A well-rounded diet
of skeptical topics
This week’s newsletter feels nicely well-rounded, like we’ve managed to cover several of the core areas that skeptics are interested in. I start with a topical story about a new psychogenic illness that appears to be affecting teens around the world, including here in New Zealand. Bronwyn then delves into the background of one of my most hated MLMs, dōTERRA. (I’ve talked to company reps for dōTERRA at several events over the years, and each time I’ve been told some of the most outrageous claims about the medical benefits of their essential oils. I even left one event smelling like a breath mint, after telling someone I had a headache and being treated with a liberal amount of concentrated peppermint oil smeared onto my forehead.) I was contacted on the weekend about a new scam I’d not heard of before, that appears to be an evolution of the classic Nigerian 419 scams, so you get to hear all about that. And finally I talk about a new branch of Satanism - and this one seems to believe in pretty much any nonsense you can think of, as well as being horribly anti-Semitic.
(right through the night)
I heard something interesting from my teenage daughter the other day, a story about some of her friends who have suddenly picked up a tic - a type of involuntary physical movement. I’d heard about this before, a couple of years ago, so I went looking online for any articles to confirm what I’d remembered from before; the idea that this is a mass psychogenic illness.
I quickly found a great article from The Atlantic from February this year, and I was filled with confidence about the article when I saw that the writer had consulted with Robert Bartholomew. Robert is an academic at the University of Auckland who specialises in “medical sociology” including mass psychogenic illnesses (MPIs). He’s written on some fascinating topics in the past, such as Havana Syndrome (the US embassy workers who have been suffering from a range of symptoms while working overseas), and the case of a chemical leak in Parnell in Auckland, where over 100 people reported feeling ill even though it’s likely the type of chemical and the amount which leaked was unlikely to have caused the symptoms that were seen. In both of these cases, Robert argues that the symptoms originate from inside people’s heads, and that this idea of being sick can be passed to others who end up with similar symptoms. This is not to say that people aren’t suffering from something real, it’s just a very different kind of illness to what people think it is.
The Atlantic article about these teenage tics documents the history of this particular condition - with the current incarnation starting a few years ago, just before the pandemic. Back then psychiatrists, and especially Tourette’s researchers, started noticing an increase in the number of teens, mostly girls, who were presenting with physical tics (sudden jerking movements of their limbs like jumping, hitting themselves and others, etc), and uncontrolled outbursts of rude words (which I learned is called coprolalia - presumably related to glossolalia, the usually Christian “speaking in tongues”). However, unlike Tourette’s sufferers, these teens seemed different - firstly, it was unusual that such a specific new demographic would be suddenly affected - Tourette’s usually first presents in kids between 5 and 8 years old, and mostly in boys. And secondly, Tourette’s sufferers usually fight to try to minimise their outbursts, whereas these new patients weren’t doing that.
At a conference in October last year, researchers and clinicians from around the world compared notes and found that a lot of the manifestations of these tics in their patients were the same, including the same physical movements and the same words being used. These include throwing food, hitting their chests, shouting the word “beans” and, for German sufferers, saying “you are ugly” and “flying sharks”.
What’s interesting here is that these tics seem to originate from people with Tourette’s syndrome who are social media celebrities. The German Jan Zimmermann, who runs the YouTube channel “Thunderstorm in the Head”, has worked out how to make money from his condition - selling shirts, hoodies and mugs with some of his most frequent phrases, and these include his catchphrase “you are ugly”. And Evie Meg Field from England has a particular tic where she says the word beans, and she often films herself preparing or eating food, which leads to a lot of throwing of her food. Here’s a video of Evie talking to the BBC about her Tourette’s:
Robert Bartholomew and other professionals interviewed for the article all agree that this new spate of young sufferers do not have Tourette’s syndrome. Instead, this appears to be more of a mental health issue that is exacerbated by social media and peer groups, and is being called “Tic-Like Behaviour”, or sometimes Functional Tics (a type of Functional Neurological Disorder (FND), if there’s a mild underlying condition). The genesis of these tics can often be stress or anxiety, which I guess teens are very familiar with, and apparently this has become more prevalent recently due to stresses from COVID - uncertainty, lockdowns, disrupted routines, etc. So these particular manifestations of tics that psychiatrists are seeing have been learned from others, and the internet has turned what used to be a much more local issue, that of viral psychogenic conditions, into something that can and has spread globally.
