Skeptic email list
- Dear readers,
There is plenty of reason to be skeptical of many claims by
Psychiatry (after all, the support for the efficacy of psychotherapy
is not too good). But, there are a number of people going past
questioning psychiatry to saying "there's no such thing as mental
illness". I thought the following brief response was noteworthy:
[Fwd: Re: [Fwd: [Fwd: Re: Dr. Thomas Szasz]]]
Sun, 8 Nov 1998 22:44:43 -0500
Steven Novella <CTSkeptic@...>
James Randi <randi@...>
I must reject your entire argument because it is based completely on a
false premise - that the mind is not an organ, or somehow does not exist,
and therefore cannot be sick.
The brain is special among organs in that is has a program, or software -
what is called the mind or personality. The mind is a manifestation of two
things - the brain and the information put into the brain, in other words,
the life experiences of each person. Because no other organ has such
software, your analogy to other organs is a misanalogy.
If the brain is physically not working well, this may manifest in two
conceptually broad ways - neurological or psychiatric. A malfunctioning
brain may cause hemiplegia, weakness on one half of the body, in which case
a neurologist will diagnose and manage the illness. A malfunctioning brain
may also manifest as hallucinations, depression, delusion, paranoi, or
panic attacks. In these cases a psychiatrist will diagnose and manage the
patient, and appropriately so. In some cases a malfunctioning brain may
cause dementia, which is in the overlap between neurology and psychiatry,
and either may diagnose and manage the patient.
Sometimes, however, the brain physicially is working well, but the
information put into the brain is harmful or unhealthy and leads to
unhealthy thinking and/or behavior. For example, a perfectly healthy 20
year old man may have an extreme experience in combat and develop
post-traumatic stress disorder. There is nothing wrong with his brain, yet
he is very disturbed and unhappy because he is depressed and is having
flash backs to his time on the front lines. This is a purely psychiatric
condition with no underlying organic cause. The quality of that person's
life can be dramatically improved with psychiatric treatment. There is
absolutely nothing compassionate about denying the reality of that person's
illness, or denying him treatment because of a faulty and misguided
In most cases, human behavior is very complex and is a combination of both
organic and psychological factors, and both must be addressed to maximize
the benefit to the patient, which is measured in the ability to function
independently in society and lead a happy productive life. This is
obviously a continuum, with no objective line separating health and
disease, but this does not alter the fact that there are many people who
wish to be closer to the happy and productive end of the spectrum. There
are also those who are so far to the non-functioning end, that they are
clearly recognizable as having a serious problem which deserves recognition
If you are interested in the truth, as I, and skeptics in general, are,
then I urge you to carefully reconsider your premise and the criticisms I
have enumerated here. Nothing else you have to say has any meaning unless
you alter your premise, or can provide a convincing argument that your
premise is correct. If you attempt the latter you must address the points
I raised here in a fair and logical manner. You should also recognize that
my criticisms of your premise are generally accepted by the relevent
scientific community, and with good reason. I do not accept casual
dismissal of pervasive scientific opinion, because such opinion is usually
based upon many years of evidence, debate and peer review. I do not accept
the hubris that one man has the vision to see what thousands of trained and
careful professionals cannot see, without copious evidence and rigorous
logic. So far all your arguments fail due to faulty logic and, in places,
mistatement of fact.
Steven Novella, MD
I close with a post from Randi:
Eric Krieg eric@... fax (215) 654-0651
Mon, 9 Nov 1998 12:40:03 -0500 (EST)
James Randi --- Wizard <JREFInfo@...>
(This will be a long posting. I'm doing it as a
going-on-the-record-in-advance move. You may wish to skip it.)
This posting is being made early on the morning of Monday, November
9th, 1998. I am in Los Angeles, California, where in less than three
hours I will be meeting a video crew from the TV show "Extra" to
conduct a preliminary test of a Kam Yuen, who claims to be a healer.
Should Mr. Yuen pass this test, he will be eligible to be tested for
the million-dollar prize offered by JREF.
Mr. Yuen, in common with most persons who believe they have such a
magical power, says that he is 100% successful, and heals all
ailments, instantaneously, merely by thinking about them. In several
phone conversations with Mr. Yuen during the past few months, I have
had him reduce his claim to one of simpler and more reasonable
proportions. He now agrees that he can think about a specific person
with an illness, and immediately make them "feel better." That is a
bite-sized claim that we can handle and test in a practical manner.
I can be accused of shooting fish in a barrel, here, but please
understand that the commitment made by myself and the JREF regarding
the million-dollar challenge, requires that we test ALL claimants,
without exception -- when they present a testable set of statements.
Rule 5 of the challenge calls for the claimant to be subject to a
possible preliminary test, in order to get around the need for
EVERYONE to be formally tested by me, wherever in the world they may
be. For this present preliminary test, the TV producer is paying the
Involvement of a TV crew, with their urgent needs for certain
liberties in covering the event, can be an interfering factor. I am
determined that this will not be allowed to happen, but there
doubtless will be friction during the taping today. For that reason,
and since the testing protocol is not by any means ideal, this test
today has been clearly designated as only a preliminary one.
