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Public Editor Public Editor: No reason to give equal time to naturopathy believers

An Alberta couple were convicted Tuesday of failing to provide the necessaries of life to their son, who ended up dying of meningitis. The crown prosecutor says David and Collet Stephan "definitely" loved their 19-month-old son.

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There's a concept in journalism that is an exception to the normal practice of being balanced to all sides of an issue. Not so in stories where the views of one side are discredited for any number of reasons. To give equal say to those who deny climate change or those who suggest the moon landing was fake would be a false balance. (Here's a link to a Columbia Journalism Review explanation of the concept.)

Balance is not needed when one side is discredited by science or medicine. For example, it would be irresponsible to give equal say and credence to the anti-vaccine movement.

In my view, the same is true for naturopathy. I've had two complaints this week about The Globe and Mail's coverage of the death of Ezekiel Stephan and the conviction of his parents for failing to provide the necessities of life.

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The toddler, who died of meningitis, had been treated by his parents with remedies that included "hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish," even though as the article from The Canadian Press says, a family friend who was a nurse told them she thought the boy had meningitis.

Health reporter Carly Weeks has written extensively on the subject, including this recent article in which she asked if the public is being well served by the regulation of naturopaths.

Ms. Weeks analyzed the websites of licensed naturopaths in Toronto and found that "of the roughly 300 regulated, active Toronto naturopaths with an online presence, nearly half appear to be in breach of the college's rules based on claims made online. The promises are wide-ranging, from naturopaths describing their services as 'cutting-edge' to those claiming they can reverse the course of dementia to others who make blanket statements that naturopathy can help anyone with any ailment fully restore his or her health."

Health columnist André Picard wrote that the courts were right to find the Stephans guilty of failing to provide for their son.

Mr. Picard describes naturopathy as a belief system with no scientific basis. "Pseudoscience is comforting: It's easy to embrace, promising magic and definitive answers, not all messy and rife with unanswered questions like real science. Add to this a lot of flowery language about 'natural,' 'holistic' and 'drug-free' treatments, and a dash of scientific illiteracy, and you have a potent cocktail that can, on occasion, have horrible consequences."

Two complaints were sent to me this week about these two writers and about this opinion piece by Peter McKnight, a former Templeton-Cambridge fellow in science and religion at the University of Cambridge, titled "Message to naturopaths: Magic isn't medicine."

One woman, who worked for a naturopath, argued that naturopaths are regulated and that the vast majority of them do lab testing and scientifically supported treatment plans.

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Another reader started his complaint with: "STOP IT! JUST STOP IT!!!"

He said he was expecting balanced reporting. "I am not seeing balance on this issue at all. … Could it be that there is nefarious forces at work behind the scenes encouraging all these articles on naturopathic disciplines which are a lot less deadly than mainstream medicine."

Reporters and columnists are delving into the very real public-health issues of relying on supplements to the exclusion of medicine. They are not and should not see naturopathy and medicine treated as equal partners in health care. And there is absolutely no reason for them to give equal time to the other side. To do so would be a false balance and could endanger public health.

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