Monday, March 29, 2010

Telephonic blessing

The only piece of magic I had seen (not counting the stage shows where the audience knew they were being fooled but could not figure out how the magician did it) was in the 1986 Football World Cup. Diego Maradona disappeared from one end of the field and materialised at the other end leaving a bunch of Englishmen in a daze in various parts of the ground and kicked the ball into the goal. Maybe it was a camera trick, I don't know. But that was an insignificant prank compared to the promises that many quacks made to me.

We were recommended a person who was reputed to be the healer of last resort, someone who treated patients who had made conventional doctors throw up their hands in despair. He came home with a couple of his acolytes - a nondescript guy who did not look capable of such great things. But looks can be deceptive, I suppose. Jaya explained to him in a few sentences what had happened to me, a routine that she had become familiar with by now. He said that it was nothing to worry about, he knew what had to be done.

He asked Jaya to bring a glass of water over which he muttered some mantras. He then told her to tell me to drink it. (This often happened with quacks. They seemed to mistake me for one of those statues at Madame Tussauds and doubtfully relayed their instructions to me via a third party.) She told him that I could not eat or drink anything. He said that this was not a problem, she just had to place a drop of water from the glass on my tongue. (He had blessed it, you see.) She did as she was told. The great man then gave her his phone number and asked her to call him every day taking care to place a glass of water near the phone. He would bless the water over the phone and she had to place a drop of it on my tongue and I will soon improve.

I read somewhere that you cannot think of anything so fantastic that you cannot make at least one person believe it. I think this is true. Before my stroke, I had not realised how easy it is to fool people. (Just for fun, try answering the question in this video. Then read this.) I am no longer surprised by internet scams. Under the excuse of that catch-all word called faith, you can make claims that one would have thought would make a child skeptical. People will succumb to dysrationalia if they are desperate enough. The other day I saw on T.V. some crazy guy jumping around like a possessed pogo stick pulling women's hair and it was claimed that he was curing devotees! In Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, Donald R. Prothero says:
Ironically, most humans are already equipped with a skeptical filter for such con artists in many parts of life. When we bargain for items, or negotiate a price or a contract, we expect the bargaining to be somewhat adversarial and tricky. We are constantly on the lookout for someone who might cheat or shortchange us. We are bombarded with commercials everywhere we go, yet our skeptical filters tend to screen out most commercial appeals, just like a good spam filter on our computer keeps our email from being overwhelmed by junk. Caveat emptor - "let the buyer beware" - is a slogan we normally live by in such negotiations. Yet when it comes to claims that appeal to our sense of mystery, or to our need to connect with the unknown or with dead loved ones, humans readily suspend these skeptical filters and will believe (and pay for) almost anything, as long as it makes them feel better. That's when we are marks to be swindled. The world is full of con artists who will take your money and violate your trust by appealing to your gullibility - if you let them.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Touch therapy

Among the many charlatans who promised to restore me to in statu quo ante was a guy who said that he was an exponent of what he called 'Touch and Heal'. He said that every person suffering from any ailment had a particular spot in the body which had to be pressed lightly for some days and he will be curred. He was the acknowledged master in finding this spot. He claimed that he had cured many patients who had ailments that had defeated the best doctors in the land. He assured us that he would not do any manipulation which might hurt me so he was given the go-ahead.

He placed one of my legs on a low table nearby and carefully studied my toes. It was funny watching four people standing quietly and looking intently at my toes. In Ode on Melancholy, Keats says:
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
This guy had emprisoned one of my legs and was feeding deep, deep upon my peerless toes. He finally straightened up and said that he had found the solution. He told Jaya that she should lightly touch a spot one inch below (or was it above?) my navel everyday for a few seconds and I will soon start improving. Apparently the most propitious time for performing this bit of prestidigitation was 9 p.m.

