Dr Caroline Leaf – Howling at the moon

The night is darkest just before the dawn, so says the age-old phrase.  It’s funny how we just accept these old adages as true, but when you actually think about it, they’re nothing more than a concoction of the imagination.  The night isn’t darker just before dawn – it’s just as dark when the sun goes down as it is before the sun comes up again.

In the same way, we so often accept things said by ‘experts’ as truth when in reality, they’re also just some particularly imaginative concoctions.

Take, for example, Dr Leaf’s latest e-mail newsletter and blog for June 2017.  In it, she merrily gloated about how a recent UN Human Rights report “exposed the current failings of diseased-based psychiatry” and “challenges the dominant narrative of brain disease and its overreliance on psychoactive drugs”.  The smugness is palpable – she finally has something more authoritative to try and back up her psychiatric antagonism than just the collective ranting of an outspoken, ill-informed fringe group.

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist (essentially an academic speech pathologist) though she continues to delusionally claim that she’s a cognitive neuroscientist.  She also grandiosely believes her training in speech pathology make her a mental health expert, above psychiatrists with actual medical training and decades of real clinical experience.  She might feel vindicated by this report and her ill-formed friends, but her view is naive and her narrative is based on inaccurate statistics and logical fallacy.

For example, this paragraph encapsulates Dr Leaf’s statistical errancy and general self-deception: “Several of my previous blogs, as well as some of my FAQs, deal with the current state of mental health care, which has crippled so many lives, led to countless deaths, and left millions of people thinking that there is ‘something wrong with my brain.’ Indeed, an estimated 20% of the American population take psychiatric drugs, which amounts to a staggering cost of $40 billion, as mental health advocate Robert Whitaker points out (a 50-fold increase since the late 1980s).”

It’s a “see-I-told-you-so” attempted justification, except that modern mental health care has not “crippled so many lives” or “led to countless deaths.”  It’s actually untreated mental illness which really cripples people’s lives, or ends them.  Suicide is an unspoken epidemic that is so often the end result of undiagnosed or untreated mental illness.  Suicide is the major cause of premature death among people with a mental illness and it’s estimated that up to one in ten people affected by mental illness die by suicide.  Up to 87% of people who die by suicide suffer from mental illnesses. There are more deaths by suicide than deaths caused by skin cancer and car accidents.  Up to three percent of adults have attempted suicide within their lifetime and it’s estimated that for every completed suicide, at least six other people are directly impacted in a significant way [1].

On the flip side, the use of any anti-psychotic medication for a patient with schizophrenia decreased their mortality by nearly 20% [2]. In another study, the mortality of those with schizophrenia who did not take anti-psychotics was nearly ten times that of the healthy population, but taking anti-psychotic medication reduced that by a factor of five! [3]  Dr Correll and colleagues summarised the literature, noting that, “clozapine, antidepressants, and lithium, as well as antiepileptics, are associated with reduced mortality from suicide. Thus, the potential risks of antipsychotics, antidepressants and mood stabilizers need to be weighed against the risk of the psychiatric disorders for which they are used and the lasting potential benefits that these medications can produce.” [4]

As for her example taken from the equally prejudiced Robert Whitaker that “an estimated 20% of the American population take psychiatric drugs, which amounts to a staggering cost of $40 billion … (a 50-fold increase since the late 1980s)”, even if it were true, it’s simply misleading and ill-informed.  Twenty percent of the US population might be taking “psychiatric drugs” but some of them might be taking them for different reasons.  For example, tricyclic anti-depressants are no longer used primarily for depression but have found a niche in the treatment of chronic and nerve-related pain.  And so what if there’s been a 50-fold increase in the use of psychiatric medications since the 1980’s, that doesn’t mean they’re being used inappropriately.  Her analogy is like saying that because there has been a 900-fold increase in the number of road deaths since the turn of the century [5], cars are being used inappropriately and we should all start travelling by horse-back again.

It’s the height of arrogance for Dr Leaf to sit in her ivory tower and condemn modern psychiatry based on her utopian fantasy, but mental illness affects real people and causes real suffering – like the two heart-broken parents told a Parliamentary Enquiry in Australia a few years back, “We would rather have our daughter alive with some of her rights set aside than dead with her rights (uselessly) preserved intact.” [6]

Dr Leaf may smugly think the sun is shining on her, but she’s still in the darkness of night, barking and howling at the moon like a rabid dog.  If she really wants to step into the light, she should try looking at the mountain of scientific evidence supporting modern psychiatry and if that’s not enough for her, then she should at least look at all those afflicted and distressed because the mental illness they or their loved one suffered from was ignored in favour of an ideology that claims to support human rights but which ignores the most basic human right of all, the right to life.

