November 21, 2015.
The Cottingley Fairies. “The first of the five photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, shows Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies.” A world-famous doctor believed that the fairies in this picture were real. He also believed in ghosts. Awfully credulous of the man who created Sherlock Holmes. Photo via Wikipedia.
Doctors have to know science. To a great degree, they have to think scientifically. That doesn’t make them scientists, although some of them are. In my experience, one of the differences between scientists and doctors is that scientists tend to be smart about many things while doctors tend to be smart mainly in their field and rather ordinary in their thinking and apprehension outside it. Obviously, someone like Oliver Sacks proves you can’t generalize from my experience. But that’s still my experience.
The scientist I knew best growing up was a physicist who taught computer science and wrote books on programming and was also a smart and savvy politician and a brilliant local government executive---Pop Mannion was our town supervisor for a total of nineteen years. Uncle Merlin’s father, a metallurgist with a Ph.D. from MIT whose work as director of the ceramics department at General Electric’s Research and Development Lab required him to be equal parts physicist, chemist, and engineer, composed music, was an avid amateur astronomer and arborist, an active local conservationist, and in his retirement set out to teach himself computer programming so he could design software.
Our family doctor spent his free time building model airplanes.
The other difference I’ve long noted between doctors and scientists is in their eccentricities. Scientists are the more notorious oddballs. But I think doctors are just better at keeping their oddness to themselves. Scientists don’t seem to care what other people think of them. Richard Feynman practically declared this a professional motto: What Do You Care What Other People Think? If this indifference to others’ opinions and judgments is a virtue, it’s a neutral one. It can lead to lives of integrity and principle. It can also lead to extreme heartlessness and even contempt for other people’s feelings and needs. But doctors can be just as unfeeling and even crueler. There are many more famous murderers with M.D.s than with Ph.D.s. That’s extreme, of course. Anti-social doctors are usually just casually mean or rude. Possibly because they have to master at least minimal social graces---you can’t build a practice by offending or disturbing prospective patients---possibly because the authority they’re granted over our bodies and health encourages us to overlook or take some comfort in their brand of kookiness---we take it as a sign of the intelligence and wisdom we depend on them to possess---doctors can more commonly pass or pass themselves off as regular folks.
That doesn’t stop them from being nuts outside the examination room.
Or in it, if their patients only knew what to look for.
Many of them are deeply weird.
I don’t know why that is. Might be whose attracted to the profession. You have to have a rather peculiar interest in other people’s inner workings, to begin with, no matter how otherwise sensible and sane you might be.
Yep. You’re ahead of me. I am thinking of Ben Carson.
But I’m not thinking of him as a question. I’m thinking of him as just another example.
And I’m not thinking about the question because I was thinking of him. I’m thinking about it because I’ve been reading The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher and tonight I came across this:
[Dr. Mark and Josephine Richardson] were two of Dr. Crandon’s closet friends. Mark and Roy [Crandon] had met fifteen years earlier, when both were examiners for the same medical insurance company. Around that time a heartbreaking tragedy occurred, when the Richardsons’ two young boys died of polio three weeks after contracting the disease. Devastated, the couple saw Boston mediums who attempted to contact their sons. A skeptic at the time, Dr. Crandon had always felt the Richardsons were blinded by grief; one could only walk along the river for so long before it was time to let them cross. But the Richardsons did not let go. For years they were the only Spiritualists among Roy’s friends and he saw in Mark the same paradox he would one day encounter in Sir Oliver Lodge. A notable scientist as well as a physician, Richardson was a pioneer in the development of a vaccine for typhoid fever; he described séance phenomena in the same clinical tone with which Roy once heard him lecture on the cultivation of the typhoid bacillus from rose spots…
There it is, a two-fer. Richardson was a doctor and a scientist who not only believed in ghosts, he talked to them. And he was sure they talked back. The Witch of Lime Street is set in the 1920s and I’m more sympathetic to an early 20th Century grief-stricken father’s hope that life continues after death and his children are on the other side, happily waiting for him to come play than I am to an early 21st Century Presidential candidate’s insistence that the pyramids were built to store grain at the direction of a fictional character, not to mention his thinking the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if Anne Frank had packed a gun instead of wielded a pen, Obamacare is worse than slavery, and Syrian refugees are like rabid dogs. But more to the point is the phrase I emphasized in that quote, “at the time”.
Crandon, a highly-regarded surgeon living in Boston, right across the river from Harvard and MIT, his home on Beacon Hill within shouting distance of one of the best hospitals in the Northeast, was a skeptic until his wife began contacting the spirits of the dead. Margery Crandon was the Witch of Lime Street. The ghosts not only dropped in from the beyond for chats at her invitation, they did things like rearrange the furniture:
Evidently the spirit of a Mrs. Caldwell, mother to two in the group---Kitty Brown and her brother Frederick Caldwell---had taken possession of the table. What happened next, however unbelievable, was attested to by everyone in the circle. As if dragged by spectral force, the table suddenly lurched toward Caldwell. Whether invisibly propelled or not, the effect was terrifying. According to the séance record, the table pushed Caldwell out of the den, through the dark corridor, and into the Crandon’s bedroom, where it forced him onto the bed---after having smashed wall and rumpled all the rugs in transit. While [another member of the group] went into hysterics and Josephine screamed, the other sitters followed the table that was chasing Caldwell. “On request for more the table started downstairs after him,” wrote Dr. Richardson, “when we stopped it to save the wall plaster.” Dr. Crandon didn’t want to see his home wrecked by a poltergeist---which was what seemed to have been unleashed.
