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The Water Cure: Another Example of Self Deception and the “Lone Genius”

A correspondent wrote:

I hear all day long on my local radio station commercials for The Water Cure, which was created by a Dr. Batmangelli (I have no idea how to spell his name) promising wonderful cures by eliminating caffeine and alcohol and drinking water and sprinkling sea salt on your food. If you REALLY want to get cured even faster, swim in the ocean everyday.

That’s Dr. Fereydoon Batmanghelidj. His Big Idea was that dehydration is the main cause of disease. It was untenable to begin with, is supported by no evidence, was debunked on Quackwatch several years ago, and Dr. Batmanghelidj died in 2004, so I was surprised to hear it was still being vigorously promoted. But not very surprised. After all, homeopathy is still around.

The Water Cure is another in a long list of alleged miracle cures discovered by “lone geniuses” who are allegedly persecuted by a resistant medical establishment. These stories follow a pattern, and I think it is worthwhile looking at this prime example to understand something of the psychology of self-deception that is involved.

How It All Started

Dr. Batmanghelidj was imprisoned for political crimes in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. A number of his fellow prisoners had previously been diagnosed with peptic ulcer disease (PUD). Their symptoms recurred in jail and didn’t respond to Cimetidine and antacids. Dr. Batmanghelidj gave a prisoner with unbearable pain two glasses of water. The pain disappeared completely after 8 minutes.

He treated other PUD patients with remarkable success. One patient was semiconscious from pain but after drinking water he recovered in 20 minutes. (One wonders about the wisdom of making a semiconscious patient drink, since there is a risk of aspiration). Patients were advised to continue drinking 1500cc of water daily for 6 weeks, allowing time for the average ulcer to heal. Symptoms did not recur.

During treatment, urine volume increased and patients had to get up at night to pee. Dr. Batmanghelidj assumed this meant that they were losing sodium so he added salt to their treatment regimen.

It seems logical that drinking water would dilute the stomach acid and provide some temporary relief. In a majority of patients the relief of pain was preceded by eructation of gas. Hmmm… For some reason, Batmanghelidj decided that the real problem was dehydration: dehydration was the sole cause of pain so the pain was relieved by drinking water.

Dr. Batmanghelidj eventually got out of prison and came to the US, where he developed his ideas further and wrote a series of books. His philosophy expanded. Although water alone had worked for his initial patients, he added salt (without any comparison studies to show it improved outcome) and then declared that it should be sea salt to supply trace minerals (again with no comparison studies). He recommends Himalayan or Celtic sea salt (!?) Rather than adding salt to your food or water, you should let it dissolve on your tongue (Why?). If you are urinating within 2 hours of drinking water, you should eat bagels to help keep the water in your body long enough for it to work. This is referred to as “Bagel Magic.”

He spoke out against alcohol, caffeine, and anything else that might contribute to dehydration. He expanded his thinking to include acidity and immunology:

the causes of most so-called incurable diseases are nothing but symptoms of a weak immune system caused by consuming caffeine, alcohol and/or soda and lack of water and/or salt. They create an acid pH and the more acidic it is, the weaker your immune system, the worse your health becomes and the more difficult it is for your body to repair itself.

He claims the water cure will:

  1. Prevent and reverse premature aging
  2. Eliminate pain, including heartburn, back pain, arthritis, colitis, angina, and migraine headaches
  3. Cure asthma in a few days, naturally and forever
  4. Cure hypertension without diuretics or other medications
  5. Lose weight effortlessly and naturally, without strict dieting

He suggests that water is a no-cost solution to heart disease. But that’s not all! His websites include testimonials from patients who were allegedly cured of:

Terminal Cancer – Diabetes – Herniated Discs – Chronic Pain – Depression – Fibromyalgia – Suicidal Tendencies – Edema – Acid Reflux – Watering Eyes – Hiccups – Pet Arthritis – Asthma – Syncope – Migraines – Chronic Fatigue – Bronchitis – Vision – Raccoon Eyes – Energy – Skin Ailments – Dizziness – Allergies – Diabetes – Eye Edema – Herpies [sic] – Weight Loss – Leukemia

Where’s the Evidence?

The Water Cure website provides a list of scientific documents. Most of them are opinion pieces written by Batmanghelidj himself in a journal he established himself and self-published for three years (Science in Medicine Simplified) because he couldn’t get published in reputable journals.

