Posted by: Doug Henwood | November 20, 2010

Health lunacy: Adorno helps out

[This was originally part of this radio commentary, but I’ve posted it separately here.]

And now a bit more Pacifica arcana, though that’s only the taking-off point. WBAI, the New York station where this program ran for 15 years until the interim program director decided to cut its frequency, has brought back health guru Gary Null to do a daily noontime show. Null was fired several years ago because of a personality conflict with an earlier program director. He really made the phones ring at pledging time, and his departure was financially damaging to WBAI. So presumably bringing him back will make the phones ring again, since they’ve been pretty quiet lately. Maybe, but at a considerable price to reputation and decency.

WBAI helped make Gary Null both famous and rich. He is much admired by many, though he strikes me as a classic snake-oil salesman, with an unctuous manner and a selfless self-presentation that is actually a mask for a raging egomania. But, that aside, Null, like many health freaks, is an HIV denialist. That is, he denies that HIV is a cause of AIDS, and that AIDS is a contagious disease. He said recently on another radio show that “Everything about AIDS is a lie, it’s a fraud being perpetrated….” That sort of talk really excites the credulous, for sure. He also counsels against the use of modern antiviral therapies, without which legions of AIDS patients would be dead. So no matter what you think of the rest of the naturalist’s armamentarium, this sort of advice can kill people. That may be a rude thing to say, but it’s true. Telling people that AIDS is not a communicable disease and that antiviral therapies do more harm than good can kill people.

I’ve got personal experience of two of the “healers” he had on his show. One was the late Dr Emanuel Revici (who died in 1998). My uncle, who was dying of advanced prostate cancer, was brought to Revici by his wife (my mother’s sister). Revici saw him for five minutes, handed him three unlabeled vials of fluid, and billed him for $500. My uncle took the stuff, and died a short while later. The other: my father, who was then about 80, consulted another of Null”s “healers” because of some arthritis-like pains he felt in his knee. The healer diagnosed my father with “cytomegalovirus infection” and prescribed a round of intravenous vitamin C infusions at $100 a pop. CMV infections are ubiquitous—over 90% of Americans aged 80 and over carry the virus. And vitamin C is very cheap—the markup must have been on the order of 50 times. These two characters are nothing but quacks in a very profitable line of business.

But I promised this wouldn’t be another inside-Pacifica story, so now onto the larger point. I don’t doubt that there are all kinds of therapies and practices in the “alternative” realm that are useful and less toxic than the orthodox kind. But these need to be tested rigorously, with full disclosure of the contents of the elixirs and the results of their application. Now, Null & Co. circulate their propaganda through self-reported testimony with no outside check on their veracity. Those who died, like my uncle, aren’t called upon to be guests. And this gang of alterna-health types tap into the suspicions of the dominant discourse so prevalent on today’s left—a reflexive skepticism that’s as anti-intellectual as the reflexive credulity of so many in the mainstream.

Why is this sort of thing so popular? As I was thinking about this, the phrase “modern big-time irrationality” popped into my head. It comes from a great essay by the German philosopher T.W. Adorno on astrology—specifically the astrology column in the Los Angeles Times that Adorno read when he was in exile there during World War II. And it turns out that something in Adorno’s analysis of mass-produced occultism that bears on the popularity of quackery.

Adorno pointed out that mass consumption of an astrology column is a lot different from classical astrology, which emerged before astronomy was codified as a science, and even today lives on in the form of custom readings done by professionals. But it also co-exists with a world in which astronomy is a science, and so requires a serious degree of intellectual retrogression among the faithful. People should, in other words, know better. But one reason they don’t is because so much of what goes on in the name of rationality is actually opaque and irrational—the worlds of technology and money which leave most people dazed and confused. So in some sense, the fascination with astrology and other forms of occultism are an escape from the world of well-compensated expertise from which most people are excluded. But the escape reproduces the patterns of the larger society—even more irrationally. People accept the declarations of the astrology column (insofar as they accept them—there’s often a note of irony and self-teasing as one cites the day’s capsule summary) as a form of abstract authority. The syndicated astrologer becomes just another kind of disembodied expertise.

I think something similar is going on with the appeal of alterna-health gurus. People are confused by actual science and repelled by its debasement by the pursuit of money. Everyone knows how drug companies taint research and medical practice is distorted by fee maximization. So to escape that unpleasant reality, connoisseurs of quackery embrace the critique offered by the likes of Null, who confidently declare that the official line on AIDS is just a fraud. (In that, they can sound like climate change denialists, who think the whole story of warming is a fraud perpetrated by academics.) But the appeal of Null & Co. is one of pure authority: the word of the guru takes the place of rigorous evidence. Because for all the corruptions of science, it does depend on the disclosure of techniques, the reproducibility of results, and the scrutiny of peers. Yes, there’s a lot of authority behind the scientist in the white lab coat, but there’s also a lot of rigor. There’s none in the alterna-world.

Still, there’s plenty of money-making going on—but the adherents never look into that.

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Responses

  1. Your post makes wonderful use of “The Stars Down to Earth.” I agree that this world of leftist epistemological anarchism is in many ways as damaging as its more prominent and corporate-backed double on the right. David Harvey mentioned something about this tendency in an interview recently (I believe it was with “Against the Grain”), and pointed out how some of the ideas propounded on the left about agricultural production (e.g. localism, slow food, etc.) would likely lead to the starvation of billions if their logic were followed through. With Zizek, I claim that (a certain part of) the left’s knee-jerk rejection of some standard of methodological materialism in the natural sciences, as well as its corresponding critique of the abstraction inherent to mathematical modeling on ideological grounds always occurs at the expense of a genuinely radical critique of political economy.

