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Parody beats political analysis

When out of town this past week I was bereft of tantalizing subjects, with our 5 other bloggers covering so many topics so well. I was about to toss in an empty towel, when two news absurdities fell into my driveway in the pages of the SF Chronicle. One was this morning’s (7/23) report that one Dragan Dabic, an alternative medicine healer had been captured in Belgrade, Serbia. He was Radovan Karadzic, former Serbian Prime Minister and acknowledged immediate archtect of the 1990s massacres of Bosnia-Herzagovena Muslims. Like Saddam Hussein, he had been a fugitive for years, and was found in an unusual place in an unusual disguise. What more need be said about this former psychiatrist and presumed war crimes mass murderer changing occupations in midlife to alternative healing? Complete with full beard and pony tail, yet. Does this give some clue to some personality types that drift toward junk medicine? One could say the disguise was intentional and had nothing to do with personality. Perhaps. Perhaps. But the situation reinforces my theory that most “CAM”mers are at least intellectual psychopaths – renegades from reason. The picture of Karadzic brings to mind pictures of others with full beards and hidden finger salutes to reason and authority.

The second absurdity was in a recent cartoon subtitled, “The lies behind the truth and the truth behind those lies that lie behind that truth…” So reads the title explanation for Don Asmussen’s “Bad Reporter” comic in the SF Chronicle.

Asmussen parodies headlines by combining them absurdly with commentaries that “explain” the absurd headlines with even more absurd hypothetical events. In these days of absurd happenings, I find Asmussen the right stuff remedy for us perplexed realists who “…cannot believe this is happening.” My mental health now depends on Asmussen and nighttime doses of Phil Hendrie Show. Nothing like satire to put into perspective interest in “alternative medicine” and qualifications and characteristics of presidential candidates.

Among Asmussen’s recent takeoffs is a strip parodying one shock jock Michael Savage, a more than controversial self-made radio commentator with several masters degrees and a PhD from Berkeley in anthropology nutrition and natural cures (Oh, oh.) Savage wrote several popular books on natural cures in a previous life as Michael Weiner, but fame followed from his popular Bay Area talk show, “The Savage Nation,” also title of one of his three recent best selling books.

The most recent Sagage-flap is over his comments that [some?] autism cases are “acts” and he called for autistic kids to drop the acting. During his July 16 show, Savage said, “I’ll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out. That’s what autism is.”

Savage said, “They don’t have a father around to tell them, ‘Don’t act like a moron, you’ll get nowhere in life. … Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot.” Savage explained to the New York Times his use of the figure 99 percent was hyperbole.

One of Savage’s previous rants was on the over-diagnosis of ADHD (attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder) and the drugging of children over behavior that teachers and sometimes parents find unmanageable or uncomfortable. This over-diagnosis and treatment is fertile ground for the thesis that the US population is over-medicalized and over-medicated compared to other countries’ populations. Some serious observers doubt ADHD’s existence as a medical or mental disorder, instead of manifestations of a spectrum of normal behavior, accented by recent permissive social changes. This may be less a controversy than a problem in classification and semantics.

Savage took this ADHD controversy and defined it as a political scandal and a medical conspiracy. This kind of ranting and oversimplification becomes more than just a nettle in medicine’s socks. For Savage it’s a key to condemnation of the entire medical system.

To Savage it makes sense that because of the recent increase in autism diagnoses, he could apply the same suspicions to autism. Most agree that the increase in autism diagnosis is more due to re-classification of some mental retardation patients into a broader class of autism that better explains those children’s behaviors.

Problem is, beside being a wild cannon, Savage is not a physician, and displays lack of understanding of human disease mechanisms and of human behavior.

Savage is an odd hybrid. He claims to be a conservative. His political views are mostly way right of center, with call-to-arms tone. But his health and nutrition brain sector is to me is left of center, even radical in his nutrition claims. He bashes Medical System monopoly, self-interest policies, Big Pharma profits, and physicians’ denial of Natural Cures. Granted, a number of right wing systems – including the Laetrile system – also favor supplements – the universal political and economic power. But echoes of Svage’s left sided academic past ring through.

The Asmussen comic strip on Savage starts with,“Are doctors lying to us?”

“Shock Jock: dead people just really lazy.

Nation’s bereft incensed by Savage’s claim that death is over diagnosed.”

