The Get Well show proved that for its fans, even when pseudoscience fails, it succeeds

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Michael Marshallhttp://goodthinkingsociety.org/
Michael Marshall is the project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He is the co-host of the Skeptics with a K podcast, interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast, has given skeptical talks all around the world, and has lectured at several universities on the role of PR in the media. He became editor of The Skeptic in August 2020.

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Lynne McTaggart is a name that skeptics and critical thinkers in the UK – and possibly in her native US – may well be rather familiar with. She is a published author, having written seven books; the first of which her 1983 biography of Kathleen Kennedy. The book was involved in some degree of controversy, through no fault of McTaggart’s, when sections of it were republished with insufficient attribution by the famous American historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. While accounts by the two authors differ as to the severity of the plagiarism, in 1993 Goodwin paid “a substantial financial settlement” to McTaggart in order to address the matter. It was not the last publishing controversy that McTaggart would be involved in.

In 1999, she released her first alternative medicine book, What Doctors Don’t Tell You: The Truth About The Dangers Of Modern Medicine, whose cover urged the reader to question whether they should trust their doctors when it came to asthma, high cholesterol, menopause treatments and more. As a work of alternative medicine scaremongering, it proved modestly popular, inspiring McTaggart to pen several follow-ups, including her 2000 book The Cancer Handbook: What’s Really Working, and The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe in 2003. At the same time, she began to publish a regular online newsletter, which eventually evolved into a glossy magazine: What Doctors Don’t Tell You.

The publication, complete with a highly professional design and a range of pseudo-experts, first hit the shelves of major retailers in the UK in 2012, with Waitrose, Tesco, WH Smiths and ASDA all carrying the latest issues. From its first edition, ‘WWDTY’ was a repository of the most dangerous and outlandish claims in the alternative health world – including promoting treatments it claimed could prevent and cure cancer, reverse autism, protect you from 5G, and much more. The adverts it carried were notorious for appearing. As a work of health misinformation, it was prolific in perpetuating false claims, and its name would inevitably feature in stories told by family members of patients who fell down the health conspiracy rabbithole.

WWDTY quickly became infamous, not just on skeptical blogs and social media, but also on the Advertising Standards Authority’s warnings and sanctions. What role this notoriety and negative PR had in the decision to rebrand the magazine in December 2019 is unclear, but by the end of that year it had been renamed to the far less conspiratorial sounding “Get Well”.

If the rebranding had indeed been designed to throw off years’ worth of negative attention, it clearly didn’t work; by July 2020, after years of complaints to the supermarkets that still stocked the magazine (including by myself and my colleagues at Good Thinking), and after the start of the pandemic was greeted with a rush of anti-vaccine articles from McTaggart, Get Well announced that the magazine would no longer be on sale in shops, and would only be available on subscription. Soon after, the magazine reversed its rebranding, with more recent issues reverting to the original, infamous, name.

While Lynne McTaggart appears to have abandoned the Get Well name for her magazine, as a branding entity it is not dead; in fact, its name has been repurposed to serve Lynne McTaggart’s alternative health conference, which first took place in February 2020, and again in June 2022. The more recent show took place in London’s Islington over three days, and promised “a highly engaged natural health audience of over 10,000 attendees”. And I was one of them.

An advert for exhibitors at the Get Well Show which reads "The Get Well Show is returning! This time we're bigger, better and with a brand new name for 2022 - the Natural Care Health show!" The advert says that the Get Well Show will "welcome 150+ leading exhibitors, sponsors and a highly engaged natural health audience of over 10,000 attendees"

The Get Well Show 2022

The first, and perhaps least important thing to say about the Get Well Show 2022 was that it did not live up to its promise. Whether it was down to the unseasonably hot weather, the remnant fears of Covid waves, or an unexpectedly low level of public interest, at best estimate there were perhaps 400 attendees in total across the three days. The sessions on the headliner stage (located with surprising difficulty within the Business Design Centre) were rarely more than sparsely populated, and even at full capacity (as for Lynne McTaggart’s keynote talk) there were usually as many empty seats as full.

