I’ve been watching too much TV lately. OK, I don’t literally sit in front of the tube holding the remote and staring at the screen. The TV is on a lot when I’m home. I’m usually absorbing the TV shows while I’m on the computer (as I’m doing right now), reading, twiddling around in the kitchen, or sorting laundry. I sometimes sit down and focus on the tube – for instance, to watch the excellent cable series Mad Men (AMC) and Saving Grace (TNT).
Among the TV content beaming into my living room most of the time: Court TV, other true crime and detection shows, a little Animal Planet, and some shows from Across the Pond on BBC America.
The true crime detection shows often feature either criminal profilers or psychic detectives. In this week’s New Yorker, [Glen Baxter's illustration is at left] Malcolm Gladwell concludes that FBI profilers are about as effective as psychic detectives when you get right down to predicting the identity of the actual perpetrators of crimes. Gladwell cites a researcher’s review of an FBI profiler’s case analysis: “when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.”
Citing a book I now want to read, Ian Rowland’s The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, Gladwell lists the types of statements which are used in combination by psychics and astrologers to “convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight:” the Rainbow Ruse, the Jacques Statement, the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, Sugar Lumps, Forking (!!?), and the Good Chance Guess. Quoting the profile created by FBI profilers and given to Wichita, Kansas, cops who were looking for the BTK Killer, Gladwell points out:
If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jacques Statement, two Barnum Statements, four Rainbow Ruses, a Good Chance Guess, two predictions that aren’t really predictions because they could never be verified—and nothing even close to the salient fact that BTK was a pillar of his community, the president of his church and the married father of two.
On BBC America, I enjoy the camped-up reality show “How Clean is Your House?” on weekdays.
Which is how I happened to see the show that follows HCIYH, an exercise in pseudo-science and public bullying called “You Are What You Eat.” It stars a skinny acidulated bleached blonde female who enthuses over the flavor of strange food concoctions, scolds the overweight junk-food-addicted subjects, acts perplexed when some of them nearly gag on exotic concoctions of health food, diagnoses their health quite specifically by inspecting their tongues and (yes!) their poo, and gets them all happy and jumping on trampolines - while allegedly remaking their lives in eight weeks.
Skinny bleached blond female is billed on the BBC America website as “holistic nutritionist Gillian McKeith,” who appears at least once each episode in a white lab coat. She’s sometimes called “Doctor” McKeith during the show.
Apart from the obvious ideas - living on a diet of fatty food, candy, and booze will make you fat and unhealthy, and fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you - I wasn’t so sure about some of “Doctor” McKeith’s pronouncements. A little internet research shows that she’s made herself famous – and rich – in the UK.
I also learned that Doctor Poo’s qualifications (including her PhD from a US institution) as a nutritionist and medical advisor are more fluffed up than a serving of cotton candy. A very helpful analysis is here, and don’t miss [real] Dr. Ben Goldacre’s entries, including his newspaper columns (the Guardian) on his blog Bad Science. The Wikipedia article about the show notes:
McKeith is also a member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, a controversial organisation which seeks to enhance the reputation of Nutritional and Dietary Consultants by consolidating them into a professional organisation. It offers examination and certification, or association membership which does not require an examination but requires the payment of the membership fee. To highlight his concerns, science writer Dr. Ben Goldacre purchased “certified professional membership” on behalf of his late cat, Henrietta, from the same institution, for $60.
Yep. You too can sign up your dead cat as a certified professional nutritionist.
Junk science is everywhere. But then, so is junk economics. Another subject, for another day. We’re having a few more November warmer-than-usual days and I need to get out there and enjoy some sunshine.