Sunday, March 25, 2018

#1986: Susannah Meadows

Oh, the nonsense! Susannah Meadows is a journalist and author of The Other Side of Impossible, a book describing various people facing difficult illnesses but who ostensibly have found ways of beating the odds and get better on their own without the use of evidence-based techniques. The stories – which are compelling stories taken at face value by Meadows; no pesky, confounding, careful assessment of evidence here – include one about a boy with severe food allergies who undergoes an unconventional therapy and is afterwards eating everything; one about a physician with MS who, using a combination of treatments she has figured out herself, is able to leave the wheelchair and ride a bike again (that physician would be woo legend Terry Wahls, no less; some of the holes in and problems with her story are described here); and one about child diagnosed with ADHD who refuses to take medication and instead improves both his own life and the lives of his family by changing in diet. Other families take on rheumatoid arthritis, intractable epilepsy, and autistic behaviors. Of course, few of the suggested means will actually help with the conditions they are described as helping (though some of them are, unbeknownst to Meadows, actually standard mainstream pharmaceutical remedies given different names!), and the book is aimed at suffering people in difficult situations (or people in positions of power over them) to make them forego treatments that actually work, adopt the woo, and subsequently take the blame themselves when the religiously motivated “natural” means for improvement fail to work. There are good discussions of Meadows and her rhetorical tricks, including her striking but effective appeals to chemophobia, here and here.

The book endorses a variety of quack treatments, including autism biomed quackery. And based on her – I hesitate to even call them – anecdotes, Meadows concludes that there is “at least three important influences on well-being that have yet to receive their just due in understanding what might cause or aggravate certain intractable medical disorders.” Nevermind that evidence contradicts her conclusions: science bases its conclusions on facts, but Meadows has instincts and beautifully crafted stories. As for the three influences, “[o]ne is a characteristic called “leaky gut,” essentially tiny holes in the intestinal walls that allow proteins to reach the bloodstream where they can trigger a vicious immune attack on healthy tissues,” a mythical condition much touted on and familiar from various conspiracy websites going all the way back to anti-vaccine high priest Andrew Wakefield himself, no less; “[a]nother is an imbalance of microbes in the gut and how communication between the brain and the gut can adversely affect behavior and emotional stability,” where “balance”, importantly, is used in the Medieval-medical “balance-of-humors/life-energi/chi” sense (the claim, of course, is flamboyantly idiotic, and “microbiome” has recently become the new “quantum” in quackery); “[a] third is the still underappreciated interaction of mind and body, especially the effect that anxiety and fear can have on the body’s response to otherwise harmless substances,” which of course is neither underappreciated nor particularly significant for most of the conditions in question but which is – importantly – the key to be able to blame the victims when they fail to experience improvements, which will certainly be necessary given the stupidity of the measures Meadows recommends.

The book grew out of Meadows’ own personal experience with her young son, who unexpectedly (according to her!; it really isn’t that uncommon) recovered from juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Apparently, by using “a combination of traditional and complementary medicine they beat the disease,” and therefore the quackery – in this Meadows relied on self-styled healer Amy Thieringer – must be at least partially responsible for the positive results. Some of Meadows’s other stories are apparently also Thieringer “success stories” – with no independent verification, of course: you trust your self-styled, homeopathy-pushing healer, otherwise it won’t work! Besides, Meadows paid her money, and she wouldn’t have invested in the treatment if it didn’t work, would she?

The book was well received by others who have little understanding or time for assessing evidence and facts, such as New York Times’s Jane Brody, who wrote a credulous article on Meadows and her claims. Both that article and the book are discussed here, and here. Brody, by the way, is also the author of The New York Times Guide to Alternative Health.

Diagnosis: Apparently Meadows is a journalist. Her inability to distinguish a compelling narrative from a fact-based one should therefore scare you. A disgrace to her profession, but since narratives like hers are so much more compelling to those with little knowledge of how to actually assess stories for accuracy and evidence (or interest in doing so), she is also genuinely dangerous.


  1. So... leaky gut syndrome is NOT the same thing as increased intestinal permeability? The latter is what I have been focusing on.

    1. Leaky gut syndrome stands to increased intestinal permeability roughly as chemtrails stand to contrails. I included a link in post that goes through some basics.