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Review of the Whole Life Expo

On November 28, three members of ASR’s Steering Committee — David Bailey and Lisa Johnson — attended the Whole Life Expo at the Convention Centre in Toronto. The expo is billed as “Canada’s largest showcase of natural health, alternative medicine, and eco-friendly lifestyles.”

Dave and Lisa attended with a group of approximately twelve sceptics, many of whom were from CFI and Skeptic North. Apparently before we even stepped foot into the Convention Centre there was some controversy over at Skeptic North. Some of the organizers of the expo, along with some other folks associated with it, were engaged in a back-and-forth with the blog’s authors in the comments section (some of it was genial and some of it was nasty). So the organizers knew at least that some members of Skeptic North would be in attendance, and they were ready for them.

Lisa’s immediate response to the expo was revulsion at having to give propagators of woo and pseudoscience her $8 admission fee. She would much rather have donated the money to some sort of charity than to fork it over to them. So she felt a little better when Sunday turned out to be two-for-one admission.

Once inside the expo, the group naturally split off into sub-groups, with a plan to meet at the exit at 12:30pm. Somehow _ and Lisa managed to stick together and experienced most of the expo as a pair, going undetected as skeptics and experiencing no drama. Not so for some of the other attendees. Approximately 20 minutes into their foray, Lisa heard an announcement over the loud speaker warning vendors that “four members of Skeptics North” were in attendance and may “attempt to record and/or photograph” vendors without authorization. The announcement also mentioned that the skeptics appeared to be dressed in black. It was an odd statement given that probably three-quarters of the people in the room were wearing black. At the moment the announcement came, Lisa was discussing Omega Alpha’s products with the vendor, who then said, “You’re wearing black. Are you a skeptic?” To which Lisa responded, “Everyone here is wearing black. You’re wearing black!” It was light-hearted and they all went back to discussing Omega Alpha’s vast array of natural health products including their robust pet line (OptiPet Multi, E-Z Rest, GlucosaPet, Kidney Tone, and Liver Tone, to name a few).

Dave Bailey was prepared to go either way at the expo, but any notion of innocently engaging people went out the window when the organisers made their announcement. At that point his dander was raised and plan ‘B’ went into action. The previous evening Dave had downloaded a picture from Hell’s News Stand and ironed it onto a t-shirt — a cross-section of a toilet with the slogan, “If water has a memory then homeopathy is full of crap.” He took off his jacket to reveal his shirt and waited for reactions. For better or worse, none of the organisers or participants chose to take up the obvious challenge, although Dave did have a pleasant conversation with a couple of elderly ladies who seemed both amused and bemused. Later as Dave was being ‘followed’ out of the hall, a man walking in stopped to read it, chuckled, showed it to his wife, and then gave Dave a thumbs up and said he loved it. What he was doing there with that attitude was anyone’s guess — perhaps he wanted to have some past-life regression therapy to find out why homeopathy had failed to save him in a previous existence.

Dave was intrigued that some of the exhibitors seemed to be lowering themselves by appearing in such an environment when their presence at a genuine health expo would not have been out of place. He was particularly struck by the hemp booth, which didn’t seem to be touting any miracle cures, just promoting a product that is provably a resource with good sustainability and one that could be of much benefit to the agricultural community. Dave wonders if such vendors can’t afford to turn down any opportunity for publicity. (He highly recommends the hemp substitute for peanut butter — a free sample was eagerly devoured!)

This was Lisa’s first time attending the Whole Life Expo, or anything like it, so she was pretty excited to learn about which alternative products are popular right now. The one she was most baffled by was a homeopathic detox kit. Drops of the remedy had to be added to a 1.5 litres of water, shaken, and consumed daily for a few weeks. Lisa felt that simply filling a bottle with tap water at home would have been a more cost-effective and sensible option.

It was Lisa’s first natural health expo as well. She had no idea what to expect, but found herself constantly exclaiming about how unbelievable it all was. As Dave noted, there were some ‘legitimate’ vendors, but they were few and far between. The vast majority of them stretched the boundaries of science, and many of them were ethically questionable. It seemed as though Lisa’s incredulity grew greater with each booth she visited.

