The Most Dangerous Type of Charlatan
is the one who is only half full of shit
In 2007 I was listening to the radio, and they were talking about hosting Deepak Chopra. Listeners could win tickets to his talk by texting the title of the motivational book they would write. They weren’t seriously looking for real titles, just jokes. But mine was serious. I texted “Body for Wife: The Family Guy’s Guide to Getting in Shape.” And they thought that was hilarious and I won tickets. (Side note: I never wrote a book with that title but for many years I was a fitness writer with the website BodyForWife.com. I have since switched to JamesFell.com.)
Anyway, I knew almost nothing about Chopra, I just like winning shit. A woman I worked with, upon hearing I’d won tickets, was envious and going on about how amazing he is and that she’d read all his books. Afterward I was thinking I should have given her the tickets, but in hindsight I realize that it was an important “know your enemy” moment in my life.
Chopra is a physician. My wife is also a physician, one who graduated at the top of her class from medical school. I have a lot of respect for the profession, but not when they use their credentials to spew bullshit and have it accepted as factual. *cough* Dr. Oz *cough*
So we went to the show, and the first half was okay. Lots of quantum physics stuff that seemed not too out there. I’m no physicist, but it seemed to at least make some sense. I expect my engineer son would have scoffed at some of it, but my wife’s bullshit detector wasn’t going off either.
There was an intermission. A lot of the booths that had been set up should have been a warning of what was to come. Q-Ray healing bracelet kinda shit.
The second half was brain-meltingly stupid. Chopra was more full of shit than a Woodstock 99 porta-potty. My wife and I kept looking at each other like what the fucking fuck is going here. And people were eating it up. Part of me wanted to get up and leave, but I also wanted to see just how crazy it could get. And wow did it get totally bugshit.
What’s worse, as we walked out with the crowd at the end the people were light on their feet, buzzing about how wonderful and insightful this spewing of pseudoscientific nonsense about energy fields and quantum healing et-fucking-cetera was and how it was totes gonna change their lives.
People love to reject science in favor of the mystical. But when you can use science to suck otherwise rational thinking people in, then slowly warp it with pseudoscientific gobbledygook, then you are the most dangerous type of charlatan, because you have the potential for mass appeal.
My experience with Chopra sent me down a rabbit hole of research in preparation for launching my career as a fitness writer. Having struggled to get in shape myself, in my mind the most critical component of fitness and weight loss was being motivated to follow through on a program of exercise and healthy caloric restriction. And so, I read what the real scientists had to say about the actual psychology of behavior change, not that Tony Robbins bullshit. Then my boss made me go see that Tony Robbins bullshit.
I’d become highly skeptical of all the new-age motivational dog barf, and my company’s CEO was excited to take everyone to see Tony’s “The Power Within.” I told my immediate supervisor I wasn’t going because Tony is full of shit. My boss said it was a “career limiting move” and what if I took it as an opportunity to research the dark side of motivation. He was right. It was another opportunity to know my enemy.
But Jesus fuckfarts what an ordeal. It lasted all fucking day, and while informative about the evils of what he was spewing, I hated every moment of it.
I’m going to come back to Tony, but I want to talk about a documentary I began watching a few days ago on Crave about the NXIVM cult. It’s called The Vow, and I couldn’t make it past the first episode. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s cringe. I decided to read some articles about it instead because watching the actual videos of the indoctrination process made me sick to my stomach, reminding me of that awful day spent with Tony.
The documentary begins with an examination into the cult’s Executive Success Program, ESP, for people who want to be successful in their lives, but for whatever reason can’t achieve a breakthrough. It focuses on a struggling actor named Sarah Edmondson. She can barely afford the exorbitant fee to do a five-day course, and at first, she’s disappointed by how low-budget and corny it all seems, but the guy who sucked her into it—who was the director of the pseudoscience-filled “documentary” What the Bleep Do We Know—told her people have a breakthrough on Day 3 and to just stick it out.
And so, she sticks it out, and on Day 3 she begins to have an epiphany about her life and her choices and her limitations and abilities. And the reason is that the program was using legitimate, science-based methods of behavior change to help these people regarding limiting beliefs and self-esteem. If only she’d walked away right then.
I’ve often said of Tony Robbins that he will motivate you down to your last dollar. First, it’s a $20 book, then a $200 one-day event, then a $3,000 weekend retreat. And then, you’re dropping ten grand and going to Tahiti to attend Tony Robbins University to get your ass irrigated (really) and walk on hot coals (which anyone can do—it’s simple physics—no mental preparation required). And after that, it’s ongoing counseling at a ridiculous hourly fee with unqualified motivational “therapists.”
