Betrayal and Justice



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Thanks to the numerous contributors to the fundraiser for our defamation lawsuit, our lawyers have managed to bring our trial for defamation to a just end. This narrative reflects my personal interpretation of events.


 In 2010, I wrote an article after a colleague of mine witnessed a seminar by Carl Van de Velde, who made, in my colleague’s opinion, a lot of unjustified claims.  A brief check on Van de Velde's website showed that he regularly had participants walk barefoot over a bed of burning coal, commonly referred to as firewalking.  Basic physics shows the risks are low, especially if you wet your feet first.  There are however serious risks involved if one remains too long in the fire.  Little chunks of coal can get on top of your foot or between your toes, and stumbling can lead to serious injury.  I also reported pictures on the website, suggesting that participants were led to break wooden boards with their head or hands. 

Van de Velde also claimed that he had trained and coached over 85,000 people. I calculated how many people he would have to see per day on an individual basis.   If he worked 300 days a year this would mean 28 people per day. Even if he conducted 10 seminars a month, he would still have to average more than 70 people in his seminars. I criticized another claim, namely that he used “life-transforming” thinking techniques during his so-called “Personal Mind Power Seminar”. That’s why I wrote that Van de Velde was a new star in "charlatan country".   Van de Velde did not react much at the time.

In January 2018, two journalists from the Belgian newspaper ‘De Tijd’ (the times) had attended a free seminar.  This resulted in an article published February 17, where several people commented on his practices. The comments were sometimes very harsh, like “he is the Flemish Tony Robbins, fake it until you make it” and “he sells hot air”.
Van de Velde also was interviewed and we read that he claimed that over 200,000 people had attended his seminars, a number we were still suspicious of.   He claimed that he dropped out of school at the age of seventeen and became a door-to-door salesman.   Under the pretext of doing an energy saving survey, he would get his foot in the door and try to sell a copper kitchen set worth over 1,300 euros in the 1980's money. In our 2018 article, we wrote our reservations about this practice.

Coincidentally, while treating our aging dog, our veterinarian told me that he had attended a five-day seminar run by Carl Van de Velde.  I told him about the newspaper article about Van de Velde and about my 2010 article.  I asked him if I could consult and even copy the course material he obtained from Van de Velde, so I could investigate and eventually write an article about Van de Velde's claims. He allowed me to do this and was an important witness in the subsequent proceedings of the Court of Appeal.

In April 2018, the popular science magazine EOS featured an article on the HR-practices used by TalentTester. The article considered the practices quackery. TalentTester used “psychognomy".  Psychognomy claims to be a combination of phrenology and the study of the whole body, face, hair, and kind of hair dress.  SKEPP awarded its annual award, the “Skeptic tank”, to the CEO of Talent Tester in June 2018.

Together with my colleague Bart Van de Ven, PhD, a part-time lecturer in psychology at the University of Ghent, we decided to write an article about the two companies in the Dutch magazine of SKEPP.

Our criticism

We criticized both the pseudoscientific content and the sales and marketing practices used by Carl Van de Velde Training Institute (CVDVTI). The course material clearly was referring to NLP or neurolinguistic programming, the myth of Albert Mehrabians communication rule (who is wrongly cited as having said your words only have a 7% impact on interpretation of the message). It also contained statements about the power of positive thinking, and that our left hemisphere is our rational brain and our right hemisphere is our emotional brain. The Institute’s sales and marketing practices were also analyzed and criticized, using the criteria offered by two behavioral scientists. 

Instead of suing the newspaper or the people who harshly judged him in that article, Van de Velde decided to sue us. He demanded 400,000 euro plus interest as a compensation as well as our apologies.  The court ruling and our apologies were to be published on a website and in our magazine, on pain of a penalty of 2,500 euros per day of delay.


During the procedure, we found out that a member of SKEPP, who used to be a former member of the board of directors, had participated in a CVDVTI seminar. As it turned out, he had praised the seminar in a Facebook group created by CVDVTI.