Batmanghelidj claims to have done a lot of research, but he hasn’t. All he has done is theorize and speculate. He has only two listings in PubMed for articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

The first was published in 1983 in The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. It is not a scientific study, but an “editorial” that describes his experiences with patients in the prison. It is an anecdotal account that doesn’t even rise to the level of case reports or case series. He says he treated 3000 patients with PUD, and his account suggests that about a third of all prisoners had PUD, which seems a bit high even considering the stress of prison. These diagnoses were clinical diagnoses: in other words, completely unreliable. It is impossible to differentiate peptic ulcers from non-ulcer dyspepsia or other conditions without an endoscopy or an imaging procedure. He says he also successfully treated a few cases of “appendix pain” (whatever that means) and from that he concludes that “a site of pain other than epigastric may herald a clinical picture of duodenal ulcer disease.” This leaves me at a loss for words.

The second article, published in Anticancer Research in 1987, is a speculative rumination calling for a paradigm change in thinking about pain. It claims that pain is a signal system denoting free water deficiency of the cell. It is poorly written and doesn’t make sense to me. For instance, he says that this new paradigm does not apply to conditions with local tissue pathology, like cholecystitis. But peptic ulcers are local tissue pathology. Why should the water cure work for ulcers but not for cholecystitis? Bizarrely, he ends his article with an acknowledgement thanking the Almighty for his light and fine detailed guidance.

Batmanghelidj’s Other Weird Ideas

In an interview with Mike Adams he made a series of very questionable statements:

“thirst in the body can manifest itself in the form of abdominal pain to the level that the person can even become semi-conscious.”

“water shortage is actually the background to most of the health problems in our society.”

He claims that histamine regulates the water in the body and that antidepressant drugs are antihistamines, pain medications are antihistamines, and other medications are directly and indirectly antihistamines.

“the whole entire existence of the pharmaceutical industry is based on presentation of false science”

“we measure the level of cholesterol in the body in the blood we take out of the veins of the body, and nowhere in the history of medicine is there recorded one single case of cholesterol ever having blocked the veins of the body.”

“a lot of children who drink soft drinks actually become ‘stupid’, but once you take the soft drink away from them, their grades improve tremendously — C’s and F’s become A’s and B’s.”

This kind of thing is bad enough, but he really loses it when he descends into AIDS denialism:

… everyone assumes that AIDS is actually a viral disease, which is a fraudulent statement by those people who presented it, because the human body is the product of many, many years of having fought various viral diseases, and has survived. Smallpox, polio, measles, and all the other viruses that can kill very easily, and the body has an ability to mount a defense system against these hot viruses, viruses that actually very quickly can kill. But having survived those, how is it possible that the slow virus would kill us in the name of AIDS? I can’t understand it.

I have researched this topic extensively, and I have shown in fact that AIDS is a metabolic problem, when the body begins to cannibalize its own tissue because of certain missing elements in the raw materials that it receives through food or beverages, and the body of a person who gets AIDS, actually, is short of quite a number of building block amino acids. They’re short of tyrosine, they’re short of methionine, cysteine, they’re short of histidine, and they’ve got a whole lot of others in excess. So how can we expect a body that depends on the other amino acids to survive?

Elsewhere he has claimed that water is one of the main sources of energy for the brain and the entire body and that it produces “hydro-electric” energy by splitting into hydrogen and oxygen!

How Do Intelligent People Go Wrong?

Dr. Batmanghelidj follows a well-beaten path. From chiropractic to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), innumerable non-science-based practitioners have gone down this same slippery slope. Here is the typical progression from initial self-deception to “lone genius” woomeister status:

  1. He witnesses an unexpected improvement after a treatment.
  2. He assumes the treatment caused the improvement.
  3. He does not test this assumption or try to rule out other possible explanations.
  4. He proceeds to treat many other patients the same way, with apparent success, and allows confirmation bias to bolster his conviction.
  5. His ego is boosted by grateful patients and by the conviction that he has special knowledge.
  6. He extends the treatment to patients with other diagnoses.
  7. He exercises his imagination and speculates about a possible physiological mechanism by which the treatment might work.
  8. He generalizes, often claiming to have found the “one cause of all disease.”
  9. He tries to convince scientists by describing his anecdotal experiences.
  10. The scientists refuse to accept his untenable explanations or to publish his scientifically unacceptable papers.
  11. He accuses the scientific establishment of persecuting him and suppressing knowledge that would undermine the status quo and help many patients.
  12. He plays the lone genius card, often comparing himself to Galileo or Semmelweis.
  13. He writes books and sells things.

For Batmanghelidj the epiphany was a glass of water that apparently relieved a stomach pain. For D. D. Palmer (chiropractic) it was a back adjustment that apparently restored a deaf janitor’s hearing. For Samuel Hahnemann (homeopathy) it was the supposedly malaria-like symptoms he experienced after taking an anti-malaria drug. For Francine Shapiro (EMDR) it was the observation during a walk in a park that moving her eyes seemed to reduce the stress of disturbing memories. For Edward Bach (Bach Flower Remedies), a walk in the country revealed his intuitive psychic connection to various plants.

