2020 Trottier Public Science Symposium: In whom do we trust?

On Oct. 19, Britt Hermes, writer, scientist and a former naturopathic doctor, will present "Fake doctor. Real Harm. Confessions of a former naturopathic doctor.”

This is the age of the pandemic. But it is also the age of the “infodemic,” in which we are relentlessly bombarded by a tsunami of information, the reliability of which is often questionable, especially when the source is social media.

In face of the seriousness of the health and societal problems we have to confront, judging the trustworthiness of the information we use to guide ourselves is becoming more and more critical. However, making such judgments is not an easy matter. Possible vested interests, evaluation of appropriate expertise, sources of published information, extent of peer review, scientific plausibility, the difference between anecdote and evidence, reliance on confirmation bias, distinguishing between correlation and causation, and the reproducibility of cited research all have to be considered before we jump onto one of the many bandwagons that are rolling by.

This year, the 2020 Trottier Public Science Symposium (October 19 and 26) will address the question of “in whom do we trust?”

As part of the Symposium, Britt Hermes will present “Fake doctor. Real Harm. Confessions of a former naturopathic doctor.” A writer, scientist and a former naturopathic doctor, Hermes now works toward exposing issues with naturopathy. Her talk will take place on October 19, at 12 pm ET. The talk will be streamed live

Britt Hermes, writer, scientist, and a former naturopathic doctor

Why do you think a fair number of people are drawn to naturopathy?

Naturopathy proponents commonly claim that medical professionals provide inadequate treatment to patients, which resonates with stories of patients describing feeling of being overlooked or belittled by physicians. In an effort to feel “heard”, some patients turn to naturopaths, who often advertise themselves as “different kinds of doctors”, ones that take time to listen to patients to find the “root cause” of disease. This marketing strategy is very effective. However, it often means that naturopaths barrage patients with tests, supplements, and treatments that range from unproven to outright dangerous.

Now that you’ve turned a critical eye on naturopathy, what are some of the things you were taught that you realize were completely false?

In naturopathic school, I learned too much pseudoscience to share it all here! In my opinion, the most absurd lie I was told was that medical physicians are not adequately trained to help people achieve health goals—whether that be weight loss, to discontinue medications, or to reduce cancer risk. Thus, I entered practice as a naturopath believing that medical physicians were not true health care providers, and I went on to help spread this propaganda.

What do you make of the infiltration of naturopathy in academic health centres?

I think the infiltration of naturopathy into academia and major health centres reflects, in part, the general popularity of alternative medicine, but also the success of naturopaths in branding pseudoscience as wholesome and good. “Mainstream” clinics tend to respond to popular demand for non-medical healthcare services, and naturopaths use this to expand the perception that their alternative medicine is legitimate.

How would you talk to someone who believes in naturopathy and who is in danger of receiving harm from unscientific treatments?

Whenever I am speaking with someone who believes in naturopathy, I first try to understand their motives. My advice is to always listen first, express empathy and understanding, and then to offer small bite-size pieces of critical information. These conversations usually occur because a loved-one is worried that the person seeking naturopathy will get hurt. This concern needs to be at the forefront of the conversation.

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