Brian Clement, Sprouting Nonsense in Montreal | The Body of Evidence

Brian Clement, Sprouting Nonsense in Montreal

We are sicker than we have ever been, according to Brian Clement. He is not a physician. Rather, the CBC reports that he "claims to have a doctorate of naturopathic medicine and a PhD in nutrition from the University of Science Arts and Technology", despite the fact that a) the university president is quoted as denying this claim and b) the university is reported as being a diploma mill. You may remember Clement from the news: when two Native American girls in Ontario decided to stop chemotherapy, they went to his Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida to undergo alternative therapies.

Clement was a guest speaker of the Wholistic Fair taking place at Dawson College, Montreal, on September 18-20. His Friday talk was entitled "Food IS Medicine: The Scientific Evidence". I was curious to know why people turn away from medicine to embrace the pseudoscience that he sells at his institute. Desperation is certainly an appealing explanation, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear his arguments, his cherry-picked data, the logical fallacies he would tout, and to see first hand the impression that he makes on a crowd. So I went.

Fear is a tool that he wielded during his talk, specifically fear of technology. We are sicker now than we have ever been, he told us, but also that we have a "dependency for care". Hundreds of years ago, people didn't commonly have to take pills, he continued. The reason, obviously, is that there were no pills to be taken. We seek healthcare now more than ever because medicine has tools it did not possess in the 1800s: precise surgical procedures, targeted therapies against cancer, and medication that can turn death sentences into controllable, life-long conditions. "There was a period of time, can you imagine, when humans didn't need glasses," he said. There was a period of time when we didn't have glasses and could not correct bad vision. Our hormones are also apparently out of whack because of polyester clothes. "People [back in the days] were absolutely independent, responsible," he reminded us. This disturbing story is as old as humanity: our once-pure ancestors sinned against nature and the clock is ticking on our redemption.

To convince his audience of his authority on the matter, Brian Clement decided to blind with science. Salvation lies in phytonutrients, natural chemicals made by plants. In listing them on multiple slides, he told us, "I'm not gonna bore you with these complicated names, I'm just gonna let you look at them." In referring to his three-tome, self-published book, Food IS Medicine, he had this to say: "I wouldn't highly advise that anyone other than a really smart person buy these books, if you ask me. [...] You have to be really interested in science to read these books. These are reference books. These are the ones that you put on your shelf and every time you-a friend calls and says, 'Oh, my toe fell off!', then you can look it up." Blinding with science is a cheap trick used by pseudoscientists to give themselves the patina of authority they need. Real scientists, meanwhile, put citations on their slides; Clement's presentation wholly eschewed bibliographic references. But he reassured us in his opening that he has been invited hundreds of times to speak to professional groups, universities, scientists, and doctors. He kept dropping names like McGill, and Stanford, and Harvard. Chemical nomenclature and renowned universities can certainly look impressive to a lay audience.

Clement's cloak of scientific authority however was riddled with holes that were easy for a scientist to spot. Perhaps most egregious of all was his story about quantum biology. The use of the word "quantum" in health should serve as everyone's spider-sense: it is the "snake oil" of the 2010s. Clement is not merely content to engage in the supposed field of quantum biology, but he thinks a scientific field can be "finished": "That's a project that I've been working on... I keep thinking I'm gonna finish it, and I find new work." Scientific fields of study are never resolved: answers always beg more questions. This is a hallmark of science. I have yet to meet a scientist who is angry at finding new work in their field of study. "Well, that was the last piece in the puzzle of molecular biology, we can now close the book," said no scientist ever.

Scientists are also hungry for new data and hypotheses, and constantly try to undermine current theories. Yet Clement thinks that scientists are conservative by nature and afraid of change: "98% of scientists are the reason why science isn't functioning today because they become experts in the old stuff, and they keep rehashing the old stuff [...] and the old stuff doesn't help. We know, new things, if we don't employ them, we're gonna suffer." These fictitious, orthodox scientists also seem to be blind to easy cures. In 1948, a scientist-unnamed by Clement-apparently discovered that those miraculous phytonutrients could kill viruses, bacteria, cancer, and fungi in a Petri dish. Did this revolutionize medicine? No. "Nobody was much interested in old-fashioned anything. So they wanted the quick fix, and that's why we're all in trouble today." I have difficulty imagining a quicker fix to all of our medical woes than fruits and vegetables; but we are led to believe that this finding was genuine and did not completely overhaul medicine. We are also treated to a contradiction: scientists, according to Clement, are uninterested in "old-fashioned anything", like fruits, and equally apathetic to new things. So which is it?

