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Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of
Religion and Medicine

by Dr. Richard P. Sloan, PhD
Blockbuster New Book tackling the thorny issues about religion, prayer and medicine. If you've been told that you have an incurable illness, and that prayer will help --- think again.

This book will open your eyes. Dr. Sloan is a professor at the Columbia University School of Medicine and he introduces us to the major players in this new area of Christian evangelism. The studies purporting to show any health benefits from going to church or "being religious" are all so flawed as to render them useless. Using his epidemiological knowledge, Sloan carefully shows the reader how one should analyze claims from the media and claims in journals that purport to show a connection between religious behavior and improved health.

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    May 23 2007

    Does his presence boost, or discredit, a UVic alternative health conference?

    Simon Fraser University psychology professor Barry Beyerstein once organized a test for Adam McLeod, who until recently used only a first name for his public appearances and who now goes by Adam Dreamhealer.

    It was about six years ago, when Dreamhealer was still in high school and building a reputation as a healer who connects to people's "holographic energy fields" to help them heal themselves. Now 20, Dreamhealer is a popular alternative therapist and the author of three books. His six-hour workshop this weekend at the Body Heals conference at the University of Victoria sold out weeks ago at $110 a ticket, an admission separate from the rest of the conference.

    Dreamhealer has many fans who attest that he is doing something special. Others, including Beyerstein, call him a likely fraud. His presence is a knock against the credibility of the conference on integrated health care, the university and the other presenters, they say.

    "At first I wasn't interested," says Beyerstein, recalling the invitation to test Dreamhealer's abilities. Dreamhealer's father kept trying to arrange a meeting between the professor and Dreamhealer, however, and eventually Beyerstein agreed to talk with the boy.

    Having been told Dreamhealer could tell people what illnesses they have even over great distances, Beyerstein asked Dreamhealer to diagnose him over the phone. "He tried to diagnose me and it bombed horribly," he says. "He told me stuff that was not true and missed stuff that was true."

    Still, Beyerstein agreed to organize a more thorough test. He would gather a room full of people, each with some kind of illness. Dreamhealer would have gone around the room and said what he believed each person had. The professor would keep track of how many Dreamhealer got right and wrong, and would have been able to say whether Dreamhealer could really do what he claimed.

    The next step would have been to have Dreamhealer attempt to heal each of the people, then to later measure whether their health had improved at all. The researcher wouldn't have been able to say how Dreamhealer's magic worked, but he would have been able to say if it worked.

    "It was a fair test," says Beyerstein. "We would have told the world if he passed."

    But with the test all ready to go, Dreamhealer's parents pulled him out of it. Beyerstein says, "It was such a simple test I can only assume the reason they backed out was he couldn't pass it."

    Asked why he decided not to put his powers to Beyerstein's test, Dreamhealer says he was 14 at the time and trying to understand what it was he could do. "I can't remember exactly what happened," he says, but in the end he and his family decided Beyerstein was too closed minded to evaluate Dreamhealer's gift.

    "I'm a very scientifically minded person," Dreamhealer says. He's in his third year of a molecular biology degree at a Lower Mainland university he asks not to have named in the article. "I'm participating in many different scientific studies now. I just don't do it with skeptics who aren't going to change their mind."

    Beyerstein says his mind is open, but he's also committed to what's known as evidence-based medicine, supporting treatments that can be shown to work. "We're not hostile to any of these things. If they worked it would be medical malpractice not to provide them."

    Warren Bell is a Salmon Arm family doctor and the president of the Association of Complementary and Integrative Physicians of B.C., the organization behind the second Body Heals conference at UVic. Dreamhealer is a "lightning rod" who draws criticism, Bell says. "It's funny. It muddies the water. [Critics] are not totally wrong. There is flim-flam involved in some of the models that are used." He adds, "They forget what we are trying to do, all of us, is just help our patients."

    Others think Dreamhealer's "the best manifestation of what healing's about," Bell says, and it makes sense to include him in a conference aimed at encouraging people to integrate different therapies in a holistic approach to their own health.

    "There's something inherently logical in using all therapeutic options that you feel comfortable with," says Bell. "That doesn't mean one abandons reason," he adds. When his patients come to him wanting to try some untested therapy, he asks if there's any evidence that it's harmful and whether or not the treatment is exorbitantly overpriced. If it passes on both counts, he says, "The only thing you can do, because nobody's going to spend much money on research on this . . . I say try it, see if it makes a difference."