First there was Asea, the “scientific breakthrough that was thought to be impossible.” This was a particularly interesting experience because in trying explain how the product works, the vendor just got more and more twisted up. For the record, the front of the pamphlet explains that Asea is “NOT a vitamin or mineral supplement, NOT made from sea vegetables, NOT a [sic] herbal formula, NOT an exotic fruit or berry energy juice, NOT an over hyped antioxidant formula, NOT a novel delivery system.” So what is it? Lisa wondered as she excitedly opened the pamphlet to find out. Well, it doesn’t actually say. The brochure explains what Asea does for you (“boosting the cell’s communication allowing it to protect, repairing [sic], and replacing cells efficiently”). It explains the “science” of it (some stuff about reactive molecules, ATP, antioxidants, free radicals, oxidative stress, and redox signalling). According to the fine people at Asea, their product is “highly patented” (Lisa didn’t know there were high and low stages of patents) and is the only product that has stabilized the native cell molecules. Okay!

Lisa tried a sample of Asea while Lisa asked the vendor what Lisa might expect to feel from it. They were told that in about 15 minutes Lisa would feel a boost of energy. She reported no increased energy.

Lisa’s incredulity grows over at the Biotronix Research Instruments booth. Apparently these products heal with “electro-medicine.” This information packet is almost too brilliant to ever be thrown out and must be excerpted here, in its original form — all spelling and capitalization is in the original:

Every Cell In The Body Is Designed To Run At A Voltage Of 70-90 Millivolts. We Heal By Making New Cells ! For The Body To Make These New Cells Requires 70-90 Millivolts. We Get Sick When Our Voltage Drops Below The Operating Voltage of 20 MIllivolts. Thus, All Chronic Disease is Defined by Having Low Voltage.

However, If You Run Out of Voltage Before Finishing Making Enough New Cells To Replace Those That Are Damaged, Voltage Will Drop Even Lower And Now You Are Stuck With CHRONIC DISEASE. A Drop In Voltage Causes A Drop In OXYGEN!!! [—.] The Only Way You Can Get Well Is To Increase Voltage. This, Can Be Assisted By Using ELECTROMAGNETIC DEVICES. [—.] INTRODUCING: – A NEW INSTRUMENT ‘LYMEAID GENERATOR’

And it goes on—for SIX PAGES!!!

But the expo got even better. (Worse?)

Lisa caught about 10 minutes of a talk/demonstration by Nicholas Ashfield. The presentation platform happened to be right near the washrooms, and when Lisa saw the device on the table, she couldn’t resist finding out what it did. The device looked like something that would be used in a low-budget 1970s sci-fi movie to appear “science-y” — it had knobs and a meter. Ashfield’s field of expertise (over 30 years of practice) is Radionics: “vibrational healing that clears past traumas, restoring attunement [sic] with life.” According to his flyer, Radionics is “gentle, fascinating, and effective.” While not a particularly great speaker, Ashfield did have a few choice bon mots that Lisa just had to jot down. When it came time to demonstrate his product, Ashfield asked for a volunteer, and one bald gentleman in a black shirt (perhaps a skeptic??) raised his hand a little too eagerly. Then a bunch of other people raised their hands, including Lisa. Ashfield said he couldn’t just choose someone, that he had to let the “source” choose for him and he used “internal dowsing” to eliminate everyone in the crowd except for—bald-black-shirt guy! Ashfield referred to this “source” over and over again, but never explained what it was. Apparently it was some sort of supernatural entity that guided him. It was the “source” that allowed Ashfield to use Radionics to “clear” the plant—ahem, uh—volunteer from a distance — he didn’t have to be hooked up to the machine or even be near it; it works long distance. Ashfield informed us that in physics it’s known as an “index.” Ah. So long-distance, via Radionics, Ashfield managed to tune into the plant/volunteer’s “energetic e-mail address.” And then he told his fortune. Lisa commented that it was like he was reading the guy’s horoscope out of the paper. Indeed. After a relatively racist comment (about how Native people have been using this technique for a long time because they have a connection to nature that modern, “civilized” people didn’t have), Lisa had had enough of the Radionics guy and moved on.

(Side note: It was just before Ashfield’s talk that the second announcement about ‘skeptics in our midst’ came over the loud speaker. Ashfield said he didn’t mind if skeptics were in attendance because he, too, used to be a skeptic — before he tried Radionics.)