To what else could stunned witnesses attribute such phenomena?…Or were four respected physicians and their wives collectively hallucinating? All members of the [club] dismissed the idea they were seeing things that night.
Of course they dismissed the idea. They were doctors! Men of science! The key thing, though, is that it wasn’t just this the doctors in this particular group who were looking to make contact with the spirit world and even believed they had.
A main character in the book is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Who believed in fairies.
He’d seen photographs.
That’s right. The creator of the most rational mind at work in English literature, who was himself both a doctor and scientist and a pretty good amateur detective in his own right, believed in ghosts. Talked to ghosts. His dead brother and son among them.
Doyle was good friends with Harry Houdini, the main character in the book along with Margery Crandon, her antagonist as things developed. But the two men fell out over spiritualism. Doyle didn’t just believe in Spiritualism. He proselytized for it, preaching it as a new religion, and a far more rational and scientifically-based one than traditional Christianity. Houdini didn’t think spiritualism was all stuff and nonsense. He wanted it to be true. He believed in an afterlife and he had his own dead he was desperate to contact. He just never met a medium he couldn’t spot at a glance as a fake and a charlatan. Houdini made it a mission to expose the frauds. That included Doyle’s wife who was often possessed by spirits who used her to write letters on their behalf to those they’d left behind in this world. One of those epistle-ating ghosts claimed to be Houdini’s beloved mother.
The spirits that had brought them together were precipitating their clash, and Houdini implied that his friend was not handling their disagreement sportingly. "You write you are very sore," he answered Doyle. "I trust it is not with me, because you having been truthful and manly all your life, naturally must admire the same traits in other human beings."
He then expressed his doubts---"The letter was written entirely in English, and my sainted mother could not read, write, or speak the English language"---that led him to reject Lady Doyle's communication. Houdini expected a genuine message from his mother to be in her native tongue---which Sir Arthur, who knew few Jews, assumed was Hebrew.
Doyle---Doctor Doyle, Sherlock Holmes' creator---had a perfectly rational explanation. "[T]here was no language in the next life: psychics like his wife received transmissions in 'a rush of thought.'"
But leaving aside the debate about who’s smarter, brain surgeons or rocket scientists---I think I’ve made it clear which side I come down on---and without getting into something else I don’t understand, which is why so many doctors who go into politics are Right Wing kooks, the question I want answered isn’t how someone as smart as Ben Carson must be or must have been when he was in scrubs could be so astonishingly blockheaded on the campaign trail.
The answer to that one isn’t much of an answer: he’s a typical doctor.
But I think it may also be the case that Carson is so dumb because he’s so smart. And that’s typical of many smart people whatever their profession. They're so used to being smart that they can’t imagine themselves being dumb. And most doctors aren’t scientists. They aren’t in the habit of testing their own ideas. If they think it, they think, it must be worth thinking. “Hey, I’m a brilliant person, therefore whatever idea my great brain comes up with must be a brilliant idea.”
And the question I want answered isn’t how so many people don’t seem to notice or care that he has so many dumb, crazy, repugnant, and dangerous ideas.
That’s due, I think, to the pass people tend to give to doctors. We believe them to be smart and wise because we need them to be smart and wise. With Carson, there’s even more to that because he made a second career---politics is his third---and a vocation to sell himself as a role model for success against all odds. “If I can make it through hard work, study, and prayer,” has been his sales pitch, “so can you.” People who have depended on his example to inspire them in their struggles to survive and thrive, spiritually as well as financially, don’t want consider that they’ve been emulating a fool and a crank.
I'd like to think evidence gathering that it is dawning on people that he is a fool and a crank and not someone they want as President of the United States, however much they admired him before, but at this point the polls are still unreliable. Just a few weeks ago he was taking over the lead for the nomination from the Donald.
Nope. The question I want answered is why the political press corps seems to be just getting around to noticing that he is in no way fit to be President.
Just a month ago, the New York Times was running “analyses” like this one, explaining how Carson’s popularity was due to his calm and charming personality and that all the jes’ plain folks on the Right liked him for his beautiful smile.
The political press needs to believe Republican politicians are sensible and moderate the way people need to believe their doctors are smart and wise.
But the thing is, if Carson had never run for President and I’d come to hear of him because of his fame as a surgeon and his popularity as an inspirational speaker and writer, I wouldn’t have wondered so much about his stupid and crazy ideas and eccentric relation with the truth.
I’d have just shrugged it all off as typical for a doctor.
Then I’d probably have thought he’d have been better off if during his spare time he contented himself with building model airplanes.
Or talking to ghosts.
See and believe, at mental_floss: Houdini's Greatest Trick: Debunking Medium Mina Crandon by Robert Love.
The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon.