions, few answers (Part 3) – “Flirting with heresy”

  1. I think you are missing very important points. Dr. Leaf specifically states in her talks, that stress, rage, anger, etc. that you mentioned are expected and are due to outside circumstances or life events. We are born into the sin nature, for by one man all have sinned. The sin nature rules this creation for this time of Adam on the earth. By one man through Christ Jesus, we have been reconciled and grafted into the vine, that is Him, love and life.

    You may attempt to look into the heart and mind of Jesus during his times of rage in the temple and submission to the Father’s plan in garden. I say, only God can look on a man’s heart. All we can see is the outside and can only subjectively attempt to understand what Christ was going through or any other man might be dealing with internally. You equate our human emotions to God and Jesus emotions. That is a slippery slope to walk on. Our Father and Jesus are both perfection. Not sure our emotions in our fallen nature are so pure a comparison. We only see things in time and space through our mind we are attempting to renew to the image of Christ. Be angry and sin not. Every man working out his own salvation. Hmmm. Not sure we’re the judge of much, unless we want to be judged in the same way.

    It’s not a sin to have a thought cross your mind. It’s not a sin to be angry or experience a just rage. Dr Leaf does never states that those are sins. God created those emotions inside of us, for we are made in His image. The point is what do you do with these thoughts? Do you water, cultivate and dwell on these negative thoughts? That is the sin to harbor these thoughts creating imaginations that exalt themselves against the knowledge of Christ, creating all sorts of internal strife.

    I believe instead of tearing down others, why not focus your energy in the way God created you, which is that you are wired for LOVE. Speak life over others and focus your thoughts on God, His ways. I believe we are commanded to love one another and to pray for each other and especially for those we feel are our enemies.

    I’m not quite seeing the love of God flowing as fruit from your life or lips. We are only to judge the fruit of the tree.

    • Dear Eric

      Thanks for your comments and concerns. Some of the issues you raise may possibly relate to the context of this blog and its age. I’ll go through and try and clarify my arguments for you.

      The post you refer to was a review of Dr Leaf’s two sermons at Kings Christian Church, Gold Coast, in August 2013. During her presentations on that day, she specifically stated that anger, jealousy, rage, stress, fear etc were all toxic emotions, and then emphasised, quite categorically, that “toxic thoughts are sin”. Now, the Bible talks about how Jesus was stressed, and displayed anger, as does God. So if you take Dr Leaf at her word, the logic is simple:

      Stress and anger are toxic emotions, and
      Toxic emotions are sin.

      Therefore stress and anger are sins.

      But Jesus and God displayed anger, and Jesus experienced stress.

      Therefore Jesus and God sinned.

      Now, I for one, do not agree with this conclusion, but since the argument is logically valid, then one or more of the premises must be wrong. So lets review them again:

      “Jesus and God display anger, and Jesus suffered severe stress.” These facts are straight from the Bible so these premises are sound.

      This leaves the first and second premises and their conclusion. As you so rightly say, the Bible says, “Be angry and sin not.” (Eph 4:26) So the conclusion that anger is sinful is also not true, again, despite sound logic.

      Thus, the only two remaining premises that are unsound are Dr Leaf’s claims that stress and anger are toxic emotions, and that toxic emotions are sin.

      This is the crux of my argument and of the blog post. If you take Dr Leaf at her word and follow the logic, Dr Leaf either seriously flirted with heresy, or her ministry is wrong. Either anger and stress are sin, in which case, Jesus sinned, or anger and stress are not sin, in which case Dr Leaf has just contradicted herself.

      I don’t think Dr Leaf’s errancy was fully intentional. I think Dr Leaf was on a roll, and in the heat of the moment, allowed her tenuous message to go a step too far. Unfortunately Dr Leaf has not publically recanted, clarified, or apologised. Irrespective of her intention, Dr Leaf still mislead that congregation, which is not acceptable.

      The argument that God and Jesus can be angry without sinning, because God and Jesus can’t sin, is tautological. And it doesn’t apply to Dr Leaf’s work anyway, because,
      1. I have read her work extensively and I’ve not seen anywhere that “stress, rage, anger, are expected and are due to outside circumstances or life events.” Dr Leaf teaches that these toxic thoughts are all choices, that we can choose to have positive thoughts or “negative, toxic thoughts”. If they were all related to external events then she would have no reason to sell her 21-Day detox programs (though if you can cite her work to back up your statement, I’m happy to be corrected) and
      2. Jesus experienced stress and anger and did not sin, and since he was tempted in every way as we are, then it is possible for us to experience stress and anger without sin too. This is also supported by the scripture we discussed earlier, “Be angry and sin not.”. So at worst, anger and stress are sometimes toxic. This still contradicts Dr Leaf’s premises that stress and anger are toxic emotions and that toxic emotions are sinful.

