Archive for January, 2012

Waiter, There’s Woo in My Food: Sri Chinmoy

January 28, 2012

The vegan and vegetarian communities are philosophically and religiously diverse and while secular veganism is growing in the west, still in the US and much of the world religious groups of one sort or another dominate the vegetarian and vegan culture. Most of us are familiar with Hindu-run curry houses or Buddhist tofu joints but there are also many other places run by devotees of smaller “new religious movements” or cults*. In the following series of posts I will be taking a deeper look into some of these businesses and the groups behind them.

Sri Chinmoy

Our first subject of interest is the guru Sri Chinmoy, born in India in 1931 where he spent many years studying meditation and Hindu scriptures at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. In 1964 Chinmoy moved to the US and quickly took advantage of the popular New Age and hippy movement establishing the Sri Chinmoy Centre, promoting himself as a Guru of meditation. He soon attached himself to celebrities such as John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana and set himself up as the director of the “Sri Chinmoy: Peace Meditations at the United Nations” group, often using the position for self promotion and was even accused of misusing the UN logo. His empire grew to encompass thousands of followers and boast 400 meditation centres in 60 countries along with numerous businesses devoted to “divine enterprise” including many vegetarian restaurants. As part of his practice Chinmoy also preached vegetarianism stating,

When we eat meat, fish and so forth, the aggressive, animal consciousness enters into us. Our nerves become agitated; we unconsciously become restless and aggressive. The mild qualities of vegetables, on the other hand, help us to establish in our inner life as well as in our outer life, the qualities of sweetness, softness, simplicity and purity.

Upon visiting one his disciple’s restaurants the cult of Sri Chinmoy appear innocuous. Peaceful flute music and the smell of warm curry and veggie burgers fills the air, books on meditation are made available for reading, and the guru’s face adorns the walls, what could be so harmful about that? But a deeper examination uncovers accusations of manipulative behavior, sexual and emotional abuse, animal abuse, harassment of ex-devotees, homophobia, and hypocrisy. Chinmoy preached celibacy to his follows, but reportedly did not practice it himself. While Chinmoy has never been convicted of any sexual crime, a number of his ex-devotees have reported sexual impropriety and abuse. Though he preached compassion and vegetarianism he also collected exotic animals, including two monkeys, in his New York basement and used captive animals such as elephants in his stunts. Chinmoy reportedly advised followers generally against doctors and dentists as well, preferring homeopathy and meditation instead. Followers were also often advised to leave behind successful careers, dreams of college, family connections, and their native land in order to be closer to and serve Chinmoy. Despite claims of never asked for money documents reveal that Chinmoy was in fact a millionaire.

January 30, 1987, Sri Chinmoy allegedly lifts 7,063¾ pounds

Sri Chinmoy was quite the performer and was dubbed the “gonzo guru” for his media grabbing antics and extreme claims. Chinmoy is said to have produced at least 1200 books, 62,000 poems, 14,000 songs, 4,000,000 “peace bird” drawings and 150,000 paintings in his lifetime, though these figures vary depending on the source. Chinmoy often performed free concerts for the public and claimed to have played somewhere between 25 and 150 instrument during a single concert. He was also an avid athlete and runner and was well known for the grueling ultra-marathons he and his follows organized. Though perhaps Chinmoy is most famous for his many seemly impressive and unorthodox weight lifting stunts, including lifting elephants, hundreds of people, planes, cars, or just about anything that would look impressive in the newspaper. He claims to have once lifted 3½ tons with one arm at the age of 55 and has the pictures to prove it. Such a claim should draw immediate skepticism, this is not a simple feat of strength we are talking about but rather something which does not appear to be physically possible according to kinesiologists. Forget about having the muscle, his bone and tendons simply would not be able to handle the stress. But if there is no humanly way that Sri Chinmoy could lift as much as he claims, what are we to make of the photographs and video? Are they proof that he somehow has supernatural abilities? No, he simply cheated. Such trickery is a mainstay of professional gurus, the bed of nails and fire walking are more familiar examples, another famous trick is the levitating guru performed with the help of a special device. Chinmoy employed specially made machinery in his record breaking and media grabbing lifts that gave him considerable leverage. Beyond the use of these leverage devices Chinmoy was also reported to resort to the airbrushing of photos or outright lies, saying a video shows a successful lift where it clearly does not. While a number of professional weightlifters called Chinmoy out on his shenanigans, a few others were more interested in the inspirational quality of such huge lifts than pointing out the mechanical aids used by Chinmoy. Chinmoy’s followers have also made a habit of performing extreme stunts and breaking all kinds of obscure Guinness records to impress their guru and gain media coverage. The most prolific of these stuntmen was devotee Ashrita Furman who racked up hundreds of records over the years. Chinmoy’s philosophy of overcoming the psychical with the spiritual has lead some of his followers to put themselves in danger though, in 1979 one of Chinmoy’s devotees drowned while practicing a stunt. Chinmoy himself eventually ssuccumbed to a heart attack at the age 76 leaving behind over 2 million dollars in property.

