Britt Hermes is a former naturopath who, since leaving the profession in 2015, has been a vocal critic of the field, which has brought much praise but along with it many objections. As a result of her work, Britt is in the middle of a lawsuit brought against her by Colleen Huber, a naturopath based in the US. Currently completing her PhD in Germany, Britt faced numerous legal costs which would have financially silenced her but thanks to donations from the science and sceptic community across the world, her campaign has reached the fundraising target in just 8 days.
Britt is one of our longer standing VoYS members and she embodies the VoYS ethos by continuing to stand up for science in the face of such adversity. Sanjana talked to Britt about her experience of being sued, her time as a naturopath and the advice she has for early career researchers wanting to enter the public discussion.
Sanjana Balu: Where did this begin for you?
Britt Hermes: When I left the naturopathic profession, I started blogging as a way to re-educate myself in science and to think critically about how I fell into the trappings of naturopathy. By reviewing school documents, course syllabi, and marketing materials I found that I had been misled by the emotive language and often confusing language used by the profession. My blog initially served as a public diary, focusing on this exploration of how I got to the point of being a naturopath but it quickly became a platform to communicate with the greater public and the medical and science community about what happened as a way to protect potential students from falling into the same trappings.
SB: What made you decide to leave the profession – was it a slow realisation or a singular moment you can pinpoint when the tides changed?
BH: It was a bit of both. There was a pivotal moment whilst I was practising when I found out my boss was committing a federal crime. He was importing and administrating a non-FDA approved drug to cancer patients and under his medical orders I had participated in the administration of this drug. It was a scary situation – it prompted me to research the laws around this and seek legal representation. I had to figure out how to personally navigate the situation, which included immediately leaving the practice and reporting my boss’ actions to the board. What followed was slower. I understood this was a problem and didn’t want to be affiliated with this type of unethical and illegal practice but what I didn’t quite understand at the time was whether this was an abnormal incident – if my boss was a bad apple – or whether this was common practice in the profession. I came to discover, which took time, that naturopathy is founded on unethical practices. These are practices that are based on a philosophy that perhaps made sense in a pre-scientific era but now that medicine, science, and society have evolved naturopathy has failed to keep up. It’s incredibly unethical for practitioners to turn to therapies that have no scientific basis and lack evidence. In the worst case scenario they’re using non-FDA approved therapies which means the drugs aren’t properly vetted for safety.
SB: Have you found any similarities or difference in the cultural attitudes to naturopathy in Germany?
BH: It’s quite common here in Germany as insurance covers many alternative therapies which I think encourages patients to use them. I also get the sense that over-the-counter drugs in general are far more regulated here than compared to the US or the UK. It seems more difficult to get any type of over-the-counter medication even if it’s just a general decongestant. I think as a result, patients are left feeling like, well this alternative therapy is all I have access to so that’s what I’ll use.
SB: While you were blogging you were served a lawsuit by Colleen Huber – could you explain how that came about?
BH: I wrote a blog post about Colleen Huber in December 2016 which criticised her use of alternative therapies in her practice to treat cancer patients. In particular, I criticised Huber’s use of intravenous baking soda, intravenous vitamin C, strict sugar free diet, and her description of chemotherapy and radiation which she describes as treatments that strengthen the cancer and weaken patients. I also criticised a research study that she self-published on her website which made extraordinary claims about the effectiveness of alternative therapies and sugar free diets on all types of cancer. Huber was offended by this blog post and in August 2017 – quite some time later – she served me with a cease and desist letter from a German law firm which demanded the removal of the blog post. After I refused to comply, Huber and her lawyer served me with a defamation (also known as libel) lawsuit in Germany a month later. The lawsuit is filed in Kiel, Germany, where I live but it’s brought by Huber who lives and practices in the US.
SB: What are your thoughts on the libel laws in Germany?
BH: I know the libel laws in Germany are more plaintiff friendly than in the US. It’s my impression that it’s easier for Huber to bring a lawsuit against me here in Germany. It’s probably very difficult, if not impossible, to bring a similar suit against me in the US, especially in the state of Arizona, which has laws in place to counter these types of lawsuits. These are called anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) laws. A SLAPP lawsuit is intended to silence or censor critics by burdening them with financial costs. However, Germany doesn’t have an anti-SLAPP law equivalent in place. I’ve been quite open about the fact that I’m a PhD student and that my husband is also a PhD student and of course, students don’t make a lot of money. It’s my opinion, especially given the allegations and the lawsuit, Huber is attempting to silence me by financially devastating me.
SB: An international fundraising campaign was created to relieve that financial burden. How did it make you feel reaching the €50k target in just over a week?
