Respectful Insolence

I’m rather amused.

No, I’m very amused.

Yesterday, as you may recall, I discussed a seemingly alarming e-mail that’s going around about a 17-year-old boy with melanoma whom the State of California had allegedly removed from the custody of his mother because she and he had wanted to use “advanced natural medicine” to treat his melanoma, rather than surgery and chemotherapy. I pointed out a number of questionable elements in the story that made me very suspicious of its accuracy, not the least of which is the fact that the mainstay of melanoma treatment is surgery plus biological therapy, not chemotherapy. I also pointed out that the story was being used to raise money for an alleged “defense fund” by HealthFreedomUSA, as well as serving as a dramatic story used to push Ron Paul‘s Health Freedom Protection Act (a.k.a. Ron Paul’s bill to keep the government from interfering with the ability of quacks to practice their quackery).

I expected that my post might annoy certain people. I even allowed for the possibility that the Natural Solutions Foundation/HealthFreedomUSA might notice the traffic coming from this humble blog. Little did I know how rapidly this would happen. For, dear readers, a mere three hours after my little deconstruction of what is almost certainly an urban legend appeared, a commenter identifying himself as Thomas Cowles II, Media Director, Natural Solutions Foundation, appeared in the comments, and boy was he annoyed:

This story is not fake. If you are in contact with Abraham Cherrix, you would know that it is indeed a REAL situation. The mother AND son have been in contact with Abraham and his mother. There are now 4 attorneys on this case. I wrote this story and you really have no business “debunking” a story because of your “gut feelings”. This piece is shameful!


Yes!

I love it when someone like Mr. Cowles calls something I wrote “shameful.” Of course, I based my assessment on far more than just my “gut feeling” and indeed actually enumerated the several reasons that I highly doubted the accuracy of this story in gory detail, in just the logorrheic manner that readers of this blog have come to expect. Moreover, I never claimed to have been in contact with Abraham Cherrix or his mother; so I have no idea where Mr. Cowles got that idea from. Finally, I also cannot help but note that in his first foray into my blog Mr. Cowles failed to produce even a single bit of corroborating evidence for this story. Not one. Given that I was very busy all day yesterday until late, I couldn’t show up myself to respond to Mr. Cowles, but fortunately, some of my readers did, pointing out that Mr. Cowles had not provided a shred of evidence for the story other than his statement that it is a “REAL” situation and asking for more evidence.

Undaunted, Mr. Cowles reappeared several hours later with this claim:

A press conference was held outside the courthouse on Sep 6th. The atty present was Christopher Taylor. An article appeared in 2 local newspapers prior to that date. I have not been able to find them online. Most networks were present at the press conference but the judge ordered a gag order, so they would no longer be able to run the story. The issue is the Freedom to choose. Most don’t realize that ALL chemo melonoma treatments are experimental and have a 94% failure rate. If it were you, would want the State to force you to have treatment under those odds?

A press conference? Outside “the” courthouse on September 6? An article in two local newspapers? Oddly enough, once again, Mr. Cowles seems completely unable to back up his story. But what about this lawyer named Christopher Taylor? I tried some Googling, but I could find no stories about a 17-year-old with melanoma with a lawyer named Christopher Taylor. I failed utterly. I freely admit that my failure to find the stories doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no such case (after all, it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that any news story about the case would fail to mention the name of the lawyer, particularly if that lawyer presumably held a press conference outside “the” courthouse on September 6), but if I can’t find it that way it does suggest that these two newspaper articles that Mr. Cowles cites do not exist. He could, of course, easily prove me wrong by either providing links, scanning the newspapers themselves, or providing a standard newspaper citation (newspaper title, article title, page numbers) that can be verified. He did keep the newspapers, didn’t he? If not, why not, given that he’s sent out a mass e-mail based on this story?

