Tuesday, November 13, 2007

And We Have Another Winner: Dr. Sid Schwab

"Many years ago I watched, drop-jawed, the television commercial of a local chiropractor as he stood by a couch-full of young kids. Recommending monthly preventative adjustments for these four- to six-year-olds, he touted the obvious benefits: look how healthy they are. Not, he seemed to imply, a heart attack among them. Nary a stroke. Probably not even a case of colon cancer. And I wondered: is he stupid enough to believe or is he simply a cynical and dishonest charlatan? I got a partial answer a few months later when a woman arrived in the emergency department, acutely paraplegic. Her chiropractor had continued manipulating her increasing and unresponsive back pain until she became paralyzed. The "doctor" must have known about her history of breast cancer, because he was also her husband.

Until that time, because the theory behind chiropractic is so obviously loony, I'd assumed practitioners all knew it and were simply crooks who'd found a surefire way to separate the credulous from their money. (And yes, I acknowledge that manipulation has a place in certain specific anatomic disorders of the back itself. But using it to treat or prevent systemic disease is nothing but laughable. Except that it's not funny.) Stupid, careless, lacking judgment: yes, the man must have been all that. But unless he hated his wife, I had to conclude he believed in what he was doing.

I still haven't figured it out, and I'm sure I never will. Of what do the cerebral lacunae consist in these people? How can (some) otherwise intelligent people (givers and takers) become convinced of the efficacy of whatever woo they wish? Is truth just too hard to take? At some primordial level, is it just that we need to believe in silly stuff? What is it about humankind that pines for magic, for simplicity, for answers that pave over the painful? Why isn't inquisitiveness universal; doesn't skepticism confer survival benefit? Or would we all be jumping off cliffs if we didn't have mythology? Maybe that's it. Maybe too many skeptics have already jumped.

The frailty, the neediness of the human brain, when stacked against the obvious power of it -- the ability to create, to invent, to inquire -- is a probative paradox. It may be a stretch to write my way from anger about alternatives and chafing at chiropractic, to the death of skeptics and skepticism, but in my mind it's of a piece. I have a friend, a brilliant physician and much more of a scientist than most, who tells me he knows, based on his particular faith, exactly into which level of heaven he will enter; as if he's already done a mapquest search and downloaded the directions. Given that there are about six billion people on the planet who believe something else, and with just as much certainty, I find it amazing. And revelatory. It's a need. It's built in. It's human.

My conclusion is that the desire to believe in certain unprovable things at one time was good for us: when the dangers in the world were mostly external -- volcanoes and saber-tooth tigers -- and the need to organize and stay together was clear, supernatural beliefs were of obvious benefit. And now, as society has gotten impossibly complex, and the dangers are mostly human-generated, it's become a detriment. Rather than helping mankind to cleave together and help one another, magical beliefs -- whether on couches or in the clouds -- are causing us to fall upon one another in hate, in fear, in the unreason that comes from a mind blown by the awful realities we have brought upon ourselves.

Magical thinking is who we are, I guess. If it were only that it serves to enrich some at the expense of others, maybe even make some people feel better, what the hell. If they're only hurting themselves, or the willingly deceived, should I let it go? But they are hurting people, and it's pretty clear that eventually it will hurt me."
-- By Dr. Sid Schwab