It pays to be a quack; it doesn’t pay to denounce one.
There’s a running gag among skeptics that goes something like this: we could make millions of dollars selling bioquantum hooha to the masses… if only we didn’t have these pesky morals.
The recipe to convince desperate people to give money away is fairly simple. One cup of appealing to nature, another cup filled to the brim with testimonials, a teaspoon of scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo, and a dash of conspiracy thinking (adjust for taste).
The money you can make selling this nonsense can then be used to silence your public detractors. Legal case in point: Colleen Huber v. Britt Marie Hermes, a defamation lawsuit in which a current naturopath is trying to silence an ex-naturopath turned whistleblower.
The plaintiff is Colleen Huber. While her website bestows upon her the title of “Dr.”, she is in fact a naturopath. Naturopathy is a philosophy that seeks to help the body heal itself using traditional and “natural” means. To be clear, it is not medicine. It relies on supplements, homeopathy, and other questionable cure-alls, and generally has antipathy toward “allopathy”, more commonly known as actual medical care.
Colleen Huber, who again is not a medical doctor, is the “medical director” and owner of the NatureWorksBest Medical Clinic in Arizona, which offers the following all-natural, unproven-or-disproven therapies to cancer patients: baking soda, vitamin C, and a sugar-free diet. Why no chemotherapy? Because, according to Huber’s website, “chemotherapy has a 2.1% survival rate”. This falsehood, which has been debunked by numerous people (including Dr. Christopher Labos on The Body of Evidence podcast), is straight-up fear-mongering. (In short, the authors of the 2004 paper where this figure comes from did not do a critical assessment of previous studies; they did not take into account many treatments like hormone therapy that should be considered chemotherapy; they excluded leukemias; and they looked at five-year survival rates, not remission rates. And it was an increase of 2.1% in survival that was reported, not a flat survival rate of 2.1%.)
Huber is also the president of the Naturopathic Cancer Society.
The defendant in this legal case is Britt Marie Hermes. She graduated with a degree in naturopathy and found herself helping her boss, naturopath Michael Uzick, committing a crime: importing and administering a non-FDA-approved drug to patients with cancer. She has since become an outspoken whistleblower, sharing her insider’s knowledge of naturopathy on her website, and has enrolled in a university science program.
It is important to note that Hermes could have made a fortune. She could have continued to sell shady remedies to desperate people. She could have opened her own clinic, written books about the healing powers of organic asparagus, and even guest-spotted on The Dr. Oz Show to talk about the traditional Papuan herbs Big Pharma doesn’t want you to have. Instead, she is in debt from her naturopathic degree, and she has moved to Germany to enrol in grad school and pursue a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Genomics. She and her husband, who is also a Ph.D. student, are expecting their first child.
Colleen Huber is now suing Britt Marie Hermes for defamation, in what looks like a “Strategic lawsuit against public participation” or SLAPP lawsuit. SLAPPing someone is a way to financially force them to stop criticizing you publicly. Lawsuits, as we all know, are expensive: the rich can trigger them rather easily, while the underdog may be ill-equipped to handle their runaway cost. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist and critic of quack medical treatments, found himself on the wrong end of a SLAPP lawsuit in 2014 when the doctor he had criticized (who was using a drug meant to treat arthritis to instead treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases) decided to take him to court. A year later, the U.S. District Court ruled in favour of Novella, but not after considerable legal spendings. (Thankfully, Novella was eventually awarded attorneys fees and costs.)
Huber’s defamation lawsuit centres on a blog post Hermes wrote about “cybersquatting”. For example, the address “joeschwarcz.com” is not currently taken. I could buy it up for very little and have it redirect to a pro-homeopathy website, if I wanted to raise my boss’ blood pressure. Likewise, multiple addresses tied to Britt Hermes’ name were bought and redirected to the homepage of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. The purchaser was the Naturopathic Cancer Society, of which Colleen Huber is the president. Hermes took the opportunity to shed a light on Huber’s claims and research, and Huber was not amused.
Lawsuits are stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. Luckily for Hermes, the Australian Skeptics set up a legal fund to help pay for her expenses: in less than nine days, it had raised more than 80,000 Canadian dollars, its initial goal. Any remaining donations will be passed along to the independent campaigning charity Sense About Science or will be stored in a legal defence fund to help future skeptics in need.
People like Britt Hermes, who speak up against health fraud loudly and boldly when it is not in their financial interest to do so, are rare and precious. These voices need to be amplified, and they require our support if we are to resist the tide of disinformation that is aimed squarely at our most vulnerable.
If you would like to read more about Britt’s case and/or contribute to the fight against pseudoscience, please visit the following site: https://www.skeptics.com.au/features/britt-hermes-legal-costs-fundraising-campaign/
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