It doesn't matter as long as scientists are portrayed as the bad guys, with Brian Clement as the one true scientist. But a man of science needs to know a thing or two about science. He told us that one third of our young married couples in North America cannot have babies now (not true: the CDC reports that only 6% of married women ages 15-44 are infertile, while a recent Canadian study estimates that up to 16% of heterosexual couples where the woman is aged 18-44 are "experiencing" infertility, a far cry from Clement's 33%); that monkeys are "99.99.99% genetically exactly like you" (yes, the extra decimal point is not a typo); and that the 20 enzyme supplements he takes every day put up an electromagnetic field around his cells to protect them from free radicals (complete B.S.: enzymes are important to biochemical reactions and are not to be confused with Star Trek spaceships).

Where his speech goes from amusingly unreliable to dangerous is where it hints at medical practice. Attendees lined up at microphones to ask him specific health-related questions. Should a mother be worried about the negative health effect of a tattoo on her daughter's body? Should a man go back on his cholesterol-controlling medication at his doctor's suggestion? And what does Clement think of the tetanus vaccine? It turns out medicine can treat a tetanus infection in the hospital as soon as it happens, "as long as it's not a big wound". We have to be cautious with vaccines, he told us. For contraception, he was willing to throw out most of what modern medicine provides to couples: "Pennyroyal tea. [...] Probably in 70% of the cases, it will prevent [conception]." This is a dangerous return to prescientific techniques: the herb used to make the tea, mentha pulegium, is highly toxic to the liver when taken by mouth and can cause multiorgan failure. This type of advice is alarming. But the kicker, of course, is his promise to people with incurable diseases. A man asked about a friend of his who has multiple sclerosis. It turns out Clement has the answer:

"Last week, we had somebody at the Institute that reversed multiple sclerosis. He came to us five years ago. One of the young ladies, like this young lady who arrange--she's in Montreal, arranges for us in the New York area, she was a nurse that came to us two years ago, was crippled, had braces on. By the time she left Hippocrates, she reversed the multiple sclerosis. And mainstream medicine, they think it's remarkable. I've seen lots and lots of people over the years did that."

Clement's central dogma is that all cooked food is completely devoid of nutrients. This means vitamins, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. If this were true, the human race would not have survived its discovery of fire. By eating raw food like sprouts, Clement claims we are giving our body the nutrients to heal itself. When you slow down the aging process, your body does not have as many diseases. "There's no such thing as diseases of aging," he told us. It's simple: Brian Clement has found the fountain of youth.

His anti-aging panacea is not mere pseudoscience. It has the hallmarks of something much more influential on the human psyche. He talks about plants loaded with nutrients we would need once our species would evolve. "Isn't that brilliant," he commented, "intelligent, and almost cosmic when you think about it? [...] Think of the wisdom of the universe, that we literally have plants that knew we'd show up one day." He was called a "guru" by a former client delivering a testimonial. He demeaned his audience, repeatedly calling us stupider than monkeys. The organizer reminded us that video recording and flash photography were forbidden (nothing against audio recordings), because this is "a very intimate, a very private event. [...] We want, you know, to be in a very special zone, 'k?"

Make no mistake: aging denial is a religion. It feeds into our mistaken beliefs that our ancestors led extraordinary lives on farms; our fears that modern technology is slowly killing us; our desire to believe that we are part of an intimate group of people given access to special knowledge; our anxiety that the outside world is not to be trusted; our faith that one charismatic leader can answer all of our questions with absolute certainty.

Blind faith in desperate times has a price. Makayla Sault, one of the two Aboriginal girls who stopped chemotherapy to embrace Clement's promises, died last winter following a relapse. Her medical regimen almost guaranteed her recovery. Clement's raw vegan diet literally robbed her of a life-saving intervention to instead precipitate her death.

The next time someone asks you "what's the harm in believing in alternative medicine", I hope you will know what to answer.

 

Image from CBC.ca