      Overall, I think we actually agree more than we disagree. The key here is your assertion that Dr Leaf never claimed that ‘toxic thoughts are sin’, but I can testify, as an eye-witness in the congregation that morning, that she did utter those now immortal words.

      As for your various comments on my “fruit”, I find it interesting that you would make the earlier comment about how only God can judge someones heart but then judge me according to your selective definition of good fruit.

      Irrespective, let me reassure you that my work is motivated by love – for Jesus, the body of Christ, and the truth. If you want to disagree with my research or analysis, that’s fine. But I would urge you to look beyond your judgement of me personally, or what you think my level of love is, and dispassionately judge both Dr Leaf’s work and my own on its factual accuracy. Ultimately, it’s the TRUTH that will set you free.

      All the best to you.

  2. Recently, Dr. Leaf was on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) TV.

    “Toxic thinking” exists, if not as she defined it. Example: Joe believes he is a failure, so he stops trying. Sally felt like a failure, but tried Thomas Edison’s ideas: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” and “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” She wrestled through more failures, but eventually reached her goal(s).

    That type of thinking can seem like instinct or reflex. When one realizes it is “only” a bad habit (thus changeable), that realization can be liberating. There’s still work to be done, but it’s a huge step in a better direction.

    You probably knew all about toxic thinking… I included examples mostly to clarify what I meant.

    Dr. Leaf mostly made brief, vague statements between pushing her products. I don’t object if speakers -briefly- offer products, or request support, if significant teaching time preceded it. But a sales pitch [roughly] every 5 minutes quickly feels excessive.

    Many people unconsciously insert their own bias into their interpretation of Scripture. When I heard Dr. Leaf use a significant stretch in the “meaning” of a Bible verse, I didn’t know if it was another case of someone’s bias leaking into their interpretation -or- if there was more going on (confusion, lack of contextual understanding, etc.).

    I worried that I was being too judgmental, but I didn’t want to be gullible either.

    I am not a medical professional, nor am I a theologian. I was torn between “giving the benefit of the doubt” and “a pinch of salt.” I try to obey 2 Timothy 2:15, especially regarding Scripture. Unfortunately, I am poor at online research for any other subject.

    So I contacted a friend, showed her Dr. Leaf’s website, and asked what she thought.

    She found your blog posts, and was impressed. I am also impressed. You are not attacking the person, but merely questioning the teachings. You don’t rant or use impolite terms. Instead, you calmly lay out the facts, and allow each reader to make their own decision.

    Thank you.

    I felt uncomfortable when she said all “negative” thoughts were sins, but gave no instruction on how to correct those thoughts (on TV or website). It was only “buy my [products]” … leaving people at risk of falling into despair.

    I am reminded of a story… a man preached in Chicago on Sunday October 8, 1871. Instead of giving an altar call, he told the congregation to think it over and return next time with their decision. That evening, the O’Leary’s shed ignited and “the Great Chicago Fire” began. Nearly 300 people died in that fire, and thousands were left homeless (per Wikipedia). The man never again preached without giving an altar call. He regretted the day when he didn’t for the rest of his life.

    Whether true or not, the story makes a good point. I would not want to tell people they were sinning without -also- teaching them how to change (Ezekiel chapter 33). If I did only the first half, I might make the same mistake that preacher is said to have done.

    I wouldn’t want something like that on my conscience.

    God bless.

    • Hi Ann. Thanks so much for your observations and kind comments. I know that Dr Leaf is a favourite of TBN. I don’t get access to it in Australia, but I know that some televangelists on TBN have recently been under fire for their business practices, including Dr Leafs mentors, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlzSFeqoODg and a non-contiguous 2nd part https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IMAoeklyqY – language warning). So what you say about the hard sell doesn’t really surprise me.

      I wouldn’t worry about Dr Leaf’s lack of instructions on her website or on TV. As you’ve read in my post above and in the comments, there is no logical support for Dr Leafs claim that all toxic thoughts are sinful. So, there is no need for any instruction to correct our thoughts as our thoughts don’t need correcting in the first place.