Mr. Cowles is also wrong about “all” chemotherapy melanoma treatments being experimental and having a 94% failure rate. I suppose it depends on what you mean by “failure” (given that chemotherapy virtually never cures metastatic melanoma, you could claim that its “failure” rate, if you’re using long term survival as your measure, is close to 100%, although it does better in terms of prolongation of survival), but there are regimens out there with response rates between 10-20% in the metastatic setting. True, that sucks, which is why we really, really need better treatments for metastatic melanoma, but it’s not a “94%” failure rate. It is also true that the NCI website states that all patients with metastatic melanoma should be considered for clinical trials, but that’s not the same thing as saying that all chemotherapy for melanoma is “experimental.” Indeed, some regimens that are acceptable include dacarbazine (DTIC) and the nitrosoureas, carmustine (BCNU) and lomustine.

However, the most hilarious response by Mr. Cowles is a truly mindnumbingly stupid example of utterly missing the point. I’ll explain. A reader named shiritai said:

Thomas, experimental treatments aren’t standard of care, so the state can’t force that on anyone. The facts given in the email don’t add up.

An excellent point. No matter how much you distrust the government, it’s hard to imagine it ever forcing an “experimental” treatment on anyone in these days of the Common Rule and IRBs. Besides, it’s not true that chemotherapy for melanoma must be experimental, although such a statement would be true if it were referring to adjuvant therapy after surgery rather than the sole therapy. Not unexpectedly, Mr. Cowles’ dubious letter didn’t specify which was the situation. In any case, in a truly fantastic example of completely missing the point, Mr. Cowles responded:

Shiritai,
your correct. That facts don’t add up, which is why they are fighting to stop the treatment.

This was followed by a standard altie rant about the arrogance of doctors. Of course, the funny thing was that shirtai was pointing out that the elements that made up Mr. Cowle’s story of this 17-year-old as described in the e-mail were inconsistent; i.e., the “didn’t add up,” not that the story was a “fact” or that the “facts” didn’t add up. Truly, Mr. Cowles cranked up the Stupid-O-Meter to 11 before putting fingers to keyboard to respond to that.

Of course, there is one other big inconsistency that I had forgotten to mention about the story. The e-mail states that this 17-year-old was treated with “advanced natural medicine” and that it had eliminated the boy’s melanoma. Not a single shred of evidence is presented to support this claim. Indeed, this claim doesn’t even rise to the usually dubious level of an alternative medicine “testimonial,” because it’s not even a first hand story. Heck, it’s not even a second hand story, given that Cowles appears not to know the 17-year-old in question. Basically, it’s a third hand story with dubious claims.

Does all of this mean that Mr. Cowles is lying? No, not necessarily. In fact, he probably is not. He very likely truly believes that this dubiou story is true, much as many people who repeat urban legends truly believe that they are true. Mr. Cowles probably heard it somewhere and, because it confirmed his world view, particularly his distrust of “conventional” medicine, he immediately believed it and saw it as a convenient bit of propaganda for his “health freedom” crusade. Of course, when the story is challenged, as I challenged it, rather than rethinking whether he had been correct to believe the story so quickly and to look for corroborating evidence, Mr. Cowles instead becomes defensive and spouts increasingly idiotic-sounding defenses of the story. Of course, the difference between me and Mr. Cowles is that I will revise my skepticism about the story if he is able to provide me with some corroborating evidence that the story is true (particularly the melodramatic part about the mother being thrown into a “maximum security” prison). Show me verifiable evidence, and I will change my mind. Mr. Cowles, on the other hand, appears unable to do that.

As for how the story originated, it’s possible that it derived from a real story somewhere, but, through its retelling, gradually accumulated more and more–shall we say?–“dramatic” elements, most of which are inconsistent with reality. This is exactly how urban legends develop and propagate, and he who forgets that is the one who will be taken in by such stories. More importantly, before giving any money to Mr. Cowles or his organization in order to defend the mother and fight this young man’s alleged legal battle, ask for a lot more verification that this story is true and there actually is a legal battle being fought.

