Tuesday, October 20, 2020

#2397: John Weeks

Dangerous lunatic, quack and antivaccine champion Larry Webster, of the Webster technique, has apparently passed away, disqualifying him from an entry he would otherwise have richly deserved. Remembering him nevertheless provides a useful backdrop for introducing this entry’s John Weeks, a writer, speaker and organizer and a relatively major figure in the long ongoing and disconcertingly often (though far from always) successful effort to raise the profile of quackery and pseudoscience under the title integrative health and medicine – “[w]hat was ... considered quackery or fraud [in 1989] ... is now being viewed as a normal part of doing business among insurers and others in the delivery side of medicine,” says Weeks of the movements’ successes, as if that was somehow progress. Weeks is founder/editor of The Integrator Blog News & Reports and editor-in-chief of the tooth-fairy science journal the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He has also written for e.g. Huffington Post and is the founder of a number of organizations and consortia, including the Academic Collaborative for Integrative Health, which he directed from 2007 to 2015. 

Weeks is a true believer in all things quackery, so at least he tends to be honest about his aims – if not his means. For instance, he explicitly explained his support for efforts to have a range of quacks and New Age practitioners officially recognized as “physicians” (so that it would be easier to confuse potential victims patients about what they are up to) by pointing out that “success in claiming the physician title, linked to privilege, status and particularly third party payment – some insurers will only cover certain services if provided by a “physician” – figured heavily in an October 2, 2009 mailing to members from the American Chiropractic Association.” At present, as Weeks sees it, MDs are viewed as kings and queens of the hill, while frauds and quacks and snakeoil salespeople are being oppressed; only a few noble mavericks like himself seem to be willing to fight for the ‘underdog’.


His organization Integrative Practitioner has even been able to offer Continuing Medical Education courses for credit by attaching itself to a medical school: In 2015, for instance, it teamed up with Mount Sinai/Beth Israel, to present the Integrative Healthcare Symposium Annual Conference, at which a physician could earn 17.75 CME credit hours by attending and be exposed to pro-woo propaganda and conspiracy theories.


The fact that someone like Weeks was appointed editor-in-chief of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM) is actually pretty telling – after all, JACM sometimes pretends to be a legitimate, properly ‘sciencey’ journal, though maintaining the pretension is obviously hard (articles and press releases like the brilliant example of Betteridge’s Law “Can Traditional Chinese Medicine Offer Treatments for Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?” or “Deepak Chopra’s Ayurvedic Retreat Program Yields Sustained Increases in Well-Being; that’s “well-being”, not “health, and the distinction matters even though JACM presumably don’t want you to notice) – appointing Weeks obviously doesn’t help in that respect. Weeks is, notably enough, neither a physician nor a scientist, and it would be strikingly remarkable for a scientific journal to have an editor-in-chief with no scientific background. Weeks does, however, have some promotional skills, and that’s presumably what matters for such journals (indeed, Weeks himself sometimes seems to struggle with the distinction between scientific studies and marketing). Under Weeks’s leadership, JACM has continued to push articles and special issues that makes a mockery of scientific integrity in a fashion that even Answers in Genesis’s own house journal would struggle to outdo, such as the special issue on integrative oncology discussed here; another example is an entire issue devoted to trying to show that naturopathy, no less, is science-based, discussed here – the attempt failed spectacularly, of course.


Weeks is, of course, no fan of criticism of alternative medicine: He likes to portray himself as being above the fray while engaging in self-righteous whining and name-calling, saying that “science-based medicine” should be referred to “polarization-based medicine” because some adherents of science-based medicine criticize and call out frauds, scams and crackpottery, something that Weeks thinks is very combative and non-nice – indeed, Weeks says that criticizing frauds, scams and crackpottery is as “hateful as the campaign for the presidency of Donald Trump” (comparing his critics to Trump is sort of a go-to ploy for Weeks). He also likens criticism of quackery to “racial profiling” and promoting birtherism, and claims that is “anti-science because he is aware that it sounds bad to be “anti-science” even though he has only a dim idea what science actually is or how it works. Indeed, Weeks also distinctly indicates that he thinks his critics are united, making science-based medicine a sort of conspiracy. And completely predictably: Nowhere does he even attempt to address the contents of the criticisms of alternative medicine, or the damning rebuttals of results of sloppy pseudostudies promoted by his journal and organizations. It’s all about tone, and what’s bad about the criticisms is the fact that they are critical, which is mean – not that the criticisms are wrong, which they aren’t. Edzard Ernst sums up Weeks’s rhetorical tactics well: “The principle is adorably simple and effective: 1) you are faced with some criticism, 2) you find it hard to argue against it, 3) therefore you elect to attack your critic personally, 4) you claim that the criticism is insulting, 5) you re-name any criticism ‘TRUMPISM’, and 6) all is forgiven! Weeks is not even original; others have used this method before him. In fact, advocates of alternative medicine thrive on ad hominem attacks, and without them they would go nowhere.”


Of course, Weeks also likes to promote many of the regular anti-medicine tropes, such as the false claim that medical errors are a leading cause of death and the nonsensical claim that science-based practitioners do not care about prevention. 


Diagnosis: One of the leaders of the effort to increase the perceived legitimacy of woo, without (of course) doing the footwork needed to justify legitimacy. Indeed, Weeks doesn’t seem to fully recognize that such justification is needed. His writings are often rhetorically effective, we’ll grant him that, but you’ll be hard pressed to find publications with a denser concentration of fallacies and with less appreciation of how scientific and rational investigations should actually work (while claiming that he’s very scientific) than the writings of John Weeks. Dangerous.

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