There’s a quote often attributed to comic John Cleese that always makes me laugh: “The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.” This hilarious imagery exactly describes how anyone taking any conspiracy theory “ship” under consideration should constantly look below, acutely aware of the possibility that it actually sank in a magnificent battle long ago.
Many of you may be aware of a new conspiracy theory making the rounds of social media. The most updated version of the theory is that the recent alleged rash of deaths and disappearances of physicians who practice alternative medicine and died or disappeared in Florida is a sign of something more sinister. The implication is that it has something to do with the FDA and, ostensibly, Big Pharma.
From the first article I read on the topic, I was put in mind of the recent alleged rash of black church burnings. That conspiracy theory referred to seven predominately African American churches that had been burned within a week, claiming these alleged hate crimes as evidence of racism in America. However, this article explained that two of those churches were struck by lightning (one of which was a predominately Caucasian church), one was due to an electrical failure, and in one case, it was actually the church van that burned, not the church itself, leaving only three black church burnings considered to be deliberate—i.e., arson. Furthermore, it goes on to explain that there are an average of 1,600 church fires per year in the U.S., which averages out to 31 fires per week. Therefore, the “rash” of 7 church burnings is in no way unusual. In fact, it comes out to less than a quarter of what is expected for any given week. I’m sure there were other church fires that went unreported, but the point is that this was not an unusual circumstance.
The logical fallacy that would apply to this is the fallacy of incomplete evidence, a.k.a. cherry-picking, where one selects and reports only those facts which support his/her theory, ignoring those which do not support his/her theory.
However, in my opinion, this is more likely an example of the availability heuristic (at least, as regards its spread on social media). This cognitive shortcut applied to media takes the form of the viewer/reader believing something to be more common, more likely, or increasing in incidence because he/she is seeing/hearing more news stories about the topic. For example, I read a story about how the media reported several assaults on elderly women in New York, which led to a rash of starvation deaths among elderly women because they were afraid to leave their homes, thinking assaults on elderly women were becoming more common. A hypothetical example would be that when the media reports several shark attack deaths, people consider dying of a shark attack to be more common than dying from being hit by falling airplane parts, when in reality the reverse is true. Another hypothetical would be that, during the Disneyland measles outbreak, people heard far more about measles on the media than they did about lightning strikes and came to believe that death is a significantly high risk factor for measles; however, in reality, Americans are more likely to die of a lightning strike than from the measles. Similarly, people heard a series of news reports on black church burnings and came to believe that these represented an unusually high incidence and, therefore, sinister intent—specifically, racism—when in reality, the majority of the fires were accidental, not all of them were directed against black churches, and the number was well within the expected range for a given week.
I wondered whether the same was true of these alternative medicine doctors–i.e., whether it’s a combination of (A) people hearing of the death of one conspicuous alternative medicine physician and then subconsciously taking greater note of all following physician deaths, and (B) clickbaiters consciously cherry-picking the data to convince their readers that there is an epidemic of alternative physician deaths by homicide. But, typically, I was too occupied with other things to look it up.
Finally, as the tally kept rising and people were sharing these stories more and more on Facebook, I eventually got sick of it and decided to look it up. By then, Snopes had published an article about it. It was a thoroughly-researched article and answered all of my questions, and all of the links they provided checked out. (In fact, even the conspiracy theorists conceded some of Snopes’ points.) The only issue I take with it is the random snide comment that mainstream doctors are “science-based,” implying that anyone who practices alternative medicine is not science-based. Perhaps I’m more accepting of alternative medicine because I’m a midwife, which is considered alternative in the U.S. but mainstream just about everywhere else. Furthermore, I live in Japan, where the vast majority (probably close to 100%) of the physicians believe in the power of acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, and other practices deemed “alternative” in the U.S., yet in spite of this “anti-science” opinion, Japan has a lower infant mortality rate, longer life expectancy, and overall better health than does the U.S. The spiteful comment about alternative health practitioners smacks of bigotry and ethnocentrism.