      Thanks for the example of Joe and Sally. It’s a good example that shows there’s a lot of confusion because of oversimplification and confirmation bias. In your example, Joe and Sally both fail. How Joe and Sally react may be appropriate to the situation, just as how they react can sometimes be maladaptive depending on the situation. But our society has gullibly followed the positive self-help mantras for decades. When Dr Leaf takes those self-help mantras a step further and suggests that not only are positive thoughts good, but negative thoughts are toxic, it seems perfectly plausible. But life isn’t that simple. Everyone has ‘negative’ thoughts. This is normal. It’s part of the function of our brain which is meant to alert us to the possible bad things that might happen to us. If we didn’t predict danger or possible harm, we would end up as road kill. Sure, sometimes we can be overwhelmed by these sort of thoughts. But I would argue that such maladaptive thinking isn’t toxic in and of itself. It is simply a symptom of a failure somewhere in the underlying process that our thoughts depend on. If you want to know more about this, please review my blogs (https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/11/08/dr-caroline-leaf-putting-thought-in-the-right-place/ and https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/11/11/putting-thought-in-the-right-place-part-2/)

      So I’d suggest that there isn’t “toxic” thinking. There is simply normal thinking that is sometimes adaptive, sometimes maladaptive. Dr Leaf demonises normal functional thinking, and few have questioned her.

      May I commend you for being discerning. It’s a very positive trait that’s not commonly found in the modern church. Kudos for being willing to listen to that check in your spirit, and to you and your friend for taking the time to look for independent information. And thanks for your encouraging words. I try to be as calm and factual as possible, although I can become a little exuberant at times.

      One last thing. I would be grateful if you would share your concerns about Dr Leaf’s ministry with your friends, pastors, and your regional and national church leadership. It is only through using our voices and sharing our concerns that the truth will be able to shine through.

      All the best to you.

      • Thank you for taking the time to reply. I appreciate it.

        Apparently, I was less clear than I’d hoped in my prior message. I apologize for that. I shall attempt to do better.

        I try to follow the example of the Berean Christians, testing everything against Scripture or other applicable standards (for example, science or experience).

        I am not specifically worried about Dr Leaf’s lack of instructions on her website or on TV, since her approach is unsound. What actually troubled me was a contradiction.

        If someone’s primary desire is truly “to help others” (as she says), then the person should not tantalize those “others in need of help” with claims of solutions… and then demand payment while withholding said solutions. That is the procedure of a salesman, not of a helping hand. Said contradiction makes me want a bigger “pinch of salt” regarding anything else which that person says. A contradiction that strong is troubling.

        I hope the above clarifies my actual concern about Dr Leaf’s lack of instructions on her website or on TV?

        I tried to read your linked articles on this subject, but frankly some of it is beyond my comprehension. I’ll study them, though. The information is fascinating. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made!

        It appears as if you and I might, perhaps, be using different labels for similar ideas. You use “maladaptive,” and I use (as my counselors did) “toxic” to describe non-optimal or self-defeating thought habits.

        I shall try again to display more clearly what I was attempting to describe, because it appears as if I was unclear.

        Alcoholism runs in one side of the family. That parent was a “dry alcoholic.” The addictive personality was almost textbook (per my counselors), even without the alcohol. Both parents were verbally and emotionally abusive. At times, physically abusive also.

        Figuratively speaking, our minds were poisoned by them. I needed the aid of counselors to separate what was appropriate criticism vs. what was verbal / emotional abuse. Habits in my thinking needed to change.

        Did changing my thought habits restructure my brain? Did it change who I was? I doubt it. However, it did help me remove tainted filters the abusers had created, so that I might perceive life more clearly and realistically.

        Did those changes in thinking habits also change my health? Not much. Less stress-related issues. However, my emotional outlook improved dramatically. Had I continued believing the words of those abusive parents, I would have given up trying to get or keep a job… and thereby remained trapped in their house, and entirely dependent upon them.

        I feel as if have lived the Scripture about “renewing the mind.” I’m still living it. I hope this clarifies why I used the label “toxic” with respect to that variety of self-defeating thought habits. It’s not a physical thing, except when it generates the usual stress issues.

        What I was attempting to describe is -not- what Dr. Leaf seems to be talking about when she uses that label.

        My friend and I will warn anyone we can, who seems likely to listen.

        Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord.

      • Hi Ann. Thanks for clarifying. Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you. I’ve been trying to consider the best way to reply.

        I agree with your concerns about Dr Leaf’s ‘contradiction’ as you say. I guess if I had to give credit where credit’s due, Dr Leaf is the queen of self-promotion. If her message was scientifically and Biblically sound, she would do a lot of good for the church. I don’t want to make any judgements about why she presents her materials the way she does, but I agree there is a lot of salesmanship in her presentations and through her social media.