The initial error was the same in all cases: they failed to consider the possibility that they might be wrong. They failed to use the scientific method to test their observations. The rest of the sequence followed naturally from human psychology. The Water Cure is nonsense, but its story provides a cautionary tale. The most important thing a scientist can say is “I could be wrong.”

Posted in: Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (21) ↓

21 thoughts on “The Water Cure: Another Example of Self Deception and the “Lone Genius”

  1. Charon says:

    “Donʼt compare yourself to Galileo. You are not Galileo.
    Honestly, youʼre not. Dude, seriously.”
    -Sean Carroll, modern cosmologist

    What I find most interesting is that I was much like these people once, finding deep principles in physics that somehow everyone else had missed. I also looked for UFOs, and thought I saw some. I found deep and strange mathematical meaning in E=mc^2.

    Of course, I was in elementary school at the time, and was just an imaginative, reasonably bright kid. Then I grew up, became an astrophysicist, and learned that the world is crazy complicated :)

    Retain childlike wonder – but not childlike gullibility or educational level.

  2. For completeness’ sake, readers should know that this isn’t the first instance of the term “Water Cure.” It was one of the precursors of naturopathy, although in that context it typically (but not necessarily) referred to immersing the body in water or applying wet compresses to various parts of the body. The 19th century German priest Sebastian Kneipp, universally acclaimed as an important originator of naturopathy, promoted the “water cure” for tuberculosis and many other diseases.

    This tradition persists among modern, “educated” naturopaths. It is now called “hydrotherapy.” Recent claims by a prominent graduate of Bastyr, the flagship of “naturopathic medical schools,” and endorsed by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, include these:

    …if you or a family member already has suffered from one or more strokes, a simple hydrotherapy technique may provide relief, and even minimize long term sequelae…

    One technique is to lower your body temperature, with a cold bath for example, as much as possible without inducing shivering as soon as possible after a stroke has occurred, or is suspected to have occured. The idea here is that if the stroke is ischemic (temporary restriction of oxygenated blood) the body naturally and preferentially preserves blood flow to the brain, so cooling the rest of the body will cause the blood to shunt rapidly to the brain. However, if the stroke is hemorrhagic, cooling the body rapidly will cause vasoconstriction, thereby helping to control the bleed.

    Another hydrotherapy technique with a similar rationale is to soak the feet in a hot foot bath, as soon as possible after the stroke has occurred, while applying a cold compress to the neck, face and scalp. If this technique can be applied as a stroke is happening, it may even abort the stroke. Make sure the ice-cold compress touches the skin over the carotid arteries under the jaw bone. Mustard paste or powder may be added to the foot bath to increase the heating effect. Make sure to continue this treatment for at least 20 minutes and keep adding hot water to the foot bath and make sure the cold compress stays really cold. Or, you may take a neutral bath that is neither freezing cold, nor warm. Immersion in water of neutral temperature is extremely soothing to the central nervous system.

  3. Scott says:

    Elsewhere he has claimed that … it produces “hydro-electric” energy by splitting into hydrogen and oxygen!

    This is perhaps the most hilariously off-base comment I can remember from any woo-meister. Heck, reiki and homeopathy are paragons of plausibility by comparison! Producing energy via an endothermic process – beautiful!

    Yeah, let’s just completely discard all of thermodynamics right down to conservation of energy. (That also means we have to discard Lorentz invariance, incidentally.) I can’t think of anything that would more profoundly violate more fundamental physical principles.

  4. qetzal says:

    The bit about producing hydro-electric energy by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen could be a very tortured attempt to describe the hydrolysis of ATP. In which case, this makes perfect sense:

    But having survived those [other viruses], how is it possible that the slow virus would kill us in the name of AIDS? I can’t understand it.

    It’s quite possible that Batmanghelidj literally wasn’t capable of understanding it.

  5. Kausik Datta says:

    Where does this lunacy end? Seriously, is there a point when mankind suddenly realizes, in one fell swoop, that if it talks like a quack and ducks like quack, it is a quack?

    Sometimes I despair.

  6. Lawrence C. says:

    Reading about The Water Cure certainly made me thirsty. But not for water.

    When faced with such overwhelming ninnyisms, logicians really need to come up with a steeper, stronger term for the slippery slope fallacy. Something akin to a headlong vertical plunge. Perhaps in this case a Waterfall Fallacy or Flushing Fallacy, where what seems to float along for one person is about to go over the falls or down the drain for anyone else.

    Then again, since my regular internist hasn’t seen any hydro-electric activity in me, perhaps I’m just hydrochallenged and thus can’t drink up all the good doctor’s cures.