In researching NXIVM I learned that the co-founder, Nancy Salzman (who is currently incarcerated), isn’t a trained psychologist, but rather has an associate degree in nursing. And she’s big into NLP, which stands for Neuro-linguistic Programming. Sounds all sciency, right?
Except it’s bullshit. It wasn’t invented by Robbins, but it was sure popularized by him. Tony bases his “therapy” on NLP, which is about how language, eye, and body movement allegedly affect neurology. NLP has been debunked by the psychological community as pseudoscientific hokum. Actual legitimate neuroscience researcher Michael Corballis wrote in the 1999 book Mind Myths that “NLP is a thoroughly fake title, designed to give the impression of scientific respectability.”
Further, Scott Lilienfeld, Editor in Chief of the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice wrote in that journal in 2002 that NLP is a “New Age” form of psychotherapy that had not been subject to rigorous empirical validation. Regarding lack of empirical validity, in 2010, psychologist and skeptic Tomasz Witkowski conducted a meta-analysisof decades worth of research and proclaimed NLP “an unstable house built on the sand rather than an edifice founded on the empirical rock.” NLP was also discredited in the 2015 book Science and Pseudoscience in Social Work Practice.
The thing is, this type of culty “therapy” can help some people. Tom Cruise credits Scientology with developing his work ethic and career success. There are success stories, but also oh so much wreckage and wasted money. People who can’t afford it max out their credit cards to take expensive courses that benefit few other than those on the side of the selling.
Robbins wasn’t as bad as what happened with NXIVM; the other co-founder, Keith Raniere, is serving a 120-year prison term not just for racketeering and forced labor, but also sex trafficking. And yet, there have also been many allegations against Robbins for sexual assault.
Now let’s talk about the not-so-good doctor; the man behind the curtain: Oz.
He has an impressive educational background that you can google if you wish. But early in his career he revealed his susceptibility to embracing the more quacktacular side of treatment via alternative medicine. Side note: A lot of modern medicine has its grounding in more traditional treatments. Stuff that was found to actually work—proven efficacious via the scientific method—just became “medicine.” The “alternative” is stuff that isn’t shown to work.
But it sure as shit sells.
And one of the reasons alternative medicine sells is because of the hardcore sales pitch that comes with it. A real medical doctor must be restrained in what they promise patients. Real medicine is far from perfect. Physicians do the best they can with what they have. They don’t make bullshit promises. They try to help their patients using verified scientific treatments, and it doesn’t always work because we’re fragile motherfuckers in a world filled with shit that wants to kill us.
Alternative practitioners, however, are not beholden to such ethical codes of conduct. They make bullshit assurances of cures all the fucking time. Oh, you have cancer and your doctor said that with vigorous treatment of surgery and radiation and chemotherapy you have a 50/50 chance of survival? Fuck that. Take this colloidal silver or rub this CBD cream on ya and it’ll fix you right up. Only $500. A week.
There are myriad stories of people who could have been cured by real medicine who instead went the alternative route because they believed the lies, and then they got sicker, and when they returned to modern medicine it was too late. The alternative medicine industry has a lot of blood on its hands.
Oz didn’t begin on Oprah as being quite so ridiculous, so epically full of shit. He seemed somewhat reasonable, and he had that TV personality appeal. So, he got his own show, and with fame he slid further and further toward the bovine dropping dark side. And his fans followed him.
Dr. Oz, who I sure as fuck hope doesn’t win his senate race tomorrow, is another example of the worst kind of charlatan. And all of these motherfuckers have one thing in common: taking advantage of the sunk-cost fallacy. Sunk cost “is manifested in a greater tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made.”
People get sucked ever deeper into cults of personality like Robbins and Oz and NXIVM because of sunk costs. They invest time, effort, and money into it, and don’t wish to look like fools by coming to their senses and admitting that it was all a waste. We’re seeing it with Trump as well. People who worshipped him for the last seven years are too embarrassed to admit that it was a mistake, so they go in even harder. Trump isn’t the best example of this, however, because it was apparent that he was total garbage from Day 1. Trump is more an example of the famous quote by science fiction author Robert Heinlein: “You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.”
As I said via combining the title and subtitle of this piece, the most dangerous type of charlatan is the one who is only half full of shit. They have the ability to initially appeal to those who are otherwise rational, to pull them in with seemingly sensible advice and even some real science. And then they slowly twist it, use it as a weapon to take the unsuspecting down a dark hole of bullshit designed to take advantage of them, to take their money, and even their bodies. And because of all the sunk costs, many are unwilling to admit they’ve made a terrible error in judgment.
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