        And I guess, in fairness, the sales of her material is akin to my fees for services rendered in my medical practice. I’m a doctor to help people, but I still charge for my advice as I have to pay my mortgage. So I’d reframe the issue in terms of value for money, rather than sales per se. Dr Leaf is entitled to charge for her materials, but I would suggest her customers aren’t getting good value for their investment. That’s up to them, of course, to decide that for themselves.

        If I were to attempt to simplify my CAP model, it would simply be that GENES affect our BRAIN which then determines our ACTIONS. THOUGHT is an off-shoot, a small sliver of the overall information that the brain processes each second. On the other hand, Dr Leaf advocates that THOUGHT is independent of, but controls our BRAIN, controls our GENES, and controls our ACTIONS.

        It’s

        GENES —> BRAIN (& thoughts) —> ACTIONS

        vs

        THOUGHTS —> BRAIN / GENES / ACTIONS

        The corollary for Dr Leaf’s model is that changes to your brain should not change your thoughts, since thoughts are separate to, and control the brain. Dr Leaf’s model fails because in real life, changes to the structure and function of the brain DO change thought patterns. Ask anyone that’s used LSD. That’s just one example of the many others that I have discussed before. Dr Leaf’s model of the power of our thoughts doesn’t pass the common sense test.

        Anyway, I hope that’s simplified things.

        In regards to what you said about using different labels for similar ideas, I understand where you’re coming from. I’m certainly not going to criticise your use of the term ‘toxic’ in regard to those sort of thoughts that you describe. Personally, I try and avoid using the terms ‘toxic’ and ‘negative’ when describing thoughts, feelings and emotions because so often the ‘toxic’ nature isn’t in the thought or the word but the context. Often the so-called ‘negative’ feelings like anger or guilt are positive too, if they help us to live according to our values. For example, nearly everyone who has accepted Jesus as saviour and lord has felt some sort of ‘negative’ emotion, be it guilt or sadness or shame, otherwise how would they know that they needed Jesus in the first place? So for me at least, I prefer ‘maladaptive’, which better fits with the utility of the thought or emotion rather than its valence.

        Thank you for your openness in sharing your personal journey. I don’t want to try and psycho-analyse you, and I can’t offer any specific advice in this forum, but I can see why ‘toxic’ seems like a very apt description of your experiences. There is a type of psychological therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT for short) which describes how one can live a rich and meaningful life in spite of our thoughts and feelings. Rather than fighting our thoughts and feelings to change them, we accept them for what they are: simply words and their associations. Instead of letting them control us, we make room for them and continue to move towards our values. The common by-product of accepting out thoughts and feelings is that they will often move into the background and tend to not bother us so much. They’re still there, but we’re not controlled by them any more. If you want more information – have a look at “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris, and talk it through with your counsellors.

        Thanks for the chance to discuss this all with you. It’s helped me too by making me reconsider my model, and express it in a different way. I pray for your strength and healing on your personal journey. All the best.

  3. The point is not whether each isolated statement in Dr. Caroline Leaf’s books or lectures can be supported with a consensus of scientific statistics, or a consensus in Christian doctrine. The point is that Dr. Leaf’s explanations of thinking and wiring of our brains gives hope to many suffering with negative thinking patterns, brain damage, mental illnesses, or who are stuck in their lives and relationships. For many, it gives them back power and provides a structure for change while generating hope. People can draw their own conclusions regarding her work and agree, or disagree, with her on specific scientific, statistical, or religious points. However, criticism that disregards balance, in favor of focusing on such specifics, seems to indicate an ax to grind, rather than an interest in accurate evaluation. We can’t lose sight of the value of Dr. Leaf’s work as a positive force in her field. She has generated a large group of followers and has had success with not only patients, but also in her ability to communicate the complexities of our brains and provide a specific strategy for changing our thoughts, while delivering hope. Not a small task!

    • Hi Brenda,

      Thanks for offering your opinion.

      So let me try and condense your comment to see if I understand it correctly; you seem to be suggesting that hope is more important than truth.

      Do you remember Matrix Reloaded from 2003? One of the most unrecognised but profound quotes came from the Architect, who said, “Hope, it is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.” Hope is very powerful, to be sure, but it’s a two edged sword. Hope harnessed correctly can help people survive the unsurvivable, and to push forward and triumph against insurmountable odds. Hope harnessed incorrectly can make people buy lotto tickets or follow horoscopes, or waste their money on self-help books, pop-psychology and alternative health treatments. Jesus also said in John 8:32, “the truth shall set you free”, not “the hope shall set you free”. So if you really are suggesting that Dr Leaf’s ability to generate hope is more important than her factual accuracy, then I’m afraid it’s you that disregards balance.