ALL POSTS ON THIS STORY THUS FAR:

  1. The story of the 17-year-old with melanoma being forced to undergo chemotherapy: Urban legend?
  2. Thomas Cowles twisting in the wind defending the “cancer boy” urban legend
  3. An update on the youth who “cured himself” of melanoma, Chad Jessop
  4. One last update (for now) on the youth who “cured himself” of melanoma, Chad Jessop
  5. “I have seen the light! The Chad Jessop melanoma story happened. Really.”
  6. Lee Woodard on the Chad Jessop melanoma story: “Why would I promote a hoax?”

OTHER SKEPTICAL TAKES:

  1. Legendary Legend or Mysterious Mystery?

PUBLICATIONS REFERENCED:

  1. Dear Health Freedom Fighters (September 12, 2007)
  2. The Gary Null Show 9/13/2007 (The relevant segment is at approximately the 11:45 minute mark.)
  3. Mother Jailed, Put On Trial for Curing Her Son of Melanoma (October 3, 2007)
  4. Mother Jailed, Put On Trial for Curing Her Son of Melanoma (published in the Los Angeles Free Press on 11/12/2007, PDF here)

Comments

  1. #1 Phil
    September 19, 2007

    A gag order would not mean the removal of information already in the public domain, would it? It would mean no more talking to the press.
    I’m not automatically dismissing this case, I live in the OC.But it rings no bells with me. And I don’t recall seeing this on TV. Usually a case like this would be grist for the scientific internet …or even Ron Paul.

  2. #2 Ahistoricality
    September 19, 2007

    A quick search of the California State Bar turns up several “Christopher Taylor” lawyers (eight, to be precise), one of whom is in LA, one in Orange County (I don’t remember enough CA geography to pinpoint the others quickly).

    So that bit’s plausible. IANAL but if there were a gag order, no lawyer would discuss the case, I think, so it’s an evidentiary dead end.

  3. #3 Coin
    September 19, 2007

    IANAL but if there were a gag order, no lawyer would discuss the case, I think, so it’s an evidentiary dead end.

    Well, if just gathering evidence is the goal, poking at what Shiritai turned up earlier revealed an interesting comment on this page on the Orange County CA Superior Court web page:

    Orange County Juvenile Court limits access to juvenile court records… Availability of these records is restricted to certain court personnel, the minor, parents or guardian, attorneys involved in the case, and other persons designated by the Presiding Judge of Juvenile Court. Photo identification is required.

    Other interested persons and the news media may petition the Orange County Juvenile Court for access to specific juvenile court records or to attend specific juvenile court hearings.

    Petitions to Inspect and Receive Copies of Juvenile Records (WIC Section 827) are available at the Juvenile Court, 341 City Drive, P.O. Box 14169, Orange, Ca. 92613. There is no charge for the form.

    It appears difficult to do this unless one is physically in Orange County, but for anyone who is in Orange County it looks like this is an option requiring not too much effort– and I don’t know if I’m competent to interpret WIC Section 827 but it looks like there’s no particular reason why such a petition would be outright denied unless a party involved in the case objects. Of course I’m not sure whether or not you could successfully complete the petition form with no more information than “a 17-year-old with melanoma who was in some court in Orange County on Sep. 6th and who may or may not even exist”…

  4. #4 AnnR
    September 19, 2007

    I thought you had pretty good points about that myth.

    If he was “cured” why were they pursuing further treatment?
    Why were they doing a treatment that isn’t usually the standard?

    It sounds to me like he’s got metastatic disease.

    When an observer with a clue can ask those questions, and not get straight answers then it’s all fishy.

  5. #5 Bill Childs
    September 19, 2007

    For what it’s worth, a Westlaw search in the “Allnews” database seeking “christopher taylor” & cancer comes up with 91 results, but none describing anything like a September 6 press conference or anything relevant in the last nine months or so.

    Certainly some number of papers aren’t in Westlaw.

  6. #6 Jud
    September 19, 2007

    It appears Mr. Cowles has misconstrued what a “gag order” is. It doesn’t at all prevent the press from reporting on any court proceeding. As Wikipedia says, “In the United States, a court can only order parties to a case not to comment on it; a court has no authority to stop unrelated reporters from reporting on a case.”