References
[1]        Corso PS, Mercy JA, Simon TR, Finkelstein EA, Miller TR. Medical costs and productivity losses due to interpersonal and self-directed violence in the United States. Am J Prev Med 2007 Jun;32(6):474-82.
[2]        Tiihonen J, Lonnqvist J, Wahlbeck K, et al. 11-year follow-up of mortality in patients with schizophrenia: a population-based cohort study (FIN11 study). Lancet 2009 Aug 22;374(9690):620-7.
[3]        Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.
[4]        Correll CU, Detraux J, De Lepeleire J, De Hert M. Effects of antipsychotics, antidepressants and mood stabilizers on risk for physical diseases in people with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association 2015 Jun;14(2):119-36.
[5]        “List of motor vehicle deaths in US by year” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year Accessed 18 June 2017
[6]        “A national approach to mental health – from crisis to community – First report” 2006 Commonwealth of Australia http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Former_Committees/mentalhealth/report/c03 Accessed 18 June 2017

Anti-psychotics, damn lies and statistics

Today, I was asked to clarify some information surrounding an earlier post about Carrie Fisher and the role that anti-psychotic medications may or may not have played in her death from a heart attack.  I appreciated the question which was about whether I’d seen the statistics put up by the Mad In America (MIA) blogger who wrote about Carrie Fisher (the blog which, incidentally, Dr Leaf had then uncritically decided to slyly try to regift it in the form of her newsletter article).

In the opening of her post, the MIA blogger said, “There’s an important question here. Is she one of the cases in point to explain why our community has a 25 year lower life expectancy?” and then threw in a table plucked out of context from a journal article.  At least, unlike Dr Leaf, the MIA blogger was intellectually honest enough to attach the source of the table, which was an article published in the European Heart Journal in 2012.

While the MIA blogger is certainly entitled to her opinion, I thought it was worth discussing the statistics in a bit more detail, if for nothing else than to give some context to the whole “anti-psychotics kill you” trope that keeps getting around.

First, there needs to be the proper context.  No one is denying that there’s a higher mortality rate amongst people with schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis, though I don’t see exactly where she got her “25 year lower life expectancy” line from. To me, that seems excessive.

Then to the study itself.  The paper that the table is extracted from is Honkola et al [1]. The study specifically examines the association between the use of different classes of psychiatric medications with the rate of sudden cardiac death during a coronary event (a heart attack, or angina).

In her post, the MIA blogger throws around a lot of numbers but she was loathe to put her numbers in the right context.  For example, she claimed that “smoking is four times safer than the older types of antipsychotics. And it’s twice as safe to smoke as it is to take any antipsychotic, including the newer ones”.  Except, her comparison is a fallacy of conflation – she’s comparing the all cause mortality of smoking (which is more like three-fold rather than two-fold, just FYI [2]) with the highly specific ‘sudden cardiac death during a heart attack’ mortality of the study she’s referencing.  It’s apples and oranges – the groups aren’t directly comparable.

Besides, even if her numbers were directly applicable, the positively immoral sounding four-fold increase in the rate of death sounds is just an association, not a cause.  There is a dictum in science, “Correlation is not the same as causation.”  Just because two things occur together does not mean that one causes the other.  There may be other explanations beside the medication that might explain that number, including but not limited to, statistical anomalies and lifestyle factors, and other factors not considered in the analysis.

There are other problems with relevance too.  Most of the numbers in the table were small and not statistically significant (that is, could have been related to chance alone).  The only strong numbers were for old anti-psychotics, phenothiazines, tricyclic antidepressants and butyrophenones, none of which are first line medications for psychosis or depression anymore.  Newer anti-depressants and the newer atypical anti-psychotics did not have a statistically significant association.

And, like I said before, this study is looking at the association between sudden cardiac death in people having a heart attack, which is a very specific form of mortality.  It’s not particularly applicable to everyone on the medications, so even if the 4- or 8-fold increase is rock solid, you can’t translate that statistic to everyone on anti-psychotic medications or anti-depressants, or Carrie Fisher for that matter since no one really knows how she died other than she had a heart attack.  The rest is just disrespectful speculation.

