Category Archives: charlatans

The Clergyman’s Aura

The Reverend Al Sharpton preached his first sermon at the age of four.  But he was not formally ordained a clergyman until much later, when he was nine.  The alleged rabbinic ordination of the “spiritually progressive”  Michael Lerner of California (like our new President, thrice married) cannot be verified at all.   Moreover, a few minutes spent on Google will present anyone so minded with many opportunities for achieving rapid clerical ordination, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Other,  with little effort and at little or no cost.  On the other hand, the more demanding New York based  Rabbinical Seminary International” (under the same management as the “All Faiths Seminary International”) does require three long days of in-house training and a fee of $5000 for full, presumably legal ordination as rabbi.

Such aberrations within the clerical calling are not the norm for the whole profession.  But they point to more general problems.  First, not everyone can tell the impostor from the real thing.  Second, as is true in the medical profession, the most harmful of the charlatans often carry legitimate credentials.  And third, the line between the specious and the genuine is not always easily ascertainable.

The basic, insurmountable problem with the clerical profession lies in its borderless area of alleged competence.  True, the major religions all have a body of scripture and a further body of ritual that its clergy is expected to master.  But this core of expected competence is just the beginning.  In and by themselves these core subjects may qualify a person as an expert, perhaps a scholar of religion.  Ordination as clergy, on the other hand, involves something much larger, viz. the assumption of a spiritual aura which is never explicitly delimited.

In Roman Catholicism, this aura comes closest to being precisely defined.  A Catholic priest is said to have such supernatural powers as the forgiveness of sin and the  power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. In other religions the clerical aura is more implied than expressed, but my Conservative Jewish denomination holds that a local rabbi, alone, has the power of mara d’atra, the power to decide on Jewish law in his locality.

More broadly, the aura of the clergy is generally understood to involve overall wisdom and righteousness.

Wisdom:  there seems to be an expectation that a clergyman’s advice is somehow superior to that of a random acquaintance.  Clergymen are known to dispense advice on how to lead better lives in their sermons and in private conversation, even though there is nothing in the training or background of a clergyman that would lead us to assume that, qua clergyman, his wisdom is more reliable than, say, your mother’s.  Often the clerical advice is wildly inappropriate to anyone with specialized experience.  I remember an occasion some years ago when I was present at a rabbi’s exhortation to his flock to be more productive in their professional lives.  No doubt aware of the fact that there were some academics in his audience, the rabbi opined that one should work on and complete “that paper you are working on.”  I noticed a junior professor who gave a knowing smile.  How apt, how true, how helpful, she seemed to be saying to herself.  But to anyone with some experience in academia, the urge to publish, while perhaps helpful in furthering a career, is more often than not an urge to perpetuate intellectual malfunction.  A more thoughtful advice would have been to study more, to do better research, and to refrain from publishing until you have something important to say.  In short, the rabbi’s advice was conventional, careerist, and basically unethical.

Clergymen are also presumed by those who respect them to lead exemplary lives.  The ones I have encountered have as many failed marriages, narcissistic behavior, and inadequate people skills as anyone else.  And yet we are expected to show them more deference than we show the waiter in a restaurant.  Why ?

Righteousness:  here I address myself particularly to the do-gooders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, but also to the liberal Protestant groups, the Unitarians, the Universalists, the (liberal) Presbyterians, etc., although conservative groups have their own forms of such sanctimony.

The job descriptions for rabbis that I have found on the websites of the Conservative and Reform Jewish seminaries all include references to a rabbi’s obligation to advocate tikkun olam, i.e. healing of the world;  to work for social justice;  to be, in short, a political and social activist.  But the curricula of these schools do not include any in-depth study of social or economic problems, and certainly no technical tools — for instance social statistics — to analyze the social problems of the day.  In other words, these clergymen are required to be dilettantes.  Go ahead, they are told, you must ceaselessly opine on social issues, but never, ever, must you learn anything about, say, multivariate analysis.  I have sat through many an ignorant discourse by clergy, citing mangled statistics and misinterpreted bits of social data, all delivered in tones of officious self-righteousness.  Does this kind of social discourse serve the cause of social betterment ?  Or rather, as I would argue, the very opposite ?

We are left with the problem of aura.  By virtue of his anointment or ordination, a clergyman is often presumed to have powers of intellect and character that he obviously does not possess. Of course we also encounter a certain ambivalence.  Perhaps for the very reason of the presumed aura, there is sometimes a tendency to be hypercritical of clergy.  The minister or priest or rabbi when perceived to fall short  may be judged more harshly than would someone not expected to have the aura.

