Retractions on Internet news sites have been quite the common sight for the last few days in the wake of a shocking admission of a hoax that’s shaken the alternative health community. Will the media finally start paying more attention to skeptics who saw this coming?
Until last month, 23-year-old Australian Belle Gibson (above) was the world’s latest darling of wellness woo and holistic healing. Gibson was renowned for her claim that she was successfully treating her terminal brain cancer with veganism, yoga, and “detoxing,” after stopping chemotherapy in disgust. In just two years, she became an international media star and millionaire, thanks to Apple, who helped market her Whole Pantry app and nominated it for App of the Year; Penguin Books, who published The Whole Pantry, and a host of major media outlets.
Boy did I feel like a jerk as I typed that out. It is certainly not my style to be skeptical of a person who claims she has cancer…
There are too many contradictions and gaps in Belle’s story and that is why I feel is it is fair to demand the truth from her. Too many people with cancer have relied on Belle’s story of healing in making their own medical decisions.
Her many respondents included this prescient reader (who’s an oncologist):
She also claims to have had a Gardasil vaccine injury and a stroke: [Link]
I’m an oncologist, and her story does not add up at all — CNS (brain/spine) tumours almost never metastasise to the abdomen, and definitely never go to blood;,and frankly, people with a CNS malignancy don’t say they have ‘brain cancer’, they want to educate everyone about their oligodendroglioma/ATRT/glioblastoma or whatever flavour they have.
I’m pretty sure this lass is fibbing. Her followers are going to be livid when it all comes out (if they haven’t died of untreated cancer by following Belle’s recipe for cure, that is).
Good skepticism like that often reaps scorn from the general public, who can find it mean-spirited to question smiling, attractive, young people on magazine covers.
That’s Gibson on the October cover of Australia’s award-winning Peppermint magazine, which promotes
“… eco and ethical style… for the rapidly-growing number of consumers who appreciate good design, fashion and creativity, but also care about social and environmental issues… informative and inspirational.. Because sometimes you have to look behind you to learn the way forward.”
As a conservationist who’s fought real battles over real issues affecting people, wildlife, and the planet, I cringed at another hit to environmentalists’ credibility when I read their cover story on Gibson, in which she says:
“I live label-free… I’m inspired by the mini life-to-life revolutions this ‘label-free’ ethos has produced throughout The Whole Pantry community.
“When conventional medicine wasn’t working for me, I turned to functional foods and nutrition-based therapies for support and healing — which is incredibly important, because they’re now my only option.”
She also offers us advice like:
Do What Feels Good.
I have a 3 year old and I have cancer. I only have time to do what feels really good… Don’t waste your time on anything that doesn’t feel good and nurturing.
Tune Into Your Intuition.
When you know things are right, they’re right, and that’s how I do everything…
Own Your Magic.
You’re the driving force for what’s happening in your life. What other people around you, no matter how inspiring, are doing is not why your environment is supporting what you’re doing. It’s because YOU are supporting what you’re doing. Own That.
Yeah, I reread that last one and gave up, too. How many vulnerable people facing chemotherapy or other unpleasant-but-crucial tasks read this and said, “Screw it! That won’t feel good, so it can’t be right!”
The most ironic tip on the list?
Ironic, because this past week Gibson admitted she was lying about the whole cancer thing:
In an exclusive interview in the May issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly on sale today wellness advocate Belle Gibson admits her cancer diagnosis was not real.
The 23-year-old shot to fame after claiming she healed terminal brain cancer with wholefoods but an investigation by The Weekly has uncovered a web of half-truths.
In a special investigation, The Weekly reveals the reality behind her cancer diagnosis, the current financial state of her business, The Whole Pantry — and her belief that she has been hard done by.
Gibson was asked outright if she has, or has ever had cancer.
“No. None of it’s true,” she confessed.
“I don’t want forgiveness,” she told The Weekly. “I just think [speaking out] was the responsible thing to do. Above anything, I would like people to say, ‘Okay, she’s human.'”
Belle rose to fame in May 2013, when she announced on social media that she had been healing her malignant brain cancer with wholefoods and alternative therapies for four years, despite being given just months to live.
She says she is passionate about avoiding gluten, dairy and coffee, but doesn’t really understand how cancer works.
