By guest blogger João Júlio Cerqueira
A word of caution to all the skeptics out there defending Reason, Science, and the Truth. This is a summary of a long story and only about one of many battles. It is not a very beautiful story but it is what it is. I’m a medical doctor, influenced by some of the great minds of our time, all of them familiar to you, Edzard Ernst, Steven Novella, David Gorski, Harriet Hall, Kimball Atwood and so much more (thank you all, for everything that you do).
I started reading skeptic blogs in 2013 and was amazed by the lack of critical thinking about science production and the lack of knowledge about pseudoscience in the medical community. And if this was bad in the medical community, in the general population it should be close to apocalyptic…
In 2017, I was confronted by a medical doctor that imported the great pitches of international charlatans. From alkaline diet, bioidentical hormones, colonic cleansings all through the “health benefits” of drinking diluted saltwater…yes, this is a real thing. He was transformed into a television celebrity, wrote one of the bestselling books in my country, and only a few people were horrified by what was happening. How? How can someone that says that kind of stuff could have this kind of reach in the media? He even sold foot detox!
So, frustrated by the lack of action of the regulatory institutions and the lack of critical approach by the media, I decided to create a blog that I called SCIMED. Using what I had learned through the years with “the masters of skepticism”, I tried to teach and convince people why pseudoscience is useless and dangerous. Why those selling pseudoscience are a danger to society and are only after the wallet of scientifically illiterate people.
Thanks to hard work and a lot of luck, the blog started to have a decent public projection. Started to get invitations to interviews in the media, invited to speak at conferences, started to write in the opinion section of mainstream journals, appearing on television, invited to do a TEDx talk, was invited to be one of the subscribers to the first world manifesto against pseudoscience and even had the pleasure to be a speaker in a conference side by side with Edzard Ernst, one of my heroes!
It was like something was changing. Well, it was not.
With public projection, came the problems…people calling my employers to get me fired, physical and death threats, constant harassment by email or in social media, doxing, and false accusations about my personal and professional life. You name it. And I endured…I considered it the dark side of defending Science and Truth.
In April of 2019, I was invited to represent my country´s Medical College in a debate about pseudoscience on television, prime time. I was very excited and emotion clouded my reason. I didn´t think about the consequences. And well, it was a shitshow.
The audience was dominated by alternative health practitioners. The moderator was sympathetic with alternative health practices. And of course, the people representing the alternative health practitioners didn’t play by the same rules. They used deception, lying, testimonials, and all the logical fallacies you can think of.
But what really took me over the hedge was a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner with connections to the Chinese Government, a constant presence in the mainstream media, that started to sell “acupuncture anesthesia” as something valid. Talking about how he, more than 20 years ago, used this practice to help perform surgical procedures. For me, that was a disrespect for all the people that suffered at the hands of Mao´s Chinese dictatorship. All the people that suffered excruciating pain, being operated on without general anesthesia only to sell East Snake Oil to the West. The “miracle” of acupuncture and Eastern medicine. The propaganda.
We exchanged words in the debate and that continued into social media. In the days after, I was called everything you can imagine by the defenders of alternative therapies. And this man took the opportunity to write that I was “short, ugly and bald” and that I have an “inferiority complex” because of that. That I´m a lousy doctor that cannot compete with his clinics. That only a masochist woman would want something with me.
But I endured. I could not stop feeling disgusted by the lack of shame of these people. I could not let go. Like Gaad Sad, I feel physical pain when someone is bullshitting. It makes me physically sick that people can say outrageous things with a serious face.
So, I wrote a blog post to explain the myth and the horror of acupuncture anesthesia and to dismantle other claims said by that man, like “all babies born with fire in the
liver…if you treat that problem, you can prevent infertility and cancer metastasis in the future!”. Preventing metastasis of a non-existing cancer… And I used a lot of adjectives: dumb, ignorant, charlatan, and snake oil salesman.
