From: Skeptic Mag Hotline
Date: Mon, 01 Feb 1999 12:03:07 -0800
Subject: STRANGE SCIENCE/ALT MED TRAGEDY

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THANKS

First of all I want to thank you all for the hundreds of letters in support in response to my GOD DEBATE II posting last week. I WAS discouraged at that point, but not anymore. It really does matter knowing that there are others out there who think alike and are supportive. I shall continue, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, to "hoe to the end of the row."

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STRANGE SCIENCE

All this week The Learning Channel is airing its STRANGE SCIENCE series, for which I was filmed, along with Skeptics Society board member and Skeptic contributing editor Tom McDonough (the SETI director for the Planetary Society), and others. Here is the lineup. They all are listed to air 10pm eastern. Check your local listings. They may air at 10pm everywhere, or the times may vary.

2/1 Monday: Bizarre Phenomena
2/2 Tuesday: Weird Places
2/3 Wednesday: Mysterious Skies
2/4 Thursday: Unusual People
2/5 Odd Sounds

2/7 Repeat of the entire series from 1-6pm

I will be on tonight and Thursday night, Tom McDonough tonight and Wednesday night. Probably they have on other skeptics, but I'm not sure who or when. The producers were very kind to me and said they would be appropriately skeptical, but we all know what that usually means, so we'll have to wait and see.

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ANOTHER ALT MED TRAGEDY

In the next couple of months CBS's Unsolved Mysteries will be airing a program on a "Russian Psychic Healer" named Nicolai Levashov, who claims he has created medical miracles and that "the results have mystified the very doctors who had written their patients off as incurable," according to the pre- production report given to me by the producers of this segment. I was consulted by the segment producer, Janet Jones, and was asked to comment on film about this healer. I was not going to comment on this until the show aired, but recent events compel me to finally say something.

Nicolai Levashov says he heals people by going inside their body psychically and tweaking with the damaged cells and tissues. The story segment focuses on two cases: (1) Isabelle Pritchard, who was born with a brain tumor and had four surgeries and numerous chemo and radiation treatments; (2) Susan Strasberg, the actress, diagnosed with breast cancer, was allegedly healed by Levashov. The second case is now another tragedy of Alternative Medicine, since Strasberg recently died of cancer. Here is the Unsolved Mysteries script that was going to be used for the show (they sent me a copy), but will be changed, no doubt, before it airs, since Strasberg was filmed extensively for the program. The script:

"Actress Susan Strasberg, the daughter of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, calls her involvement with Nicolai's psychic healing 'the great adventure of my life.' At age 57, she had felt a tiny lump in her breast. A biopsy confirmed her worst fears. She had malignant cancer and needed a double mastectomy. 'My mother had died of cancer at 58. I didn't want that to happen to me. I'm 60 now and feeling better than I ever have in my life. I owe it all to Nicolai.' Susan refused surgery. A longtime believer in alternative healing methods, she sought help from Nicolai in San Francisco. By the time she went there, her tumor had grown quickly and was considered in a terminal stage. For nearly ten months, she went to Nicolai's office every day for 15 minutes. When she had to go to Europe, he continued the sessions via telephone twice a week. [Psychic healing can allegedly be done over the phone.] Susan had a mammogram a year after the initial diagnosis of cancer. It showed no signs of the tumor. Her New York doctors had no interest in hearing about the Russian healer Susan described to them. She gratefully acknowledges Nicolai's skill by saying, 'This must be the medicine for the future. He knows anatomy, biology, chemistry and can diagnose sickness so well. My essence knew this was the right thing to do, to put my life in Nicolai's hands.'"

Strasberg died of cancer. Her final statement sums up the problem succinctly and tragically. The future of medicine is not in the so-called "alternative" or "complementary" medicine fields. The reason is that almost every claim made in these fields are based on the types of "essences" Strasberg felt as the "right thing to do." As pattern-seeking animals we all tend toward subjective feelings about what "feels" or "seems" right. Sometimes we are right, sometimes we are wrong. The only way to find out is to test the claim with science. Modern medicine has developed a reasonably reliable method to test such claims (not perfect, of course, but the best method we have). Strasberg chose to ignore science and she paid with her life. (Of course, we will never know how the experiment would have come out with traditional methods of treatment, since people still die of cancer, but we DO know how this one came out.)

Nicolai Levashov came to the attention of Unsolved Mysteries through a woman named Barbara Koopman, M.D., Ph.D., a close friend of Susan Strasberg. She wrote Unsolved Mysteries a letter recommending that they do a story on him. (I have copies of the letter, all medical reports for Strasberg and the other patients, the Unsolved Mysteries script, etc.) I called Koopman to get a statement about this affair. At first she was very reluctant to speak to me, but since I was friendly and genuinely inquisitive she warmed up and then opened up. She still completely believes in Levashov. Strasberg, she says, lived four years longer than she should of thanks to the psychic's healings of her. Strasberg had the happiest final four years of her life. She should have been dead within months but instead lived years. Her death came suddenly and was a complete surprise to Dr. Koopman and, she says, to others as well. Koopman feels that regardless of the cause of death (the Los Angeles Times obit said it was from cancer), her final years were still a miracle. Levashov is still, in her eyes, a miracle worker. I asked Koopman if she knows how Levashov works his miracles. She explained that it has to do with the interchange of matter and energy, but that this explanation probably makes no sense. Correct there Dr. Koopman. She continued to stress over and over that this outcome should not be considered a tragedy, because Strasberg was so happy at the end.

Will Nicolai Levashov be held accountable for Strasberg's death? Of course not. Will such alternative modalities of healing be questioned because of this? Of course not. Will Unsolved Mysteries run the piece and then end it explaining that she died anyway? I seriously doubt it (my guess is that it will be eliminated from the segment so as not to dampen the enthusiasm for the psychic healer's amazing skills--disconfirming evidence is rarely presented on such programs).

Unfortunately, countless people are taken in by such hucksters as Levashov, and pay with their lives, but because they are not celebrities we do not hear about them. And the alternative medicine gurus like Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil are not about to pen a statement saying that perhaps they are wrong about the nonsense they peddle. Tragedies like Strasberg are either ignored, or tallied up to negative thoughts on her part, or by healing methods on the part of this ONE psychic (but the other methods are still acceptable), or, in Koopman's case, that she WAS healed, temporarily anyway. This whole mess sickens me. You are going to see more on alternative medicine in the pages of Skeptic in coming issues. This is a problem of grave concern.

Michael Shermer

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