For me, rather than trying to take a table full of weak and inapplicable statistics and beat a conclusion out of them, a more useful thing would be to know the benefit or harm of anti-psychotics on all causes of death.  If anti-psychotics were really as poisonous as Dr Leaf and the MIA blogger portrayed, then all-cause mortality would be much higher in those exposed to the drugs versus those who were never exposed to the drug, which is why this study by Torniainen and colleagues [3] is particularly interesting, and in particular, this graph – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4393693/figure/F1/

In this study, the chance of dying from any cause was significantly higher in those people with schizophrenia who were never treated with anti-psychotics compared to those who were treated.

Does this answer the question why there is a lower rate of mortality? Not really, because in fairness, this study also showed just an association between no anti-psychotics and a higher death rate.  It doesn’t specifically prove causation one way or another.

Does it show that we should throw anti-psychotics around like lollies, or that they are wonder drugs without any associated harm? No, they are medicines and need to be used responsibly.

It does show there’s a general benefit to anti-psychotics for people with schizophrenia so they’re not the toxic killers Dr Leaf and the MIA blogger try and make them out to be.

Anyone can cherry-pick weak statistics and bend them to suit their self-interested propaganda.  The remedy to damn lies and statistics is to look more broadly and consider the strength of the numbers and their context.  When we do that with the studies on anti-psychotic medications we see that they aren’t the evil killers that some people would like to make them out to be.

References
[1]        Honkola J, Hookana E, Malinen S, et al. Psychotropic medications and the risk of sudden cardiac death during an acute coronary event. Eur Heart J 2012 Mar;33(6):745-51
[2]        Jha P, Ramasundarahettige C, Landsman V, et al. 21st-century hazards of smoking and benefits of cessation in the United States. The New England journal of medicine 2013 Jan 24;368(4):341-50
[3]        Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63

Dr Caroline Leaf and the power of prayer

If you’re a Christian, then you believe in the power of prayer.  It’s pretty fundamental … prayer is fundamental to our relationship with God and our daily life with him, and even salvation itself.

So where does the power of prayer come from?  Does it come from the words we speak like some ritual incantation? Does it come from the power of our minds?  Or does the power of prayer rest solely in God and his power when he answers our prayers?

One gets the impression from reading Dr Leaf’s e-mail newsletter today that the power of prayer is less about God and more about the power of the human mind.

Dr Leaf starts by saying that “12 minutes of daily focused prayer over an 8 week period can change the brain to such an extent that it can be measured on a brain scan. This type of prayer seems to increase activity in brain areas associated with social interaction compassion and sensitivity to others. It also increases frontal lobe activity as focus and intentionality increase.”

That may well be true, but the effect isn’t related to prayer itself, it’s simply what happens when the brain does things over and over.  This same effect occurs in people who perform Buddhist meditation [1], or jugglers learning to juggle [2], or London taxi drivers memorising the streets of London by rote [3].  Indeed, the brain has been shown to change simply with hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout the menstrual cycle [4].  Prayer might change the brain, but so do a lot of other things that have nothing to do with prayer.

Not that these pesky facts stop Dr Leaf from going on to state that, “As well as changing the brain, another study implies that intentional prayer can even change physical matter. Researchers found that intentional thought for 30 seconds affected laser light.”  To start with, this study [5] that Dr Leaf refers to was nothing to do with Christian prayer, and all to do with Buddhist-type meditation … to use this ‘experiment’ as support for prayer is misleading.  It’s also misleading because the results were essentially the interpretation of the experimenter.  The same experimental design performed by independent laboratories showed no effect of thought on laser light [6] (see also “Dr Caroline Leaf – Where Angels Fear To Tread“).

So intentional thought doesn’t change physical matter, and why should that be any surprise?  Prayer might change things, but the effect of prayer has nothing to do with us.  We don’t change physical matter, only God does, since He created matter in the first place.

Dr Leaf is simply setting up a false premise so she can solve it – ‘You cause brain damage by your toxic thinking, but you can heal your brain damage by your non-toxic thinking’.  But toxic thoughts do not cause brain damage, so there is no brain damage from toxic thinking for prayer to reverse.  The pathetic excuse for ’science’ that Dr Leaf relies on to support her ministry doesn’t show any effect for the power of prayer.  As Christians, the power of prayer is a matter of faith and reliance on the power of God, not our own strength.