      Indeed, I would suggest that without factual accuracy, Dr Leaf’s teaching offers false hope which is actually detrimental. In my book (http://www.debunkingdrleaf.com/chapter-3/) I write about the Mythbusters experiment in which a group of volunteers were trying to navigate a maze of suburban streets without a map. The producers deliberately gave them wrong directions. The end result was that every single one of them got lost. They only got out of their suburban labyrinth when they stopped to ask for the right directions. The point of this story is that when you’re lost and you’re given some directions, you have hope, but if the directions are wrong, you end up frustrated, powerless, hopeless, and still lost. Dr Leaf may inspire hope, but if her teaching is inaccurate, then people who are genuinely suffering from mental illness are only going to find themselves frustrated, powerless, hopeless, and still lost.

      Dr Leaf may seem like a positive force, and may be immensely popular, but popularity is not any guarantee of accuracy. One only needs to observe the current Trump phenomenon to see that. Tell me, what evidence do you have, other than material that comes from Dr Leaf herself, that she has had any success with patients? How do you know that she is communicating the complexities of our brain, or that her strategy can actually ‘change our thoughts’? I’d love to know. You’re welcome to reply to this blog with your answers.

      You may believe I’ve an axe to grind, and you’re welcome to your opinion, but I’d encourage you to read my book and my blog in it’s entirety before assuming that my assessment of Dr Leaf’s ministry is inaccurate.

      Thanks again for your comment. All the best to you.

      • Dr. Pitt: Thank you for your opinion. You quoted from Matrix Reloaded stating, in summary, hope can be one’s greatest strength, or greatest weakness. I agree. You went on to describe examples of “misplaced hope;” spending money on lottery tickets, following horoscopes, reading self help books and even as misplaced hope contributing to the rise in the candidacy of Donald Trump. You then described “well placed hope.” My question is, who is the arbitrator of “proper” and “improper” hope? It is condescending for any of us to assume that role. Scientific evidence can be given, which is valid. We can educate others with facts. It is invalid, however, to determine true vs. false hope for someone else, without evidence of harm. Ms. Leaf has had success with lectures and selling books. This is fact. Her popularity indicates that she has hit a nerve. Perhaps she has filled a gap missing in the current fields of psychiatry, counseling and behavioral change. What is the existing evidence that shows Ms. Leaf hasn’t helped patients? Are there studies referencing patient interviews that demonstrate that her road map has left them hopeless? Or, study results from those who have followed her plan and found it confusing? Harmful? Unhelpful? Is there evidence beyond anecdotal and subjective opinion that she doesn’t help and give hope because we agree she has invalid facts? You moved form quantitative evidence of lack of facts, to subjective personal opinion regarding Ms. Leaf’s ability to give hope and help others.This opinion requires evidence. What if the hope she provides, if she does provide hope, is valid and causes no harm? Then what becomes of her mistruths? Are they overlooked because ultimately people were helped, but not harmed? Or, invalid, because no harm is done? Are truthful statistics are more important than helping someone and giving them hope?

      • Hi Brenda,

        Touché! I appreciate your reply. You’re clearly very intelligent and articulate, and I appreciate your critique.

        Firstly, if I may clarify, I actually tried to use the Trump phenomenon as an example of how popularity is not dependent on accuracy. There may be an element of misplaced hope invested in Trump by the GOP, but that wasn’t my point.

        I take your point that it might be considered condescending for a person to elect themselves as the arbitrator of “proper” and “improper” hope, and if I was condescending, then I apologise.

        As you rightly point out, “Scientific evidence can be given, which is valid. We can educate others with facts.” Dr Leaf’s teaching is still found factually wanting, and for me at least, it remains vital that the differences between Dr Leaf’s ‘facts’ and the scientific literature are highlighted, if for no other reason than to give other people the opportunity to choose what they believe.

        Though I still hold on to my belief that Dr Leaf’s teaching is potentially harmful. On this point, you attempted to deflect my questions regarding the evidence for Dr Leaf’s teaching and clinical acumen by turning the question back around on me. Nice move. I’ll see your stake and raise you (although I’m still waiting for your answers to the original questions).