BH: It’s absolutely incredible! I’m lucky on two fronts. One, that legal costs in Germany are not as extreme as they are in other countries like the UK or the US. Second, it’s indescribable to explain how it feels to have the science and sceptic community stand up for science with me in such an extraordinary and swift manner. I believe all the money was raised in 8 days which was far quicker than anybody had anticipated. The rate at which the donations came in and the amount of love and support that came with the donation was powerful and overwhelming.
SB: When you were served with lawsuit, who did you turn to?
BH: Firstly, I turned to my husband for emotional support – it was important to me to involve the people in my life who would also be affected by this. It became immediately clear that my husband would support me in any course of action but would particularly support me in standing up against Huber and not succumbing to her legal bullying despite the financial fears. Once I consulted my mentors in the science and sceptic community for advice I was quickly pointed to two notable and prominent free speech lawyers in the US: Ken White and Marc Randazza. They were both incredibly supportive and generous with their time. Marc put me in touch with his friend and colleague Daniel Kötz, a free speech lawyer based in Germany. Daniel has been an incredible resource, I feel safe and trusting of him. Outside of legal support I turned to: Chris Peters of Sense about Science; Simon Singh and Steven Novella who had been through similar issues in the UK and US respectively; Jann Bellamy who is a long term mentor of mine and finally David Gorski, one of the founding editors of Science-Based Medicine. This group of prestigious and critical science thinkers, who I was very fortunate to have immediate access to, were powerful pillars of support.
SB: Having gone through this ordeal, are you perhaps more hesitant in continuing to stand up for science?
BH: I definitely don’t feel hesitant; if anything, I feel invigorated. I know the ways in which my work has had an impact in terms of certain legislations and public awareness. This lawsuit provides additional insight that I might be having a far greater impact than I ever realised, especially within the naturopathic community itself. There’s a sense that I’ve become a thorn in the profession’s side.
Criticism needs to be looked at and considered for two reasons. One, it’s important that your criticism is warranted. As an alternative practitioner, I ignored a lot of criticism. Putting my head in the sand allowed me to continue to do things as a so-called doctor that I should not have been doing. I wish I had been more aware and receptive to criticism as a naturopath. Now, I take criticism seriously as a way to check myself. Second, if the criticism is warranted then it can be viewed as a sign of progress. Drawing the attention of an entire profession is a good indication that you’re having an impact and might even be changing minds. My work is causing sects within the naturopathic profession to have uncomfortable conversations. It is forcing naturopaths to look at how they are practicing. As a result, the profession is starting to segregate. I know from emails I’ve received from naturopaths that my writings have called into question the morality of practicing naturopathy.
SB: What would you say to people who are thinking about entering public debates but are perhaps hesitant of the response especially in difficult fields?
BH: I think it’s the ethical responsibility of scientists to call out bad behaviour be it methodological flaws, ethical oversights or something more specific to their research area. I’ve learnt that when you do the right thing, whether that is leaving a field of alternative medicine or calling out bad behaviour by alternative practitioners, the science and sceptic community will rally behind you and support you. Of course, it also attracts people who are angry with you but the support far outweigh the hate. Being on social media allows you to easily tap into this support system, especially the international support system. I’m aware there are many problems with social media but without it I definitely wouldn’t have found the support I have, or the strength to continue doing what I’m doing, because it’s connected me to organisations like Sense about Science, Science-Based Medicine and individuals like Simon Sign that have bolstered me throughout this process.
SB: What are your tips for ECRs who want to enter that public discussion about science?
BH: I think it’s important to be on social media as these days it’s how people communicate. Twitter seems to be hotbed of scientific discourse outside of academia. I think it’s important to start plugging yourself into whatever field you’re passionate about. Of course, I’m passionate about biomedicine ethics and practice of alternative medicine so plugging myself into groups that also share this passion is a good way to stay connected and keep abreast of current events.
Also, I think it’s important to find a mentor – communicating about science takes time to learn just like other skills. We don’t step into our PhD programmes automatically knowing how to ask the correct questions or knowing how to carry out the correct methods. We need mentors to support and guide us and the same is true for science communication. Without mentors, and without my support system to help guide me through these hard times, I think I would have folded under the pressures of legal thuggery.
I am glad I started as a VoYS member early on in my blogging. It has been a critical social support building platform. VoYS has put me in touch with experts in my field and pillars in the community.
SB: What’s next?
BH: We just filed a legal statement with the court and we’re waiting to hear a response from the judge. We expect to go to trial sometime between May and August. I will keep blogging in between my PhD work. There’s a time management aspect to all this – it’s a balancing act doing all these activities, but I’ll persist!