The backlash has been swift, angry, and loud. Julia — a blogger and mother of four with terminal cancer — had this to say at the news:
In the desperate hours and weeks after I was diagnosed, while I came to terms with the imminent end of my life, it would have been so easy for me to believe that if these women cured themselves on a diet of whole food, kilos of vegetable juices a day, and a few litres of coffee up the clacker, so could I. Maybe I didn’t have to have a plastic disc parked in my chest to deliver the poison. Maybe I didn’t have to wake up to a pillow covered in hair…
I didn’t seek an “alternative” path to cure my cancer, opting for what has been a brutal, but proven protocol to extend my life. Because chemotherapy has “worked” for me, I have had 15 months of precious time, time that has allowed me to experience and enjoy and watch my children grow, and the potential is still there for much more time.
… the very worst thing that Belle did, by telling them how to save their own lives, was rob people of months and years of life that they might have had if they took the conventional path and time offered by cancer treatments that, while toxic, are proven to work. And that is an absolute tragedy.
Looking around the Net at the media’s public embarrassment and retractions, one has to wonder: Will this to be a watershed moment for skepticism in media? Australia’s most popular website news.com.au, which had fawned over Gibson, is finally publishing the kind of skeptical articles rarely seen in major media, like this piece featuring Dr. Darren Saunders of Australia’s Garvan Institute. Saunders goes after the biggest issue in this debacle… the media themselves:
“It’s simple. There is no evidence that diet works as a replacement for chemotherapy, surgery or radiotherapy to treat cancer,” he says.
“A saying often thrown around in science is that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ … I’m no journalist, but I’d think it would have been very easy to ask some very basic questions of her story.”
“Belle Gibson’s enablers are getting off far too lightly” he says.
“The journos, editors etc. who reported her story without doing any basic fact checking or testing her claims. What about her publisher and the people pushing PR for her books and apps? … they are all complicit.”
“Without naming names, some of the same people and organisations that gave her unfiltered PR are the same ones now crying out about the fraud,” he said.
“This story shows the difficulty scientists have in getting their stories heard over snake oil salespeople. It is infuriating but sometimes we’re our own worst enemies,” he says.
“Many scientists are hesitant to talk to the media and even those that are can be constrained by the language we use — always qualifying statements and needing to balance our claims with inherent uncertainties…”
That’s quite an unusual read on this site, considering their headline just five months ago was “Melbourne mum Belle Gibson on taking the world by storm with her app The Whole Pantry, while fighting terminal brain cancer”:
If anyone bragged they were a game changer, odds are you’d call them up themselves. But coming from Belle Gibson, it’s pure truth… When conventional medicine let her down, she turned to alternative therapies and confounded doctors.
…She decided “that if all I had was between one hour and a month to live, I was not going to spend it passed out on the hospital lawn, knee-deep in nausea and other side effects”, and chose to change her diet and lifestyle, including immersing herself in therapies such as salt, vitamin and Ayurvedic treatments, oxygen therapy and colonics. Diet wise, she’s a vegetarian who doesn’t eat dairy, gluten, preservatives, GMO foods or sugar.
The move worked…
How exactly does a news site confirm a claim this extraordinary is “pure truth” without the slightest bit of fact-checking? They weren’t the only ones. She was lauded on TV news-and-entertainment programs like Sunrise, Australia’s highest-rated national morning show.
Worst of all, though, was the international and venerable Penguin Books, who in October marketed her book The Whole Pantry by pronouncing the 20-year-old a fountain of medical wisdom:
Belle Gibson is an inspirational young mother and businesswoman committed to making the world a better place. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the age of twenty, she found herself without support and out of sync with conventional medicine. So began a journey of self-education that resulted in her getting back to basics, as she set out to heal herself through nutrition and lifestyle changes. When Belle decided to share her journey on Instagram, her message clearly resonated — she has an ever-growing social media community of over [200,000]. Encouraged by that, she created The Whole Pantry App with a vision to provide a motivating and supportive resource filled with delicious recipes, wellness guides and lifestyle support. Belle’s aim is to change the world by nourishing ourselves, each other and the earth.
After their lofty praise, how did Penguin respond when asked why they didn’t fact-check Gibson’s astounding claims?
“We did not feel this was necessary as The Whole Pantry is a collection of food recipes.”
And what about Apple? Before they helped propel Gibson’s app to viral status, did they try at all to verify the truth of its claims? They’ve now pulled the app, but it’s described by a reviewer this way:
As a cancer survivor, Belle understands how important it is to be well informed and up-to-date on health issues. She pledges to provide non-bias, current information from qualified experts to help you live a healthier life.