        In terms of Dr Leaf’s teaching outcomes, there’s anecdotal evidence. The true extent of approval vs disapproval of Dr Leaf’s teaching is hard to gauge, since her social media minions block anyone from Facebook or Twitter that disagrees or complains. So while she may appear to have a long list of glowing testimonials, this has been deliberately curated. Though if you go through the comments on this site and some of the other mentions of her throughout different internet sites, you can read people’s testimonies who have failed to gain any benefit from Dr Leaf’s teaching. I have also had feedback from other professionals who have had to rescue psychiatric patients who stop their medications based on Dr Leaf’s teaching, and subsequently destabilise.

        Scientifically speaking, testimonials are poor evidence, which is why it’s very interesting that Dr Leafs own analysis of her programs is less than impressive. In the public domain, there are results of Dr Leaf’s Mind Mapping Approach (MMA – her PhD thesis), as well as the program adapted from it, the “Switch On Your Brain 5-step learning process” (SOYB).

        For the MMA, Dr Leaf compared the academic results for three schools for the years 1991 and 1992 to the results for 1993 during which she introduced her MMA. Generally, the results for 1993 were better than the results for 1992, which seems to indicate that Dr Leaf’s MMA training was effective. However, the results from 1991 to 1992 were already improving without her input. The difference in average marks between 1991 and 1992 was 1.76%, while the difference between 1992 and 1993, coinciding with the introduction of Dr Leaf’s MMA, was only 2.19%. The difference is statistically meaningless. In her thesis, Dr Leaf herself notes that the program hindered some students, “The results obtained indicate that in general the academic trend in the three primary remedial schools was altered with the introduction of the MMA methods in 1993. Furthermore, it appears that the most positive response occurred in phase one (grades 1 and 2, standard 1). A positive response also occurred in phase two (standards 2-4) but this change was just outside the significance level. Phase three (standard 5), by contrast, experienced negative effects with the introduction of the MMA methods.” (Graphs, quotes and references can be found here, at https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/03/26/the-tedx-users-guide-to-dr-caroline-leaf/).

        For the SOYB predictably produced the same sort of results. If you look at the graph from Dr Leaf’s own analysis (https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/03/26/the-tedx-users-guide-to-dr-caroline-leaf/) you can see the SOYB program made no significant difference in the results until the last grade, when it made the students performances worse. Dr Leaf’s response was to blame the teachers (again, graphs, quotes and references can be found here, at https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/03/26/the-tedx-users-guide-to-dr-caroline-leaf/).

        Whether the above is valid or significant evidence of harm is something people will have to decide for themselves. But at the very least, if one’s own data fails to show significant improvement, there really isn’t much to shout about.

        Your last few questions were very interesting, and go back to the question, what’s more important, hope or truth? Is it ever acceptable for Dr Leaf, or anyone for that matter, to use mistruth to provide valid hope, so long as no harm was done? For example, would it be acceptable for a drug company to deliberately sell a placebo? Placebos provide hope and do no harm, right? What about claims by some that hypnosis cures smoking in 60 minutes guaranteed, even when the scientific truth is the exact opposite (http://www.quitcigarettesaustralia.com.au/facts.html, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD001008.pub2/abstract).

        Both are examples of hope based on a mistruth. What do you think, should those mistruths slide because they generate hope? In my line of work, professional ethics obliges full disclosure. It would be presumptuous and paternalistic if I were to withhold information because I assumed someone was hopeful. So for me, truth always wins. You’re welcome to disagree, of course. But popular or not, that’s the way I will continue to approach Dr Leaf’s work.

        Again, I’m sincerely grateful for your critique. I’m always happy to have my position questioned, it provides opportunity for growth and refinement. I hope I’ve responded fairly and correctly. All the best.

      • Dr. Pitt: My apologies, red lines started appearing in my text!

        I am continuing to use the metric of providing “hope and help” to her followers, in evaluating Ms. Leaf’s work. The information you presented regarding her students is interesting, yet doesn’t prove harm in terms of her providing hope and help for her followers.

        You apparently missed my qualifiers regarding causing harm. Let me clarify. I do not believe that hope trumps harm, but, that hope might trump inaccurate statistics, provided no proven harm is a direct result. I agree that Ms. Leaf’s subjective testimony is not a valid indicator of the veracity of her results. However, harm, in this instance, in terms of providing “false hope and help” for her followers, needs to be determined by a more complete measurement.

        Regarding your charge of “deflecting,” I belive turn about is fair play! Where is the proof that Ms. Leaf is creating false hope and not helping people? My answer to your original question is; we don’t have complete data to evaluate whether or not Ms. Leaf has caused harm to patients and readers. However, we can conclude that her message is popular, which suggests that people seek her and possibly feel helped by her message. Of course popularity alone does not negate causing harm, but, neither do inaccurate statistics in this instance, indicate harm. This issue isn’t simple.

