Tuesday, December 12, 2023

#2714: Thomas Cowan

From his video "The heart may not be a pump"
From "The heart may not be a pump"
Once upon a time, Thomas Cowan was a licensed medical doctor. He renounced his license in 2020 as one of few MDs who were actually sanctioned for COVID misinformation, after having already been put on probation in 2017 for prescribing non-approved medicines without telling his patients that they weren’t approved and without reviewing the patients’ medical file or even seeing them. He currently works as a “health coach” – and he still sells worthless supplements through his website, of course. Now, Cowan hadn’t in fact been practicing anything resembling medicine for decades before renouncing his license, having instead run an alternative medicine practice in San Francisco. Indeed, among all people with genuine education, few have renounced evidence, reason and accountability more thoroughly than Tom Cowan, and he is probably one of the craziest and most unhinged conspiracy theorists and pseudoscience promoters in the US today. He is also a member of the board of directors of the fundamentalist quack-organization the Weston A. Price Foundation, and has been vice president of the possibly even more dingbat Physicians Association for Anthroposophical Medicine

According to himself, he surrendered his medical license because “I simply see too much to be willing to function as a physician in the medical system at this time”. In an ideal no one would buy that bullshit: What Cowan discovered was the formula for wealth and success in the alternative medicine world, the same used by every successful quack from Dr. Oz to Joe Mercola, and for that strategy to work, you need to circumvent the barriers posed by things like ethics and accountability and facts and science and evidence, and put your (or your customers’) faith in conspiracy theories instead. The formula consists of convincing his audiences that modern medicine makes them sick or doesn’t work, that only brave maverick doctors like himself are willing to stand up to the establishment, and then push them on to your online store selling worthless dietary supplements. (He also makes money off his SubscribeStar account.)

Germ theory denialism 

For starters, Cowan is a germ theory denialist. Yes, such people exist: people who deny that pathogens cause diseases – it is, in fact, a major strain of alternative medicine thought. Few of them have medical degrees (or basic literacy, so Cowan is a curious exception. According to Cowan, viruses don’t cause disease but are instead waste from cells that are poisoned by … unnatural lifestyles and toxins, mostly. And given that disease, according to Cowan, is not caused by pathogens but by toxins, you should definitely avoid drugs, medical treatments, and – in particular – vaccines, which are unnatural and therefore toxic. It’s not particularly difficult to discern the vastness of the conspiracy theory needed to sustain Cowan’s narrative, and Cowan of course doesn’t hesitate to endorse it all with the religious fervor such pseudo-religious fundamentalism such edifices invite.

Some of the poisoning, though, comes from electromagnetic fields, such as 5G wireless communication.

Covid conspiracy theories 

If you deny that pathogens cause disease, you’re sort of predisposed to accept some alternative facts about Covid-19, too. Cowan goes, in general, for incoherent nonsense glued together with belligerent, vague and incoherent conspiracy theories. And he apparently has an audience: Cowan was one of the primary promoters of the idiotic idea that 5G wireless communications, not viruses, were responsible for making people sick, and his video presenting his lunatic take on it (5G causes “bad DNA”, which causes illness), made at an anti-vaccination conference organized by something called the Humans for Humanity Coalition and featuring Andrew Wakefield (of course), was promptly pushed by a multitude of Facebook accounts (lots of bots) and quickly gained a widespread audience; it was viewed more than 650,000 times on Youtube before being taken down, for instance, and was pushed by a number of dangerously intellect-challenged celebrities such as Keri Hilson, Woody Harrelson and John Cusack, and Cowan’s audiences caused significant damange. There is a timeline for the spread of the video here. It is pretty dark.

The video itself is a litany of nonsense, of course, claiming in passing e.g. that

  • the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic coincided with the worldwide introduction of radio, proving that radio waves caused the outbreak. Accuracy is not Cowan’s strong suit; the first commercial radio station started broadcasting in 1920, which is, chronologically, very close to the Spanish flu pandemic, but not in a way that supports Cowan’s narrative particularly strongly.
  • the Boston health department tried to experiment with the 1918 flu virus by purposefully infecting healthy people with the mucus of infected patients. There is no evidence for any of this, and it doesn’t make sense given that the Boston health department, like all health departments, were fully aware of the virus and in general how viruses work. Illuminatingly, the only source for the story on the Internet is Cowan himself.
  • A big piece in Cowan’s box of evidence is the point that Wuhan, China, where the outbreak started, was the first city to be covered by 5G. It would had helped Cowan’s case if the claim was remotely true rather than bizarrely random, which it isn’t. He didn’t try to explain why Iran or Malaysia, which do not have a 5G network, was so severely hit early in the pandemic when Cowan made his video either. We strongly suspect there is a conspiracy theory for that.

Cowan has otherwise written numerous books promoting fringe woo and pseudoscience, including (of course) anti-vaccine nonsense. His books include:

  • Human Heart, Cosmic Heart: A Doctor’s Quest to Understand, Treat, and Prevent Cardiovascular Disease (2016). Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Vaccines, Autoimmunity, and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness (2018), Chelsea Green Publishing, which lays out his germ theory denialism with a particular focus on how to make dangerous choices regarding sick children: “We (modern doctors) have forgotten (or never learned) that acute disease – disease that is typically self-limiting and usually accompanied by fever, rash, and pus – is the primary way the body rids itself of unwanted toxins or other substances,” says Cowan, not mentioning the obvious reason why modern doctors do not learn that.
  • Cancer and the New Biology of Water (2019). Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • (with Sally Fallon Morell) The Truth About Contagion: Exploring Theories of How Disease Spreads (2021). Skyhorse.

Yes, several of them have been published by Chelsea Green. There is a decent portrait of that particular publisher here. 

Tom Cowan is probably unrelated to Stephen Cowan, another MD who has thoroughly fallen down the rabbit hole, is affiliated with the quack organization New England School of Acupuncture, and who offers courses (and books) on things like how “to apply the principles and practices of Chinese Medicine to help children manifest their destiny”.

Diagnosis: Gibbering lunatic, but that is no longer a barrier to gaining a significant amount of followers. This is a dark timeline.

 Hat-tip: Alex Berezow @ acsh.org

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