    The reason for this is of course First Amendment freedom of the press.

    Lack of publicity surrounding a highly controversial matter such as a court’s attempt to override parental authority would likely result from lack of any actual matter to publicize, rather than a “gag order.”

  7. #7 doctorgoo
    September 19, 2007

    The bit that set off my BS-o-meter was “the mother was put in jail for 5 days in maximum security and suffered injuries in the neck and arm from jailers.”

    Does anyone ever get “maximum security” for just 5 days? Of course not. This is either an exaggeration, or she did something a lot worse than what is claimed in the urban legend.

    And the bit about being abused while in prison seems like just another way try to steal sympathy from the reader. Sure, it happens, and it’s bad whenever it happens… but it has nothing to do with the reasons why she (allegedly) was put in jail.

  8. #8 vlad
    September 19, 2007

    The only thing that might explain the mom being thrown into “maximum security” is a gross misunderstanding (intentional or not) by Mr. Cowles. She may have been placed in a prison mental ward which is a form of high security in laymans thinking. In certain cases a person can be held in a maximum insecurity prison awaiting trial if the crimes they are accused of as especially horrid and they have priors. Anyone suspected of terrorism will likely be held in maximum security prior to trial.

  9. #9 Tomas
    September 19, 2007

    I call BS on this story. Try googling it….nothing. This is a great story, would get instant, if not national then statelevel coverage.

    Evil bureaucrats? Check
    Family values? Check
    Human interest? Check

    It´s a keeper! but do a search on 17 year-old melanoma “Orange County” and what you get are liberatarians discussing this email and how ebil the guvment iz!

    Sigh.

  10. #10 Katrina
    September 19, 2007

    So, how is giving this Cowles guy money going to help this kid who he doesn’t even know? He only said that he knows that they have talked to someone else.

    If he could just call the Cerrix family and find out the stage of melanoma, treatment already given, and the treatment that they are trying to give him it might clear up a lot.

    I don’t believe a bit of this. It is possible that the kid had stage III and surgery, then some kind of natural treatment (which would likely have made no difference), and the doctors want him to do high dose interferon, followed by a year of low dose. This is often mistaken for chemo. People often don’t understand the difference between imunotherapy and chemo.

    Finally, not all melanoma treatment is experimental. Not all stages of melanoma have a low survival rate. Stage iv is currently listed as 5% 10 year survival, while stage i is a 95 – 98% 10 year survival rate after clean margins are obtained through surgery.

    A lot of this story sounds very exagerated and misinformed. Maybe the guy is legitimately confused.

  11. #11 Save Your
    September 19, 2007

    I was willing to give Mr. Cowles the benefit of the doubt when he appeared here making comments in fairly rapid succession. I thought maybe, just maybe, the story’s basic outline (if not details) might have some basis in truth. But given the amount of time that has elapsed since his last appearance and that he’s not provided any more details that would enable corroboration, I think it’s likely that this does have to be chalked up to “Urban Legend.” If he had the goods, he likely would have been back by now.

    Assuming he can’t back up the story, he should issue a “mea culpa,” but I’m not holding my breath for him to show up again.

    It saddens me (although I’m old enough that it shouldn’t surprise me–indeed I’m not surprised) that someone could be so irresponsible and so lacking in integrity as to write something like that and then even (dishonestly) add fuel to the fire by showing up here to “defend” the story.

    I think Orac nails it in the last two paragraphs of his blog entry. But even if Mr. Cowles did believe it on some level, he wrote with a disregard for the truth by not verifying the information before sending out the email appealing for donations. He’s further compounded that transgression by insisting on the veracity of the story here at this blog, stopping short of offering tangible, verifiable details that would support his tale. Shame on him.

    Naturally, I would be pleased to be proven wrong. All it would take would be a few details from him verifying even the basic outline of the story. I’m even willing to accept that some of the details are exaggerated (e.g., that the “cure” effected by “advanced natural medicine” is overstated, that the mother’s incarceration wasn’t “maximum security”) and still call the story basically true. But from the way things look now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the story is either a wild composite of a number of different stories or a complete fabrication.