References
[1]        Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in human neuroscience 2012;6:292
[2]        Scholz J, Klein MC, Behrens TE, Johansen-Berg H. Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nature neuroscience 2009 Nov;12(11):1370-1.
[3]        Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus 2006;16(12):1091-101.
[4]        Hagemann G, Ugur T, Schleussner E, et al. Changes in brain size during the menstrual cycle. PloS one 2011 Feb 04;6(2):e14655.
[5]        Radin D. Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 2008;4(1):25-35.
[6]        Alcock JE, Burns J, Freeman A. Psi wars: Getting to grips with the paranormal: Imprint Academic Charlottesville, VA, 2003.

Dr Caroline Leaf – 2 Corinthians 10:5 doesn’t support brain detoxing

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist-come-theologian, 2 Corinthians 10:5 says that “We take every thought prisoner and make it obey the Messiah.”

Sure, part of it does, but does the scripture 2 Corinthians 10:5 lend any credibility to Dr Leaf’s idea that thoughts are toxic and we need to take them captive to detox from them?

She may want it to – her 21 Day Brain Detox is so scientifically anaemic that I can understand her desperation to bolster its credibility any way she can.  Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, misinterpreted scripture isn’t the elixir her teaching needs.

2 Corinthians 10:5 is Pauls famous scripture in which is pens the words “thought” and “captive”, a concept which seems to support Dr Leaf’s ideas.  Except that Paul isn’t speaking generally to us, the body of Christ, but specifically about the Corinthian church. Look at the verse in context:

“By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ towards you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.  You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ Such people should realise that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.” (NIV UK, 2 Corinthians 10:1-11)

This chapter is a specific rebuke to some of the Christians within the church at Corinth, and also a defence against some of the murmurings and accusations that some in that church were levelling at Paul. For example, in verse 2, “I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world.”

Verses 3-6 are a specific and authoritative rebuttal against the accusations levelled at Paul, paraphrased as, “You may speak against us and the church, but we have weapons that smash strongholds, and we’re coming to take down those pretensions of yours and take every thought of yours captive to make it obedient to Christ, and punish every act of disobedience …”

The specific nature of the verse is also supported by some Bible commentary:

“But how does St. Paul meet the charge of being carnally minded in his high office? “Though we walk in the flesh [live a corporeal life], we do not war after the flesh,” or “according to the flesh,” the contrast being in the words “in” and “according.” And forthwith he proceeds to show the difference between walking in the flesh and warring according to the flesh. A warrior he is, an open and avowed warrior – a warrior who was to cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; a warrior too who would punish these Judaizers if they continued their disorganizing work; but a prudent and considerate warrior, deferring the avenging blow till “I am assured of your submission” (Stanley) “that I may not confound the innocent with the guilty, the dupes with the deceivers.” What kind of a preacher he was he had shown long before; what kind of an apostle he was among apostles as to independence, self-support, and resignation of official rights in earthly matters, he had also shown; further yet, what kind of a sufferer and martyr he was had been portrayed.”
(C. Lipscomb – http://biblehub.com/commentaries/homiletics/2_corinthians/10.htm)

Similarly, the translation from the original text is more specific than general. The verb used for “bringing into captivity” is aichmalōtízō, “to make captive: – lead away captive, bring into captivity” which is in the Present Active Participle form of the verb. The present tense represents a simple statement of fact or reality viewed as occurring in actual time. The active voice represents the subject as the doer or performer of the action. The Greek participle corresponds for the most part to the English participle, reflecting “-ing” or “-ed” being suffixed to the basic verb form. Actions completed but ongoing or commands are different verb tenses (see https://www.blueletterbible.org/help/greekverbs.cfm for a better explanation). Paul wasn’t making a general statement, but a specific statement about what he would do in his present time, not the future.

So, Paul isn’t telling us to “bring every thought captive into obedience to Christ”.  Paul is issuing a smack-down to his critics, not telling us to fight our thoughts.

Dr Leaf is guilty of perpetuating a common scriptural misunderstanding in order to try and validate her already weak teaching.

Our thoughts are not toxic.  We do not need to detox our brain.  Misquoted phrases of scripture taken out of context doesn’t change that.

Hollywood knows more about cognitive neuroscience than Dr Caroline Leaf

Anyone ever watched the Will Smith movie, “Concussion”?