The Sydney Morning Herald praised the app uncritically as helping people to
… live better, healthier lives, by improving their diet, dealing with obesity and food allergies and taking care of their bodies. The app also offers advice on yoga and holistic medicine…
That’s the self-help side. There’s also monetary help given from proceeds from app sales to causes such as maternal healthcare in developing nations, funding for schools in sub-Saharan Africa, and cancer research. So far about $300,000 has been donated.
Those donations? Nonexistent. I guess that wasn’t fact-checked either.
It’s especially frustrating that Apple apparently learned nothing from Steve Jobs, whose own death may have been hastened by Gibson-style “wellness”:
The 25-year-old Melbourne mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer back in 2009 when she was given three months to live. Shortly after, she gave up on chemotherapy and radiation therapy and chose to change her diet and lifestyle.
Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs delayed conventional treatment for nine months when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, preferring to use alternative remedies. He died in October 2011. The subject is close to Apple’s heart.
Even though they’ve pulled the app, one media company said the advertising hadn’t stopped.
Apple has repeatedly refused to comment on The Whole Pantry despite giving it the tick of approval that propelled it to global success. The company last year flew Ms Gibson to the US to develop her app for the smartwatch in anticipation of it becoming the flagship food and wellness app on the new device. The Whole Pantry was awarded the best food and drink app in 2013.
Cosmopolitan provided further insight into the minds of some editors, after presenting Gibson with their annual “Fun Fearless Female” award. Editor Bronwyn McCahon defended her staff’s decision not to investigate Gibson before presenting her with the award, criticizing the “bullying” of Gibson:
‘She got up and gave that amazing speech. You guys were there. She had all of us in tears. She was very believable and I think we all wanted to believe her,’ she said.
‘I mean who’s going to question when someone is talking about that they’ve got cancer and they’re going through this horrendous life experience?’
… Obviously what Belle did is terrible and it’s irresponsible and it’s all of those things but she’s also now getting this lashing of bullying and the last 48 hours would have been horrendous for her. She needs now to get help and move through this,’ she said on air.
‘What she doesn’t need now is the whole of Australia ganging up on her and bullying her … even though everyone has the right to feel misled and duped.’
Even ABC News in Australia interviewed her and pronounced her claims as “truth” without verifying any of it.
Richard Guilliatt, author of Talk of the Devil: Repressed Memory & the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt, revealed Gibson’s connection to “Wellness Warrior” Jess Ainscough, who died last month after rejecting chemotherapy in what should have been a wakeup call even then.
Is there any silver lining here? Will the media start worrying less about being perceived as mean skeptics, learn about the problem of pseudoscience, and start doing their jobs?
Oncologist and skeptical blogger David Gorski has pointed out the problem with the public perception of skeptics:
… it is easier to view those of us who are trying to combat the misinformation that is used to support his clinic and activities as heartless monsters, as enemies who are actively trying to prevent their children from being cured of cancer. And, yes, that is really, really how they view us.
… They view us as the enemy, evil people who are actively trying to keep them from healing their children of autism…
In the meantime, I don’t make the mistake of thinking that in return for my efforts I will ever receive anything but hatred and contempt from the “other” side.
But this time, the heroes in the public eye are the skeptics.
Like those at Australian Women’s Weekly who asked Gibson the tough questions that finally broke her into admitting it was all a lie:
Belle says she was diagnosed of cancer by two separate authorities. One a doctor and the second a healer.
It’s important to declare first up that we found no evidence of the existence of the doctor. Named “Dr Johns” Belle says he diagnosed her with brain cancer in 2009. This would have been critical to verifying her version of events.
Not surprisingly, some news outlets who had the audacity to promote her are now chiding the public for its anger. That includes news.com.au, who published an essay calling for compassion for Gibson, while criticizing others for their “unethical” analyses of her:
I think we’re wondering about whether we can feel sorry for Belle not so much because she conned vulnerable people — after all, that’s unfortunately not so uncommon is it? — but because we can identify with what she’s done. I think we’re wondering if we deserve compassion for our own lies. Do we even know why we tell the lies we do?…
She deserves our compassion because the life she built was not a life you would wish on your worst enemy. The more we lie the worse we feel about ourselves.
And the worse we feel about ourselves, the more we lie. And lies of course leave us alone and apart, as Belle Gibson no doubt is at this very moment. How sad is that?
Sydney Morning Herald, who also promoted her, ran a similar piece on their home page titled “Shaming Belle Gibson: how much is enough?”
There’s a difference, though, between shaming someone for a relatively harmless action and pointing out how that person’s thought-out decisions misled countless people. I don’t feel guilty yet, that’s for sure.