The dichotomy of establishment consensus versus skeptical minority opinion
In a series of columns over the last year, one of the New York Times’ right-leaning opinion writers, Ross Douthat, has shared parts of his personal story of dealing with chronic illness. These columns, excerpted from a published memoir, describe his long journey to discover the identity of an illness that began with a small red swelling under his ear but quickly escalated to overtake his entire body with unbearable agony.
Desperate to learn what was causing such excruciating chest pains that he felt perpetually on the verge of cardiac arrest and constant, immobilizing inflammation of his stomach, throat, and bowels, he consulted numerous neurologists, cardiologists, and gastroenterologists. He underwent a battery of tests of blood and urine, cranial and abdominal scans and more.
When all of this turned up nothing, Douthat began to doubt the reality of his own experience. “The pain was crushing,” he writes, “but what were mere feelings set against the certainties of so many doctors, the negative readings of my blood?”
A consultation with the head of infectious diseases at a major hospital, an appointment that took six weeks to get and lasted all of 15 minutes, left him completely hopeless. The doctor “spread his hands. ‘There’s just a lot we don’t understand about the human body… A lot of mystery, you know? But you’re young and healthy, you’ll feel better. The important thing is that we can rule things out — that’s what we do here.’ Then, into the awkward silence: ‘And if you need a mental-health referral, we can definitely help with that.’ ”
And so, he embraced the theory that it was all rooted in anxiety, scouring books on the topic and doing mental exercises. All to no avail; the searing pain allowed him to sleep an hour a night at most. Ironically, it was a psychiatrist, his “eleventh doctor in ten weeks,” who told him the cause had to be physiological, not mental. And a second psychiatrist was able to label it: a tick-borne Lyme disease.
Douthat began a regimen of antibiotics that stabilized him and controlled many of the symptoms — the perpetual dizziness, phantom heart attacks, inability to sleep nearly at all. Still, he says, the antibiotics didn’t heal him, but kept him “in an awful, painful stasis…. Instead of feeling like I was falling apart, I felt like my body was a cage of pain in which my self was somehow imprisoned. And instead of being simply ill, I became what I would remain for years: a chronic illness case.”
In another column, Douthat details his odyssey of exploration of the world of alternative therapies and medicines, from acupuncture to IV vitamin C to magnet therapy and more. Ultimately, he settled on various strong doses of antibiotics as what he needed to begin traveling the road to what he calls his “slow, still-continuing recovery.”
His story is gripping throughout, but perhaps its most fascinating aspect is what he says this multiyear experience taught him about the “the complexity and strangeness of the world,” which he illustrates by describing his weirdest foray of all into the world of exotic treatments: the use of the Rife machine. It’s named for American inventor Royal Raymond Rife, who claimed in the 1930s to have discovered a frequency at which it’s possible to oscillate various pathogens, thereby shattering them, “somewhat like a wineglass exposed to the pitch of a skillful opera singer.”
Rife’s discovery was supposedly suppressed by powerful medical interests, but was seized upon, Douthat writes, by “entrepreneurs of the medical fringe, who sold frequency-generating machines that promised to rid the body of all kinds of pathogens, often peddling them in multilevel marketing schemes, with sketchy endorsements from dubious research institutes.”
When he first read about the Rife machines, it seemed to him like the “purest quackery, unfiltered snake oil.” But thousands of Lyme sufferers swore by the machines, and reading some of their testimonies — along with the fear that if he didn’t try something drastic, he might be sick forever — persuaded him to try it out:
It is difficult to convey just how weird it was when the thing actually arrived…. It had 873 preprogrammed “channels,” usually linked to a specific ailment, from acidosis to zygomycosis…. It felt like something out of a paranoid fiction, a slice of invented Americana….
Was it all a hoax, generated by charlatans sitting down with a list of medical conditions and a random number generator? Or did all the complex frequency combinations represent the fruits of a multigenerational labor, some kind of secret investigation conducted by the sick and suffering over years and decades?
There were two channels listed for Lyme disease, each one containing dozens of frequencies. I gripped the cylinders…. Then I punched in the first channel and hit start. Naturally, it worked.
What does “worked” mean, you may reasonably ask? Just this: By this point in my treatment, there was a familiar feeling whenever I was symptomatic and took a strong dose of antibiotics — a temporary flare of pain and discomfort… followed by a wave of exhaustion and then a mild relief, and with the Rife machine I got it instantly: It was like having a high dose of antibiotics hit the body all at once.
Not wanting to simply trust his own experience, Douthat began running experiments, trying frequencies for other illnesses and finding they didn’t have the same effect. This convinced him to make the Rife machine part of his treatment regime, not a substitute for the antibiotics, but a complement, enabling him to take lower doses of the drugs and helping to move his slow recovery along.
Douthat says that experiences like his — of “falling through the solid floor of establishment consensus and discovering something bizarre and surprising underneath” — are extremely commonplace, and have much to teach American society about today’s political and biomedical debates:
Something in human psychology makes us seek coherence and simplicity in our understanding of the world. So people who have a terrible experience with official consensus, and discover that some weird idea that the establishment derides actually seems to work, tend to embrace a new rule to replace the old one: that official knowledge is always wrong, that outsiders are always more trustworthy than insiders, that if Dr. Anthony Fauci or the Food and Drug Administration get some critical things wrong, you can’t trust them to get anything right.
This impulse explains why fringe theories tend to cluster together, the world of outsider knowledge creating its own form of consensus and self-reinforcement. But it also explains the groupthink that the establishment often embraces in response, its fear that pure craziness automatically abounds wherever official knowledge fails, and its commitment to its own authority as the only thing standing between society and the abyss.
What we need, I’m convinced, are more people and institutions that sustain a position somewhere in between. We need a worldview that recognizes that our establishment fails in all kinds of ways, that there’s a wider range of experiences than what fits within the current academic-bureaucratic lines… and yet at the same time still accepts the core achievements of modern science and treats populist information sources at least as skeptically as it treats establishment sources.
In his own life, Douthat writes that he has learned “to move between the mainstream and the fringe without becoming a captive in either territory. I am more open-minded about the universe than I was seven years ago, and much more skeptical about anything that claims the mantle of consensus. But I am trying not to let that mix of open-mindedness and skepticism decay into a paranoid-outsider form of groupthink.”
Turning the lens inward, our community seems to have its own rather complex relationship with the dichotomy of establishment consensus versus skeptical minority opinion. Some people who don’t fit in to all the neat communal boxes, for example, feel disenfranchised by what they see as elitist condescension in areas like school admissions, shidduchim, and other areas.
Yet in the hot-button political and medical debates of recent years, parts of the community have also manifested a paranoiac distrust of mainstream institutions and expert consensus. And strangely, there often seems to be a simultaneous adoption of both of these extremes, applied selectively depending on the issue.
Ross Douthat’s advice to American society — to open-mindedly consider alternative wisdom, yet not descend into paranoid suspicion of mainstream thinking either — seems like good counsel for us, too.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 896. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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