Other articles will follow in due course highlighting some of the stand-out speakers and exhibitors from across the weekend, but for the moment it’s worth focusing specifically on the address given by McTaggart, who was clearly one of the bigger draws of the weekend, and who was name-checked by several other speakers throughout their presentations.

McTaggart’s talk, headlining at 11am on Saturday, was titled “Your Mind: The Greatest Healer”, and opened with Lynne playing a section of Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” slightly too loudly for her to be comfortably heard speaking over it. The reason, she explained, was that surgeons performing a Cardiac Artery Bypass Graft like to listen to music, and this particular track is their favourite track. This, Lynne cautioned, presented a real problem to the patient, given that the chorus chants, “Another one bites the dust, and another one gone, and another one gone, another one bites the dust”.

Such negative language, McTaggart continued, actively puts the patient in danger, because:

there’s so much evidence that patients under anaesthesia – or during comas, or during Near Death Experiences – still have their consciousness present and are able to pick up the language.

Surgeon slang, similarly, can be detrimental to their patients, given that Cardiac Artery Bypass Grafts are referred to as CABGs, or “cabbages”. Therefore, she contended, patients will fare worse because they’ll hear themselves described as “cabbages” who are “biting the dust”.

It’s fair to say that there’s a lot wrong with this line of reasoning. For one, there is no real evidence that hearing your procedure referred to as a “cabbage” will directly lead you to have negative outcomes from your surgery, any more than the choice of music during your (sedated) operation will program your brain with negative outcomes.

Even at a superficial level, leaving aside the supposed “evidence” from Near Death Experiences, this whole theory is patently absurd: in what world do all surgeons who perform the same common procedure share one single universal favourite song? The average coronary artery bypass graft takes 3-6 hours, meaning that a surgeon would have to listen to all 3 minutes and 35 seconds of Another One Bites The Dust seventy-seven times on a loop while carrying out the procedure… or they’d listen to a range of different songs, thus blowing McTaggart’s whole point out of the water.

Caution: do not listen to this song while operating on patients, apparently

It’s important to note that McTaggart was not sharing these insights in the abstract, from a position of perpetual good health; instead, she shared with the audience her own ill health journey. She explained that during the 2020 show, she had been struggling to walk, and was going through a health crisis, which led her to turn to every health expert she knows – which is to say, alternative medicine experts of different disciplines. She explained each of these experts was at the top of their fields in the various alternative health modalities they practiced, but they clearly weren’t at the top of their field when it came to the words they used, because they told her it’d be a “long and painful road to health”, and that “some patients like her end up in a wheelchair”.

As McTaggart explained, some of these complementary practitioners were so negative in the language they used, that they completely overcame all the good they were able to do with their alternative treatments, and this made it clear to her that:

Your doctor or practitioner is probably the most contagious virus of all. In what his diagnosis is, what his prognosis is. The thoughts and words he uses will have the biggest bearing on your wellness

This, I’d argue, is a perfect illustration of the dangers of an entrenched and ideological position: when Lynne McTaggart was experiencing ill health, and the wide variety of alternative practitioners she saw failed to help her, rather than question the veracity and efficacy of their treatments, he pre-existing biases forced her to find an alternate explanation. And the explanation that she settled on was that words and thoughts are more powerful than any form of medicine or treatment.

Ted Kaptchuk and The Powerful Placebo

McTaggart is not alone in holding this opinion, and in fact, she quickly turned to her go-to expert of choice in this matter: a Harvard professor, and Director of the Harvard Program in Placebo Studies, Ted Kaptchuk. While Kaptchuk’s career and the conclusions of his many studies into the placebo effect require more attention than a diversion in this article can provide (indeed, there’s a series of articles in this magazine dedicated to reappraising much of the work carried out by or inspired by Kaptchuk’s output), it’s worth highlighting that his claims for the powerful placebo inevitably go far beyond the evidence, and when viewed through a skeptical lens it becomes clear that the placebo effect appears to exist almost exclusively for subjective measures; as soon as anything objective is measured, placebo results are indistinguishable from ‘no treatment’ arms. This is why it was particularly shocking to hear Kaptchuk directly and explicitly cited by McTaggart as proof that medicine itself has little value; all that matters is words and thoughts.