        I disagree that in all cases the truth sets us free. What does this mean? Freedom from lies? Freedom from pain? Freedom from what? Can lies at times be more freeing than the truth? What constitutes “freedom?” Sometimes the truth is devastating and can be a straight jacket of captivity and a dark place without hope, It can be the very opposite of freedom!

      • Hi Brenda,

        Thanks for your reasoned response.

        I’ve been trying to think more deeply today on the concepts we’ve been discussing here. It is, without doubt, a complex issue, so I appreciate your challenge to my assumptions.

        I think a lot of the debate here rests on a couple of fundamentals. First, the definition of harm, and second, can we measure subjective things in an objective way? These are both multifaceted questions in their own right.

        There are levels of harm, from a person’s death, injury or significant financial loss at the severe end of the harm spectrum, all the way through to money wasted on an ineffective strategy, or even the loss of potential benefit from diverting time and resources away from strategies that are proven to assist. To my knowledge, Dr Leaf’s teaching hasn’t resulted in a person’s death, serious injury or severe financial loss. However, the only data we have on Dr Leaf’s work has shown that her teaching is the same or worse compared to a control group. So if it is valid to consider harm as the diversion of resources away from scientifically proven strategies, then harm has taken place as a result of Dr Leaf’s teaching. I’ve thought about this a bit today, and this is, I think, the most objectively valid evidence of proven harm.

        Of course, one could argue whether this level of harm is outweighed by the hope she seems to generate. But since hope is subjective, how that question is answered is entirely dependent on a number of subjective assumptions about the value of hope. As you rightly pointed out to me in your second comment, who is the arbiter of good hope or false hope? As you implied, the only person who can define whether their hope is helpful or harmful is the individual who is affected by it, as others who elect themselves to the position are being presumptuous and condescending.

        So then, how can an individual know if they have been sold a solid strategy or one solely based on hope? In my opinion, the answer to that is a firm point of reference. And this point of reference is the truth. It’s up to the individual if they wish to seek the truth or if they prefer the ‘ignorance is bliss’ position. That doesn’t mean that the truth should not be provided. If the truth is not provided, then people are deprived of their right to choose.

        I certainly don’t deny that Dr Leaf is popular, and it’s a reasonable assumption that this means people like her and/or her teaching. But assuming that her teaching is true or helpful because of this popularity is the bandwagon fallacy.

        What constitutes freedom is an interesting topic all on its own. Perhaps there are better analogies, but I still come back to the maze example. The only way to overcome being lost is to accurately know where you are, where you’re going and how to get there. Is ‘freedom’ wandering directionless around in a maze, hoping to find the exit? Is ‘freedom’ believing that positive thought will fix your ailing marriage, your ailing health, your financial struggles when the reality is the opposite? I understand that there are times when the truth is very difficult, and when it may seem to be a dark place. I remember the times when I’ve had to break the news to people that they have a terminal illness. Thankfully it’s not that often. Forgive the personal anecdote, but a couple of years ago, I had to diagnose my mother-in-laws terminal cancer because some other doctors missed the initial diagnosis, and when they did get the diagnosis, they misread how aggressive the tumour was. I remember having to stand in front of my wife and tell her that her mother was going to die, and much sooner than expected. It was incredibly difficult for both of us. I think that’s the sort of truth that you referred to; “devastating and can be a straight jacket of captivity and a dark place without hope”. But as hard as it was, being truthful allowed for the best outcome in the end. My mother-in-law spend her last few weeks with her family, with the best care available, in control of her destiny. Not telling the truth, to avoid the grief and the sadness, would have been worse for everyone in the end.

        That story may not seem to relate to Dr Leaf’s teaching, but I can see similarities. Dr Leaf’s teaching isn’t terminal (well, most of it at least), but still, I think getting the facts straight means that the majority of people will have the best chance of a positive outcome the majority of the time. And if they prefer to listen to Dr Leaf and not me, that’s fine. At least I’ve given them an alternative, which if nothing else, empowers their right to choose.

        Anyway, that’s my view for what it’s worth. If I’ve misread your words or misinterpreted your ideas, then I apologise. We may end up agreeing to disagree, but I still appreciate your intellectual candour and your willingness to engage.

        Sincerely, all the very best to you.

