Mar 01 2012

How To Spot a Guru

This is highly curious – the Natural News crank and conspiracy-mongering website has just published an article called: Signs you are being scammed by a fake guru, by Mike Bundrant. This is curious because Mike Adams, who runs the Natural New website, in my opinion is a fake guru. So – is this unintentional irony, or is this a preemptive strike? By condemning “fake gurus” you can create the impression that you are not one.

The article itself is reasonable, but not great. First I wonder why Bundrant chose to say “fake guru?” Are there real gurus? Let’s take a look at his specific points. He starts off with the guru claim that there are no limits:

Gurus love to preach that you’ll have no limitations (if you buy their products). Their “proven” strategies will either 1) catapult you past anything in your way or 2) give you unlimited power.

This is very true. The Secret is the ultimate manifestation of this – just think about what you desire and your wishes will make it true, without limit. Some newage scams claim that reality is all in your mind anyway, so there is truly no limit to what you can change with your mind. This is also the basic philosophy of Christian Science – the material world is just a reflection of the spiritual world. Keep your spirit pure and you will be perfectly healthy and live forever.  Getting medical care is therefore an act of loss of faith, and will weaken your spirit and therefore your body.

Bundrant misses an important feature here – when the unlimited potential is not realized, gurus blame you for the failure. It is not their ideas and their system that has failed, it is you who has failed. Either you lacked faith, conviction, or you simply did not apply the guru’s system diligently enough.

Bundrant also fails to do what I am going to do – apply his own criteria to the Natural News site itself. You don’t have to look beyond the home page to find an example of overselling claims with amazing hype. In one article the author writes:

The future of medicine has arrived! Imagine non-invasive, non-toxic procedures that could regenerate nerve and muscle tissue, reverse Macular degeneration (traditionally thought to be “irreversible”) and eliminate back pain. This is NOT a fantasy – it’s happening right now…

He is talking about “vibrational medicine,” using magical vibrations for regeneration. It is a fantasy, just one of the many unsubstantiated miracle claims that Natural News is infamous for.

Next up is “They sell secrets.” Very true (The Secret, of course, is the perfect manifestation of this). If a guru has knowledge that can reverse disease or transform your life, then why doesn’t everyone know it? How come every doctor isn’t telling their patients about it and every hospital isn’t using these amazing techniques? Those are reasonable questions, and the guru needs to have an answer, which invariably is that the information is a secret. It might be ancient wisdom lost to modern closed-minded materialists, or a cutting edge discovery that has not yet caught on. Adams often takes the conspiracy route – the secret is being deliberately suppressed by the evil powers that be. This is all a smoke screen, of course, to hide the glaring fact that if their product or treatment worked half as well as they claimed everyone would be using it.

I often point out that science is not secret. Ideas and evidence in science must be transparent, and are only valuable when they have been put through peer review. Also, as our scientific knowledge has become more and more complex, it takes a community of scientists to piece together new knowledge. Gone are the days of the lone genius working in isolation and changing the world. By the time any new medical treatment has been shown to be safe and effective, for example, many scientists and institutions have likely contributed to the research, and that research has been reviewed by the broader community.

But that doesn’t sell fake hope. Gurus want you to believe that their clinic is the only one with the special treatment, or their book contains otherwise hidden knowledge you can only get from them.

And again, Mike Adams is just as guilty of this as any other guru. On their articles page there is a link to this:

The best informed healers, naturopaths, nutritionists and advanced cancer doctors share the little-known truth about what really works to end disease and unleash lifelong health.

They have the secret, the “little known truth” to “end disease.”  That meets Bundrant’s first two criteria right there.

Next Bundrant warns you that fake gurus will fake credentials. He writes:

The point here is, if you don’t have a credible endorsement, just create an official sounding group and endorse yourself. This little tactic has really caught on and served many self-proclaimed gurus over the years.

This one is very true. Gurus will often make their own institutes, create their own journals then publish in those journals to pad out their CV. I have written about a guru neurologist, William Hammesfahr, who claims that he was nominated for the Nobel prize in science and medicine. This is false on its face, as Nobel nominations are kept secret for 50 years, so if he were nominated he could not know about it. He is referring to an unofficial nomination by a local state representative – a completely trumped up and meaningless credential, but effective in fooling the unwary.

Mike Adams doesn’t fit cleanly into this criteria because he is a populist, and so almost by definition eschews formal credentials. He calls himself the “health ranger” and lists as his credentials that he is a: “journalist, author, speaker, documentarian, musician, philanthropist, and more.” This fits better with his conspiracy-mongering tactics. This is something I have discussed before as well, when discussing the tactics of pseudoscientists. They can go one of two ways, either promote their formal credentials (real or fake), or say that their lack of formal education is actually a virtue. This latter strategy is the populist strategy, and that is the path that Adams has chosen.

Tell me if the following description by Bundrant sounds familiar:

Then, when he is in a desperate, horrible, helpless state, tell him that it may never end. When you offer a quick and easy solution that has clearly “worked for others who were suffering just like you” the poor schmuck will surely take the bait.

Preying upon the desperate with claims of easily achieving fabulous health. If you believe that ads on the Natural News website you can lose weight without dieting, and stop pain in 60 seconds. The entire alternative medicine movement survives by preying upon the desperate. Of course, you can always view this as catering to those who are truly in need. You can view either mainstream medicine or alternative medicine in either a sinister or benign light, depending upon your ideology. The real question is  – do the treatments offered work? If they do, you are a healer; if they don’t, you are exploiting the sick. I would argue that we know if a treatment really works only by looking objectively at the science, not by spinning conspiracy theories and making hyped claims.

There are two more criteria discussed by Bundrant – that gurus say anyone can do it, and then they jack up their prices. Saying that your treatment system works for anyone is a classic strategy, better to maximize your potential market. On Mike Adams personal website he states his philosophy:

Achieving outstanding health is not complicated. The human body already knows how to be healthy. All you have to do is give your body outstanding nutrition so that it has the building materials it needs to heal disease and rebuild itself from the inside out. You must also avoid all of the foods and food ingredients that cause disease. Today, more than 95% of all chronic disease is caused by food choice, toxic food ingredients, nutritional deficiencies and lack of physical exercise.”

Anyone can do it – your body already knows how. All you need to do is follow Adams secret nutritional advice and you can rebuild your body. The claims that most or all chronic illness is caused by food choice is a common one among health gurus, but is completely unsubstantiated. First the term “cause” is problematic. Does that include every disease for which diet is a risk factor? Being a risk factor and “causing” are not the same thing. Further, there are many categories of disease, and nutritional is only one. There are autoimmune, genetic, and degenerative diseases, for example. But Adams and other gurus claim that these are all nutritional, and cite at best evidence that disease severity or the risk of developing the disease can be modified by a vitamin or by avoiding overeating certain kinds of food. Any slight modification of risk (even when the evidence is dubious) is interpreted as “cause” and categorizing that disease as nutritional.

This is all a way to convince the public that anyone can benefit from the guru’s advice, because all or almost all disease is caused by whatever it is their secret system addresses.

The article overall was reasonable, as far as it goes, but it was a bit anemic in detail. The blatant irony of the article, however, takes chutzpah. That, however is nothing new for Adams and Natural News.

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