Lisa really wanted to have a “Bio-ENERGY & KARMA DIAGNOSIS” and even filled out the form to have it done, but alas the line was too long. Instead she had her posture checked. There were maybe five or six chiropractic-type people there all with the same tools for checking posture, so Lisa had it done twice. The first gentleman told her that her head was too far forward while pointing to a photo of a spine with scoliosis in a subluxation text book. He really wanted her to sign up that day for treatment at a discounted rate. He even took credit cards!

Despite all of these experiences, not every vendor was sketchy. Or, at least, some provided pleasant surprises. One vendor spent a great deal of time discussing her product for digestive problems. Lisa maintained a credulous, curious demeanour throughout the expo, asking questions with keen interest. When Lisa asked this vendor, “Should I take this pill if I don’t have digestive problems?” it is to the vendor’s credit that she said no. She instead suggested foisting it upon grandma at Christmas dinner. Nonetheless, the question was meant as a set-up to see if the vendor would recommend her ‘remedy’ even in light of a lack of symptoms, and she passed the test.

Lisa also found herself impressed by a vendor’s candor. She had a great conversation with a vendor about a “chakra reading” being offered at one of the other booths. The vendor had a ‘reading’ done the day before and seemed a little skeptical of what she was told. She mentioned that a lot of what the ‘reader’ told her was very general and could have applied to anyone, but that a couple of major things were going on in her life that the ‘reader’ did not mention; the vendor really felt that the ‘reader’ should have picked up on those things. Lisa told the vendor that she agreed and that she wishes people would talk more about the misses that they experience when they have a ‘reading’ done. Lisa was impressed with vendor’s critical reflection on her experience.

Dave was surprised to learn (and later confirmed through independent online research) that what he has been using as cinnamon for years is actually not true cinnamon, but cassia, a related plant that is usually substituted. The true cinnamon is much less woody than cassia, thin and brittle in texture, but with a very similar if not identical aroma. The genuine article may soon be appearing on his spice rack. Knowledge worth the $4 admission fee?

What shocked Lisa most about the expo overall was what seemed to be the absolute lack of effort on the part of the vendors and manufacturers to pass their products off as scientific. It seems that just saying something is science and having a few pseudoscientific words and phrases at the ready is all these vendors generally need to fob their wares off on unsuspecting consumers. But when pushed even a little to get into the nitty gritty by people with some scientific knowledge, the vendors tripped over themselves in a befuddled mass of confusion and ignorance. When the Asea vendor was going on about redox signalling and mitochondria, Lisa asked for more specifics about how it worked. The woman then pulled out a lovely colour photo of a cell, when she didn’t identify as a blood cell until Lisa pointed it out to her. “Oh yes,” she said, laughing, “thank you for pointing that out!”

Another vendor had a few products, one of which was a plate that allegedly leeches bad chemicals from your food. Simply place your grocery bag on this plate and it will remove all harmful chemicals from your food. Lisa asked how it works. The vendor explained that it uses a “process” by which the “bonds” between the chemicals are “broken down.” When Lisa pushed further — microwaves? what? — the vendor replied, “It’s proprietary.” Lisa didn’t leave it there. “Well, what about the good things in food, like the vitamins and minerals? Does it break those down too?” The response was “no.” Magic!

Lisa visited a booth promoting “polarity therapy” workshops. This was something neither of them had heard of before and they were ever so curious! The pamphlet explains polarity therapy as “the art and science of balancing the subtle, natural electromagnetic energy that creates and maintains our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves.” When prompted, the vendor had an extremely difficult time explaining what it was, highlighting instead that we could learn all about it through the workshops. She pointed to a couple of books there and then said that it takes years to learn.

Lisa still doesn’t know what polarity therapy is.

For the most part, the members of Association for Science and Reason had a fine time at the expo until Dave Bailey ran into a little trouble at the end for taking photographs. While there was apparently a sign indicating that photography was not allowed inside the expo hall, Dave went outside of the expo hall to a balcony above it and took photos from there. He was approached by security and someone who seemed to be one of the organizers or associated with the organizers. Members of CFI and Skeptic North were treated antagonistically, and you can read their respective reports via the links below.

CFI’s account:
Skeptic North’s account, 1:

Skeptic North’s account, 2:

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