Feb 01 2016

Spa Death and the Dangers of Pseudoscience

spiritual guruThree Quebec spa workers were just sentenced to prison for their role in the death of Chantal Lavigne. During their “spiritual” treatment, Lavigne was wrapped in mud, then is cellophane, covered in multiple layers, and her head put in a cardboard box, on a hot summer day, for nine hours. It will probably not shock you to learn that this treatment resulted in dehydration.

The dehydration was so severe that she had to be rushed to a hospital, where she suffered multiple organ failure and eventually died. The three spa workers were given 2-3 year sentences, which seem fairly light.

This is not the first time that this has happened. In 2011 James Ray, a self-proclaimed guru, was sentenced to two years in prison after the sweat lodge death of three people. That’s less than one year per person.

Cases such as these get filed under “What’s the Harm.” It is important to frequently remind people that pseudoscience is often dangerous. Sometimes these cases are dismissed as extreme examples, but that misses the point. What leads someone to think it is a good idea to be wrapped in multiple insulating layers for hours on a hot day? It is a thought process that is divorced from reality, that is not overtly based in logic and evidence.

These extreme examples illustrate the phenomenon that exists across the entire spectrum, from blatant to subtle. These examples are useful because they represent direct obvious physical harm, but there is also indirect harm, and psychological and financial harm, or perhaps direct but not-so-obvious physical harm.

For example, Hot Yoga is all the rage. This essentially consists of exercising in a hot environment – you know, to maximize the risk of heat stroke and dehydration. Hot Yoga is a fad, it is not based on any reasonable medical reasoning, it is not based on any evidence. It represents a basic failure of reasoning and judgement. It also likely causes some harm. Becoming dehydrated, for example, puts a strain on the kidneys.

Unless someone drops dead in the middle of a hot yoga session, however, the potential harm will likely be overlooked.

There is one form of indirect harm, however, that is often overlooked by those not steeped in the skeptical narrative, and that is belief in nonsense itself. The psychological evidence we have suggests that belief in nonsense begets belief in more nonsense. Of course it is difficult to tease apart cause and effect.

Fostering a society in which magical claims are taken for granted, and where pseudo-authorities (like sweat lodge gurus) are given respect, creates an environment in which people are more likely to believe in magic. It creates an environment in which someone would subject themselves to a slow death by dehydration because (insert spiritual nonsense) and because they trust someone who calls themselves a spiritual guide or a guru.

Instead we should be fostering a society in which people think critically, challenge claims, demand evidence, and question authority.

9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Spa Death and the Dangers of Pseudoscience”

  1. (Steven, you aware that the picture you’ve appears to be of the lady that died, Chantal, rather than one of the sweat lodge gurus?)

  2. Marshall says:

    @Julie The first two works of the title are “Spa death”–isn’t it reasonable for the picture should be of the deceased?

  3. Marshall says:

    Update–just saw the caption “spiritual guru”–oops.

  4. Sylak says:

    Yes the picture Is chantal Lavigne, Sad story, that happened 100km from where I lived. Heres news story, all in french + Tv news video from regional news ( Région de l’estrie).


    Like I commented on facebook to this news ( on the skeptical Beard I think with My real name ), We have a problem with Therapist. Anybody can be a therapist of X kind here. It’s easy, so, neuro-linguistic BS, Spiritual whatever therapist are all the rage. Also Trois-Rivières ( The town I live in with my wife) got Québec’s only Chiropractic school in UQTR university ( we now have medical school too… ) so nonsens is popular and main stream. There’s like 10 chiro within a 10 minute drive around here. At least there’s a excellent Physical therapist clinic right down a couple of street from y home, like 10 min walk. People use nonsens with real stuff because they think it’s legit, we give them license!

    I remember that case when it happens, it was all over the news, and a investigative tv show ( name appropriately “Enquête” ) did a story about non-sens therapist and particulary the one that caused that death. I was non a skeptic, although I was skeptical of such BS I was not aware on how pseudo-science work and how to human mind work to rationalize it all, not like now, ( thank To the AFIS, Gerald Bronner, SBM, SGU and Dr Novella for that), but that story sure helped me realising a lot of thing, it was another step.

    It’s a really sad story, that women was in need of real help and she had murdering bullshit. We had also a outbreak of measles last year in my region because of a religious communities that was unvaccinated. So yeah… What the harm? He asked sarcastically .

  5. Sylak says:

    Oh yeah The Therapist is free until the hearing of the appeal. So despite her ( and maybe the two others because they appeal of the judgement too) having a sentence she is going home for now. Of course she’s not a “murderer” per se. But she might still “help” people. I hope the appeal maintain the verdict.

  6. mumadadd says:

    Was the victim a Vulcan?

  7. 5i5i says:

    While I agree about the dangers of silly eastern fads, I do enjoy a bit of hot yoga in the winter months.
    I find it most relaxing for my body and mind, and enjoy soaking up some heat. I do of course hydrate carefully. But then i suppose being someone who is a serious endurance athlete, I’m well aware of my limits and how to manage such things.
    That said I sometimes must laugh out loud when the more cookie instructors talk about “massaging internal organs”.

  8. John Danley says:

    It’s disturbingly similar to forms of asceticism prescribed by monotheism, but packaged in the white noise marketing machine of New Age mysticism (i.e., endure the discipline of suffering to be cleansed of sin, to have an awakening, or to discover your “true” self). It’s masochism under the guise of spiritual redemption as instructed by pedagogical narcissists. To make matters worse, there is a pathological denial of the fact that we are biologically vulnerable primates.

  9. DLC says:

    I remember the James Ray case. He got a slap on the wrist by comparison to what he should have gotten, and I can see from the story linked that these people in Canada should have also gotten more jail time. I really wish there were some way to make sure they never were in a position to do this again, but that’s not possible. We can only warn people to not try such crazy things as sweat lodges, sweat wraps and hot yoga.

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