Aug 03 2015

The Holistic Doctor Murder Conspiracy

The antivaccine and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) communities love a good conspiracy. When you live on the fringe of science and reason, conspiracy theories are your bread and butter. You need some reason to explain why the mainstream scientific community does not endorse your version of reality. It can’t be that the evidence doesn’t support your position, so it must be a conspiracy.

It is therefore no surprise that when a series of CAM practitioners die within a short period of time, antivaxxers see a conspiracy. A conspiracy would support their narrative so nicely, they just know it has to be true.

This story started with the death of Jeff Bradstreet, a “holistic” doctor who believed that vaccines caused his son’s autism. He was overtly anti-vaccine, supported the discredited mercury hypothesis of autism, and treated autism (including his son’s) with a variety of biomedical treatments including chelation therapy and hyperbaric oxygen.

In fact, if you recall in 2009, in order to settle many claims by parents that vaccines caused their child’s autism, a special omnibus court was set up with three special master. They thoroughly reviewed three index cases to test the claim that vaccines caused autism. Colten Snyder was one of those three cases, and he was a patient of Dr. Bradstreet. As a consequence, the practices of Dr. Bradstreet were brought out into the open.

The court not only concluded that vaccines were not linked to autism in the three cases they reviewed, but they were highly critical of Dr. Bradstreet’s practice. ¬†Specifically they noted Bradstreet’s “creative” coding for insurance coverage, and his use of multiple vague diagnoses for his patients. In the case of Colten Snyder Bradstreet performed multiple tests for mercury, all of which came back normal. This included provocative tests, in which drugs are given to first flush the mercury into the urine, and then the urine levels are measured. Normal values to unprovoked levels of mercury in the urine are used, which makes the test invalid – a way of “cheating” and forcing a positive test.

Despite the fact that every trick was used to make it seem like Snyder had mercury toxicity, the tests were negative anyway. Bradstreet, however, still went ahead and treated Snyder with chelation therapy which is designed to remove mercury from the system. Snyder did not respond well to the chelation therapy, which can be a dangerous treatment, even resulting in death.

In the days prior to Bradstreet being found dead the FDA and¬†Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency searched his office. We don’t yet know what the reason for or result of this search was, but having your office searched by state and federal agents is rarely a good thing. Bradstreet was found dead in a river by where he and his wife vacation, with a gunshot wound to his chest. The gun was found nearby. Investigators have labeled it a suicide.

Of course, if you want to see a conspiracy, you can see a conspiracy. Many commenters point out that people do not shoot themselves in the chest, but this claim is wrong. Reviews indicate that shooting oneself in the chest is a “relatively common” form a suicide. This demonstrates, however, the power of subjective validation – if you have your conclusion, you can find reasons to validate it.

A simpler explanation is that Bradstreet’s practice was simply unraveling, and he took his own life rather than face the consequences. There is no evidence of a conspiracy.

Since Bradstreet’s death, however, there have been seven more deaths of “holistic and alternative” practitioners (making 8 in total). There’s no stopping the conspiracy theories now. The simplest explanation, however, is just coincidence. In fact, this type of coincidence has a name, the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

We have all experienced this – you hear an obscure fact, name, or word for the first time that you can remember, and then you hear about it again soon after, perhaps even multiple times. There are two basic explanations for this. The first is simply the law of large numbers. We encounter thousands of bits of information every day, most escaping our notice. The probability of any two bits of information overlapping is actually quite high and should occur on a regular basis. Individually, however, a specific overlap seems highly unlikely.

The second explanation is that we don’t notice most of the information we encounter every day. What you don’t know, you don’t see. Once you learn about something, you begin to notice it, and may be surprised at how common that thing is you just learned about. It may seem to you that you have never encountered that word, for example, before – but you have, you just didn’t notice.

There are many manifestations of this core phenomenon. One is the myth that celebrity deaths occur in threes. Of course, there are loose criteria for what counts – how much of a celebrity, and over what period of time. These loose criteria can mean that once someone famous dies, all you have to do is pay attention until you have your two more deaths and the pattern is fulfilled. It can’t not happen.

Holistic doctor conspiracy theorists are partly falling into this trap. Once an apparent pattern has occurred, they start paying attention, and then the normal background of events is used to validate the pattern.

Another aspect of this phenomenon is our poor instincts when it comes to math and statistics. As Sagan noted, “randomness is clumpy.” Random events will tend to cluster (in space and/or time) by random chance alone. Once you notice a random cluster, you then are on alert and fill it in further with confirmation bias acting on the background of events.

Of the other 7 doctors who are now on the conspiracy list, some are obvious coincidence. For example, Nicholas Gonzalez, infamous cancer quack whose protocol was found in a large study to cause patients to die more quickly than those treated with standard therapy (and probably even untreated patients), died on July 21 of a heart attack. A 67 year old man dying of a heart attack is hardly surprising. Yet conspiracy theorists speculate that the government has a “death ray” that can induce a heart attack at range, and so he makes the list.

Many of the six other practitioners on the list were indeed found dead of a gunshot wound, some by apparent suicide, others apparently murdered. There is nothing, however, to tie any of these cases together.

Saying that these deaths are a coincidence may be supported by the facts and our understanding of statistics, but it is emotionally unsatisfying to our pattern-seeking brains. We find apparent patterns in the world very compelling, and we want there to be an underlying explanation. We just don’t like the idea that the pattern is an illusion. That is why we fall prey to excessive pattern recognition and hyperactive agency detection (seeing a deliberate agent in random or natural events).

When the apparent pattern fits our pre-existing narrative or world view, the temptation to accept the pattern becomes overwhelming. Only the most diligent application of critical thinking can overcome such a temptation.

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