It’s not like the social media stars with Tourette’s are doing anything wrong here. In fact shining a light on Tourette’s and raising awareness seems to be a positive thing, and even making money from selling merchandise seems like a perfectly acceptable idea, given how hard it’s likely to be to hold down a job with such a debilitating condition. But this unintended consequence of viral TikTok videos (videos tagged with #tourettes have been viewed over 5 billion times on TikTok) seems to have inflamed a problem, and opened the way for this issue to become much larger than it otherwise would have been.
The good news is that, unlike Tourette’s, which is a lifelong condition that is treated with drugs such as antidepressants, antipsychotics or ADHD medication which can have serious side effects, these psychogenic tics often go away fairly rapidly, and can be treated with therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or even just an awareness in the sufferer that the tics are psychogenic and usually don’t last more than a few days.
Oily Matters Part 2: dōTERRA
Country of Origin: Pleasant Grove, Utah, United States
Year Founded: April 25th, 2008
Founded by: David Stirling, Emily Wright, David Hill, Corey B. Lindley, Gregory P. Cook, Robert J. Young, and Mark A. Wolfert. Stirling, Wright, and Hill were former executives of Young Living.
Year MLM established in New Zealand: Incorporated on May 4th, 2017. Warehouse opened on December 5th, 2017, and and an essential oil distillery, aoTERRA, opened on October 11, 2018.
Generally sells: Essential Oils. Has expanded into haircare, household products, supplements (including a line aimed at children), weight loss products, diffusers, and accessories.
Balance, an essential oil blend which “…promotes harmony, tranquillity, and a sense of relaxation through its grounding, peaceful fragrance”. It consists of 6 different oils with a base of coconut oil. OnGuard is another popular offering, which is often compared to Young Living’s Thieves Oil. New Zealand advertising leans more on it creating a cleansing and uplifting environment, and its use as a non-toxic cleaner - while leaving its claims of protecting “...against environmental and seasonal threats” vague. The US website is more specific about its utility to “support” the body’s immune system, respiratory function, and natural antioxidant defenses when used internally.
Is there a buy-in?: You can start by buying starter packs for as low as $184 NZD wholesale. Bedtime Bliss is the cheapest, and contains four 15ml vials, a 10ml vial and some fractionated coconut oil with your membership.
Name for workforce: Wellness Advocates, and then the organisational ladder moves up through manager, director, executive, elite, premier, silver, gold, platinum, diamond, blue diamond and finally presidential diamond.
Compensation Plan?: Here
Income Disclosure Statement?: dōTERRA is not very good at providing a clear document either in NZ or abroad. In this 2021 ”report”, based on US figures, entry level wellness advocates represented 41% of the workforce, and 55% of these earned an average annual commission of $341 USD. Wellness advocates who have decided to get into the recruiting aspect of the MLM account for 27% of all members, and encompass the ranks from Manager to Premier. Their annual take-home can average between $665 USD and $1117 USD.
The highest 6 ranks account for 1% of the US workforce. From this 1%, 60% of them will make an annual income of $28,658 USD.
The 2020 US Opportunity and Earnings Disclosure Summary is slightly more specific on the numbers, which makes it all the more damning. It claimed that there were 509,000 US wellness advocates, and about 257,000 of these earned money from their sales and from those that they “sponsored”. Of those that made money, 8,052 distributors in their first year of selling earned more than $105, while the top 1% of that group (161 distributors) earned more than $870. Of distributors who stuck around for longer than a year (accounting for 240,903 sellers), 120,452 earned more than $345 USD per year on average, and 2,409 of them earned more than $9,495.
Has a reputation for: Unethical and unproven medical advice by its distributors, which made them popular fodder for the anti-MLM community during the height of the pandemic. Both the company and wellness advocates are big on including essential oils in recipes.
Should you be worried?: Yes, especially when popularity in the dōTERRA sphere can be leveraged into social media influencer gold during a pandemic.
