For alternative medicine and “cures” the core marketing strategy remains relying on the personal anecdote. An anecdote makes claims personal, and relatable, and human, and will naturally tend to come across as convincing to minds not primed for controlling for selection bias or phenomena such as statistical regression. And who really has the heart to point out that personal accounts of personal struggles, as described from the struggler’s own point of view, might be subject to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning? News outlets like anecdotes, too, which is what accounts for the current relative success of the bullshit advice and claims made by Terry Wahls, and the products she is pushing.
Terry Wahls is an internist who has gone over to the dark side of woo, in particular functional-medicine-based MS woo. Wahls, as featured in numerous stories and articles, claims to have cured her own multiple sclerosis (MS) with diet alone. And currently, she advocates a paleo-style diet to cure whatever ails you. There is no evidence for her advice beyond her own story, which is not evidence. Now, Wahls admits that she did receive medical treatment for MS – even cutting-edge treatment and drugs – as well. However, according to Wahls (and repeated by one Daniela Drake for The Daily Beast, who is also an internist and should really know better), “studies show these medicines reduce acute relapses, but they don’t affect time-to-wheelchair.” That’s a flat-out lie so egregious that it should undermine the trustworthiness of any other claim Wahls or Drake might ever make about anything, but their intended readers are presumably not fully up to date on MS research, so Wahls and Drake are going to get away with it. And denying that medicines can do what they were really expected to do, paves the way for Wahls to come up with her own narrative: “All disease begins on a cellular level,” says Wahls. “When cells are starved of building blocks they need, disease begins.” That is an utterly idiotic claim, but Wahls has no time for truth or accuracy: she has products to push.
And of course, there is a conspiracy: “We’re not telling patients the truth, that medicines won’t make you well,” says Wahls. “Life is self-correcting chemistry,” and “if we fix the nutrition, this is the real way to address the root cause of most disease.” Or in different words: doctors don’t care about you; she does. And if you just buy her narrative, rather than the boring but true one about medicines, you can cure yourself, too … if only you listen to her and go on to buy into her Wahls Protocol™. Wahls’s products include menus for $204 and annual memberships to her site for $187 (2016 prices), and she arranges seminars for $1,984 to teach her protocol to health professionals, where you can also pay $597 to take a certification exam. Rather audaciously, Wahls declares, in her own studies, that she has “no conflicts of interest in this work.”
In fact, Wahls seems to claim not only to have halted the progression of MS with a “paleo” diet and “neuromuscular electrical stimulation”, but to actually have reversed her disability. “The results stunned my physician, my family, and me: within a year, I was able to walk through the hospital without a cane and even complete an 18-mile bicycle tour,” says Wahls, complete with carefully staged before-and-after pictures on her website. Said website also features several testimonials from her own “Wahls Warriors” – at least she doesn’t recommend that her
victims customers should stop their medication; that would, at best, after all reduce the flow of anecdotes she could use for marketing.
Now, if her claims were correct, she would be a Nobel Prize candidate. She has, however, even done some small studies to support her claims, studies that unsurprisingly do “not find significant changes in gait and balance outcomes in our study cohort following a multimodal intervention for 12 months”, as opposed to the studies demonstrating positive effects of the medications she was also taking at the time (she presumably doesn’t expect her intended customers to read those studies). And Wahls doesn’t only claim that her protocol is effective for MS, but “helpful for all autoimmune diseases.” Her website comes with a Quack Miranda Warning.
Diagnosis: Liar. Avoid. Quite simple, really.
Hat-tip: Steve Novella, Jonathan Howard