Jul 27 2012
I wrote this note as a comment on my colleague Rick Kirschner’s blog:
I thought long and hard on this, especially since I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with misrepresentations of my own work. On one hand there is the ever-present desire to turn the other cheek and convert my response into a teaching opportunity. This works in certain circumstances –often if the skeptic is actually curious about that which they are skeptical of.
Most are not.
In most other circumstances, turning the other cheek will often get that side of your head smacked as well. As Ho Chi Minh once said in reference to Mahatma Gandhi, “Had he grown up in Vietnam, he’d have ascended into heaven long before he did.”
Because these people are often prisoners of their own zealotry their tactics are not very often of the velvet-glove variety. Since they don’t respect that which they are skeptical of, and anything goes and every tactic is permissible
Of course this automatically brands them as pseudo-skeptics not skeptics, since true skeptics are more than happy to amend an existing opinion with the presentation of new evidence. Most of these guys just feel that modern allopathic medicine (and hence the public) is under attack from vicious, dangerous woo-merchants and it is their anointed job to exterminate this vermin.
Thus it is unlikely that appeals to reason will ever work effectively, since dialogue is not what they are interested in — anymore than someone would ever be interested in dialoging with a cockroach before they stepped on it. People who dialogue with cockroaches usually don’t step on them.
Like Ho, Adolf Hitler also had an opinion of Gandhi, remarking once to Lloyd George: ‘Why doesn’t someone just shoot him and be done with it?’
Let’s call a spade a spade: The more extreme of these ‘anti-SCAM’ pseudo-skeptics will not rest until we’re completely discredited and eliminated.
Thus their tactics and criticisms are almost always of the ‘gotcha’ variety. This is usually performed by trying very hard to cover their opponents in manure so that they can stand back, point to them and say ‘look, they are covered in manure.’
Gerhard Uhlenbruck, the worlds leading lectin researcher, and one of the few scientists who has openly acknowledged the value of my work has a nice way of reflecting on the silliness of what these people do with their time:
“Never chase a lie. Let it alone, and it will run itself to death.”
Stephen Jay Gould also had a nice way of turning the tables on pseudo-skeptics. This from ‘The Structure of Evolutionary Thinking’ (2002):
“If none of the foregoing charges can bear scrutiny, strategists of personal denigration still hold an old and conventional tactic in reserve: they can proclaim a despised theory both trivial and devoid of content. This charge is so distasteful to any intellectual that one might wonder why detractors don’t try such a tactic more often, and right up front at the outset. But I think we can identify a solution: the “triviality caper” tends to backfire and to hoist a critic with his own petard — for if the idea you hate is so trivial, then why bother to refute it with such intensity? Leave the idea strictly alone and it will surely go away all by itself. Why fulminate against tongue piercing, goldfish swallowing, skateboarding, or any other transient fad with no possible staying power?
So, if Uhlenbruck and Gould are correct, why do so many people spend some much time making life miserable for people with new ideas?
Probably because, although we talk of ideas, it all distills back down to power and money. New ideas often threaten the exact type of person who (personality-wise) would go on to make the perfect pseudo-skeptic. The type of person who buys into the existing power structure, hook, line and sinker. Anything that takes away from the reflected light (‘My son the doctor.’) they have spent so much time and money on gaining. For which they so sacrificed and assiduously played the game in order to secure. This is not just a threat — it is also a nightmare.
So what is the answer?
Like any test of will (and for a myriad of reasons) victory goes to those with the ultimate staying power.
In military terminology there is a tactic called ‘the refuse.’
Back in the old days, these guys would just line up opposite each other on some level field and go at it. Typically, since most people are right-handed, the right side of an army’s line would often be stronger than the left. Thus the idea of any good commander would be to ‘refuse’ to fight (usually by slowly pulling back) on his left side while trying to press the advantage on his right.
This is a fundamental tactic in Aikido martial art. It is called ‘entering,’ the idea being to enter inside the physical space of the attacker and then by turning as you enter, you align your force with his and for a brief transcendental moment, see the world as he sees it. Very hard to have a fight with someone who is trying their hardest to see your point of view. It is very hard to hit something which has as its ultimate goal to be where you are not.
I stopped writing for pseudo-critics years ago: You can’t please them, they won’t buy your books anyway and the people I really want to help educate don’t want to read that type of stuff.
I just refused to do it.
Now, while most magazine articles critical of my theories have long-ago been relegated to the landfill, you can still buy my first book only in hardcover despite being twelve years in print.
Why? Because the theory works in many people and they go on to tell other people.
Now, if I need to buy a new hammer I’d be somewhat interested in reviews that tell me which hammers ‘not to buy,’ but ultimately if my best friend tells my which brand of hammer he’s happy with, I’m probably going to go with that advice. I would also find questionable reviewers who had nothing good to say about all hammers in general.
Let’s commit to always doing the hard work. Let’s accept the fact that we practice a revolutionary form of medicine and let’s stop looking for approbation from the very people whose preeminence we threaten and who cannot appreciate the strides we’ve made and the struggles we’ve endured in order to put this profession back on its feet.
Let every patient see the value of what we can do. These pseudo-skeptics will always have their coffee claches; their little goldfish bowls, where naturopaths do nothing right and allopaths nothing wrong. But let’s refuse to make it into something bigger than it really is, because that is not the main battlefield.
Instead, let’s wake up every day determined to redouble our efforts to improve the lives of our patients.
I’ll end this diatribe with two more Vietnam Era quotes, which to me seem oddly relevant since US health care is currently in a Vietnam-like quagmire.
The first is from Lyndon Johnson, a fundamentally un-quotable president. Johnson did once say something I thought was of note. In dealing with criticisms of his Great Society program, he was heard to say:
‘It takes a master carpenter to build a good barn. Funny thing though, is that any fool with a match can then burn it down.’
Let’s remember that we are master carpenters. The public can be trusted to see the benefit of good barns. Let’s also refuse to put the matches in the hands of our opponents.
The second quote is from a meeting between a Vietnamese general and an American general in Hanoi several years after the war ended.
‘You know’ said the American general, ‘you never beat us in a single battle.’
‘Yes, that is true.’ replied the Vietnamese general, ‘however it is also irrelevant.’
Remember water always beats rock. That’s because water can go around rock. Let’s refuse to butt heads with rocks.
And as the quote goes “Medicine progresses funeral by funeral.”
They were referring to the doctor’s funeral, not the patient’s.