For instance, she outlined one Kaptchuk study in which people with carpal tunnel syndrome or RSI were given either acupuncture or pain pills (Kaptchuk’s qualifications, it’s worth highlighting, are in acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is possibly why he so often includes an acupuncture wing in his placebo studies). According to McTaggart, the patients who received pills experienced many horrible side effects, while the ones who received acupuncture got better. However, the pills were merely placebos, and the acupuncture was sham acupuncture, yet a third of the patients who thought they’d get worse got side effects, and all of the people who thought they’d get better did get better. Yet the actual study itself makes clear:

Differences were not significant, however, on the function scale or for grip strength.

Which is to say, while patients may have self-reported different levels of success, when given objective measurements of their improvement, there was no difference between the two interventions.

It was not the only study McTaggart would go on to misunderstand. She explained that among asthma patients given a saline inhaler and told it was an allergen, 19% experienced airway constriction and 12% had a full blown asthma attack, “just because of the words being used, the thought of it being an allergen kicked off an asthma attack”. A more parsimonious explanation, I would suggest, is that some asthma patients, when told they had inhaled something that could trigger an asthma, go on to experience panic-induced breathing difficulties.

McTaggart cited a study on knee arthroscopy surgery, in which half of the patients got real surgery, and half got sham surgery, and yet both experienced benefits. What she failed to mention, of course, is that both groups received post-operative physiotherapy and that the study merely demonstrated that physiotherapy is beneficial, while the specific surgery that was performed is not.

Instead of seeing these clearly more likely explanations, McTaggart repeated her mantra: it’s all merely about thoughts and words; not medicine, surgery or pills. This is what she takes from the work of Ted Kapchuk, who while often described as a “scholar of East Asian medicine”, in actuality holds a BA in East Asian Studies followed by a diploma (not a doctorate) in Chinese Medicine. It is on this basis that he became the Director of Placebo Studies at Harvard, where he has claimed (per McTaggart’s talk) that the placebo effect is “more than positive thinking, it actually creates a positive connection between the mind and body. Thinking of getting well actually creates a whole cascade of healing, regardless of what you’re given”.

But don’t be mistaken in thinking that this is a one-way street. As McTaggart’s most astonishing anecdote demonstrated, there are downsides to this “cascade of healing”, as one alleged patient at the Royal Hospital in Gwent, Wales, found out. According to McTaggart, the patient was doing really well, and the doctors were really pleased, until:

one day, when his doctor was out of the room and he read his notes for the first time, and he saw the word leukaemia. That fellow was dead the next week. And there was no logical medical reason for that. It was simply that word – that word had killed him. They did an autopsy, they couldn’t find anything that had changed in him, only the thought of a terminal illness killed him.

According to Lynne McTaggart, and the uncited anecdote she gave during her talk, the words involved with a diagnosis is enough to harm and even people. If this patient from Gwent actually existed, and if his case was as McTaggart described it, of course. A moment of reflection on the details of the case ought to be enough to fatally undermine it: this patient, who was ‘doing really well’, was still either admitted to or regularly having to attend hospital? And at no point did any doctor ever mention to him what his condition was? And how would we be aware that he sneaked a peek at his notes while the doctor was out of the room – did he relay that furtive glance to someone in the week before his sudden death? And if they ‘couldn’t find anything that had changed in him’, does this mean he had leukaemia, given that’s what was on his chart?