Whatever the outcome, it seems to me that the clerical aura that comes with ordination, originating as it did in an earlier era, causes misapprehensions, false expectations, and foolishly sanctimonious social action.  At least outside of the Catholic Church, we would be better off without the institution of ordination.  Protestant and Jewish congregations could hire religious professionals on the basis of demonstrated knowledge and skills, without any presumption of extraordinary wisdom or righteousness.  Insofar as there may be a need for “spiritual” leadership beyond professional skill, this would have to be demonstrated in each case by action and behavior and examined critically and skeptically,  rather than deduced from pieces of paper issued by a seminary.

The Dark Side of Public Television

I watch and appreciate the regular programming on public television.  There is not a day that goes by without my watching the serious, intelligent, and largely balanced news programming on my local PBS Channel 13 in New York. On weekdays, I watch Charlie Rose on this channel, whose intelligent-content quotient I judge to be much higher than that of commercial broadcasting.  In sum, the (regular) PBS offerings respect the intelligence of their audience.  They tend to examine things from various angles, and they invite the listener to weigh and judge complex issues.

But every three months or so, Channel 13, like other PBS channels all over the country, interrupts its generally highbrow programming to go lowbrow, very lowbrow.  It’s fund-raising time, and various cranks and snake-oil salesmen are presented to raise money, ostensibly for public television but, more immediately for themselves.   Suddenly issues are no longer complex but are presented in the style of evangelism:  everything is simple, just do as I say, and, above all, send me your money.  These charlatans  claim to have  medical, financial, and emotional  cure-alls.    The medical quacks are of course the worst.  They tell you (without ever examining you) that if you will only follow their directives — which they will sell you by way of promotional material — that you can cure your heart disease, your sexual inadequacies, and everything in between.

Am I the first one to raise the alarm here ?  Absolutely not.    The PBS ombudsman Michael Getler has said more or less the same thing.  And so have Brian Dunning and Harriet Hall, among many others.

My own modest contribution to the discussion will restrict itself to my experience with the most recent Channel 13 fund drive that featured a certain Steven Masley, self-styled “board-certified physician” and author of self-help tomes such as “Smart Fat: Eat More Fat. Lose More Weight. Get Healthy Now.”  Masley’s audience on public TV is told that, in addition to being a physician,  he is also a master chef, so following his advice makes you not only healthy but tastes good to boot.   If you follow his advice, it is suggested, you will get healthy;  and in particular, you are lead to believe, any heart condition that you may have  can be cured within thirty days:

THE 30-DAY HEART TUNE-UP takes readers step by step through a revolutionary program to tune up their hearts, energy, waistlines, and sex lives, with 60 delicious recipes to help jump-start a heart-healthy diet.

Now whatever his formal credentials, Masley is not practicing the profession of medicine when he advises unseen audiences, for his own financial gain, on how to cure heart conditions and other ailments.  For this reason alone he must be considered a charlatan rather than a doctor.

But just what are his formal credentials, insofar as these can be verified ?  Is he a cardiologist, as is sometimes claimed for him in his own publicity ?  Is he certified in some other specialty, as he claims consistently ?

The fact seems to be that, while he is a licensed physician in the state of Florida, he has no specialist credentials whatever.   In reply to my inquiry as to which medical board has actually certified him, he writes as follows: “I am board certified in Family Medicine and I am a Fellow with the American Heart Association, the American College of Nutrition, and the American Academy of Family Physicians.”  As it happens, the board-certifying group for family medicine is the American Board of Family Medicine, which he does not mention.  There are a number of online facilities that allow members of the public to verify the board certification of a physician.  None of these, insofar as I could detect, confirm Masley as board certified, either by the ABFM or any other medical board.

As to the groups for which he claims being a fellow, these are not at all comparable to medical boards that certify physicians.  These “fellowships” are awarded by application from physicians;  and, once a fee is paid by the applicant, are not very demanding.  For example, the requirements of the American Academy of Family Physicians, are shown here.  An acquaintance of mine is a family physician and writes: “The American Academy of Family Physicians is the professional organization that I belong to. I never bothered to apply to become a Fellow … It is a mere formality, not an “award for merit””.

