The Menace of the Charlatan

A charlatan (also called swindler or mountebank) is a person practicing quackery or some similarconfidence trick in order to obtain money, fame or other advantages via some form of pretense or deception. (Wikipedia)

Broadly conceived, the charlatan plagues us in many forms.  There was Mr. Ponzi, together with his modern imitators like Mr. Bernard Madoff and many others, whose marks fell victim to his representations of financial wizardry.  There are quasi-religious charlatans, like the late L. Ron Hubbard,   who promise eternal bliss, more or less, in exchange for devotion and revenue from his followers.  And there are also the less conspicuous braggarts who  flaunt imaginary or puffed-up credentials (the Doctor X’s and Reverend Y’s of the media) to gain specious prestige.
But most commonly, the term charlatan attaches to the medical quack — the man (or rarely the woman) who urges you to put your faith and money into practices and nostrums whose efficacy and/or safety have not been established by the canons of science.  Instead of science, the appeal is to  the charisma of the charlatan, who, in turn, proposes notions of ancient wisdom, spiritual enlightenment, ostensible Asian healing skills, resentments toward scientific elites, folk lore, new age thinking.The charlatan may or may not sport legitimate medical credentials.  But when employed as sales devices for quackery, the validity of such credentials is zero.The marketing of such quackery is probably as old as the institution of thievery, to which it is of course related.  But like the other ancient afflictions of man, charlatanism has developed modern forms, no the least of which is its use of television and the computer.We now have an excellent, up-to-date description of modern charlatanism, Paul Offit’s Do You Believe in Magic ?, HarperCollins, 2013.The early chapters of the book give a rundown of some of the big names of 20th century charlatanism, among whom the name of Linus Pauling may be the most interesting.  After a most distinguished career in science, including a Nobel prize in chemistry, Pauling turned his back on science and began advocating cultic nostrums.  Apparently the turn occurred when he was 65 years old, in 1966,  and the reader is left wondering whether the cause was some sort of senescence.  Offit does not mention this, but Pauing gave an earlier indication of oddness, when he participated in  Communist fellow-travelling in 1948 by endorsing the Henry Wallace candidacy for President, and again a year later, when he participated in the Communisty-organized “Peace Conference” at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.Some of Offit’s most important information concerns the lucrative trade in largely worthless dietary supplements, which amounts to some $34 billion a year.  It is difficult to turn on the radio, or even the TV, without being accosted by these hucksters.  Offit describes how this industry, with the connivance of certain politicians (the late William Proxmire among them), successfully evaded government regulation of these often dangerous products.  And speaking of politicians, Richard Blumenthal, then attorney general of Connecticut and now a US senator, deserves dishonorable mention for promoting a charlatan notion of Lyme disease, thereby causing great harm to many patients.Offit also describes some of the best-kown charlatans on todays TV, notably Deepak Chopra and Mehmet Oz.  Here he exposes the culpability of popular TV personalities who introduce and enable the charlatans:  Oprah Winfrey, Mel Gibson, Whoopi Goldberg, Larry King, Tom Cruise, Mike Wallace, Geraldo Rivera, and many others.

The Case of Gabor Maté: “power, insight, clarity, candour, compassion, humor, and warmth of … presentations.”

When I was teaching at the University of British Columbia in the middle 1960’s, a small number of radical undergraduate students began to be heard from, making up for smallness of numbers with volume of startling assertions.  Among them was a Jewish student originally from Hungary, Gabor Maté.  Some few years before that I had been active in a group advocating aid to the Doukhobors, a religious group that had managed to get into trouble with the authorities.  At one of the meetings of this committee,  Gabor, then about 17, appeared in the tilboshet — blue uniform shirt — of the Habonim Zionist youth organization.  He wanted to offer the help of his organization, which, he intimated, he was authorized to represent.  Fine.  But he had some reservations.  Fine.  All these were settled, and so Chaver Maté became one of our committee.

Fast forward a few years, and Gabor became a Student Senator, quoted with great frequency in the student newspaper Ubyssey.  Then came the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and Gabor, as suddenly in his conversion as Saul on the road to Damascus, became a convert to the Arab cause.  Israel was wrong, very wrong, criminally wrong.  Wrong from the very beginning.  This is what he confided to a campus audience, as reported in the Ubyssey of October 12, 1967:

The basis of the crisis was that to create the
state of Israel, an Arab country had to be taken
forcefully, Mate said.
“Palestine was not an empty country,” he
said. “The Zionists relied on the protection of
the British Empire, without which there would
not have been a Jewish state. ”
The alleged overwhelming force of the
Arabs is false, said Mate. In 1948, the total
Arabs armies had 47,000 men; the total Jewish
army, 80,000.