If this story bears any relationship to a real event, it seems much more likely to be a telephone-game transliteration of a case in which a patient experiencing sufficient symptoms to have him regularly attending hospital finally found the illness that was causing his issues but found it too late to be able to prevent it from causing his death.

McTaggart cited another study, to prove the detrimental effect of prognoses: in one study (there were no references or citations provided here), 64% of patients were given a positive prognosis and they went on to get better, while 39% of patients received an uncertain or negative prognosis, and they were less likely to get better. Two things immediately stand out here: firstly, 64% plus 39% equals 103%, so something is going on with those numbers. But even more pertinently, we shouldn’t be overly surprised that patients who were given a positive prognosis were more likely to get better – that’s exactly what a positive prognosis means.

Enter, conventional medicine

At this point in the talk, McTaggart returned to her own health journey, and explained that after seeing her hand-picked coterie of expert alternative medicine practitioners, she finally gave in and entrusted her health to a conventional surgeon, who told her that, with some treatment, she could be back doing “anything she wanted to do”. “What might that include?”, McTaggart asked. “Well, anything up to and including skydiving”. This greatly pleased McTaggart, who explained:

It was that positive prognosis that really got me… and of course her skill… but I think in my mind it was that that convinced me to do it and helped me in my healing.

It was hard not to be struck by this statement – not just the casual afterthought of the role of the surgeon’s medical skill in her recovery, but the fact that, after a vast array of alternative medicine practitioners had not only failed to heal McTaggart, but had shown a callous use of language along the way; and after it was a conventional surgeon using tried-and-tested medical techniques to restore McTaggart’s mobility, she attributed her recovery… to the power of positive thinking. Once again, entrenched biases require explanations that don’t upset the ideological applecart.

All of this personal health journey and the unwillingness to credit the surgeons who proved successful would be frustrating enough if McTaggart’s next step wasn’t into overtly dangerous territory.

“Cancer patients”, she explained. “There are loads of cancer patients in studies, numerous kinds of cancers just go away. One in eight skin cancers spontaneously disappear.” And by spontaneously, specifically McTaggart believes those cancers were cured by the power of positive thinking, good intentions, thoughts and words. She listed nine of the key factors that are common in patients who recover from cancer, highlighting that seven of the nine involve changing patterns of thoughts and having a community, being positive, releasing negative emotions and having a reason to live. The other two factors, the ones she glossed over, were to do with getting cancer treatment, but those were clearly deemed less important than the other seven.  

McTaggart explained that there was a study of 160,000 women – a study, she says, that was designed to prove that HRT was safe – which had to be stopped early because there were too many women who were developing breast cancer, heart attacks and strokes. At this point, she explained that there is a pervasive belief that having a family history of breast cancer increases your own risk of developing the disease, but that this particular study proved that hereditary breast cancer is a myth: according to McTaggart, family history of breast cancer made no difference, and the only thing that increases the likelihood of developing breast cancer was taking HRT. This, I cannot stress enough, is dangerously untrue.

The Power of Intentions

At this point, McTaggart wanted to introduce us to her current project, the Power of Eight intention groups. The concept behind the groups is simple: given all of the evidence (such as that from Ted Kaptchuk) that placebo effects, words, thoughts and intentions are the main determining factor in whether someone falls ill and whether they recover, then it’s clear that we can heal ourselves and each other with our intentions. Therefore, she gathers people into groups of eight and has them send positive intentions to someone who requires healing. In fact, she claimed, if you’re part of one of her Power of Eight groups, you halve your chances of dying.

This is not merely theoretical with McTaggart: during her talk, she showed us video testimonials of sick and vulnerable patients who were entrusting their health to the Power of Eight. One patient explained that she had a genetic liver disorder, which meant she may need a transplant, but after just one 10-minute intention group she felt healing energy, and a few months later she was told that her spleen was healthy and that her liver no longer had fibrosis.