If you have been doom watching/reading/scrolling at all during the pandemic, the name dōTERRA should ring a bell. It is the MLM to which the founders of Voices for Freedom were attached. A search for Claire Deeks name with dōTERRA shows still active websites about Claire’s ethos and her status as a Diamond, one of the elite ranks in the company. Libby Jonson and Alia Bland had bigger profiles in the fibre arts scene, but screenshots provided by Newshub imply that they, too, were into oily matters and tried to draw in the dōTERRA fanbase. Deeks, despite her cooking credentials, did publish some recipes in which essential oils were on the ingredient list.
The ingesting of essential oils is controversial amongst aromatherapists, but outright verboten by health authorities. The main issues with essential oils? Their effectiveness or safety has not been scientifically proven, and there is a big problem with regulation on both sides of the Tasman (especially if products are being shipped from the US or UK). Just because something is labelled pure or natural, doesn’t mean you should put it in your mouth.
For children, even the aroma from diffused oils can be dangerous. Tim Rainey used this argument in the press when he threatened Milford Primary School with court action upon discovering dōTERRA oils were being used in their classrooms. The school claimed that there was a noticeable difference in behaviour and absence due to illness when dōTERRA oil blend OnGuard was used in the classroom. Rainey countered that the ingredients in that blend were known irritants for people with allergies and asthma, and Alison Campbell’s BioBlog from the University of Waikato has a decent breakdown of the claims made in the initial newsletter.
While principal Sue Cattell was initially suspected of being a wellness advocate, a request under the Official Information Act shows that the school claims that it was a parent who convinced the Board of Trustees to spend $2800 on at least one oil and several diffusers. The rep, who remained nameless, claimed to have hung out by the back entrance of the school, offering a whiff of Wild Orange oil to parents and children suffering from separation anxiety. Said rep also allegedly made health claims that a blend of eucalyptus and peppermint oils allowed their son to kick the inhaler they used for their asthma, and went beyond the pale by making reference to the Christchurch terror attacks. The Ministry of Education kept its distance on this matter; it stated that the use of diffusers was a board of trustees issue, while also providing a link in their OIA response to the website Essential Oils Supplies which, obviously, supported the use of oils in the classroom (this can be read in the ZIP file here). Nevertheless, that this was trialled without parents’ consent is appalling.
If these and other shenanigans sound like another essential oil-based MLM that was profiled here a week ago, you’re absolutely correct.
dōTERRA was established in April 2008 by several former executives of Young Living, taking with them several of Young Living’s top sellers and insider knowledge about their most profitable products. This allowed them to quickly catch up to Young Living, to become its main competitor for the title of top-distributor of essential oils in the world. However, this pedigree landed dōTERRA in a long series of suits and counter suits with Young Living.
dōTERRA claims that its point of difference from Young Living lies in its products being Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade (CPTG), which ensures that each bottle is free from contaminants and synthetic filters via third-party testing. However, there are no set of specifications that define an essential oil as “certified therapeutic”. Furthermore dōTERRA owns the exclusive use of the mark “Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade”, demonstrating that this is all just a commercial and marketing stunt.
Like Young Living, dōTERRA ran afoul of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a multitude of claims its distributors made regarding the oils’ efficacy with treating Ebola, cancer, and autism. Mark Honeychurch had similar claims made to him by New Zealand distributors in 2017 and 2018, while I’ve also witnessed distributors sharing information about using oils to treat arthritis and bleeding:
Source (While I want to acknowledge Taylor Poole for doing the mahi here, if she is on a dōTERRA education page, she’s likely a distributor herself)
And finally, oils to cure a UTI (I want to hope that no one is applying oils to their urethra!):
The irony is that dōTERRA claims to take these matters seriously, and says they have a large compliance department which monitors social media and engages distributors in extensive training on NOT making medical claims. However, in the context of Facebook groups like the doTERRA Essential Oils Education Group, the line between retail customer and wellness advocate are blurred. As these claims are done in an educational context and not in an advertisement, there is little that can be done to censure the MLM itself.
And, maybe, there is little incentive for the NZ government to do so either. In 2018, Dame Patsy Reddy GG, was photographed visiting a dōTERRA owned oil distillery in Arrowtown called aoTerra. Douglas Fir oil is normally harvested in the US for other markets but the company claims that because douglas fir is an invasive species in NZ, then the distillery here is providing a net good by combatting their environmental impact. The question remains if the profitability of the distillery motivates dōTERRA to actually propagate the tree rather than control it, while the creation of employment makes it easier for government departments to look away.