One could not ask for a more politically valuable statement against sectarian and quack claims than reading of an accused genocidal mass murderer masquerading as an “alternative” and nutritional healer. It was page 2 news in the SF Chron. The Savage issue and an Asmussen cartoon could also do something to enhance scientific medicine’s credibility as a rocket-powered critic flames out.

Posted in: Nutrition, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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17 thoughts on “Parody beats political analysis

  1. David Gorski says:

    Sorry, Wally, as much as I love your stuff most of the time, I can’t entirely agree with you here.

    As fun as it may be to engage in some laughs at the expense of purveyors of alternative medicine (a.k.a. quackery, for the most part) using Karadzic as an example, it’s a logical fallacy. The whole Karadzic thing is nothing more than a weaker form of argumentum ad Nazium or guilt by association. It’s invoking the “mini-Hitler” gambit and comes across as saying in essence this:

    Radovan Karadzic is a murderer, ethnic cleanser, and instigator and overseer of genocide.
    Karadzic practiced alternative medicine.
    Therefore, alternative medicine is bad.

    Sure, it’s fun, but it’s completely irrelevant as a criticism of woo. Try comparing the above to this:

    Adolf Hitler was a murderer, ethnic cleanser, and instigator and overseer of genocide on a massive scale.
    Hitler was a vegetarian.
    Therefore, vegetarianism is bad.

    Or how about this:

    The Nazi regime practiced mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
    The Nazi regime promoted naturopathy and other forms of alternative medicine. (Absolutely true–maybe I’ll do a post about this one day for SBM.)
    Therefore, naturopathy and alternative medicine are bad.

    See what I mean? Naturopathy and alternative medicine may, in fact, be bad, but not because the Nazis practiced them. They’re bad because much of them is made up of quackery. Likewise, naturopathy and alternative medicine are indeed mostly bad, but not because Radovan Karadzic was busted practicing it while hiding out from the authorities who wanted him for genocide and ethnic cleansing. Whether this says anything about the “mindset” of alt-med practitioners is a weak and debatable point at best. I could point out many examples of “conventional” doctors who have done some pretty horrific things. (The Nazi doctors at the camps thought of themselves as scientists doing human subjects research to benefit the Reich and Volk, to use an extreme example.) Does their existence mean that scientific medicine attracts a certain vile mindset? I also can’t help but note that the examples here of alt-med practitioners and promoters rather argue against your characterization of alt-med as being primarily a left-wing phenomenon; in fact, woo truly spans political boundaries.

    All of the above explains why, as much fun as it would be, I have refrained from running with the Karadzic story. I don’t mean to be hypercritical; I do mean to tweak you a bit and make you think.

    Moving on, of course Michael Savage is an idiot. What he said about autism is not only wrong medically and scientifically, but it’s hateful , vicious, and nasty (not unlike many of his other rants). He can be criticized (and parodied) for what he actually says. Even so, that he is a despicable person and a woo-meister doesn’t necessarily mean that the two have anything to do with each other.

    Finally, I am curious about something. You made this statement:

    Some serious observers doubt ADHD’s existence as a medical or mental disorder, instead of manifestations of a spectrum of normal behavior, accented by recent permissive social changes. This may be less a controversy than a problem in classification and semantics.

    Who are these “serious observers” (I notice you didn’t say “scientists” or “pediatricians”), and what is the scientific evidence to support your statement? I am asking this in the hopes that you will educate me, because I am unaware of solid evidence to support such a view and aware of quite a bit of evidence that argues against it. Indeed, our fearless leader Steve Novella, a neurologist, has argued against such a view, and here is a review of evidence for a biological basis of ADHD.

  2. botogol says:

    The scariest thing was the way the media reported the disguise. According to the BBC he was “posing” as a doctor of alternative medicine”. So how exactly does that differ from ‘being’ a doctor of alternative medicine?

    Similarly he was “*masquerading* as an expert in human quantum energy”. … as opposed to???? :-)

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7521383.stm

  3. Karadzic managed to hide in plain sight for nearly 13 years, disguised by little more than facial hair and a pseudonym. Maybe he was smart to join an industry where critical thinking is devalued and credentials don’t matter.

    Also, I think it’s fair to note that Karadzic was a retrograde through and through. He rejected modernity in politics and science.

  4. David Gorski says:

    Maybe he was smart to join an industry where critical thinking is devalued and credentials don’t matter.