CVDVTI produced an e-mail written by this SKEPP member only a couple of days from the publication date of our article. He wrote that our magazine had published “an especially negative article about the seminars of your institute”. When I wrote him about the fact that CVDVTI had used his testimony and his membership of SKEPP, he answered that he was infuriated that they used his membership against us, but he kept silent about the above-mentioned e-mail.  Our opponents used his testimonials and his e-mail to attempt to convince the judges that important members of SKEPP did not agree with our article. So it seems that the ball was started rolling by a fellow skeptic.

Justice Served

In a court ruling of 22 pages, the Court of Appeal confirmed the ruling of the first court and emphasized that the freedom of speech and opinion clearly outweighed the potential damage to the reputation of Van de Velde and his Training Institute.  Because of the context of our article, the treated subject, our capacity as authors, the content, and the form of the publication, the Court judged that the claims of CVDVTI were not proportional and not necessary. First, the court argued that our article clearly reflects our personal opinion. Second, because the press had already written about CVDVTI and Talent Tester, and because the article treated a subject ‘of common interest’, we made no mistake there either. The common interest consisted of the fact that people could partially pay for trainings in both companies using public money (subsidies from the Flemish government).  In our article, we literally asked ourselves whether this money could not be better spent.  Third, the court confirmed that we conducted our research very thoroughly. This was thanks to the course materials made available to us and the comparison of the sales and marketing practices with the criteria offered by behavioral scientists Robert Cialdini and Anthony Pratkanis.  We conclude that skeptics better do their research properly before publishing an article because you may have to justify yourself in court (the file we submitted was about half a meter high).

The fact that Carl presented himself as a public and well-known person and that we did not write about his personal life, was another argument in our favor. CVDVTI's final argument, that we were ‘merely competitors’ was also trashed by the Court of Appeal. The three judges pointed out that our motive was to write a critical article in the tradition of the SKEPP magazine. 

A chilling SLAPP procedure

In my view, the CVDVI's only aim was to silence us and nip criticism in the bud. To our regret, the courts failed to condemn the chilling effect that was intended by CVDVTI.

At least one professor already expressed his disappointment that the Courts did not condemn CVDVTI for a SLAPP lawsuit[1] or procedural abuse (in Belgium this is called provocative and reckless litigation in a court of law). He thinks that the bar is too low in Belgian courts. We argued that this was a case of SLAPP, because:

  • The article clearly is of common interest (government money).
  • CVDVTI claimed a ridiculous compensation of 400,000 euro, without offering any proof and whilst their turnover and profit margin largely increased (respectively by 1.060.034 and 923,243 euro) in the year after our publication.
  • They waited for 6 months after getting the e-mail from our Judas and sent the bailiff with the summons on Christmas eve.
  • They claimed we merely are jealous competitors, but they did not sue the company we worked for, even if they argued this company profited from our article (which the judges deny).
  • They enforced 6 rounds of exchange on us, costing us disproportionally a lot of time and money.
  • They never contradicted the content of our evaluation, except for some minor details (the court confirmed that for some minor elements we had not offered enough proof, but that this did not do any damage to their reputation).
  • They promised to go into appeal and asked our lawyers not to send the bailiff with the judgment of the first court, but we had to summon them after several months. They then waited until the last day to file appeal.
  • They wanted the court to require us to publish the ruling on a website of a not-for profit organization that no longer exists and offer our public apologies.
  • Our lawyers pointed out to the judges that their reaction was disproportionate and that they tried to use their financial dominance to intimidate us and bombard us with “a whole arsenal of absurd and even impossible demands, with only one goal indeed, to silence” us.

Currently, an Expert Practitioner Roundtable on the Model Anti-SLAPP Directive is preparing advice to the European Commission on how to prevent or punish SLAPP procedures.

United we stand

We are still awaiting the final bill of our lawyers, but so far, the costs exceeded 60,000 euro.
CVDVTI and Carl are to pay 16,800 euros court fees. This money will be used to contribute to our fund raiser. Thanks to SKEPP many contributors to the fundraiser, this will not cost us a penny. But of course, the stress and the time spent on responding to six rounds of exchanges between lawyers and enduring grueling procedures should not be underestimated.

I thank everyone who contributed to our mental and financial support. If there is one lesson to be learned, it is that united, we can stand up to people or companies with even the deepest pockets.


[1] The abbreviation of ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation’.

Patrick Vermeren
Publication date
Psychology & Coaching