In May 2022, dōTERRA Australia/NZ will have their first in-person convention in three years in Melbourne. An online component is available as well, at a lower ticket price ($50 versus $125 for the in-person) just so you only have a little bit of FOMO. I’ll keep the skeptics posted if anything outrageous leaks out.
If you are interested in learning more about dōTERRA and its shady practices, YouTube and the anti-MLM community have once again not failed to deliver:
International Grants online
A friend (Gaylene Middleton from the New Zealand Humanists) contacted me on the weekend as she had been messaged by one of her Facebook friends about a Government Grants assistance program she is apparently eligible to receive funds from. She immediately looked up the name of the program - Federal Grant For Family Home And Care Support (FGHS) - and found an article warning that it was a scam, and then she messaged me to double check and because she thought I may be interested in it. Here are the messages she received from her FB friend, which she passed on to me (apologies for the really bad grammar):
“I hope you would have heard or gotten any on your about the FGHS program yet ?”
“They are selecting familiarity and name with to help families selected I saw your name on their list when they came to my house to delivered mine that is why I contacted you....Do you know their website?”
The messages were accompanied by a link to a Facebook account called “Government Grant Funds”:
The account had a profile image that appears to have been used in scams dating back to at least 2009, and is an image of Fred Smith, the owner of FedEx:
A google search for “FGHS” then led me to a set of dodgy looking Facebook accounts and blogs:
From what I can tell, the scam seems to involve first pulling someone in by messaging them about winning a grant, and then directing them to a Facebook page or blog online (like the ones above) where the scammers post an official-looking “personalised” congratulations where they talk, in broken English and ALL CAPS, about your funds/grant/winnings and how you can claim them.
Of course, as this is an international money transfer, receiving your money isn’t simple, and the posts talk about the “clearance fee” you’ll have to pay to enable the transfer. And that’s the scam - you pay the fee, and then next up there’s another administrative issue that needs a small payment before you can access your cash, and so on.
(Savvy people might argue that they could just take the transfer fee out of the money you’ve won, but the scammers usually have some story about how this can’t be done because it’s a different department, or because the money is in the form of a cashier’s cheque and can’t be broken down, or some other semi-plausible sounding reason)
It goes without saying that you’ll never receive your money. The scammers will take as much as possible from you, string you along for as long as they can, and then stop responding when you stop giving them money.
One interesting part of this is that real people on Facebook appear to be propagating this scam. It doesn’t look like the scammers are using hacked accounts, and my friend received a Facebook voice call from their would-be scammer, suggesting that the person owning the account is the one responsible for pushing this scam. I suspect that maybe at least some of the people who are trying to involve others in the scam have been scammed themselves, and may have been told that they will receive their money once they’ve helped to “inform” a few other people that they’ve also been awarded a grant. For many people who don’t have much of a disposable income, if they’ve already sunk a few hundred dollars in a scam like this, and if they still believe that the money exists, they’d be likely to do almost anything to recoup their loss.
This scam appears to be an evolution of the Nigerian 419 email scams, which told you that you had been chosen to receive millions of dollars from a dead wealthy African leader - but that you needed to pay an administrative fee to the bank to release the funds. Back in the days when these were rife, people who had been scammed in some cases were known to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from their employers in order to pay the outstanding “fees” to access their new-found fortune. Sadly this fallacy of sunk costs is a powerful motivator for people to keep making the same mistake over and over.
The Joy of Satan?
I’ve written before about how impressed I’ve been with the good work The Satanic Temple has been doing in the US and other countries, using the irrational fear of Satanism many Christians hold as a tool to push for secularism, and showing that the ability to do good things is not something that is exclusive to Christianity. Sometimes Christians in the US ignore the idea of the separation of church and state, and start up after-school Christian clubs or offer prayers at the opening of legislative sessions. The Satanic Temple will often counter these breaches by demanding the right to equal treatment - asking to open local government meetings with a Satanist prayer, or applying to run an after school Satanic club for kids.
I recently heard about the Joy of Satan ministries, with someone saying that followers are Nazi sympathisers. Now, of the two Satanic organisations I was aware of, The Satanic Temple I’ve already talked about, and the LaVeyan Satanists seemed to be wacky but mostly harmless, believing in “magick” but not a real Satan. So I figured I had to look this up for myself, and see what this third group is all about.