    Possibly, maybe even probably, but it also helped that the authorities apparently didn’t really want to catch him for 13 years–at least until his continued liberty became a problem for the government, making it politically expedient finally to take action. (From what I read, the government wanted better relations with the E.U., and Karadzic’s continued freedom was an obstacle to that.) :-)

  5. Calli Arcale says:

    Some serious observers doubt ADHD’s existence as a medical or mental disorder, instead of manifestations of a spectrum of normal behavior, accented by recent permissive social changes.

    Accented by permissive social changes? Is this not merely a less vociferous way of saying exactly what Savage is saying — to whit, “these kids are just being allowed to slack off”? You’re blaming society rather than the parents, but it comes to the same thing.

  6. C’mon Dave, let’s not take this all so literally. I’m sure Wally Sampson is aware of the “guilt by association” fallacy, and a simple “Karadzic only reinforces by a little bit [your] theory that most ‘CAM’mers are at least intellectual psychopaths, since he is a single example” would have sufficed.

    More to the point, as the title of the post suggested, was the irony of a scoundrel like Karadzic, “complete with full beard and pony tail,” having found a haven in the anything-goes world of altmed. Fiction couldn’t have invented a better satire. The effect is similar to Sokal’s hoax, which didn’t prove that every other article in Social Text was bogus, but it didn’t have to.

  7. DavidCT says:

    While finding Mr. Karadizic working at a second career as an alternative medical practitioner may not indicate that all such “healers” are sociopaths, it does say something about CAM. It is a good thing to get into if you are hiding. There is no need for actual qualifications in most cases. Credentials are available over the internet if you do need them. There are no formal standards of practice. Skills required are mainly form over substance – a good fit for an ex-politician or anyone with a gift of gab.

    It actually it would be a good job for a sleeper terrorist. Do you think we might be able to get Homeland Security to look into quacks? They seem to be protected from the FDA and the FTC.

  8. Fifi says:

    DavidCT – The US military was actually very active and interested in new age stuff (and possibly still is). Read The Men Who Stare At Goats – both entertaining and more than a little disturbing (and it’s interesting to note that General Stubblebine is behind the healthfreedomUSA website and a bit promoter of deregulated supplements, he also designed some of the torture methods used at Abu Graihb). The CIA also has an interest in supporting Tibetan Buddhism in the US and helped establish it here – for the obvious political reasons (any enemy of China is a friend and political tool to be used for US political purposes!) not out of any belief in Buddhism or meditation from what I understand.

  9. DLC says:

    I’m glad to see Karadizic taken into custody.
    It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
    And, I understand Dr Gorski’s reluctance to indulge in using Karadizic as a whipping boy for sCAM Sham medicine, which I agree with. But, somehow I can’t help having a bit of guilty amusement at the fact the man was a sCAM artist.

  10. Harriet Hall says:

    “Do you think we might be able to get Homeland Security to look into quacks?”

    I reported a homeopath to Homeland Security. He was selling a remedy that was supposedly made from a dilution of actual smallpox virus. I thought Homeland Security would be interested in knowing where he got the virus, since terrorists could get it too. I never got any followup. I may have saved the free world. :-)

  11. Wallace Sampson says:

    David

    Missed the point again. Now it’s Godwin’s Law. I will not pull the trap.

    Sampson’s Rule #1: When evaluating the validity of a sectarian, folkway, or implausible claim, satisfy the following question,

    How worse off would society be if the method did not exist?

    Prove it.

    Sampson’s Hypothesis: In line for Rule #2:

    Sectarian medicine advocates are characterized by a selective intellectual deficit, augmented and solidified by a sociopathic unwillingness to be affected by a concept of right and wrong, reason and unreason, social benefit and social detriment, and a self-centered resistance to learning.
    Or was it vice-versa?

    Bottom line: Lighten up.

    Wally

  12. David Gorski says:

    C’mon Dave, let’s not take this all so literally. I’m sure Wally Sampson is aware of the “guilt by association” fallacy, and a simple “Karadzic only reinforces by a little bit [your] theory that most ‘CAM’mers are at least intellectual psychopaths, since he is a single example” would have sufficed.

    C’mon, Kim, you know when it comes to blogging that I’m all about overkill. Too much is never enough. You like it well enough when it’s directed at alt-med. Why do you think I should change here? :-)

  13. David Gorski says:

    Missed the point again. Now it’s Godwin’s Law. I will not pull the trap.

    Invoking Godwin’s law is not really appropriate because I was not comparing something to Hitler seriously, nor was this some sort of trap for you. Come on, you don’t think I’d lay out a trap for you, do you? We’re all buds here!