    Sad. I hope people don’t hand over money on the basis of that email.

  12. #12 wfjag
    September 19, 2007

    Dear Dr. Orac:

    I find this story quite fascinating, and I suspect so many others do too, because it really provides the chance to try to track down the source of what appears to be an urban legend – if not a fund-raising gambit. How much is fact, and how much is fiction? I suppose it’s a grown-up version of the children’s game “rumors” (sit in a circle and whisper in the first child’s ear something and see how it changes – you remember, something like “Janie screamed at the spider” becomes “James has green hair.”), only now you get to use computers and the internet to play.

    However, as you investigate even a little further, it really became fascinating – as in Hollyweird, cloak and dagger, 9/11 Conspiracy Theory, appearances by Richard Dawkins, and psychic powers fascinating.

    Orac, you stopped digging too soon. If you’d checked out Natural Sollutions Foundation and who is behind it, you’d found the really interesting stuff.

    Natural Solutions Foundation was founded in 2005 by Rima E. Laibow, MD, who is the Medical Director, (see her on-line Vita, http://healthfreedomusa.org/aboutus/resume.pdf) and Major General Albert “Bert” N. Stubblebine III, U.S. Army (retired). Since at least 2002, every paper Dr. Laibow has written has been co-authored by A. Stubblebine. Gen. Subblebine has a Master’s in Chemical Engineering, and before her venturing into “natural healing”, Dr. Laibow was a psychiatrist.

    In 2001, Dr. Laibow and colleagues established the Neurotherapy and Biofeedback Certification Board (NBCB), of which Dr Laibow is the current President, by combining the Biofeedback, Neuropathy, and Peak Performance Certification Boards. In 2005, she, along with her husband, Gen. Albert Stubblebine, closed her “thriving medical practice” and founded Natural Solutions Foundation, so they could devote all their time to the attacks on our health and health freedoms.

    Where does this information come from? The website for the 2006 “documentary” “One Nation Under Siege”: Big Brother is doing more than watching.” http://www.onenationundersiege.us. Both Dr. Laibow and Gen. Stubblebine appear in this conspiracy theorist dream film.

    It’s not like Gen. Stubblebine doesn’t have experience in the cloak and dagger world. According to the movie’s website “while serving as the Commander General of the US Army’s Intelligence School and Center, redesigned the US Army intelligence architecture and helped to define the requirements of the US Army, for future conflicts. He has commanded both the Electronic Research and Development Command (ERADCOM) and the Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) of the US Army. Major General Stubblebine created Remote Viewing for the purpose of Army intelligence gathering. In his current position as President of the Natural Solutions Foundation, his present goal is to find better ways to become and remain healthy.”

    Now what is this “remote viewing”? According to his family website, http://www.stubblebinefamily.com/content/gen_albert.html, “Gen. (Ret.) Stubblebine’s military career as Commanding officer of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), his efforts to study unusual human performance for the Army, his involvement as Chairman of the Board of Directors of PSI TECH, his association with TREAT and with Soviet Technology Transfer, etc.).

    And, the Psi Tech website, http://www.psitech.net, explains:

    “PSI TECH, Inc. is home to the breakthrough skill of Technical Remote Viewing (TRV.)

    Originally developed for and utilized by The Department Of Defense for intelligence collection purposes, Technical Remote Viewing is the trained ability to acquire accurate direct knowledge of things and events – targets – distant in time or space, in the past, present, or future, while conscious awareness remains totally “blind” to details about the target itself. TRV is a highly structured and standardized data collection skill. Like any other skill, practice is required to become proficient.”

    And Gen. Stubblebine has his own site in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Stubblebine:

    “Major General Albert “Bert” N. Stubblebine III was the commanding general of the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command from 1981 to 1984, when he retired from the Army. He is known for his interest in parapsychology and was a strong supporter of the Stargate Project. Stubblebine features heavily in journalist Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats.