The movie is based on the true story of Dr Bennet Omalu who is a Nigerian-born pathologist (a pathologist is a forensic specialist who is able to determine the cause of a person’s disease and death).  Dr Omalu became curious as to why otherwise healthy middle-aged men were displaying changes to their behaviour and memory before dying at a young age.

What he found was changes to the brain of these NFL players similar to that seen in Alzheimer’s Disease.  The recurrent physical head trauma sustained by those football players was resulting in abnormal proteins in their brain cells.  The abnormal proteins resulted in the destruction of those brain cells.  As a result of the destruction of those brain cells, the thinking and behaviour of those players changed.

After initially denying the link, the NFL was forced to change their policy on repetitive head trauma under the weight of the avalanche of confirmatory data that followed in support of Dr Omalu’s findings and it’s been reported that “as of the summer of 2015, more than 5,000 former players were involved in a consolidated lawsuit, with a settlement figure of $765 million deemed insufficient by a judge”.

But good news for the NFL … self-titled cognitive neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf reassures us that “Your mind controls your brain.  Your brain does not control your mind.”

Maybe she can act for the NFL as their star witness.

But if I were her, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.  After all, it’s not like she’s able to mount particularly strong logical arguments.  Today she wrote on Facebook, “It’s important to remember that our thinking changes the structure of our brains because our minds are separate from our brains.”

How is the mind going to control the brain if they’re separate?  Suggesting that one thing controls another carries the implication that they are intrinsically linked.  If your hands are separated from the steering wheel of your car, are you in control of your car?

The other reason why Dr Leaf won’t be getting a call from Roger Goodell any time soon is because she isn’t really an expert on cognitive neuroscience as much as she’s convinced the Christian church otherwise.

Oh, and then there’s that minor detail that even Hollywood knows more about cognitive neuroscience than she does.  The whole point of “Concussion” is that brain damage results in disordered thinking which is the exact opposite of what Dr Leaf is trying to claim, and it’s hard to withstand any real scrutiny when your hypothesis has been trumped by a Hollywood screenplay.

The mind is a function of the brain, it does not control the brain.  The fact that Dr Leaf can not or will not bow to the weight of the undeniable scientific evidence means that she is either delusional, ignorant or utterly obstinate.  The fact that the western church is still willing to deify Dr Leaf in spite of these qualities is a stain on the reputation of the church and a blight on it’s witness to a world which only needs to look to Hollywood to find more credible information than what’s coming from Dr Leaf’s pulpit.

Dr Caroline Leaf on Drugs

We all have a drug problem.

Well, we do according to communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist-come-health guru, Dr Caroline Leaf.  She’s pretty chirpy for a woman with essentially no health credentials.  She did a PhD two decades ago on a specialized area of educational psychology, but she has no medical training or experience.  Essentially she is the Christian equivalent of the health and relationships section of a tabloid newspaper.  Her information lurches between unfounded and the bleeding obvious.

Today’s e-mail newsletter, “Mental Health News March 2017” is a mixture of both. It’s more moderate than usual in its tone, but it’s still inspired by her open rejection of pharmaceuticals, especially medications for mental health which she has railed against many times.

Her second paragraph is a specific case in point.  “Although many medications have saved lives and can help us, we cannot have a quick-fix-pop-a-pill mentality for everything in life, and we should not denigrate alternative methods of health and healing, such as diet, exercise, human relationship, love, compassion and therapy, particularly when it comes to mental health.”

She’s right – we shouldn’t have a quick-fix-pop-a-pill mentality, but she overstates her case.  Most people don’t want pills for everything – people want good care and good treatment.  Sometimes that involves a pill, sometimes it just involves reassurance.  This is bread and butter for any good GP, and I’d love to show Dr Leaf what the front-line of medicine looks like if she ever wanted to see (seriously, the offer’s open).

And who’s denigrating diet and exercise?  Diet and exercise aren’t “alternative” health, they’re mainstream.  Is Dr Leaf so out of touch that she can’t see this?

Her bias against pharmaceuticals is more obvious in their third paragraph.  Pharmaceutical medications are not a major cause of death. According to the Centre of Disease Control, the top ten causes of death in the US are:

* Heart disease
* Cancer (malignant neoplasms)
* Chronic lower respiratory disease
* Accidents (unintentional injuries)
* Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases)
* Alzheimer’s disease
* Diabetes
* Influenza and pneumonia
* Kidney disease (nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis)
* Suicide

Notice how medications do not feature on that list.  Dr Leaf is so biased against medications that she is willing to ignore official government data in favour of her own bias.

