CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Falling for faith healing quackery

Christmas is over. Heck even Boxing Day is over. Still, Orac is doing something very unusual for him in that he’s taking a bit of a staycation at home. Consider it a sanity break. Even though I’ll be working on grants and a variety of other projects at home and even though I haven’t signed out my pager to one of my partners, it is still a very good thing indeed not to see the inside of my office for ten days. As for blogging, understandably, given that readership has fallen off markedly the week between Christmas and New Years each and every year since I started blogging way back in 2004, I don’t feel as driven as I usually do to produce a post every day. That’s not to say I won’t be blogging, but unless something major happens before January 3 that either really inspires or angers me, I doubt I’ll be producing any of my logorrheic magnum opuses before 2011 rolls around. Still, that doesn’t mean I won’t be laying some not-so-Respectful Insolence down when it’s appropriate.

And, boy, is it appropriate for this particular topic. True, it’s been a few days, as I found out about this right before Christmas Eve, but better late than never. I’m referring to a bit of news sent to me right before Christmas Eve. Consider it a followup on a post I did in November about how Oprah Winfrey produced a despicably credulous shill job for faith healer John of God. I never thought I’d be saying this, but it looks as though CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, someone who has had a pretty decent history in the past when it comes to keeping the science in his medical reports, has fallen prey to the worst tendencies in medical reporters when it comes to reporting on John of God. In fact, I have to say that I was profoundly embarrassed, almost as badly as I’ve been embarrassed by Dr. Michael Egnor, so much so that I almost feel as though I need to dig that Doctor Doom mask out again. After all, Dr. Gupta is a fellow surgeon.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go to the tape:

First, Dr. Gupta does something that I really, really, really, really despise. He starts out referring to science-based medicine as “Western” medicine. I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but I utterly reject the false dichotomy of “Western” medicine versus non-science-based woo like faith healing. Language matters, and by framing science-based medicine as “Western,” it implies that there is some sort of cultural aspect to it, that it’s somehow the product of a specific culture, rather than science, and, worst of all, that this cultural aspect makes science-based medicine no more or less valid than any other form of medicine. Worse, Dr. Gupta describes “Western medicine” as “running tests,” “prescribing medicines,” etc., contrasting it to the type of “medicine” faith healer John of God allegedly practices. Let’s get this straight. John of God does not practice medicine. He practices religion. It’s truly pathetic that someone like Dr. Gupta would characterize him as anything else. The rest of the segment consists of an interview with Susan Casey, editor-in-chief of O Magazine and the reporter responsible for the execrably credulous report about John of God, and Dr. Jeff Rediger, a psychiatrist who claims to be a “skeptic” but in reality is as gullible as they come for a bunch of carney tricks.

What’s really disappointing about this interview is that at no point does Dr. Gupta challenge either Ms. Casey or Dr. Rediger with even the faintest whiff of a seriously skeptical question. In essence, both Casey and Rediger are given the opportunity to tell their stories without even a hint of science. One notes immediately the Casey states at the outset that she was looking for stories of people with terminal illness whom “Western” medicine couldn’t help but John of God did. One also can’t help but note that she didn’t produce a single example of such a case.

Next up, Dr. Gupta asked Dr. Rediger about John of God’s “psychic surgeries.” As he did in the Oprah segment, Dr. Rediger represented himself as a “skeptic” without showing a single ounce of real skepticism. Also, the surgeon in me can’t help but marvel at the ignorance of basic anatomy demonstrated by a psychiatrist like Dr. Rediger (sorry, readers who might be psychiatrists, but it’s true). Dr. Rediger seems to be claiming that it’s “physiologically impossible” for the nose to accept an instrument as long as the instruments John of God sticks in the nostrils of some of those whom he claims to heal. First off, even if it were impossible for the human nasal passages to accommodate instruments of the length that John of God inserts in the noses of his penitents, it would not be “physiologically impossible.” It would be “anatomically impossible.”

It’s not anatomically impossible, however. Far from it! Ask any ENT surgeon Ask any general surgeon who’s placed a bunch of nasogastric tubes. Ask any anesthesiologist who’s done fiberoptic nasal intubations. There’s a lot more distance from the nostril to the nasopharynx than is commonly believed, several centimeters in fact. Indeed, I remember when I was a medical student in anatomy class how amazed I was at how much distance there was from the nostril to the back of the nasopharynx when I examined a human head cut in half sagittally. Moreover, the instrument that John of God uses looks to me like your basic curved Kelly clamp, whose gentle curve would easily allow someone with a modicum of knowledge to follow the curve of the back of the throat to pass the tip there and downwards, just as we do when we place nasogastric tubes.

[NOTE: Upon listening to the video again, it appears that Dr. Rediger does say “possible,” not “impossible,” but in context I still have a hard time figuring out what he meant. In all fairness, however, I do mention that I probably misheard what he said, even though I listened three or four times.]

Oddly enough, Dr. Rediger admits that he does believe that “some of what goes on down there is sleight-of-hand. If that’s the case, then, how does he know that it isn’t all sleight of hand? He doesn’t, and it almost certainly is. He claims that he saw things there that can’t be explained by sleight-of-hand, but, again, how does he know? Is he a magician or an illusionist? No, he is not, and, when it comes to sleight-of-hand, I’m far more likely to believe real magicians like The Amazing Randi or paranormal investigators like Joe Nickell who are familiar with various forms of sleight of hand, both of whom have concluded that nothing John of God does is anything more than hoary old carny tricks.

Casey, for her part, echoes Dr. Rediger’s proclamation that “just because we can’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” The problem, of course, is that there’s nothing that John of God is doing that we can’t understand. The only reason Casey and Rediger don’t understand it is because they don’t want to understand it. The want to believe, so much so that Casey even claims that, “Maybe 100 years from now energy healing will be one of the forefronts of medicine.”

I won’t be alive 100 years from now, but I’d be willing to bet that “energy healing” will not be at the forefront of medicine in 100 years. I’d even be willing to bet that it won’t be at the forefront of medicine in 20 or 30 years (when I should still be alive, accident or serious illness aside). Of course, Casey threw a nice bit of misdirection in there, didn’t she? After all, what John of God does is not “energy” medicine; it’s faith healing. I also can’t help but notice that Dr. Rediger claims that he tried to verify some of the anecdotes of people who claimed to have found healing through John of God by looking at medical records and scans, but, strangely enough, he either can’t or won’t produce a single example of real healing by John of God. The best he can come up with is the lame observation that this sort of research is “complicated,” which implies to me that he hasn’t really found a convincing case. If he had, no doubt he would have trumpeted it to anyone who would listen.

Finally, I expect people like Susan Casey and Dr. Rediger to lay down a barrage of credulous excuses for John of God. It doesn’t surprise me. What I don’t expect is to see someone like Dr. Gupta wrapping up his report by saying that he is “honestly not sure what to make of this” and that this is something he should see for himself. This worries me. It sounds as though Dr. Gupta is planning on taking a trip to Brazil sometime soon to visit John of God. If he exercises the same lack of skepticism that he just exercised in this interview, I expect that his report, should he do it, will be no better than the segment on John of God that Oprah Winfrey aired last month. At the very least, if Dr. Gupta plans on going through with this, I hope he talks to someone like James Randi or Joe Nickell first. He desperately needs an education.