Friday, 15 August 2008

Laughter is the best medicine

So, Radovan Karadzic, alleged war criminal and concentration camp enthusiast has been arrested, posing as an alternative healer.

According to the BBC Mr Karadzic (or rather his alter ego Dragan Dabic) was a pleasant, long haired, bearded gentleman given to wearing black and entertaining the clients of the Madhouse Bar which he frequented by singing while playing the traditional one stringed Serbian gusle. He had a girlfriend, grandchildren and was cultured, tolerant and polite, according to a friend.

He wrote for a health magazine during his 10 year undercover life and earned his money from practicing alternative medicine claiming to be an expert in “human quantum energy”. He ran his own web-site and gave lectures, billing himself as a "researcher in the fields of psychology and bio-energy" at which he would distribute business cards.

His pseudonym probably came from a civilian man, a construction worker killed, along with 12,000 others, by Karadzic’s forces during the siege of Sarajevo in 1993. As Radovan Karadzic he stands accused of war crimes and genocide, particularly the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica when 7,500 innocent Muslim men and youths were massacred by pro-Serbian forces. He is also charged with unlawfully deporting civilians based on national or religious identity and destroying homes, business and sacred sites. It was during Karadzic’s reign of terror the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was coined to describe the activities of those he commanded.

The subject of Karadzic’s arrest came up recently during a discussion with fellow sceptics and inevitably there was some, fairly heated, debate (this is sceptics we’re talking about after all). Some felt a strong sense of comic irony in the fact of a brutal mass murderer turned kindly healer, others felt such levity was ill placed, particularly since on occasions there have been examples of people masquerading as conventional health care workers which is certainly not a subject for humour, so why should a similar situation involving an alternative practitioner be amusing. In my view this is missing the point and this story is funny on several levels, the brutal nature of the subject not withstanding. I believe we are allowed to laugh in this instance.

To many sceptics the concept, under any circumstances of a 'fraudulent' alternative practitioner is funny. The idea that some people may be able to talk to the dead while others just pretend or that some people are genuinely channelling the spirit of a long dead North American Indian shaman or a dolphin while others are making it up is hilarious. The possibility that some homeopathic sugar tablets work whereas others don't is truly laughable. All these things are bogus, any effects existing purely subjectively in the minds of practitioners and proponents. There is no way of policing such people. How can there be such a thing as a fraud when none of it works anyway?

In the case of someone acting as a bogus vet, doctor or nurse the situation is most definitely not funny in any way shape or form. This is someone using real medicine as a cover to prey on weak and vulnerable people for their personal gratification. The possibility of causing patients harm whether through ignorance or intent is real. Drugs have real effects and can cause real harm. Someone going to a channeller is no more likely to be harmed by one who is 'bogus' than by one who is 'real'; someone given 'fake' sugar pills by a bogus homeopath can rest assured that the effect will be identical to that which they would get from the 'real' thing. Someone given drugs by a bogus doctor on the other hand is much more likely to come to harm than when treated appropriately by a real doctor.

There is a difference between CAM and real medicine when it comes to fraud. The two modalities do not have equal standing or deserve equal respect and gravity. A 'fraudulent' CAM practitioner is a joke and will be laughed at, a fraudulent doctor is a criminal and will be locked up.

When talking with alternative practitioners there is often an air of smugness about them. In their view, as a rule, it is they are the enlightened ones. They portray themselves as caring, hands-on, intuitive, holistic, empathic - always with the implication that science based practitioners are none of these things and, furthermore are cold, clinical, hurried and detached, seeing patients as diseases, not individuals. Having been personally exposed to this type of bigotry for years, hearing that a genocidal maniac had joined the ranks of the touchy-feely, caring-sharing alt med brigade is wonderfully ironic and, I am afraid, extremely funny.

This is sick, graveyard humour and this man is a monster but it is humour nevertheless and it certainly doesn't mean that a sceptic caught smirking at this news item believes that all alt med practitioners are mass murderers. It's human nature and I make no apologies for it.

As a sceptic pal said, “it's too bad it wasn't an herbalist posing as a genocidal maniac. That would have been funnier”!

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