But the truth is, pharmaceutical grade medications have revolutionised our lives.  When used in the right way, for the right people, they improve our quality and quantity of life. They give people independence.  They give people choice.   They help people work, spend time with their family and care for others where that may not have been possible otherwise.

Do medications have side effects? Can people feel worse sometimes while taking them? Of course! We need to be realistic. Pharmaceutical medications are powerful agents and we have to use them respectfully.  Prescription drugs are like power tools.  In the right hands they can do wonders, but they can also be very dangerous when used incorrectly.  But while medications can be used incorrectly, using that as a reason why we should use less drugs is like arguing that we should use less knives because sometimes they cut people, or that we should drive less cars because there are car accidents.

Oh, and what was that about the widespread manipulation of data and results in the world of science?  Dr Leaf would never misrepresent the results of her studies, or misrepresent the results of other people’s research, in order to make her products look better than they are?

Lifestyle is important, and in some cases, lifestyle is more important than medication, but there is much more nuance involved.  You need different tools for different jobs.  Imagine a surgeon going into surgery and the scrub nurse passed over a nerf scalpel.  It wouldn’t be particularly helpful would it.  Or what if the scrub nurse passed over a butter knife?  The surgeon might get the job done but with great difficulty, without the precision needed.

What a surgeon needs to perform surgery is an extremely sharp stainless steel scalpel blade.  It is more effective and more precise.  It might occasionally do some unintentional harm, but it will be a lot more effective than a butter knife (and a nerf scalpel!)

There are three different levels of treatment in health – “alternative” medicines, lifestyle treatments, and pharmaceuticals.  “Alternative” medicines are, by definition, useless.  As comedian Tim Minchin says, “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proven to work? Medicine.”  Alternative medicines are probably not going to cause a lot of harm other than making their user poorer for wasting their time, but they’re highly unlikely to do any good.

Lifestyle treatments are the equivalent of the butter knife.  They work, but their effect is non-specific and cumulative.  Hear me right, “non-specific and cumulative” is not code for “ineffective”.  Exercise is one of the most effective non-pharmacological health strategies with clearly proven benefits, but like all lifestyle changes, the effect is fairly general, and the benefit accumulates.

And sometimes, despite doing everything right, people still get sick, and this is where pharmaceuticals have their place.  They are like the scalpel – they might have some unwanted effects, but in the right hands, when used correctly, they make a specific and tangible difference to a person’s life and health.

Dr Leaf then goes on to assert that “Changing your lifestyle and, significantly, the way you THINK can have dramatic effects on your health”.  That’s a furphy.  Thoughts make no difference to our health (I’ve shown how little difference thought makes to our health in my review of Dr Leaf’s book “Think and Eat Yourself Smart”).  Some scientists may have recommended produce over Prozac, but that doesn’t mean to say they’re right.

And Dr Leaf has trotted out the same worn, tired old factoid about loving and serving others that I’ve shown to be inaccurate as well.

If you want to improve your health without medications, then start walking.  Eat vegetables.  Drink water.  Don’t waste your time and money buying into Dr Leaf’s inaccurate teaching.

On sperm and common sense

I’ve been thinking the last few days about critical thinking, or more specifically, the lack of it.

I’ve written about critical thinking before.  I realise that critical thinking can be difficult, and it doesn’t always come naturally to us humans.  And in discussing it here, I don’t want to give the false impression that I expect everyone to suddenly become Aristotle or Francis Bacon, but I’d like to think we can all have enough critical thinking skills to have some basic common sense.

A case in point came across my Facebook feed tonight.  A Facebook friend had laryngitis and was about to embark on a speaking engagement and was asking the hive mind for some advice.

Now I know that this was a question posed to lay people, and I wasn’t expecting anyone to be giving specific medical advice … but it was interesting that the answers, by and large, didn’t even pass the common sense test.  Most of the answers recommended either gargling or drinking various home-made potions.  Except, when you gargle something or drink something, it doesn’t go anywhere near the voice box – we know that because we know what happens when you get liquid into your voice box, you cough or choke.  So clearly, no matter what you’re gargling or drinking, it isn’t going to affect your vocal cords one bit.  You don’t need a medical degree to know that, you just have to use a little bit of common sense.

