Well, this is my first post for the new year. 2016 was certainly historic!
In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was “post-truth”. Post-truth describes the concept “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
While the popularity of the word rose in step with the popularity of the US President-Elect, post-truth as an idea has been building more and more over the last decade or so. It’s the driving force behind other cultural phenomena of our modern world, like the alternative health and the anti-vaccination movements.
It’s also the secret to the success of Caroline Leaf.
Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She’s been riding the wave of our post-truth culture for years. Dr Leaf has a set of slickly spoken mistruths that form the basis of her ministry, and are repeated constantly (including, but not limited to):
The mind controls the brain
75-98% of all physical, mental and emotional illnesses come from our thought life
The heart is a mini-brain
Our mind changes matter through quantum entanglement
ADHD and depression aren’t diseases
Anti-depressant medications are dangerous placebos
There is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims, but that hasn’t stopped her claiming, because Christians and the leadership of the Christian church believe her without question.
In the last twenty-four hours, Dr Leaf put up two separate social media posts which follow the same pattern – repeated mistruths with no basis in fact.
“What an honor to be speaking at the annual Noiva humanitarian foundation conference in Winterthur, Switzerland, which works actively with the Syrian refugees seeking to broker peace in the Middle East. I spoke about how showing compassion and helping others improves brain health and increases physical and mental healing by around 63%!”
Showing compassion and helping others improves brain health and increases physical and mental healing by around 63% hey? I’m assuming she’s referring to the study by Poulin et al , because she’s posted this to her social media feed before, and there aren’t any other studies out there that show compassion and helping others increases physical and mental health so much … not that the Poulin study showed it either (not even close – https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/10/27/dr-caroline-leaf-credit-where-credits-due/ and https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/01/16/does-helping-others-help-you/)
On the photo she put up on social media to gloat about her little jaunt to Switzerland, the Powerpoint in the background reads, “Can the mind change the brain?” Again, the answer is a clear ‘No’! She tried to argue the same nonsense in her TEDx talk in early 2015 (https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/03/26/the-tedx-users-guide-to-dr-caroline-leaf/). It was wrong then, and it’s still wrong now.
Unless Dr Leaf’s found some better resources, NOIVA should ask for their money back. They could have fed a lot of refugees for the wasted cost of hosting Dr Leaf at their conference.
Dr Leaf’s second social media post was even more egregious.
“Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute based on what we are thinking and choosing.”
WRONG! Absolutely wrong. There is NO scientific evidence that supports this statement at all (https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/09/27/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-genetic-fluctuations-falsehood/). DNA is stable. It doesn’t “fluctuate by the minute”. It’s not influenced by our thoughts or our choices.
We may be stuck in a post-truth world but science is not, and will never be, post-truth. Your belief in the cancer-fighting properties of turmeric doesn’t make turmeric cure cancer. Your opinion that the MMR vaccine causes autism doesn’t change the concrete scientific evidence that it doesn’t.
By the same token, Dr Leaf might believe that our thoughts and choices change our DNA, but it doesn’t matter how many times Dr Leaf repeats the same fiction, it still doesn’t make it fact. She can repeat ad nauseum her belief that the mind controls the brain, or our mind changes matter through quantum entanglement, or depression isn’t a disease, or all of our illnesses come from thoughts. None of them were true the first time she made each outrageous claim, and they still aren’t true now. Scientific truth doesn’t change depending on what suits your opinion.
In fact, all Dr Leaf is doing by continually perpetuating her stock of mistruths is to disempower her audience. Rather than encourage people to follow the facts, they are sucked into a vortex of wasted money and time. Precious resources are spent chasing wild geese instead of putting them towards something more meaningful. NOIVA diverting funds to support Dr Leaf’s fees instead of feeding refugees is a perfect case in point.
Worse, Dr Leaf’s teaching discourages people from taking effective medications and seeking effective treatments which can only lead to greater suffering in those who are vulnerable.
In this sense, Dr Leaf is like the anti-vaxxer of the Christian church, discouraging her followers from seeking scientifically sound treatments in favour of belief in erroneous and invalid actions with no proof of efficacy and a real risk of harm.
When will the leadership of the Christian church stand up for their parishioners and stop Dr Leaf’s fictions from infecting their churches? The answer should be ‘now’, and that’s a fact.
 Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. Am J Public Health 2013 Sep;103(9):1649-55.