At any rate, back to the topic on hand. The short of it is that (1) they weren’t all murders, (2) they weren’t all alternative medicine doctors who died in Florida, and (3) the number of murders is within the expected range for a given month.
- First, like the “black church burnings” which turned out to be mostly accidental fires, the “murdered” physicians were not all murdered. In the last alternative media article I found on the topic, the tally stood at 8 “murders” and 5 disappearances. Of the five disappearances, three were Mexican doctors who lived and practiced in Mexico and were found dead in Mexico; only two of the disappearances were American doctors living and practicing in America. Of those two, one, Dr. Whiteside, has been found dead, so we’ll add him to the eight “murdered” physicians. Of the eight—now nine—“murdered” physicians, four are known to be a homicide, one was ruled a suicide but is being further investigated by private detectives hired by the family, two died of natural causes, two have pending autopsies and are therefore unknown at this time, and one is unknown as the cause does not appear to have been reported anywhere.
- Second, like the “black church burnings” which turned out not to be all black churches, not all of the physicians were alternative medicine doctors living or working in Florida. Of the eleven doctors, five were alternative medicine doctors and six were mainstream (or, at least, there is no evidence that they practiced alternatively, or even that they espoused alternative beliefs); significantly, of the four homicides, three were mainstream physicians. Furthermore, five died in Florida while six died elsewhere; and only one of those who died outside of Florida lived and worked in Florida, but he also lived and worked in two other states.
- Third, like the “black church burnings” which turned out to be within the expected range, the number of murders is also completely within the expected range. As Snopes reports, statistically speaking, approximately 6,500-8,200 physicians die every year, adding up to approximately 700 in one month—so these 11 are WELL within the range of expected physician deaths. However, I’d like to further address the argument that these physicians all had connections to Florida. In reality, as discussed above, about half of them did not. Nevertheless, based on the differences in population of various states, we could expect approximately 13 of those 700 monthly physician deaths to occur in Florida. Therefore, even the five who specifically died in Florida (or six with Florida connections) fall within the expected number for any given month.
Here’s a tabulated breakdown:
|Name||Cause of Death||Type of Physician||State|
|Bradstreet, M.D.||suicide or homicide ||alternative||NC (died);FL, GA, AZ (worked)|
|Hedendal, D.C.||natural causes||alternative||FL|
|Holt, D.C.||unknown—autopsy pending||alternative||FL|
|Whiteside, M.D.||unknown—autopsy pending||mainstream||WI|
|Riley, D.O.||homicide||mainstream ||GA|
|Castellano, D.D.||unknown—not reported||mainstream||FL|
|Gonzalez, M.D.||natural causes||alternative||NY|
M.D. = Medical Doctor. D.C. = Doctor of Chiropractic. D.O. = Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. D.D. = Doctor of Dentistry .
(I want to note here that D.O.’s can be very mainstream—in fact, in the ER, I worked with several—but are more likely than M.D.’s to be alternative. D.O.’s learn both mainstream medicine and chiropractic medicine, but may or may not practice chiropractic medicine.)
- Dr. Bradstreet was found with a gunshot wound to the chest. Local authorities ruled it a suicide. His family has hired several private detectives to investigate the possibility of homicide.
- Dr. Riley was a D.O., and many D.O.’s are alternative practitioners. However, they are also very often mainstream. Dr. Riley was an ER doctor, and there’s no evidence that she was an alternative practitioner or even that she held any “controversial” views, so it’s generally believed she was a mainstream physician.
- There are several abbreviations for dentists; I’m not sure which one applies to Dr. Castellano.
Conspiracy theories do occasionally turn out to be true, so it’s prudent to give thought to the facts of any given case. For example, although racist killings of minority individuals by white cops are exceptionally rare, it’s prudent to look into the possible motives of any such killing just to be sure. Of course, in the same way that we should give up any theory of bias on the part of the cop when a preponderance of evidence demonstrates that the crime was not related to racism, we should also give up any conspiracy theory when evidence pokes so many holes in its hull that it can no longer stay afloat. And this particular conspiracy theory is one that seems to have sunk long ago. It’s time to stop looking for it on the horizon and realize that it’s below us.