How Coronavirus is highlighting the flaws in Dr Leaf’s ministry
COVID-19. Insidious. Deadly. Eroding, sculpting the bedrock of our society like the wind and waves change the shoreline, but in a fraction of the time, as if the foundations of our society – our health, our economy, our social connections – were made of soft clay.
As a doctor on the frontline, I’m witnessing first-hand the effects of just what COVID-19 is doing to our collective health. Thankfully as a general practitioner in Australia, my experience is different to those in a hospital in London or New York. I’m seeing the distress in my community as social distancing is slowing the spread of the viral malaise, but is creating an economic one. In London and New York, doctors, nurses and other front-line healthcare workers are dealing with a nightmarish outbreak of COVID-19 with the virus claiming thousands of lives. Still, whatever our experiences, novel coronavirus has changed our lives forever as we all play our part to help flatten the curve, help those who are sick, and stop the spread of this pernicious disease.
How is “Doctor” Leaf responding to COVID? In fairness, she is doing better than some so-called ‘wellness’ experts and other heavily deluded self-proclaimed health gurus … gurus like celebrity chef Pete Evans, who is currently under investigation by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia for spruiking a $14,990 device he claims to “replicate light, frequencies, harmonics, pulsed electromagnetic fields and voltage that are found in nature” to cure COVID.
Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. More than 20 years ago, she wrote a PhD on a learning program developed for an educational setting. She’s not a medical doctor. She is not an epidemiologist or a public health physician. She is no more qualified to give advice on COVID than my hairdresser is.
Which is why Dr Leaf has been more subtle in how she has been approaching her COVID coverage. She’s largely been distancing herself from delivering advice, and instead, using other ‘experts’ to sell her message. Having said that, Dr Leaf took it upon herself to tell her audience about how they could protect themselves from COVID in episode 138 of her podcast “Cleaning Up the Mental Mess”. Unfortunately, amongst some very reasonable advice which she’d clearly read direct from the CDC website, she also recommended people to stockpile food, that panicking about COVID would create a toxic state in your body that was worse than the virus itself, and that eating garlic, Echinacea, ginger or going in a sauna would kill the virus and boost your immune system (and there were lots of other clangers, but that’s a whole post all on its own). In short, don’t consult Dr Leaf for medical advice. Talk to a real doctor.
Some of Dr Leaf’s guests appear to have excellent credentials. And some of the information they’re promoting in Dr Leaf’s podcasts hasn’t been totally wrong about COVID. It’s the same information as what every other epidemiologist and public health official has been saying since COVID-19 spread from Wuhan and took hold in other countries. If some of the key messaging in Dr Leaf’s podcasts is directly transcribed from the CDC, and given that it’s a message that everyone needs to hear right now, then it’s a good thing that she’s been able to get such important information to her followers.
However, Dr Leaf has also been capitalising on the COVID crisis. First, Dr Leaf has been slipping her own pseudoscientific messages into the podcasts. For example, in a recent episode of her podcast specifically about COVID-19 (episode 145), Dr Leaf waited until right at the very end to slip in “the importance of gut health for immunity”. Actually, your gut has nothing to do with your immunity. This trope is an old faithful that is constantly trotted out by every pseudoscientist and alternative practitioner for years. Don’t get me wrong, eating well is good for you, but you’re not going to stop yourself from getting COVID-19 just by eating plants.
Dr Leaf has also been using her podcasts as a perverse promotional platform for all manner of products. They include her own products … “Join my Peace During the Pandemic Challenge! All you have to do is download my brain detox app SWITCH and work through the 21 day program in the app! A 3 month subscription is on sale now for less 50%.” You can also get 25% off all of her other books, DVDs, and workbooks.
She also shamelessly promotes unproven treatments from those who sponsor her. These include the books of those who go on her show, like that of Dr Will Bulsiewicz, promoting his plant-fed mantra like other wellness gurus following in the style of the discredited Dean Ornish (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-almost-everything-dean-ornish-says-about-nutrition-is-wrong/).
Then there are those who sponsor Dr Leaf’s podcasts – BLUblox who sell you glasses to “protect” you from exposure to that “harmful blue and green light” which the American Academy of Ophthalmology has confirmed isn’t actually harmful.
Then there’s Ned, Dr Leaf’s “favourite” drug dealers who want to sell you the negligible benefits of “medicinal” marijuana. In later podcasts, Dr Leaf find a new “favourite” drug dealer, “Feals CBD (the best CBD out there!): To get 50% off your Feals CBD order see https://feals.com/drleaf. Have questions about CBD? Feals has a free hotline and text message support to help guide your personal experience!”