Another testimonial was from an MS patient happily pushing her wheelchair away immediately after her intention session. It’s a striking demonstration, but not one that we ought to take as evidence of a miracle cure, any more than when faith healers like Peter Popoff were having patients perform the same feats. Chronic conditions like MS wax and wane, and are occasionally susceptible to euphoria and adrenaline; the time to demonstrate that the patient was cured isn’t immediately after a session, but hours and days later, long after the adrenaline has worn off. In almost all cases, the patients suffer a setback, as they cope with the after-effects of their exertions. In the case of faith healers, this setback usually came long after the psychic had left town; in a digital age, where a one-minute video clip is all that’s needed to send the success story viral, no follow-up is required.

One testimonial was about a baby with hip dysplasia, which was allegedly cured after one 10-minute intention session. A further testimonial was from a woman who had cancer, it was gone within three weeks. If this seemed an extreme claim, it’s one McTaggart was keen to comment on:

Now, did we do this? Who knows. Except I’ve seen this thousands of times, when people get thoughts and words together in a group, some sort of magic happens.

It was at this point that McTaggart wanted the audience to experience the power of intentions for ourselves, and we were soon separated into smaller groups, and instructed to decide whose health complaint we should focus on healing. Once we’d decided, and an intention had been written, we were instructed to stand in a circle around the recipient, holding hands, eyes closed, as New Age choral music blasted loudly out of the speakers. Ten minutes went by, only slightly interrupted by McTaggart’s constantly coughing, sniffling and clearing her throat (Lynne didn’t seem in the best of health on that day, and she sounded and looked much worse the next day – I hoped it was merely a regular cold, given how vocally anti-vaccine she and her publications are).

Eventually, the longest ten minutes of the weekend were up, and we were instructed to open our eyes again. I spoke to the lady at the centre of our circle, who told me that while she couldn’t tell if she was cured or not (her health complaint was very much an internal issue), she sincerely hoped she was, given how much ill health and misery she’d faced. And she explained that the overriding feeling she was left with at the end of the ten minutes was one of love, warmth and happiness. She explained that the whole experience felt a lot like prayer, and I had to agree – that’s exactly what it felt like: a communal act of hoping for a positive change, attempting to manifest something positive, without actually actively doing anything at all. The comparison is actually one McTaggart inadvertently made in her talk:

The brainwave studies we’ve done show that intention doesn’t look anything like meditation, it looks almost identical to Buddhist monks in ecstatic prayer, or Sufi masters during chanting.

Which is to say that the whole thing is a religious experience, not a meditative one… but also, crucially, not a medicinal one.

This distinction is, I think, key, because it is undeniably positive to spend time in a room with people who express altruistic intentions, and who hope we can share in health and happiness, and who want good things to happen to our fellow man. But it sadly is simply not the case that we can think our health issues better, and despite what Lynne McTaggart says or what she thinks Ted Kapchuk’s research shows, we also cannot think away our cancer and our surgical issues and our ill health. To tell people that we can is tremendously irresponsible, especially to do so while denigrating proven medical techniques and denying genuine insights into the causes of diseases like cancer.

It was also harder to think of a starker example of the potential damage that the myth of the “powerful placebo” can feed into – McTaggart perfectly illustrated how that particular misconception can be picked up, mangled and amplified by people who are already ideologically opposed to real medicine – to the point where even when a surgeon is responsible for giving them their health back, they attribute it to positive thinking and magical words, and not the medical care they received.

Sadly, what all this inevitably leads to is some people who unfortunately don’t spontaneously get better, and when their miracle doesn’t come they feel even worse, because the false hope they’ve been sold dashes them against the rock. In those cases, inevitably, there will be those who think that if they’re still ill, it’s because they didn’t wish hard enough, weren’t positive enough, and didn’t do all they could have done. This kind of mind-over-matter, positive-thinking-above-all-else mentality puts the blame for ill health onto the people who are already suffering enough, and even if that may not have been Lynne McTaggart’s intention, I for one cannot see anything in that to be positive about.

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