The same deficiency in entry-level critical thinking is seen in the church all the time.  It afflicts everyone from pew-warmer to pastor.  Common sense so often escapes us when it comes to understanding scripture.  Christian celebrities skew the text of the Bible to suit their own agendas all the time, and most Christians are too gullible and just accept the incorrect interpretation.  Sometimes a scriptural misinterpretation can be passed down from generation to generation because people don’t question the orthodoxy for fear of appearing divisive or ignorant.

A funny example of how the scripture can be taught with all sincerity but without much understanding is in relation to sperm.  When I was in my final year of high school at a prominent Christian school, one of the male teachers took it on himself to get all the boys together from our year level for a chat about important man things.

One of the things that was mentioned was that we shouldn’t masturbate, because of the story of Onan.  In Genesis 38, Onan ejaculated on the ground rather than in his sister-in-law and God smote him.  Somehow, that was taken to mean that semen is precious, therefore it shouldn’t be wasted.  This lead to a historical view, expressed by Clement of Alexandria who wrote, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.”  This lead to the concept that masturbation is evil because it is seminal genocide, which eventually lead to the Monty Python parody “Every sperm is sacred” (https://youtu.be/fUspLVStPbk?list=RDfUspLVStPbk).

Anyway, back to my high school – the teacher wasted our entire morning tea time talking about Onan, and about how we should be chaste and not masturbate because every sperm is sacred.  But he clearly didn’t read the actual scripture, nor did he or anyone else ever consider why, if God was so stressed about wasting semen, He would create men to have wet dreams.  I really wanted to make this point, but didn’t because it was morning tea time and everyone wanted to get out of there, and I also didn’t want to be mercilessly harassed about being pro-masturbation by every guy in my grade.

My high school teacher and the story of Onan is an example of how people can be well meaning and still misguided, and why we need to apply common sense to scripture.  It doesn’t take a great deal of biological knowledge to know that men have nocturnal emissions of semen, yet for centuries, the story of Onan was about how he was smitten because of his treatment of his sperm, not about how he was disobedient.

Another example of how well-meaning but misguided teaching can be perpetuated comes from the Christian course, “Valiant Man” by Australian pastor, Dr Allen Meyer.  The “Valiant Man” program was a ten-week series of small group sessions designed with the intention of helping men develop their Christian character in the area of sex.  In week three, Dr Meyer (not a medical doctor) tried to show that men should respect women more because we all started off in the womb as females, and the Y-chromosome eventually turned us from a girl into a boy.

This little factoid wasn’t the only significant defect in the Valiant Man program, but it was one of the most memorable.   “We all start off female” was one of the things that the other participants in the program all remembered, and it even made it to Sunday morning church as part of a testimonial one of the men gave about the program.  And yet, it was one of the most clearly inaccurate parts of the program – all embryos have the structures to be either male or female.  We didn’t all start off as women.  Men aren’t an aberration of the female default setting*.

In week one of the program, all participants were required to agree to some ground-rules in order to keep going on the program.  Point 2 of this ‘contract’ said, “intellectual opinions play no part in our discussion, except where they are relevant to our growth.”  In other words, don’t challenge the material gentlemen, and don’t think for yourselves.  While this might be conducive to running a smooth program, it meant that gross errors and distortions were left unchallenged.

This pattern of unquestioning acceptance of misguided teaching continues throughout the church.  This is something that Dr Leaf does all the time.  It doesn’t take theological training to see that her use of scripture is inaccurate (like her interpretation of Proverbs 23:7, for example), but the vast majority of Christians simply accept her misguided interpretation and theologically trained church leaders also accept it, or don’t correct it (both of which are just as heinous).

I know that critical thinking is sometimes tricky, but I’m not advocating for anything more than common sense.  Entry level critical thinking doesn’t take much effort but it can be particularly life changing.  Like with “Valiant Man”, a little bit of critical thinking can stop bad teaching from being accepted as truth.  Like the story of Onan, a little bit of critical thinking can stop centuries of incorrect teaching being perpetuated.  Like with my friends Facebook status, a little bit of critical thinking can help a person make the best choice for their own personal health.

As Christians, we need to have some self-respect and stop being so gullible, just accepting something as the truth because some Christian celebrity says it from the pulpit.

Ultimately it’s the truth that sets us free, not some gilded assumption.

* In fairness, I did the program in 2010 and it may have been updated since then … here’s hoping.