Chinmoy lifts an airplane

My purpose in writing this is not to be a cynic or to call for a boycott of all religiously associated restaurants, but we need to be wary when our dollars may serve to enrich an abusive leader or perpetuate a manipulative organization. The ethics of consumption go beyond just animal flesh and byproducts. Many of us are well aware of some of these troubling ethical issues, human rights abuses in chocolate production, the toll of palm oil, labor abuses at Wal-Mart, ect. If the working conditions at places like Wal-Mart concern us, then we need to seriously consider claims that some cult-associated restaurants withhold tips, pay employees less than minimum wage, exploit immigrant labor, and fire employees who dare criticize the organization or leader. One of Chinmoy’s “divine enterprises” Ananda Fuara in San Francisco was sued in 2010 for some of these very same labor abuses. Ive actually eaten at Ananda Fuara before and they have a number of vegan options which are quite good. They serve some the best “beef” stroganoff is the best Ive had, but after doing my research for this post and reading about the lawsuit against Ananda Fuara I find myself seriously reconsidering eating there ever again.

Further Reading:
How fringe religious groups helped launch the healthy eating movement.
  By Daniel Fromson
Leaving a Cult
  By Jayanti Tamm
The Wild, Wacky & Questionable Claims of Sri Chinmoy at the Skeptic Tank
MO’ CHIN-UPS CHAPTER XII of Stripping the Gurus
Running Around in Circles: a Metaphor by Rebbecca Watson
Sri Chinmoy database at The Rick A. Ross Institute
Official website of Sri Chinmoy

*in this post I use the term “cult”, there is no agreed upon universal definition and competing lists of characteristics but for this post the definition most in mind is that laid out by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. The three primary criteria are as follows:

1. a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
2. a process of coercive persuasion or thought reform;
3. economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

It is important to remember there is a wide continuum of “cultishness”, not all groups fall on the Johnstown/Heavens Gate/Aum Shinrikyo extreme of the spectrum.

Fluoride & Brain Damage

January 20, 2012

Yesterday I wrote about anti-fluoridationists misrepresenting a study in a pathetic attempt to link heart disease and water fluoridation. Today I want to take a look at another paper often cited in response to criticism of their claims.  The publishing of the paper, Effects of the fluoride on the central nervous system, resulted in the headline “New Study: Fluoride Can Damage the Brain-Avoid Use in Children” quickly spreading across the internet. The paper represents not an experiment but rather a review of past literature with the author’s interpretations thrown in. For the most part anti-fluoridationists have misinterpreted the conclusion and implications of this paper.

My mantra is “Read the original study”, whenever possible I like to track down the study and read it myself, not relying on journalists. This is one of the cases when reading the original paper can be enlightening. The paper starts out in the introduction saying, “The aim of this review is to set out information regarding the toxic potential of F and its effects on the nervous system, with special attention to populations exposed to the intake of this mineral at concentrations outside official guidelines.” The author goes on to cite studies of populations in areas with high natural fluoride concentrations and a few animal studies in which high doses were administered. At the end of the study the author concludes, “Fluorine is a chemical element found in high concentrations in the earth’s crust. In many countries where the main source of drinking water is hydrothermal, F concentrations exceed those contemplated by the corresponding official regulations…it is recommended that the geographical location of a given population and the quality of the water they drink should be taken into consideration so as to take preventive measures for its use and, in areas where the fluoride concentration exceeds 0.7 mg/L, to avoid the intake of the drinking water, fluorinated salt, and the use of toothpastes and articles containing F.

