A challenge must be put to claims of false science

I was prompted to take a closer look at the training of naturopaths in Ireland and their input on diet, writes PAUL O'DONOGHUE…

I was prompted to take a closer look at the training of naturopaths in Ireland and their input on diet, writes PAUL O'DONOGHUE

ON THURSDAY, October 27th last, I attended an event in Kilrush, Co Clare, organised for parents of children with autism. My primary reason for attendance was that my wife, also a clinical psychologist, presented an evidence-based paper examining the experiences of siblings of autistic children and ways they might be supported in understanding and coping with the challenges which might arise for them as a group.

The second and final speaker on the evening presented a paper examining the impact of dietary factors on the causation and treatment of autism. As someone who regularly attends public science lectures and meetings, I can safely state that it was the most jargon-filled presentation I have ever experienced.

Of far greater concern were some of the claims made in the lecture, for example:


(1) Autism can be cured by diet if caught early, that is, at age two to two and a half. The words used in the lecture were “reversing out of autism” could be attained. I asked if this meant “cure” and was told yes. There is no empirical evidence to support this claim.

(2) Speech can be brought on with injections of Secretin. This has been empirically tested in double blind studies and is ineffective.

(3) Speech can be recovered with injections of vitamin B12. There is no convincing systematic evidence for this either.

When I asked for evidence and references, I received a long list of names of practitioners, many of whom are involved in a wide range of questionable research and practices. I was directed to a range of textbooks which did little for my confidence in their scientific veracity. A number of them opened with prominent disclaimers published in these books.

The woman presenting the lecture is extremely confident and articulate and is credentialed as a naturopath, homeopath, nutritionist, herbalist and nurse. She also has certification from the Gerson Institute in San Diego, California. Its “Gerson diet” claims to effectively treat even advanced cancer with copious amounts of fruit and vegetables along with coffee enemas.

I was prompted to take a closer look at the training of naturopaths in Ireland and their input on diet. I consulted the website of the Irish-based College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM) at naturopathy.ie. Quotes below are from the site unless otherwise specified.

“Naturopathic nutrition stresses the use of whole and organic foods as medicine – an integral concept of healing in many indigenous societies.” Food is many things to the body, but it is not medicine as we understand it. It is also stated, “The traditional Chinese and East Indian Ayurvedic systems have been used with pinpoint accuracy to diagnose disease conditions.” I doubt this, given the basic principles that underpin it.

A quote on the site from Steve Langley’s Naturopathy Workbook states, “The body has this capacity to heal itself if given the right conditions and naturopathy along with acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine . . .” He adds, “the consulting naturopath may then use iridology (looking into the iris), or tongue and nail diagnosis to get a better picture of the complete health state of the client”. Entry to the college requires “Junior or Leaving Certificate or equivalent academic and / or work experience”. We read the CNM “has developed an exclusive alliance with Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, which allows CNM students and graduates to enrol into the Bachelor of Health Science Degree (Complementary Medicine) . . . a distance learning course which starts each February and can be completed in 1 or 2 years”. The words oxymoronic and absence of lab work spring to mind.

The impact of this pseudoscientific training is exemplified on the CNM website in an extensive quote from one of their prize students. “As a practitioner I can now offer clients Naturopathy, diet and lifestyle advice, and either Acupuncture, Homeopathy or Herbal Medicine as a specialty treatment” – and most dangerously – “For anyone wondering how to deal with their own illnesses: exchanging conventional medicines for safe, effective and natural alternatives, maintain well-being and obtain optimal health, then Naturopathy is the way forward” (sic). (Italics mine).

Families with loved ones who have seriously debilitating physical, developmental and psychological conditions are very vulnerable to being influenced by false claims and promises in many spheres, especially via the internet. To separate the wheat from the chaff requires specialist knowledge and skill. The medical and paramedical professions need to take notice, provide relevant support and mount systematic challenges in the face of such a state of affairs.

If you require dietary advice consult the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute at indi.ie

Paul O’Donoghue. Principal Clinical Psychologist. Founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society. contact@irishskeptics.org