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How Pseudoscientific Quacks Defend Child Abuse


Few things are more provoking to a scientific skeptic than when pseudoscientific cranks and quack exploit those who are not in a position to defend themselves. For instance, some HIV/AIDS denialist attempt to convince people with the virus to stop taking their medications or not using protection. Some anti-psychiatry proponents tell people with serious psychological conditions that they caused their own situation by “thinking too negatively” or “eating too much acidic food” and that all they need to do is “think positively”.

It is even more agitating when these quacks are exploiting and harming children. You might be able to argue that adults have personal responsibility and that they therefore should be allowed to do what they want, but this is not true for children. They are innocent and the quackery of the parents should not be imposed on their offspring. This post explores four such examples: chiropractors who perform dangerous spinal manipulations of very young children and even newborns, anti-vaccine activists who defend child abusers by falsely claiming that shaken baby syndrome is somehow a vaccine injury, fake therapists who subject children to coercive “rebirthing therapies” based on wrapping children in blankets and making them fight their way out to establish emotional attachment (that has led to fatalities) and finally autism quacks that force autistic children to drink bleach or take bleach enema.

Chiropractors: dangerous neck manipulations of newborn

Chiropractic is an alternative medicine pseudoscience that posits that most diseases are caused by misalignments in the spine called subluxation. In reality, these supposed misalignments cannot be seen on x-rays and had they been real, the person would be in excruciating constant pain, not have diffuse symptoms such as tiredness.

The “treatments” applied by chiropractors are manipulation of the back and neck. Most large-scale, methodologically solid studies and meta-analyses have found that it is either not better than placebo, or the benefit is so small that it is medically negligible and likely due to residual bias. Some of these studies are reviewed here, here and here.

In other words, chiropractic is a fake “treatment” and a scientifically incorrect system of thought. One of the most despicable things regularly being done by some chiropractors is to forcibly manipulate the back and neck of very young or even newborn children. This includes pressure against the neck and back, holding newborns upside-down, extended pressure on the pelvic, and even twisting the neck until it makes an audible “pop” or “snap” sound. This is analyzed in additional detail here, together with several examples of individual chiropractors, their companies and videos of their spinal manipulation on newborns. Sometimes, they babies are as young as a couple of hours.

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Anti-vaccine activists: falsely dismissing shaken baby syndrome as supposed vaccine injury

Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is a form of abusive head trauma to children that is indicated by a certain form of bleeding in the brain, bleeding in the eye and swelling of the brain. This can lead to brain damage or death in many cases. In most cases, SBS is caused by abusive caregivers. The CDC explains:

Abusive head trauma (AHT), which includes shaken baby syndrome, is a preventable and severe form of physical child abuse that results in an injury to the brain of an infant or child. AHT is most common in children under age five, with children under one year of age at most risk. It is caused by violent shaking or blunt impact. The resulting injury can cause bleeding around the brain or on the inside back layer of the eyes.

Nearly all victims of AHT suffer serious, long-term health consequences such as vision problems, developmental delays, physical disabilities, and hearing loss. At least one of every four babies who experience AHT dies from this form of child abuse.

Research shows that AHT often happens when a parent or caregiver becomes angry or frustrated from a child’s crying. The caregiver then shakes the child, hitting or slamming the child’s head into something in an effort to stop the crying.

Crying—including long bouts of inconsolable crying—is normal behavior in infants. Shaking, throwing, hitting, or hurting a baby is never the right response to crying.

Instead of acknowledging this, anti-vaccine activists defend these child abusers by claiming that SBS is merely a form of vaccine injury, and that parents are being falsely labeled child abusers. So here we have an unholy alliance between proponents of anti-vaccine pseudoscience and documented child abusers. If this does not convince you that considerable elements of the anti-vaccine movement is unreasonable, nothing will. This disturbing defense of child abusers have been debunked several times before, such as here, here, here and here.

Fake “therapists”: coercive rebirthing “therapy” harms and kills

In the past, some researchers thought that autism was caused by so-called refrigerator mothers. These were mothers who were cold and emotionally distant and it was falsely believed that this on its own caused autism in children. However, this was not based on any scientific evidence whatsoever, but on psychoanalytic speculations. The modern mainstream scientific position is that the idea of refrigerator mothers is completely wrong:

Autism once was thought to be a rare condition, affecting about 1 in 2,000 individuals. It was thought of as mental illness, specifically schizophrenia of childhood, and was believed to be due to poor parenting. The “refrigerator mother” perception was prominent until the 1970s, continuing even into the 1980s. Today, autism is recognized as having a biologic basis and a range or spectrum of presentations.

As with many pseudoscientific claims about the origin of certain conditions, it also has an associated pseudoscientific “treatment”, known as “attachment therapy”, “restraint therapy” or “rebirthing therapy”. This is based on the false notion that if you restrain a child with autism for a long time and try to stare into the eyes of the child, this will “fix” the situation and “cure” the child of autism. The proposed mechanism is that it increases the emotional attachment between caregiver and child. More extreme forms includes wrapping the child in a blanket, encouraging the child to fight his or her way free and this “rebirthing” of the child so that the parent and child can “have another chance” at emotional attachment. Unsurprisingly, this is ineffective and even dangerous and there are several reported cases of severe injury or death. A paper in British Medical Journal describes a case study of a young girl being suffocated to death after an ordeal lasting 70 minutes:

Candace Newmaker died during a 70 minute session in which she was wrapped from head to toe and surrounded by pillows. Despite the girl’s cries that she was suffocating, the therapists continued to push her in an attempt to simulate uterine contractions. The episode had been videotaped and was used in court against the therapists, who were convicted of reckless child abuse resulting in death and sentenced to 16-48 years’ imprisonment.

This pseudoscientific and dangerous “treatment” and case studies are discussed in additional details here, here and here.

Autism quacks: forcibly subjecting autistic children to chlorine dioxide bleach

Chlorine dioxide bleach is a chlorine bleach that is used as an industrial bleach in pulp mills. Autism quacks peddle chlorine dioxide as an alternative medicine “treatment” for autism, that is based on diluting the bleach and mixing it citric acid. Then, they force their autistic children to either drink it or take it as an enema. Proponents claim that this removes parasites and yeast that they falsely believe causes autism.

In reality, you are subjecting innocent children with autism to corrosive bleach that harms their gastrointestinal tract. Although it is diluted, it still contains a concentration of chlorine dioxide that is 3000x higher than the maximum allowed concentration in drinking water. This is discussed in additional detail here, here and here.


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5 thoughts on “How Pseudoscientific Quacks Defend Child Abuse

  • Emil Karlsson,

    Man I feel sorry for kids who have parents who do stuff like this.

    • Yeah, you and me both.

      Remember this when ignorant people use the “what’s the harm?” gambit.

  • If the crying is inconsolable can you just let them “cry it out” and how do you know when the cry is trying to communicate a need and when it’s not?

    • Hard to tell. In principle, you could measure cortisol levels in the blood. More cortisol means more physiologically stressed. Not really possible in practice for parents, but could be used to test child rearing techniques and techniques for getting children to sleep.

  • If your baby cries inconsolably call a real doctor. Sometimes they have a medical problem and even if they don’t your pediatrician can help with strategies for coping and soothing the baby.

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