A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

What's the harm? No. 4

These links and comments illustrate the harm done by occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural beliefs. The harm may be tangible and easily documented: physical, financial, or interpersonal.

blind faith healing: a paradigm for the hopeless

The wonderful influence of imagination in the cure of diseases is well known. A motion of the hand, or a glance of the eye, will throw a weak and credulous patient into a fit; and a pill made of bread, if taken with sufficient faith, will operate a cure better than all the drugs in the pharmacopœia. Charles Mackay

February 23, 2007. Eight years ago, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine posted a commentary on Nicolai Levashov, a Russian who claims to have used his psychic healing powers to cure actress Susan Strasberg of breast cancer a few years before she died of the disease. Strasberg said that she was 57 when she first felt a tiny lump in her breast and had a biopsy that "confirmed my worst fears." Her mother had died of cancer at 58 after a double mastectomy and Strasberg said that she was not going to go the same way. (She might have considered that there could have been some improvements in the treatment since her mother's day.) She refused surgery and says she was told she had terminal cancer. (Why her doctor would tell her she was terminal but should have a mastectomy is unclear.) Strasberg claimed that for nearly ten months she was treated by Levashov every day for 15 minutes. When she went to Europe, he did treatments over the telephone twice a week. Strasberg claimed that she had a mammogram a year after the initial diagnosis of cancer and that it showed no signs of the tumor. Anyway, before her death she gave credit to Levashov for saving her life. In an interview for CBS's "Unexplained Mysteries" done shortly before her death, she stated:

This must be the medicine for the future. He knows anatomy, biology, chemistry and can diagnose sickness so well. My essence knew this was the right thing to do, to put my life in Nicolai's hands.

  Shermer noted:

Unfortunately, countless people are taken in by such hucksters as Levashov, and pay with their lives, but because they are not celebrities we do not hear about them.

He then went on to discuss another of Levashov's victims, who is not a celebrity and about whom we haven't heard very much until recently. The case of Isabelle Prichard, who is now 13, has been in the news lately. Dr. Steven Novella has recently written an extensive blog about the situation.

In 1999, Shermer wrote that "Nicolai Levashov says he healsNicolai Levashov - 2006 people by going inside their body psychically and tweaking with the damaged cells and tissues." This is, of course, much more plausible than claiming he sends invisible pigs into bodies to gnaw away at tumors. Or is it? In any case, the parents of Isabelle Prichard, who was born with glioblastoma multiforme and had had sevreal surgeries by 1999, sought Levashov's services for their daughter. Isabelle and her parents credit her survival to Levashov's healing powers and the hope he gave them. Her surgeons are given little credit. When they recently discovered a new mass in her brain during a CAT scan, they recommended surgery to remove the mass. However, Levashov claims that the mass is really "new brain cells growing in her head." He recommends that they not do the surgery. According to Robert Plains of the Ashland Daily Tidings: "The Prichard family has decided to place their trust with the healer and allow the unidentified growth to remain." (The headline for this story could not be more appropriate: Family puts faith in alternative hope.)

"Just because doctors aren't telling you about other forms of healing, doesn't mean they don't exist," said Megan Prichard, Isabelle's mother. "Isabelle is living proof they do."

The Prichards consider Levashov's work "spiritual" and thus "religious" and thus nobody's business but their own according to Oregon state law. According to Patricia Feeney, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services: "Ultimately the care of a child is up to the parents." She compared the choice to use psychic healing instead of conventional surgery to the choice parents have with regard to immunizing their children. "If people have religious reasons for not doing it, they don't have to."

Well, the Prichards' decision is certainly a matter of blind faith. Megan Prichard says: "We're choosing to believe that new brain tissue is possible. It's a matter of changing the paradigm."

This is not the first time that the Prichards have exercised irrational faith in "alternative" treatments for their daughter. At one time, they treated Isabelle with chondriana, which they got from Canada because it is outlawed in the United States. Chondriana are micro-organisms alleged to have the ability to boost the immune system. Never mind that cancer is not an immune disorder. According to the British Columbia Cancer Agency, there is no evidence available that treatment with chondriana results in objective benefit in the treatment of cancer in humans. Nevertheless, the Prichards are convinced the chondriana slowed down the growth of Isabelle's tumor. "The tumor came back," Megan Prichard said, "but it only grew half as big as the doctors expected it to. The chondriana was slowing it down." The tumor eventually grew back to full size but that fact did not diminish their faith in the effectiveness of the "alternative" treatment. Levashov began treating Isabelle and a fourth surgery was done. The tumor did not recur until recently. The Prichards credit Levashov with the long remission and now choose to follow his advice and not go ahead with surgery on the new growth in Isabelle's brain.

Oddly, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and Aberrant Medical Practices (Winter 2001, Volume 5, Number 1) published an article by Levashov supporter Barbara G. Koopman, M.D. Ph.D., about his work on Isabelle: "Psychic Healing of a Case of Glioblastoma Multiforme in a Three-Month-Old Infant." Koopman describes herself as a "board-certified physician, a Columbia University Trustee Fellow, a Mount Sinai Hospital Fellow, and an alumna of the New York Mount Sinai attending staff. You can find me in the Directory of Medical Specialists and Who’s Who in America. " She became dissatisfied with conventional medicine and went to San Francisco in 1995 to become a "student healer." Her medical training must have been very deficient; for, she says she gave it up because:

What I found was disappointing — mostly anecdotal, palliative measures, not supported by medical records of individual patients or long-range follow-ups. The scientific studies that made it into conventional medical literature were statistical analyses giving short-range results on groups of patients treated by a hodge-podge of different approaches and practitioners.