I anticipate that upon failing the test today, Yuen will offer all
sorts of excuses, despite having agreed to the protocol in advance.
That's what always happens. I also can predict with certainty that in
advance of the actual test, he will offer the TV crew, the other
personnel, and anyone else standing by, diagnoses of ailments they
have, most obscure and not yet showing symptoms, and he will describe
nutritional and environmental changes we should make to avoid these
illnesses. This is a sort of general offering all healers make and
will later refer to as a buffer against the failure of the test
Chest problems, back aches, respiratory situations, and other common
symptoms will be referred to frequently, even while Yuen is doing the
actual test, in reference to the subjects (see ahead) involved. He
will say that he has discovered, through his powers, un-diagnosed
problems he will warn about. As I will point out at that time, these
"asides" have nothing to do with the test at hand -- though I'm sure
the TV folks will seize upon them as residual evidence of a miracle,
which they very much want to find here. The TV piece, as aired, will
close with the comment that says, in effect, "There's still some
evidence of magic here." That's par for that course.
Dr. Michael Shermer will be present, along with a Dr. Fleissman, M.D.,
obtained by Kam Yuen to participate in this test. I had previously
asked for Dr. Wally Sampson, M.D., to be present, but Yuen objected to
so many M.D.s being on the scene. I had no problem going along with
Here follows the latest document sent to Richard Pollmann, the agent hired
by Kam Yuen to promote his claims, and to Karen Zuker of the EXTRA show.
Friday, November 6, 1998
Outlined here is the protocol for the preliminary Yuen test. A
copy has been sent to Dr. Shermer.
Kam Yuen says he can heal a person (relieve symptoms) by
concentrating on them. Yuen must agree in advance that:
(1) He will not claim that "negative vibes" or "bad thoughts" caused the
test to fail.
(2) He is satisfied with the persons we have chosen as subjects, and our
(3) The filming of the event will not inhibit results.
(4) He agrees that his powers will not "spill over" onto other persons he
is not treating.
(5) He agrees that this is a preliminary test, described by rule 5 of the
"Application for Status of Claimant," and that my presence at this test is
only to satisfy the request of the TV persons.
(6) He will read and sign the "Application for Status of Claimant," on
camera, this personal witnessing being equivalent to the action of a notary
public, normally called for.
(7) He understands the rules and will abide by them.
We will have 5 subjects (with one or two "stand-bys," see ahead),
held remote from the "healer," subjects who have NOT been informed about
the nature of the experiment. They will bear visible number-badges, 1 to
Dr. Fleissman will be in the area with the patients, along with
Shermer, and these two will interview the patients about their symptoms.
>From this point on, Dr. Fleissman will have no contact with Yuen.Yuen will then randomly choose a counter (1-5) from a bag, note the
number but not tell anyone what number it is, then seal that counter in an
envelope and leave it with the other 4 -- also unrevealed -- counters. He
will thus be the only one who knows which one has been selected. He will
then do his thing on that person, remotely, without allowing that person to
know that he/she has been singled out.
When he's finished, Fleissman and Shermer will interview all five
-- again -- to determine if there has been any significant change in
symptoms. They will record their reports in writing.
It will be decided by Fleissman & Shermer whether one patient has
shown significant changes. (This must be at the exclusion of the other
four showing equal improvement!) The chosen number will then be revealed.
If Yuen is successful on this trial (a 20% chance that he will be),
we will replace the chosen person with another subject (from the
stand-bys), who will be given the same number. All counters will be
replaced in the bag, and we will repeat the test.
Yuen must succeed in 5 such successive tests. If he does this, he
automatically becomes eligible for the million-dollar prize, and for a much
more formal test under stricter conditions. Since he claims 100% success
in these endeavors, should he fail on the first test, the preliminary test
is automatically over. No excuses made after-the-fact will be accepted.
We may, however, allow ONE MORE test to be conducted, if Yuen so desires.
Signed, James Randi.
I will report here later today, or tomorrow, the results of this test.
As with all these tests, I go into this one with the same
uncomfortable feeling: I don't want to make any sincere person look
ridiculous. I have no reason to believe that Kam Yuen does not
believe he has this power. His method of "healing" is to apply very
old notions of Asiatic mysticism to the patient, and to encourage the
patient to agree that he/she feels better as a result of Yuen's
efforts. What we are doing today is a double-blind test which should
provide evidence -- to Yuen as well as others -- that his power is
imaginary. But it will not. The belief will persist, particularly on
the part of Yuen himself. Self-delusion is a very strong element in
Of course, it may be that Kam Yuen will go through a series of tests
today and be successful in every one of them. In that case, we might
very well have discovered a new modus of healing that we cannot ignore
-- and the Pigasus Prize may be on its way to being paid out. I'm
willing to be shown.
(There is an obvious hole in the protocol, of the sort that I would
not allow in a strict test of these powers. But for a prelimary test
such as this one, controls are tight enough because I believe the
persons involved are honest and forthright.)
We'll see what we will see....
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