Maté did not give the source for his appraisal of the 1947 military situation.  The authoritative work on the Israeli army by Edward Luttwak and Dan Horowitz puts the total of Haganah Jewish combatants in 1947 at 29,677.  The Palestinian Arab fighters were augmented by the ground armies and airforces of Egypt, Jordan (under British command), Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, with additional forces from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Lybia.

Those were days in which it was still rare for a Jew to thunder against Israel, and Maté did receive attention.  Now that he is sixty-nine years of age, he is still active in the anti-Israel movement of Canada.  But this is no longer his primary claim on the attention of his fellow citizens.  Gabor Maté has become a health guru.

 

from website of Gabor Maté, July 17, 2013
.

For some years after graduating from the UBC medical school, Maté practiced medicine in the city of Vancouver.  If memory serves, he was never certified in any medical specialty.  I say if memory serves because he is no longer a licensed physician, so his qualifications are not available from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia which only lists licensed physicians.  (I have not been able to find out why he is no longer licensed.) Nevertheless, and in contravention of BC’s Health Professions Act which restricts the use of “doctor” and “physician” to licensed physicians, Maté continues to call himself both “doctor” and “physician.”

Nor does he show undue modesty about his overall intellectual or humane qualifications.  This is how he describes himself on his website:

Gabor Maté M.D. is a bestselling author whose books have been published in nearly twenty languages worldwide. Dr. Maté is highly sought after for his expertise on a range of topics, from addiction and attention deficit disorder (ADD) to mind-body wellness, adolescent mental health, and parenting. A renowned thinker and public speaker, he addresses audiences all over North America, including professional and academic groups like nurses’ organizations, psychiatry departments, and corporate conventions, as well as presentations and seminars for local community groups and the general public. As a writer and speaker, he is widely known for the power, insight, clarity, candour, compassion, humor, and warmth of his presentations.

Unlike other such figures, Maté does not seem to sell nostrums or “supplements.” (But he has been warned by the Canadian government to cease administering psychedelic drugs). He seems to obtain his revenue from the four books he has published and the lecture circuit.  He advertises these businesses on the internet;  a search for his name yields a number of paid-for links.  And, as he points out on his site, “Please note that Dr. Maté maintains a busy speaking schedule year-round and is generally booked well in advance.”

Maté is something of a public figure in Canada, where he is frequently quoted on his views on the etiology and treatment of various diseases.  As his website says

Common to all of Dr. Maté’s work is a focus on understanding the broader context in which human disease and disorders arise, from cancer to autoimmune conditions like MS, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, or fibromyalgia; childhood behavioral disorders like ADD, oppositionality, or bullying; or addiction, from substance abuse to obsessive gambling, shopping, or even workaholism.

A family friend of ours has been struggling with cases of severe ulcerative colitis in her family.  She read some of Maté’s writings and now feels that, as a result of reading Maté, she understands the etiology of that disease:  stress in childhood, and “intergenerational stress” due to the experience of European Jews in the nineteenth century.  Note that Maté, though he was once a physician, has had no specialized training in this disease, nor, for that matter in cancer, yet he feels qualified to express himself on how all such diseases start: childhood stress. To overcome such stress, he urges psychedelic drugs and psychotherapy. (See WELLNESS | Dr. Gabor Maté: Can Psychedelics Help Treat Cancer?)

In addition to presenting himself as a “physician,” Maté also presents himself as a  “gifted psychotherapist.”  If he has either license or training in that field, these are not specified in his advertising.

As Offit explains in some detail,  charlatan prescriptions, especially, as is the case here, when presented under color of credentialled medicine, constitute an obvious menace to the health and welfare of all who fall prey to them.
With all his medical charlatanism, Maté has never forgotten where he came from: the petulant anti-Israel movement of his youth to which he remains publicly attached.  In return, his medical quackery has been endorsed by well-known figures in that movement: Naomi Klein in Canada (“Gabor Maté’s connections – between the intensely personal and the global, the spiritual and the medical, the psychological and the political – are bold, wise and deeply moral. He is a healer to be cherished and this exciting book arrives at just the right time.” Naomi Klein), and by Amy Goodman in the US.

Most of today’s medical charlatans seem to stay away from entanglements with extremist politics.  Here Gabor Maté must be counted as an exception, although, as we have seen in the case of Linus Pauling, he is not a pioneer.

Addendum, July 27, 2014

Maté has weighed in on the current Gaza war, strongly supporting Hamas against Israel.  The quality of his argument is perhaps best appreciated by this gem:  The Palestinians use tunnels? So did my heroes, the poorly armed fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.

And no, he does not mention the Hamas Charter, available freely on the Internet and elsewhere, which calls for the destruction of Israel and the  killing  of all Jews and which quotes, with great approval, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Maté has frequently referred to himself as very educated and very intelligent, so we must assume that he is familiar with this Charter.  So here is my question to him and to his supporters:  does he favor Hamas so much because of its Charter or just despite of  it ?

Hat tip:  Richard Klagsbrun