While in San Francisco in search of "true healing," she met Levashov:

a huge man, then in his mid 30’s, over six feet tall and exuding an energy field of incredible warmth and power. He tested me by holding his hand over my outstretched palm without touching it. I immediately felt charged up, as if the whole room were vibrating. He told me I had potential and thus began our long and continuous work together, much of which unfolded, via distant healing, in New York City where I live and practice.

Koopman writes that a few months after she had met Levashov, a group of trainees met with him in New York:

With a simple test, Nicolai sorted out the attendees that were genetically endowed with the flexibility to be easily transformed, and placed them in front of the class. Then, with a few (non-touching) hand gestures, he proceeded to imbue them with certain capacities — which they had never had before — such as literally being able to see into the human body, three-dimensionally, as if it were made of glass.

Koopman believes that one of her fellow trainees then diagnosed a cancer using his new X-ray vision. Koopman became Levashov's devoted attendant, praising his "unswerving dedication to elevating planetary consciousness and human evolution." She claims he took her "through a new reality of ineffable beauty, called the 'New Knowledge.' My mind reels; my grey cells do push ups; I begin to grasp things like never before."

Koopman claims that her hero is a great physicist whose New Knowledge has proved Einstein and all other physicists are wrong about the nature of the universe. According to Koopman:

At the heart of his [Levashov's] theory lies the notion of an anisotropic, i.e., a nonuniform universe, which means that in any direction of space the qualities and parameters of space are constantly changing.

She really admires this idea of a non-uniform universe. "Clearly," she says, "the New Knowledge goes much farther than just the practice of healing. It is a beautifully-crafted meld of many sciences into one 'unified theory of everything' — the 'Holy Grail' so sought after by today’s physicists." Ah! The unified theory of everything is that everything is changing in all directions!!! No wonder nobody else has come up with this universe shattering notion.

Koopman, no doubt, has no idea that she has been duped by a faith healer with a nonsensical theory of the universe.

As a medical doctor, I had close contact with the clients who permitted me access to their medical records and their healing sessions with Nicolai. I began to realize that Nicolai was working at a level far deeper than anything I had encountered in medical school. There was no "channeling", no "spirit guides" — just the awesome power of his conscious intention honed to the highest degree of scientific precision. Nicolai explained to me that the present understanding of medicine is largely based on non-living specimens (e.g., dissections, autopsies, biopsies, etc.). Live examination of living organisms is limited to various kinds of radiographic imaging (e.g., MRI’s, CAT scans, etc.). These techniques, while useful, only scratch the surface and miss a great deal of the underlying processes unfolding at the intracellular and molecular levels.

It is rather appalling that a person this naive could make it through one of our medical schools and be granted a license to practice medicine in the state of New York. She goes on to claim that her hero can re-sequence genetic codes and destroy diseased structures and replace them with new healthy structures, all with the power of his mind and without leaving scars.

In reviewing the Isabelle Prichard case, Koopman notes that three surgeries were done but doctors weren't hopeful and recommended radiation treatment on the mass that remained. The parents refused and then Levashov was brought in.

His strategy, as he told her parents, was to isolate the tumor by cutting off its blood supply and then transforming it into a semifluid mass that could be drained from the body. Within two months Isabelle began to thrive. In June 1995, a final craniotomy was performed to check some swelling and drainage from the right frontal lobe. When the surgical team once more opened Isabelle’s head (for the fourth time), they were amazed to find something never before seen in the history of this kind of tumor: the solid tumor was totally gone and in its place was "a cyst filled with fluid."

Koopman takes the fact that the surgeons had never seen anything like this before as evidence that Levashov's treatments had done the trick. Her parents came to believe the same thing, so it is not surprising that now, when there is another large growth in Isabelle's brain, the parents accept Levashov's appraisal rather than that of her medical doctors. Koopman's complicity in all this seems to be as an unhappy medical doctor mesmerized by a charismatic faith healer. Koopman and the Prichards believe that Levashov's treatments, at a distance and while Isabelle slept, kept the tumors at bay and assisted in her cognitive development. They are convinced that a psychic healer transformed a cancerous tumor into a harmless cyst by his magical powers.

Koopman reports other cases of magical healing. For example, in one case she says that Levashov used his magical vision to locate a chromosome with a damaged gene that was preventing the normal development of a child's urinary system. Levashov then "corrected" the damaged gene. "He then regenerated, i.e., created and replaced the shrunken tissue of the left kidney with new healthy tissue." He allegedly did all this with the power of his mind.

Koopman also believes that Levashov used his powers to make testicles grow on a boy thousands of miles away. Another of her heroes is Wilhelm Reich, whose works such as "The Bions"  and "Further Problems of Work Democracy" she translated. One can only hope that Dr. Koopman has retired and is not practicing any kind of medicine anywhere on this or any other planet.

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About harm

It is difficult to assess the harm done to society and the world at large by the spread and encouragement of anti-scientific, irrational, and magical thinking. It is also difficult to measure the extent of harm done to individuals and their families who give up thinking for themselves to follow some guru astrologer, psychic, or cult leader.

It is impossible to calculate the losses to those bilked because they are ignorant of basic logical and psychological principles.

For those cancer patients who are thinking of trying an untested alternative therapy, please read Dr. Stephen Barrett's A Special Message for Cancer Patients Seeking "Alternative" Treatments.

Read this book and you will wonder no more about the harm done by false beliefs


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