  2. I like your throwaway line linking global warming denialists to your explanation of Gary Null fans. That’s food for thought.

  3. Waving your hands in the air to combat a problem is also “non-toxic,” but is it “useful”? You seem still confused on the basic issue – why would you call for testing for alternative therapies if you have already decreed that they are “useful”?
    Are you saying that the GNC megabillions and Nature Bounty mega-billions and homeopathy and chiropracty and faith healing are “useful,” but we’d better rigorously investigate them because – because why?
    Get Simon Singh on the phone – other podcasters have, and he is first-rate. He’ll cure up this lingering non-rationality on your part, seeing as my perspective hasn’t done shit.

  4. I’d find a lengthy response too exhausting, so I’ll simply offer one point. Are you aware that the NIH has the largest compendium on the planet of herbs used as medical treatments? That they sent anthropologists to groups all over the world to collect what their shamans/healers knew about plants and their medicinal effects? I don’t have the reference right now, but it’s a couple of thousand pages long and available in your local academic library. So what were these anthropologists doing? Engaging, as you will no doubt understand, in yet another form of colonial appropriation. The NIH wants this information so that drug companies can extract patentable chemicals to sell to us.

    If you want another example of this hegemonic system at work, in the Indian village that my family comes from, we drink cow’s urine for colds. I can see your bourgeois sensibilites repelled, but It’s an old Ayurvedic treatment. Indian biochemists have now extracted various immune factors from urine which are sold as a pharmaceutical.

    I think it would be a therapeutic process for you to consider what it means to know. To ask yourself the question of whether there might be means to knowledge other than the double-blind placebo-controlled, crossover trial – which is all “science” is allowed to be, in the medical world. Is it possible that chinese medicine, ayurvedic medicine, unani medicine, and the thousands of other local medicines appropriated by these anthropologists embody forms of insight into the nature of and means to health whose presence your colonizing vision is unable to imagine? If you perform this exercise, you may conclude that the violence that destroys and appropriates these understandings, are not only being wielded by, but are being applied to you, right now. In regard to that latter point, and less prosaically, from other posts you are apparently totally unaware that much of so-called “alternative medicine” is nothing but what we learned from the early discoveries in the fields of nutritional biochemistry and allergy, none of which is taught in medical school and whose practitioners you seem to deride as “quacks”.
    When those discoveries can be turned into pharmaceuticals for use within the medical System of Care, they are accepted. Otherwise, their use leads to the intervention of the medical board, lest an MD become traitor to the other side. There is no need to go to India, China or the jungles of Madagascar to find this crippling and appropriation of knowledges. Science, I think you’ll find, was supposed to be about truth. It’s not a methodology, it’s not an institution, and it’s been terribly shriveled by it’s appropriation to a system of commercial production.

    Well, I think our differences are large. Still, I can appreciate your reports on economics.

  5. While I’m not defending Null especially on his HIV position (I commented on in an earlier thread) I do want to point out there is not a clear line between alternate therapy quackery and effective treatments that are not embraced by the medical orthodoxy.

    (For a fascinating example I recommend this recent article about the effectiveness of a high fat diet in treating epilepsy:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/magazine/21Epilepsy-t.html )

    Null doesn’t require his followers to suspend reason and follow him based solely on his cultic charisma – he claims his positions are backed by research in “peer reviewed journals”. Of course it’s not difficult to pick and choose from papers to reach a predetermined conclusion and there is plenty of tainted research (just as the drug companies do).

    This presents a problem for an institution such as Pacifica which is committed to airing views not accepted by the mainstream media (such as many of the views expressed on “Behind the News”).
    Pacifica cannot possibly do in depth investigations of the claims of all it’s producers.
    And as you mentioned the far-out stuff does bring in the dough ( 9/11 “truth”, cancer “cures”, Banking conspiracies etc.)

    Frankly I find that stuff entertaining.
    Null spouting his stuff on WBAI among the other wild stuff is probably less of a hazard to potential victims than his other media outlets.

    So while I don’t celebrate Null’s return, I do understand the position of the programmers who brought him back (remember he was a fixture on the station for over 20 years).

  6. Robert’s comment gives something to think about… the question is, why do so many people across the political spectrum value things like “localism, slow food”… why do they celebrate “home remedies” and “traditional medicine” (or “faux-traditional medicine”), and why does Doug have to chide the left for its fixation on “small-is-beautiful”? There seems to be a need we sense – in the age where billion and trillion are common numbers… where megapolises and holocaust-sized wars and the immensity of the internet are commonly experienced… for something smaller, human-scale, something each of us – with a few friends or so – can hold and control to some modest extent. I affirm that need, even if we criticize the faulty and often-commodified attempts to satisfy it.

    Null exploits the intimacy of radio, that disembodied voice next to you – even directly piped into your head… it feels calming, and it’s conveniently sized – it’s you-sized. The fact that he’s the multi-millionaire head of a sprawling pill and media empire is beside the point… that’s not directly observable on the radio, is it? And what’s the message? Don’t let those big fat corporations control your drugs! Trust in me, the disembodied voice, saying the things you know are true…

    These are symptoms of a collapse of not only democracy, but the democratic imagination. Instead of a participatory society harnessing the productive power of modern technology (including modern organization of production), we want to escape to the small, to Eden. This is a popular trope in religious literature, and there’s a reason Null sounds like a guru… because he is one.

    And it’s all yours for a pledge of $250 to WBAI.

    Recommendation: send the money to the Audacity of Hope folks going to Gaza soon. You can probably come up with other ideas too…


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