What Masley does in fact represent is the dark side of public television.  I have repeatedly contacted Channel 13 to protest, regarding Masley and all the other charlatans it airs four times a year.  In particular, I have tried to contact Channel 13 about the misrepresentation of Masley as a “board certified physician,” as I have also tried to contact the PBS ombudsman.  I have not received any reply whatever.

Hat tip:  Harriet Hall

Writing “As a Jew” ?


What to Think When Someone Writes “As a Jew….” 

“… joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance, “ St. Luke teaches us (15:7).  And so those who hate Israel and/or the Jews have always been joyful to present us with a Jew to give witness against his own.  “Why, even a Jew admits …”  Of course sometimes the “Jew” in question, upon closer inspection, may not really be as Jewish as he is claimed to be.  But never mind that for now.

As we have seen quite a bit on this blog, Mr. Pierre Omidyar of Hawaii runs an online publication, Intercept,  that regularly, about twice a month, rants against the state of Israel.  Just what moves Mr. O in this direction is a matter of conjecture.  It has been believed that the politics of Intercept are mostly determined by Glenn Greenwald, its reputed, well, brain, with Mr. O just writing the checks.  But then there was the case of an Omidyar grant (through the Roshan Institute) to attack alleged Israeli “pink washing,” quite independently, at least apparently, of any Greenwald involvement.

Now we have, and here we get back to St. Luke, an entirely separate Omidyar publication, the Civil Beat of Hawaii, joining in with Mr. O’s anti-Israel campaign.

This Civil Beat is generally a strictly Hawaiian affair, dealing with matters of that state, and publishing a Community Voice feature — a series of op-eds — also dealing with matters of Hawaii.  But this local focus was broken recently by the publication of a viciously anti-Israel comment by a Mr. Jon Letman of Kauai, Hawaii.  The gist:  Netanyahu is a war monger;  Iran is peaceful;  Israel is an apartheid state;  etc. etc.  If the Iranians have called for “death to America, death to Israel,” Mr. Letman ignores that or perhaps has never heard of it.

Of course Mr. Letman has a right to his opinions, as Mr. Omidyar has the right to publish them.  On the other hand, Mr. O, who repeatedly proclaims that all he does is strictly in the public interest, might be expected to allow his readers to read more than one point of view.  But that is not how Mr. O treats the subject of Israel and Jews.  But be that as it may, there is something curious about Mr. Letman’s little essay.  It begins with the assertion that he speaks “as a Jew,” an assertion made once again at the very end.  The argument of rational people should stand on its merits, not on the identity of the arguer.  But in this case Mr. Letman insists on the ad hominem;  his views, he indicates, gain weight because of his identity as a Jew.  This identity is presented to us as a qualification in the same way a physician might mention his medical expertise when speaking on medical subjects.

Of course it is questionable that the Jews of Hawaii are better equipped to opine on Israel than non-Jews.  But if we assume, arguendo, that Jewishness is indeed a qualification here, the question arises of how to verify a claim to Jewishness even as we have learned to verify medical credentials in this age of quackery.  We know that many who write “As a Jew I oppose Israel” turn out to be only questionably  Jewish.  Some belong to a Christian church or have otherwise abandoned their Jewish identity, some may have a Jewish relative but no more than that, some,like Mr. Gabriel Schivone,  have no claim to  Jewish credentials whatsoever, .

With these problems in mind, I wrote to Mr. Letman, explaining my concerns.  Yes, I did get a prompt reply, a very courteous one at that.  But no, Mr. Letman did not feel that he wants to explain just in what sense he is Jewish.  We both, he suggested, have more important things to worry about.

In the meantime, I consulted Mr. Letman’s website, and learned the following:

Jon Letman is an independent freelance journalist and photographer on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.  His articles on conservation, the environment, politics and the Asia-Pacific region have been published in Al Jazeera English, Truthout, Inter Press Service, Christian Science Monitor, CNN Traveller, as well as publications in Finland, Iceland, Russia, Japan, Canada, the UK and across the US.

Not much Jewish background in this description ?  But look at the connection to Al Jazeera — and, after all, aren’t the Arabs cousins to the Jews ?  Practically Jewish ?

My Writings on “Partial Jews”

Prolegomena to the Study of Jews Who Hate Israel

The Partial Jews in Nazi Germany

What About the Partial Jews ?

Rise of the Schivone Jews

What to Think When Someone Writes “Speaking as a Jew, I am against Israel”



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