As you can see, the misreporting of this study was simply another case of reading comprehension failure from the the fluoride fear-mongers. It does not serve as evidence that the current recommendations for fluoride use are significantly flawed or that such use is dangerous. Now repeat after me, read the original study, read the original study, read the original study, read the…

Another oft cited piece to bolster the claim regarding brain damage is an article titled “Indian study proves that fluoride consumption causes brain, neurological damage” that was reporting on a study titled “Neurodegenerative changes in different regions of brain, spinal cord and sciatic nerve of rats treated with sodium fluoride“. Contrary to what the anti-fluoridationists would have you assume this study was not about the suggested safe levels of artificial water fluoridation but rather about the toxic effects of exposure to excessively high levels at many times the recommend threshold of 0.7 ppm. You see India has many areas with naturally high fluoride levels, in some areas exceeding 20 ppm, resulting in some health problems. Knowledge of possible danger from high levels of natural fluoride in drinking water is nothing new. Health professionals and regulators are well aware of this issue and in many areas with naturally occurring fluoride filtration is used to lower fluoride content to safe levels. Additionally the study did not involve human subjects, rather its was a study that involved giving a group of 6 rats 20 ppm of sodium fluoride daily with another 6 rats acting as a control group. Given the nature and focus of the study and the tiny sample size it is simply not possible to extrapolate that the current practices of water fluoridation and use of dental fluoride are harmful. Once again we have a study taken out of context and misinterpreted to support the preconceived conspiratorial views of anti-fluoridation proponents.

Further Reading:
Fluoride & the Brain: Déjà Vu
Fluoride & the Brain: Strike 3, You’re Out!
Fluoride & the Brain: The China Studies
Fluoride & Heart Disease?
When public action undermines public health: a critical examination of antifluoridationist literature by Jason M Armfield

Fluoride & Heart Disease?

January 20, 2012

This month a study allegedly linking cardiovascular disease and fluoride was published in Nuclear Medicine Communications and was almost immediately set up by anti-fluoridationists to bolster their case that fluoridation of water supplies is a dangerous conspiracy.  The source of most of the misinformation seems to be an article written by Anthony Gucciardi in which he claims that “new research has linked sodium fluoride to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death worldwide“, “fluoride consumption directly stimulates the hardening of your arteries“, and links it to water fluoridation saying, “sodium fluoride is currently added to the water supply of many cities worldwide, despite extreme opposition from health professionals and previous studies linking it to decreased IQ and infertility.” Gucciardi has a history of irresponsible science writing for sites such as Natural News and Natural Society and this latest article is no different, the study Gucciardi was reporting on was not about the use of dental fluoride or fluoridated water at all. In reality it was a retrospective study examining imaging data from 61 patients who received whole-body sodium [¹⁸F] fluoride PET/CT studies. PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans use positron-emitting tracers, in this case the radioactive isotope fluorine-18, in the blood to produce a 3D image of the body and are an important diagnostic tool in oncology and elsewhere. It appears that Gucciardi grossly misunderstands or willfully misrepresents both the nature of the study and its conclusion that “increased fluoride uptake in coronary arteries may be associated with an increased cardiovascular risk“. Upon reading the actual study it becomes clear that it was not fluoride that was being studied as a risk factor , rather the study was examining the the usefulness of fluorine-18 to aid in  imaging atherosclerosis and determining risk as clearly outlined in the Objective statement.

Objective The feasibility of a fluoride positron emission
tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) scan for
imaging atherosclerosis has not been well documented.
The purpose of this study was to assess fluoride uptake of vascular calcification in various major arteries, including coronary arteries.

There you have it, the authors of the study we simply seeing if they could use fluorine-18 to image atherosclerosis rather than saying fluorine-18 induced atherosclerosis. But what about sodium fluoride? Sodium fluoride, along with hexafluorosilicic acid and sodium hexafluorosilicate, is used in small quantities to fluoridate water supplies or salt depending on where you live. Fluoridation has rightfully been called one of the most successful and cost-effective public health measures, saving millions of dollars in dental work and preventing untold cavities. Fluoride’s safety has been well studied and when it comes to heart health numerous studies (1, 2, 3, 4) show no positive correlation between fluoridation and heart disease or increased mortality, in fact numerous studies (1, 2, 3, 45 , 6, 7, 8) show an inverse correlation with heart disease possibly resulting from reduced effects from dental infections. Contrary to what the anti-fluoridationists would have you believe, fluoride may actually have a protective effect for your heart. So next time you see a scary or sensational headline take a little time to look deeper, things often are not what they seem. Be skeptical, not susceptible.

Oh, and those claims some people make about how the Nazis used fluoride to dumb down prisoners? Totally and utterly baseless. Some people really do just make stuff up.

Further Reading:
Fluoride & Brain Damage
Fluoride & the Brain: Déjà Vu
Fluoride & the Brain: Strike 3, You’re Out!
Fluoride & the Brain: The China Studies
Fluoridation: Don’t Let the Poisonmongers Scare You on Quackwatch
All About Fluoridation on Skeptoid
fluoridation of water on the Skeptic’s Dictionary
Fluoridation Facts from the ADA
When public action undermines public health: a critical examination of antifluoridationist literature by Jason M Armfield


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