  7. tmac57 says:

    I think that Batmanghelidj should have changed his name to Aquamanghelidj . Marketing opportunity missed!

  8. beatis says:

    @ Kausik Datta,

    “Sometimes I despair”

    I sometimes despaired too. Now I sometimes not despair.

  9. Charon says:

    Lawrence C.,

    Your wish for a stronger term has been granted:

    “This isn’t a slippery slope, it’s a greased cliff with a vicious downdraft and parachute made out of f***ing elephants.”
    -Nicholas Wind, The Stranger (a Seattle newspaper) 2006.01.05

    (Not ***’d in the original, of course.)

  10. tcw says:

    Are there cases of real lone geniuses in science? Or, like most of science, do ideas build on one another, someone has a breakthrough, perhaps a paradigm shift as some one say, and get all the credit in pop history? I find it easier to accept a lone genius in music or the humanities rather than science.
    Or maybe a true lone genius wouldn’t describe themself as such.

  11. Kausik Datta says:

    tmac57:

    I think that Batmanghelidj should have changed his name to Aquamanghelidj

    FTW!!

    tcw:

    Are there cases of real lone geniuses in science?

    In hoary old ages, may be. But most probably not any more. As you said, modern scientific research is largely a collaborative effort (directly or indirectly). Each idea builds on scores of pre-existing ideas. Even highly original ideas need affirmation or corroboration from independently collected evidence – which, once again, may be direct or indirect.

  12. Fifi says:

    tcw – There are far fewer lone geniuses in the arts and humanities than the general public are led to believe (if there are truly any at all). The myth of Modernism is the myth of the lone hero, the genius who creates out of nothing. It’s a myth and not the reality of being an artist. Not that there aren’t individuals with talents or special insight or who read the times most astutely, of course, it’s just that nobody creates in a vacuum and more often than not the person who gets the credit is simply the one who gets there first or has the means to claim he got there first. Sometimes we’re lucky and it’s actually the person with the most talent and insight but that’s not always the case.

  13. BillyJoe says:

    I dunno. One time I ate a chocolate jesus and got better. Now I eat chocolate whenever I get sick and it’s worked everytime so far. I’m still not dead. I’m not sure why I didn’t pick on jesus as the cure though. Just lucky I guess.

  14. TD says:

    BillyJoe, how’s your area for Dementors?

  15. chaoticidealism says:

    Often times these things are deceptive not because they are completely false, but because they have a grain of truth in them… lost among the lies, certainly, but just a little bit of truth.

    For example, last winter I had a problem with recurrent headaches, mild but annoying. For quite a while, I just treated them with ibuprofen; but that just treated the symptoms until I realized the actual problem–I was taking classes in a hot, dry building and not drinking anything other than what I had at lunch. I figured it out when I realized how thirsty I always was when I came home from school, and the headaches disappeared when I started carrying a water bottle with me.

    There’s your grain of truth. Sometimes people do get mildly dehydrated, and it does cause problems, like my tension headaches. What’s annoying is that people tend to see things like “when I don’t drink enough water, I get headaches,” and assume that means that water is the key to a great deal more than just not getting dehydrated.

  16. xa says:

    I think I need a bagel! And maybe one of those magic chocolate Jesus delights… HA! Unbelieveable. Literally. Surely this is Darwinism at work… ;)
    xa

  17. BillyJoe says:

    chaoticidealism,

    “…the headaches disappeared when I started carrying a water bottle with me”.

    I tried carrying a water bottle with me but it didn’t work.
    Then I tried filling the water bottle with water but it still didn’t work.
    Next I’m going to try drinking the water.

    Do you carry a water bottle with you, or a bottle of water?
    And did you just carry it around or did you drink the contents?

    Hey, it’s important! :)

  18. Elsewhere he has claimed that water is one of the main sources of energy for the brain and the entire body and that it produces “hydro-electric” energy by splitting into hydrogen and oxygen!

    So people that go on clear liquid diets (like before bariatric surgery) shouldn’t lose weight, right? Because they’re full of hydrogen and oxygen and thus have plenty of energy, right?

    I couldn’t successfully produce those results to my satisfaction, so I swallowed a couple platinum electrodes connected with wires to a 9 volt battery after drinking a lot of water. I’ll post the results later.

  19. chaoticidealism says:

    “Do you carry a water bottle with you, or a bottle of water?
    And did you just carry it around or did you drink the contents?”

    Actually, I absorbed the water through osmosis. Did you know plastic water bottles make great* semipermeable membranes?

    *Where “great” means “absolutely useless”, of course.

  20. BillyJoe says:

    Hey, chaoticidealism, that was a great bit of information you gave us there. ;)

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