The organisation’s Wikipedia page makes for sober reading - they are nothing like the more benign groups. Started just a couple of decades ago, Joy of Satan appears to be a mish-mash of bad beliefs, including not only anti-Semitic beliefs but also belief in UFOs, the existence of a spiritual realm, gods, Kirlian photography, telepathy, alchemy, chakras, the four elements as the building blocks of life (earth, fire, water and air), numerology, kundalini, chi, the Necronomicon, tantra, the occult, levitation, telekenesis and more.
The basic story behind the religion seems to be that there is a galactic war between alien races, and that some of these alien species ended up on earth, including hostile aliens who became Jews (and other religious groups), and more benign aliens who started the human race (and were known as Demons of the Goetia). Wikipedia tells us:
“Joy of Satan Ministries believe that one of the benign aliens, Enki, which they consider to be Satan himself, created with his collaborators on Earth human beings through their advanced technology of genetic engineering. It's considered by Joy of Satan that most salient of his creations were the Nordic-Aryan race. They declare that the Reptilians have, in turn, created their own kind by combining their own DNA with the DNA of semi-animal humanoids with the result identified as the Jewish race.”
And from the Joy of Satan website:
“The Gods are an extra-terrestrial humanoid race of beings. In the Christian bible, they are referred to as the "Nephilim." These beings are very evolved, highly advanced, and immensely knowledgeable and powerful. They genetically modified their DNA, so they do not age.
Humanity's sole purpose was for use as slave laborers in the mines for the Nephilim. We were to be destroyed after the gold mining project was completed. Satan, along with many of the Nephilim fathered children with human mothers. These offspring were known as "Demi-Gods."”
I don’t even know where to start with this nonsense. It sounds so familiar, like there are elements of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, David Icke’s Archon Reptilians and Sherry Shriner’s Orgone Warriors all thrown into a mixing bowl. And as with these other variations on a theme, Joy of Satan has a singular leader who is blessed with being chosen as a conduit for this truth - in this case, Maxine Dietrich (who just happens to be married to a neo-Nazi leader called Clifford Herrington). To outsiders like us skeptics, these people look like fabulists, people with big egos and fanciful imaginations who enjoy making up stories. But to their followers, they are inspired leaders who are to be venerated for having a deeper understanding of the truth.
I’m a sucker for experiencing the weird and wonderful - which probably explains why I was given a voucher for a colonic irrigation for Christmas. Two weekends ago I was at an Ordo Templi Orientis meditation, and yesterday morning I spent two hours standing for a Serbian Orthodox Easter service (it turns out the Orthodox church has its own way of choosing which Sunday is Easter, and also the Serbian branch of the Orthodox church doesn’t believe in chairs). I’ve also printed out and signed a copy of Scientology’s billion year contract, which I have hanging up in my study. So I will leave you with a dedication ceremony to Satan that I found on the Joy of Satan website - I’m very tempted to invite some friends around and try this at home:
You will need:
- 1 or more black, blue or red candles (as many as you like)
- A sterilized needle or razor
- A piece of clean paper, large enough to write the prayer below
- A dry pen, where you sign your name in blood (dip the tip of the pen in your blood) NOTE* YOU ONLY SIGN YOUR NAME IN BLOOD, NOT ANYTHING ELSE ON THE PAPER.
Write the following prayer:
Before the almighty and ineffable God Satan/Lucifer and in the presence of all Demons of Hell, who are the True and the Original gods, I, (state your full name) renounce any and all past allegiances. I renounce the false Judeo/Christian god Jehova, I renounce his vile and worthless son Jesus Christ, I renounce his foul, odious, and rotten holy spirit.
I proclaim Satan Lucifer as my one and only God. I promise to recognize and honor him in all things, without reservation, desiring in return, his manifold assistance in the successful completion of my endeavors.
It is important to bathe before any rituals you perform, this is done out of respect. When you are ready, you can light the candle. Take the needle, prick the index finger of your left hand, squeeze some blood out.
Sign your name in blood.
Recite the prayer either aloud or in your head
Fold the paper and let it burn in the fire of the candle. Many of us have stayed and meditated until the candle had burned itself out.
At the end of the ritual, close with the words "So mote it be." And a Big "HAIL SATAN!!"