Many people have said that COVID is bringing out the best and the worst in people. We’ve seen it played out in all sorts of ways – healthcare workers who heroically turn up for work to care for their patients, often without the Personal Protective Equipment that they so desperately need, and who have paid the ultimate price, while on the opposite end, some people in the community hoard food, medicines and toilet paper, or take the opportunity to price-gouge for essential items (including medical equipment making access to PPE even harder for healthcare workers).
In using this crisis to promote her own unscientific, unproven treatments, and in continuing to shamelessly promote the baseless false cures of others, Dr Leaf is much less the hero than what she is making herself out to be. She might not be hoarding toilet paper or wasting masks, but using a global pandemic to defraud people in the middle of a global health crisis and economic depression is distinctly distasteful.
But the other thing that COVID-19 is highlighting is the folly of Dr Leaf’s teaching that “75 to 98 percent of mental and physical illness come from our thought life”. To Dr Leaf’s pre-COVID audience, this seemed like an eminently plausible statement at face-value. We’ve all been brought up in western countries with immunisations and strong health systems, and prior to COVID, a rampant viral plague with a huge death toll has been unimaginable. So of course it seems like all of our illnesses, like heart disease and cancer and the like, might possibly be linked with our thinking.
Except that Dr Leaf’s fallacious factoid only seems plausible in the western context. Take away the protection of a first-world health system – general practitioners and other forms of primary care, hospitals, sanitation, public health protection and immunisations – and the illusion that our thoughts make any difference to our health simply vaporises.
For most third-world countries, endemic plagues that carry a high mortality are almost a part of life. Mara et al state, “At any given time close to half of the urban populations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America have a disease associated with poor sanitation, hygiene, and water.” Bartram and Cairncross write that, “While rarely discussed alongside the ‘big three’ attention-seekers of the international public health community – HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria – one disease alone kills more young children each year than all three combined. It is diarrhoea, and the key to its control is hygiene, sanitation, and water.” Hunter et al state that, “diarrhoeal disease is the second most common contributor to the disease burden in developing countries (as measured by disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)), and poor-quality drinking water is an important risk factor for diarrhoea.”
Diarrhoeal disease in the developing world – the second most common contributor to disease in these countries, afflicting half of their population – has nothing to do with thought. It’s related to the provision of toilets and clean running water. We live in a society that prevents half of our potential illness because of internal plumbing.
Now with the emergence of COVID-19, we see just how vulnerable we are in the western world to infectious disease for which there is no cure or vaccine. The only thing that is stemming the COVID tide are whole-population public health measures like social distancing and the most basic of all good public health measures, hygiene.
Indoor plumbing, hand washing and remaining one and a half metres from other people has nothing to do with our thought lives. Dr Leaf’s ministry is built on a lie that basic science has long proven false for anyone willing to take notice. COVID is simply shining the spotlight on the egregious error at the foundation of Dr Leaf’s ministry of falsehoods.
I hope that when the COVID crisis is over and the church has a chance to rebuild and move forward into the post-COVID world that they will snap out of their complacency and see the ministry of Dr Leaf for what it is – a regurgitation of a few basic facts mixed in with the rancid bile of factoids and falsehoods whose sole purpose is to market false-hope and fake cures to trusting, vulnerable people.
Until that time, when we’ve stayed the course and are on the other side of this COVID crisis, stay as safe and as well as you can. I don’t need to tell you what to do by now – we’ve all heard it … keep your distance, wash your hands. Follow the directions from public health officials in your local area.
If you’re in Australia – your local GP is there for you, for advice in person or on the phone. Get your influenza vaccine. More information is available from your local state health department or the Australian government.
We can get through this crisis if remain united, armed with the truth, not fake facts and false hope.
Mara, D., et al., Sanitation and health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000363 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000363
Bartram, J. and Cairncross, S., Hygiene, sanitation, and water: forgotten foundations of health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000367 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000367
Hunter, P.R., et al., Water supply and health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000361 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000361
Many of Dr Leaf’s acolytes will say that I’m being a hypocrite – that while I might be criticising Dr Leaf for using the COVID crisis to sell her products, I’m just using that as an excuse to gain some attention for myself. Hey, think whatever you like. I’m not particularly bothered. I’m not here to sell my material or to promote myself. Like always, I’m here to hold Dr Leaf accountable, since no one else in the church is willing to do so. Like always, if you disagree with me, that’s fine. I’m not here to win arguments. I’m here to provide the truth. Believe me or not, that’s entirely up to you.