    Alternatives might include nutrition, exercise, acupuncture, massage, homeopathy, vitamins and chiropractic care, says Bell. "The conference is based around one primary issue, the notion of an integrated health care system, meaning a system where all therapeutic options have a place."

    Western medicine's chemical approach to health is too simplistic, he says. "It's an illusion of exactitude as opposed to the reality of complexity."

    The conference will also look at the relationship between individual health and environmental health, including a keynote talk by genetecist and environmentalist David Suzuki. Says Bell, "If we don't make decisions about our ecosystems that are sensible, then we suffer the consequences."

    With B.C. engaged in a government-led "Conversation on Health," he adds, it's a good time to be adding a holistic perspective to the public discussion. "I think the real underlying reason why we're doing it is there's a sense there's enough momentum both within professional and public circles that a conference like this will potentially have a catalytic effect," he says. "We're not here to be a flash in the pan. We believe these issues are serious issues."

    Royal Roads University is a partner in the conference, which meets the accreditation requirements of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. Doctors who attend the conference can use it to show they are staying up to date in their field.

    Daniel Loxton, a journalist who writes for Skeptic magazine, says for him Dreamhealer's presence drags down the rest of the conference, much of which is likely legitimate. "It does impair the ability of people like the panelists at a conference like this to gain acceptance of the treatments they're promoting," he says. It may even detract from keynote speaker Suzuki's message. "It does a little bit colour his ecological views to be associated with something that's almost certainly fraudulent. That's too bad, because his views are important."

    As it happens, Dreamhealer has been working to bring an air of scientific legitamacy to his work. He has been doing electroencephalographic, or EEG, tests, where he's managed to change a person's brain waves. According to a passage posted on his website in January based on four EEG readings, "There were no remarkable changes when Adam was not active but there was a very specific increase in Theta brainwave amplitude in the frontal brain regions when Adam directed his energy toward the target person."

    Diagnosing a disease, with all its cultural variables, is subjective, Dreamhealer says, so he sticks to mathematical things that can be measured, such as the patterns a person's brain waves make when he's working on them. "There's an enormous amount of scientific proof behind it," he says. "The only real debate is we don't understand all the mechanisms behind this."

    But what about proof that he can actually do what he says he can do? There are countless testimonials, both written and on video, on his website, he says, where people say he influenced their health. "Anyone who is looking at that, very clearly people are being helped," he says. And there are more that aren't up on the website yet. "There are so many I don't have time to upload them."

    Loxton says that while some people say Dreamhealer has helped them, without testing nobody can be sure why somebody's health improved. "Correlation is not causation," he says. "That's why these anecdotal cases are so limited in their value."

    Promoting a treatment that's not evidence-based comes with a big dose of responsibility, says Loxton. "[Dreamhealer] does get under my skin. It's not him in particular. He's no more despicable than anyone else in this line of work . . . For anyone to have the gall to meddle with someone's life like that, its really low down."

    While there are doubts about Dreamhealer's medical success, there's no doubt he's done well financially. He made heaps of money while still in his teens, and continues to get rich. He no longer gives individual help, which critics note has more opportunity for error or failure, but he says he does about one workshop a month. This weekend's workshop at UVic will gross over $30,000. Last July, a television reporter asked Dreamhealer if he's a millionaire. He said, "Yeah. You know, with three best-selling books and doing workshops across North America, yeah."

    SFU's Beyerstein says there are times the lines between alternative health treatments and mainstream medicine blur. Many drugs have been developed from plants, for instance. Still people should be cautious about counting on untested treatments. "If it really worked it wouldn't be alternative anymore," he says. "Feeling better is not the same as getting better. What all alternative medicine does is it treats the feeling of illness not the symptoms of disease."

    Dreamhealer cautions on his website that his services aren't a replacement for seeing a health professional, but Beyerstein worries some people will put more faith in Dreamhealer than they should. "I've seen many cases where medical quacks and faith healers have strung people on who had serious conditions that were treatable," he says, citing the example of Tyrell Dueck, a Saskatchewan boy who didn't get a mainstream treatment for his bone cancer. "He died at 14 because of the belief system of his parents," says Beyerstein. "I have a stack of stories like that."

    People like Dreamhealer prey on people at a time when they are desperate. "People will suspend disbelief when they're told something they really want to believe," he says. "He's selling hope. The will to believe is very strong and he's reenforcing a whole cosmology or world view that's the antithesis to the scientific beliefs I hold."

    The Body Heals Conference runs May 25-27 at the University of Victoria, full program $535. See for more information.

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