    Stubblebine appeared in the 2006 documentary “One Nation Under Siege” where he states that a Boeing 757 airplane could not have crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

    Stubblebine is referred to by Richard Dawkins in his lecture “Queerer Than We Suppose: The strangeness of science” and as “comic relief” in The God Delusion (referencing The Men who Stare at Goats).”

    There’s a lot more, but why spoil the fun of others who want to dig some more?

    Dr. Orac – you believe that this story is an “urban legend.” I’m not so sure. I’m still bothered by the fact that Natural Solutions Foundation, a non-law, not-for profit, advocacy organization apparently based in Missouri, which apparently has no connections to California, is soliciting donations, apparently to be sent to a Missouri address, to hire an attorney for a woman in California who is entitled to counsel for free under California law.

    And, I suppose this leads to some final questions about the story: Mr. Cowles, was the source of your story in any way related to use of Psi Tech equipment or methods? I’d think that remote viewing would reveal the answers to all the questions that have been raised. And, if not, why not?

  13. #13 Coin
    September 19, 2007

    A lot of this story sounds very exagerated and misinformed. Maybe the guy is legitimately confused.

    I find it incredibly curious that he says the story appeared in “2 local newspapers” but he couldn’t tell us what newspapers or when. Why mention this detail but not bother taking the fifteen extra keystrokes to mention the names of the papers? Even if we for some reason choose to assume that he isn’t just lying outright, I can’t help but wonder if he perhaps believes this press conference and “2 local newspaper” articles existed based on hearsay (from… who? Abraham Cherrix?), but hasn’t actually seen them himself…

  14. #14 Dangerous Bacon
    September 20, 2007

    Interestingly, there’s somewhat of a kerfluffle in the altie community over the Natural Solutions Foundation.

    Charges are flying that the NSF and Gen. Stubblebine are some sort of “fifth column” aiming to do harm to the altie cause:

    http://www4.dr-rath-foundation.org/THE_FOUNDATION/Events/codex-moderngeneral.html

    It’s bad enough that hard-core alties are super-paranoid about Big Pharma, the Evil FDA, anti-quackery advocates etc. When they get so far around the bend that they start consuming their own, look out. ;)

  15. #15 Bryn
    September 20, 2007

    I moseyed on over to Snopes to see what I could see. No luck on that particular story, but this one popped up in the “Hottest Urban Legends” column –
    http://www.snopes.com/medical/disease/cancerupdate.asp

  16. #16 Ginger Yellow
    September 20, 2007

    I’ve been meaning to read The Men Who Stare At Goats for ages. Ronson’s Them: Adventures With Extremists was fantastic, but I saw the TV show that was done alongside the second book so I never bothered to read it. I might just do so now.

  17. #17 Jim Lippard
    September 22, 2007

    Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats is excellent.

    Is this Thomas Cowles II the same Thomas Cowles who was the Empire Towers spammer in Ohio, from the Cowles Publishing family? I see Thomas Cowles II uses the domain name cowlesmedia.com, but it’s registered to Telemercial in Boca Raton, FL (which the Florida Department of State has no record of as a corporate entity), so there’s no obvious connection.

    http://www.mugshots.com/Criminal/Computer/Thomas+Carlton+Cowles.htm

  18. #18 MyaR
    September 24, 2007

    [Commenting for the first time here, as I’m just appalled, appalled I tell you! at the googling skills above.]

    The real Abraham Cherrix (hint: pick the most unusual words to google, so Abraham Cherrix, not Christopher Taylor) was in Virginia and had (has?) Hodgkin’s disease. Includes press links. So, looks like a huge distortion of originally legit(ish) story.

  19. #19 MyaR
    September 24, 2007

    Oh, and the alternative therapy they opted for was Hoxsey Therapy. Yay.

  20. #20 MyaR
    September 24, 2007

    Argh, went back and realized I totally misread, having been distracted by the unusualness of Cherrix as a name. Nevermind.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.