Reason, as Bertie Wooster often said, tottered on its throne.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Quack attack - II

Sometimes I need what only you can provide - your absence. - Ashleigh Ellwood Brilliant

In the first couple of years after my stroke, when I was more naive, I used to seriously listen to the quacks and ask them questions. But I realised that I was getting what in IIMA we used to call 'global gas' or 'arbit c.p.' (arbitrary class participation). I got plenty of answers but they were not for questions that I had asked. At the best of times it is frustrating to argue with them but when you cannot speak, it is like herding cats. Before I could complete my question, I got a volley of non-answers which successfully missed the point.

I once played table tennis with an opponent who had more alcohol sloshing about in his blood stream than is usually recommended for such an endeavour. He played several splendid forehand drives which would have left several international players gaping in awe. The only problem was that his bat was about a mile away from the ball every time. He looked at the bat in bewilderment each time wondering why he kept missing his shots. It was reminiscent of Fred Truman's comment when he could not hit a spinner:"I'm all right when his arm comes over, but I'm out of form by the time the bloody ball gets here." If the ball personified my questions, my opponent's bat personified the answers that I got from the quacks. There was no chance of the twain meeting.

After making their oracular pronouncements, people often told me to keep an open mind. This was a signal for me to keep it tightly shut. As the author Terry Pratchett said, 'The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.' I hated it when these guys came home when Jaya had gone out and I was forced to listen to their implausible claims mutely.

Whenever an argument looks likely to become full of sound and fury signifying nothing, I think of a parable that I had heard as a child (admittedly, I am going back to pre-history). A giant and a pygmy met at the center of a narrow bridge which was only wide enough to let one person cross. The giant growled, 'I don't make way for fools.' The pygmy murmured, 'I do' and went back. Saying 'I do' and keeping quiet saved me a lot of time. I did not want to waste time and energy only to find out, like Barney Frank, that I was arguing with a table. I only had to guard against the Dopelar Effect.

I once saw a sticker which said - ' some give happiness wherever they go and some give happiness whenever they go'. You don't have to think too hard to determine to which category of people I thought these guys belonged. And I am sure the purveyors of snake oil were somewhat miffed when they found that their practised patter was not having the desired effect and their opinion about me would have been less than flattering.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Quack attack - I

I can't believe THAT!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" said the Queen in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said, "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!"
- Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

In the early years after my stroke, people used to recommend various 'doctors' who could do impossible things. I know Napoleon said that impossible is a word in the dictionary of fools but these guys' claims used to be beyond the boundaries of credulity. I knew that the people were trying to help me in whatever way they knew so I had to tread the fine line between appearing like a smug jerk and being a doormat. But the quacks themselves couldn't be given such a consideration. Whether they were True Believers or con artists was difficult to determine but both are avoidable.

Many of them seemed to know less about the brain stem than me (I had not heard of the brain stem before my stroke) but that did not prevent them from blithely stating that if I had been brought to them immediately after the stroke I would have been walking within three months. If something sounds too good to be true then it is probably not true. They will poke different parts of my body as if they were buying vegetables and make inane comments like 'His body is warm' or 'His blood circulation is good'. They delivered their bogosity with a lot of seriosity which used to remind me of what Gratiano told Antonio in Merchant of Venice:
There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a wilful stillness entertain,
With purpose to be dress’d in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit;
As who should say ‘I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips let no dog bark.’
I was supposed to jump with joy on hearing their ludicrous promises. Like those folks in Tennyson's Light Brigade, mine not to make reply, mine not to reason why.

They will try to bolster their tendentious claims by giving anecdotes about patients with incurable diseases getting cured. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, said Carl Sagan who has given us a Balony Detection Kit. How about showing me some documents which would tell me what they suffered from and what their treatment was? There lay the rub, as Hamlet would have said. They will give me various reasons why I cannot confirm the existence or non-existence of their star patients. For example, they will say that the person is currently in Germany and they don't know his address.

Many of these people were practising in vague places that I had never heard of. Nobody seemed to know anything about them except the person who brought them. Patrick Swayze was right when he said :
If anybody had that cure out there, like so many people swear they do, you'd be two things. You'd be very rich, and you'd be very famous. Otherwise, shut up.