In November of 2019, this man goes to a wannabe Joe Rogan show and tells all sort of outrageous things like “Chinese people are so many because Traditional Chinese Medicine was very advanced for those days” or “until recently Traditional Chinese Medicine was more effective treating cancer than Conventional Medicine” or “Homeopathy works but they don´t want you to know…see this Documentary”. Again, I used sarcasm, irony, and a lot of adjectives.
And then, legal problems…
Soon after I wrote this last blog post, I received a letter from the court saying that I was being sued by this man. I hired a lawyer and made a lengthy response to all the accusations, more than 100 pages. Nevertheless, I have been charged with seventeen defamation crimes, awaiting trial, for defending the truth. For defending the people that Institutions refused to defend.
My country, Portugal, legally recognizes “Non-Conventional Therapies” like Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Osteopathy, Chiropractic, and Naturopathy. My country, instead of defending the consumer, took the option to give these people the legal right of robbing people. I thought that the COVID-19 pandemic would change that a little bit since pseudoscience contributed zero for solving the problem, alternative practitioners embraced negationism about COVID-19, and Traditional Chinese Medicine was put in the corner. It was Science that came to the rescue with vaccines.
But now, when the pandemic is finally getting managed in my country, the snakes are starting to come out of hibernation to sell snake oil. And the media are giving them credit, again, like nothing has happened…nothing has changed, except for me.
Right now, I face four legal battles, for defamation. Besides this man, I have another lawsuit from a Nurse that promotes Reiki and Traditional Chinese Medicine, other from a Naturopath/Quantum Doctor and, lastly, from a Medical Doctor that was the head of the “Doctors For the Truth”, an organization part of an international network of Health Professionals that still denies the science about COVID-19.
So, this is my prize for all the hours battling liars and charlatans. The regulatory institutions don´t care. The mainstream media and Social Media don´t care. They are like brokers. They always win no matter if the stock market goes up or down. They will use you just to fuel the battle between science and pseudoscience and make money out of it. Why do you think the “Disinformation Dozen” still exists, besides some gestures of goodwill by the Social Media giants?
What I learned and you should learn…
I learned that it is pointless trying to convince people to change their minds on social media… People don´t follow reason, follow emotion, and something closer to religious belief. People want to be right, don´t want to learn what is right. Facts don´t change the minds of believers.
I learned that “True Skeptics” are unicorns. Everyone is a rational, skeptical person that values truth, reason, and science until you hit some nerve, some irrational belief that they hold dear. And then the “skepticism” goes down the drain. The more topics you talk about, the lonely you will be. And then you became a unicorn or, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell in the book “Talking to Strangers”, a Holy Fool: the truth-teller that is an outcast.
The COVID-19 pandemic just made things a lot worse…People started to getting hit by the pandemic in their quality of life and you start seeing hardcore skeptics doubting the most basic science and common sense. You even see some of your personal heroes like John Ioannidis going down the rabbit hole. Making the same basic mistakes that he spent his life point out about science production!
You start to see the animal inside us taking ground, what William James argued: if something improves your chances of survival, is not that the “truth”? The pragmatic, utilitarian truth? We saw irrationality in all its splendor, people negating reality, trying to conserve their way of life, making sense of events they don´t control. Fighting for control. Reason went to sleep and a lot of skeptics ceased to be…
So, I came to ask for your help… After two years of enduring the Sword of Damocles over my head, the energy to continue is running out. The SLAPP (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) they call it, is making a dent in my will to continue to fight against irrationality and charlatans.
So, I came to ask for your help, the International Skeptic community, for covering the legal expenses. I already asked for the support of my country’s skeptical community but it was not enough…only after two years of this marathon probably will take another two, I took this decision. I´m not proud of this, I´m angry that these people, besides robbing the sick and fragile giving them false hope are now making those who fight them spend money and probably pay “compensation” for not be silent about charlatanism. You can support me through Paypal or Patreon. Thank you in advance and I will keep you up-to-date.
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