    No, I was doing it tongue-in-cheek as an obviously and intentionally massively exaggerated example to illustrate a point about your post, which was that invoking Karadzic to indict alt-med is what I call a weak version of the “Hitler gambit” (or, as I like to call it, the “mini-Hitler” gambit). I suppose you could say I may have been invoking the “mini-Godwin” law on you, if you must know.

    Not all mentions of Hitler in an online discussion are Godwin-worthy.

    [...]

    Sectarian medicine advocates are characterized by a selective intellectual deficit, augmented and solidified by a sociopathic unwillingness to be affected by a concept of right and wrong, reason and unreason, social benefit and social detriment, and a self-centered resistance to learning.
    Or was it vice-versa?

    Sometimes, that’s true, but I think you overstate the case. My take is that in the majority of cases, advocates are true believers. They really believe that their woo works and think that spreading the word is doing a societal good. They really think that they are helping people but lack the critical thinking skills and knowledge of science to inoculate themselves against this self-delusion. They are not out to do harm, but they end up doing harm because of their delusion.

    Bottom line: Lighten up.

    OK, if you insist. Look, I was seriously tempted to have some fun with the Karadzic story myself. I really was. I mean, the guy has a beard and looks like Albus Dumbledore or Andrew Weil now. I just stopped and thought about it, asking myself, “Does this really do any good?”

    I concluded that it didn’t.

  14. Mojo says:

    “As fun as it may be to engage in some laughs at the expense of purveyors of alternative medicine (a.k.a. quackery, for the most part) using Karadzic as an example, it’s a logical fallacy.”

    It’ll be interesting to see if Dana Ullman has anything to say about it though.

    Maybe he’ll produce an updated edition of his book.

  15. A criminal successfully getting away with passing himself off as an alt. healer is funny. His “patients” and colleagues can’t see that he is a fraud because the whole industry is a fraud built on opinions or guesses not facts that can be checked.

    In how many lines of work could you deceive people like that? Just think of a car mechanic.

    “Well, Mrs. Jones, you have trouble starting your car when it is cold? That’s because it is black. So is gas and the color absorbs the energy of the gas when the temperature drops so it doesn’t get to the motor where it is needed.”

    “But my husband’s car is black too and he doesn’t have trouble starting it.”

    “Is it a Ford too?”

    “Yes.”

    “What model?”

    “Also, a Taurus.”

    “What year?”

    “2000″

    “See! Yours is a 2001! All cars are individual and have to be treated differently. We have found that Ford Taruses built in 2001 colored black built in the Alabama plant coming off the line after 12 noon all have this problem. We will paint it red and it will start in the cold!”

    A few days later Mrs. Jones is back, “It still won’t start!”

    “Amazing. You know we can’t fix everything! I think it is time for you to buy a new car. Let me show you this one I have out back….”

  16. Jules says:

    ” But the situation reinforces my theory that most “CAM”mers are at least intellectual psychopaths – renegades from reason.”

    Does that make me a psychopath? :-D

    No, I don’t believe in the power of prayer or anything. But I’ve been taking St. John’s Wort for the past 4 months and I have to say, if it is indeed a placebo effect that’s keeping my depression at bay, it is one hell of a placebo effect and one that I’m willing to live with (and a cost of $2/month for the tea is one that I can afford). Herbal pharmacology is a big pet interest of mine, but I don’t think I’m any more insane than the next serial killer on the block.

    As far as over-diagnosing ADHD and autistic spectrum disorders: can I posit that they are indeed over-diagnosed in certain populations, and drastically under-diagnosed in others? ADHD tends to be diagnosed in boys but not girls–is that just because boys’ brains are different, or do more boys than girls actually have ADHD? And as much as I hate discussing race, I have to wonder how much race has to do with a successful diagnosis and treatment plan for these diseases: if a young black child and a young white child are both acting out in class, does one or the other get slapped with an ADHD sticker, while the other continues on his merry way?

  17. gdjsky01 says:

    Thanks for the link. I have to follow this Don Asmussen more closely. Though the Shock Jock thing did not resonate with me, I adored the Obama comics. Thanks.

    And BTW even a war criminal needs to make a living. Why not alternative medicine? Think about it, since you need no actual qualifications there are no nasty background or credential checks that like might uncover past transgressions… like oh… mass murders… holocaust… and other tawdry affairs. And it most likely it pays pretty well since the placebo effect can work miracles.

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