I am on this weeks Pod Delusion episode talking about the whole story surrounding the ‘Healing on the Streets’ and ASA story – from the very beginning to the very end. It was the first time I’ve really ever gone into detail about the health conditions that led me to be so ruthless when it comes to challenging evidence-less health claims. You should head over to the Pod Delusion site, subscribe and have a listen today – however I’ve lifted a tiny bit of what I wrote for the episode so that I can explain here what it is that motivated me to keep an eye out for people making claims about being able to treat or heal health conditions in a way that has no evidential basis.
I had been suffering with terrible pain in my right ear for about four years before, at the age of about Eighteen, a doctor standing in for my normal doctor noticed that I had a massive growth in there – a condition called Cholesteatoma [warning: pictures are not pretty]. A few weeks after that I saw an ENT specialist at Bath Royal United Hospital and was told that if it wasn’t operated on within three months I’d probably get meningitis, facial paralysis and possibly a brain tumor and then I’d die. His words were ‘you have two options – have the operation and get better, or don’t have the operation, become very ill and die’. I remember I laughed at his frankness, and then he hadn’t laughed back and I’d realised it was serious.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been faced with your own imminent death, but when it happens you often get very frustrated. I was in constant pain and had to wait over two months until I was operated upon. I don’t think I’ll ever put into words how scared I was, or how desperate I was. I would have done anything to speed up my chance of survival and recovery. Luckily for me I was too poor to buy any alternative treatments offered by well meaning friends and colleagues. I couldn’t afford to have acupuncture, to buy homoeopathic remedies, visit the local psychic healer or buy magnetic bracelets.
It’s that whole experience that made me aware of people who offer people false hope when they’re quite unwell. There’s no shortage of people who offer miracle cures to those with terminal illnesses or incurable disease. Some of the time they’re misguided themselves and genuinely mean well, other times they’re leeching off the misfortune of others and making a fast profit from doing so.
Because of this, I make a habit of collecting leaflets, cutting adverts out of magazines and newspapers and taking business cards from people who offer such cures so that I can report them to Trading Standards or the Advertising Standards Authority, an independent regulatory body. It makes me sound like a loser with nothing better to do, but because I’ve been the person who would have willingly paid good money to be magically cured of my illness while facing my own death, I see these adverts and think about how a younger me with a growth in her ear would have reacted. I think of those people I know who are terminally ill, or those I’ve lost as a result of illness or disease and I do what I can to stop those vulnerable because of their ill health being exploited or hurt.
I continue to make numerous complaints as and when I see claims that are misleading, and over the years, since the age of 18, I have made dozens and dozens of complaints to the ASA and Trading Standards. The ‘Healing on the Streets’ complaint was just one of many. I am motivated by my own experiences as someone who was very sick and vulnerable rather than, say, my atheism which is what the Daily Mail and other international news sources suggested when they referred to me as ‘Atheist Hayley Stevens’.
I was surprised though to find that other skeptical people also assumed that I was being an atheist activist when I made the complaint when really it was my skepticism of many health claims that caused me to make the complaint. Lots of people criticised the Daily Mail for their labelling of me as ‘Atheist Hayley Stevens’ while simultaneously assuming that it was my atheism that caused me to complain despite the fact that I’ve written in numerous places that I initially thought the healers I encountered in Bath were Psychic Healers like ones I’ve complained about before.
Assessing claims made by others is what lays at the centre of my approach to life – although this has led me to identify as atheist, this skeptical approach I have to life is not equal to my atheism. Skepticism isn’t a belief or non belief that I hold (but atheism is). People find that confusing, and in turn they confuse me.
I hate to imagine what many people who have praised me for making my complaint to the ASA would think if they knew I was an athiest who doesn’t want Religion to go away…
Scientific Skepticism, CSICOP and the local groups | Steve Novella & David Bloomberg, August 1999 (h/t Kylie Sturgess)
‘What Matters’| Barbara Drescher, ICBS Everywhere blog
Mission drift, Conflation & Food for Thought| Barbara Drescher, ICBS Everywhere blog