  4. I agree that accurate statistics in works that claim scientific knowledge is an important aspect of truth. I also agree that truth and harm can be minimized by doing what can be proven to “provide the most positive outcome for the majority of people.” Has “the most positive outcome for the majority of people” been accurately determined here? Do Ms. Leaf’s inaccurate statistics alone, as uncomfortable as that may be, create “false hope,” a “confusing road map” and “harm?” Can her work have value, and serve “the greater positive outcome,” though it has statistical inaccuracies? Has the tipping point regarding the balance of factors needed to evaluate “the most positive outcome” been determined in this case?” A charge of “causing harm and false hope” are serious, public, charges against Ms. Leaf. They haven’t met their burden of proof here. There is no examination, or complete analysis, of people who have read her books and followed her plan with respect to “a greater positive outcome,” vs. harm rendered.

    • Hi Brenda,

      Perhaps I’m misreading the tone, but you’re sounding a lot more like a lawyer, and this conversation is beginning to feel like a cross examination. Perhaps I’m not fully understanding where you’re coming from. If I’m frustrating you, I apologise.

      It seems as though you’re suggesting that it’s unfair to critique any work, teaching or theory that’s popular and where there’s no substantiated harm.

      You’re also asking me to provide an objective burden of proof for things that are largely subjective, or are at present, hypothetical.

      I have discussed the evidence of harm from Dr Leaf’s work, and I have, as objectively as possible, noted that the current evidence is weak. You seem to find this unsatisfactory. You suggest that “A charge of “causing harm and false hope” are serious, public, charges against Ms. Leaf”. I disagree. In discussing the harm that may come from Dr Leaf’s ministry, I have been as objective as possible and have admitted that the evidence of harm is weak. And what constitutes false hope is a matter of opinion, as we’ve previously agreed on. In an enlightened society, I’m welcome to my opinion as you are welcome to yours.

      Indeed, you said yourself that “There is no examination, or complete analysis, of people who have read her books and followed her plan with respect to “a greater positive outcome,” vs. harm rendered.” So while you may believe that no real harm has been, or may be done by, Dr Leaf’s teaching, you can’t definitely say that any real benefit has come from her teaching either. The best evidence you’ve put forward of benefit from Dr Leaf’s teaching is popularity, which is merely an assumption of benefit, not definite proof. And as I suggested before, relying on popularity as a proof of concept is a logical fallacy.

      So I think we’re back to square one. I see potential harm in Dr Leaf’s teaching, and you see potential benefit. Either way, at this point, without complete analysis, we are both expressing opinion.

      However, I’m confident that I have based my opinion on a thorough review of Dr Leaf’s teaching compared to the most recent medical and scientific literature. You’re welcome to disagree. If you are really passionate about disproving my opinion, I’m more than happy for you to present alternative scientific information that either disproves my analysis, or independently proves Dr Leaf’s work. I’m happy to publish any such essay or paper on this site, complete and unabridged. I can provide you with an e-mail address if you wish to send it through as a word document. Please use citations in either APA 6th or Vancouver format, and the body of the text should be less than 3000 words.

      Other than that, at this point I think we should end this exchange here. It appears that we will end up agreeing to disagree, and I need to invest my time in other projects. As i said before, I still appreciate your intellectual candour and your willingness to engage.

      Take care.

      • Good morning Dr. Pitt,

        I am sorry if you received my message as an interrogation! My goal was straight forward communication.

        Your suggestions regarding my views, are inaccurate and need to be clarified. I did not suggest that we “cannot critique a popular work.” Nor, did I suggest that in Ms. Leaf’s case, “no real harm has been done.” I raised the possibility that Ms. Leaf’s work, though flawed, might have a degree of benefit overall. I pointed out that people are drawn to her message, buy her books and attend her lectures. I stated that she seemed to be (qualifier) fulfilling a need.This is very different from saying that her work is definitively beneficial, or that it is beneficial based on popularity alone, or that popularity equals benefit. Her work might ultimately proven harmful. You have every right to point out inaccurate statistics in a book that claims scientific knowledge. I pointed out the subjectivity regarding this topic and you agree. You believe you presented enough evidence to adequately judge Ms. Leaf’s work and claim that she provides “false hope” and is “flirting with heresy.” I pointed out that I believe we can’t know her harm/benefit ratio without more evidence. Your point of view seems based only on the part of her work you chose to analyze. However, I suggest that a more accurate assessment needs to include statistics regarding the outcome of followers who tried her plan. Did it help? Was it a “confusing road map?” Does it show that Dr. Leaf is providing “false hope?” “Flirting with heresy?” We need more information…..

        I agree that we can agree (!) to see this subject differently!

        Brenda Hubbs

  5. Pingback: Dr Caroline Leaf and Her House of Cards | Dr C. Edward Pitt

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