Researching for a feature about naturopaths, I was committed to hearing both sides. What I discovered shocked me
When I began researching and conducting interviews for a feature about naturopaths, I was doggedly determined to keep an open mind. Journalism 101 dictates balance: a fair hearing to both sides. My commitment was to present the unbiased truth; I was about to embark on a learning journey, as journalists often do.
I interviewed academics from Sydney, Melbourne and the UK, senior medical professionals, sceptics, authors on the subject, naturopaths themselves, those who use them, the professional body for naturopaths, the Australian Medical Associated, the Department of Health, and a naturopath turned dissenter. What I discovered shocked me.
We’ve recently fixated on expunging “fake news” but the medical world also has its charlatans. The snake-oil salespeople, masquerading as health professionals, are naturopaths. They don’t need to go to medical school to put up a sign and declare themselves a “naturopath” – as a doctor would. In fact, anyone can call themselves a naturopath. It isn’t a registered profession, even its official body only requires a bachelor’s degree to grant membership.
From 1 April, private health customers cannot claim rebates on naturopathic treatments. It’s a wonder it took this long; government subsidies were at best generous, and at the very least, misguided. They bestowed upon naturopaths and homeopaths an undeserved credibility. But from this year, no more.
Rarely, in over a decade of features reporting, have I been so leant on to influence what I write, and what I don’t write. That in itself should raise alarm bells. Loud ones.
At first, it was the sceptics who warned me. “Gary, please be careful not to promote their false claims,” a renowned author wrote to me. “A naturopath might claim to treat diabetes or offer natural alternatives to vaccination, but the evidence simply doesn’t exist beyond the basic level of good health and diet.”
Rarely, in over a decade of features reporting, have I been so leant on to influence what I write, and what I don’t write
I soldiered on, not compromising my neutrality. Yeah, the cynic in me thought, you’re trying to sell a book on your scepticism. I’ll come to my own conclusions, thanks.
Journalism beyond the 101 is more complex. Much like climate change deniers, I was conscious of providing a false equivalency if the science is settled. It isn’t: academics from both Sydney and Melbourne universities gave cautious examples of positive naturopathic experiences. But with them came big caveats, namely, that the evidence is low level and inconclusive, and that consumers should be very cautious if they’re promised a “cure” for any serious conditions such as cancer. Or if advised against care from their medical practitioner. The warning exists because this actually happens. Those alarm bells just got louder.
Conditions on participating in the interview were imposed: quotes from my telephone interview required approval in context. They demanded to see the full piece prior to publication, something I very rarely do. Reluctantly, I agreed, so they wouldn’t decline the interview and compromise the balance to which I’d committed.
There were attempts to discredit the academics I interviewed, and shoehorn their own, cherry-picked ones in. A senior Cambridge University educated medical professional I interviewed – a dissenter – was labelled “ignorant”. I was told that if I really cared about the public, and if I had any credibility as a journalist, I’d remove the sceptical comments. There was a transparent attempt to rubbish a former naturopath who now speaks out against the industry. A demand to see a revised piece was then made. I declined, asking that my professionalism and independence as a journalist was respected.
Surely, if they truly had faith in their practice, naturopaths would let the results speak for themselves, rather than spending time being hyper-defensive and trying to discredit trained medical professionals.
There’s deluded, and then there’s dangerous. Only the former is forgivable. In April 2018, disgraced Sydney practitioner Marilyn Bodnar was sentenced to at least seven months in jail. She’d put a breastfeeding mother on a liquid-only diet and told her to stop conventional medical treatments. The baby was emaciated, severely dehydrated, had sunken eyes, dangerously low sodium levels and flexed hands and feet. He almost starved to death.
“Big pharma hates the money we make,” one naturopath complained on the incoming changes that’ll see subsidies revoked.
At a time when trust levels are historically low – towards the banks, politicians and big pharma – it may be tempting to jump on the trend of turning against “experts” and instead prioritising feelings over facts in the interest of “balance.” But I’m resisting that doggedly.
I don’t mean to dismiss anyone who’s had a positive naturopathic experience, but the naturopaths who are trained nutritionists are, quelle surprise, likely to give good nutritional advice. For all else: never underestimate the power of the placebo. Except when what you really need is tried and tested medicine.