It was a notable warning which President Butler recently gave the graduating class of Columbia University, against the nostrum-venders, political, literary and religious—and he might well have added, the medical—all of whom now so dreadfully infest our American civilization. These, he well observed, are the men of “new ideas” (such ideas as Plato discarded many centuries ago as perverse); the men (and women) who preach “new thought” without ever having learned to think; the multitudinous advocates of change for the sake of change; of reforms springing from no need and growing out of no experience; the shallow, unqualified, half-baked horde who are letting loose on the land a torrent of talk, to the degree that “the educated man or woman of to-day has literally to struggle against being swept into the current of irrationalism.” Knowledge has come on our people in veritably cyclonic measure, while wisdom has emulated the snail in its progress. “The marvelous last half-century of science,” continued President Butler, “has made absolutely no impression on the thinking habit. Science has destroyed many prepossessions and not a few beliefs; but it has not yet taught mankind to think. Our age is far less reflective than was the eighteenth or the first half of the nineteenth century; our people are now ever busy hunting for something new.” “The present age is certainly that of the crowd and the demagogue.” continued the president of Columbia. The crowd, with its well-marked mental and moral peculiarities, is everywhere in evidence; and demagogues of all kinds din its ears with hungry cries. The art of demagoguery is easy, and it is quickly learned; and the rewards of its successful practice “have strange fascination for minds and characters that we would like to think in all respects worthy.” Thus has President Butler pilloried the literary, the political and the religious demagogue. We should for ourselves have prefixed the qualification “pseudo” to each of these adjectives. Nor are Butler's observations any the less applicable to the pseudomedical demagogue, and the amazing impression he makes on the crowd. Indeed, the offices of religious and medical nostrum-vender are quite generally combined in the one engaging personality. The “new-thoughter,” for example, while piloting you skyward, will at the same time attend to your physical well-being—for a consideration. There are in point of fact, literally hundreds of cults—essentially psychopathic epidemics—in the United States that are thus dominated. It is unpleasant indeed to observe in them how often the abnormal, the insane even, have exerted, and now exert, a noxious influence on people who are, to begin with, evenly enough balanced. The pseudoreligious movements (which quite invariably undertake to heal also the body) have in common certain well-defined earmarks. Each despises and decries all the rest: With us, assures one leader, you shall find peace here and hereafter, with the cure of all your ailments; but as you hope to escape eternal perdition, have nothing to do with that shop across the way! Some of these cults are offshoots from others, enterprises originated and conducted by malcontent demagogues who have not had a fair share of the spoils from their erstwhile leaders. The demagogue in charge of each cult—its nostrum-vender-in-chief— insists incessantly and blatantly that its tenets are the only true ones; and its devotees will as insistently, and much more blindly, back him up. There never, by any chance, was a true system other than the particular one under consideration. Any given demagogue can never, by any accident, make a statement that is not consonant with the plain, unvarnished truth. Each demagogue strives, with most, consummate assurance, to outdo all others in extravagant claims (such as are impossible in nature) to have achieved marvelous and miraculous results, especially in the cure of disease. But no statement any leader ever made is more marvelous than the gullibility with which the devotee has accepted it. “Far-fetched analogy, baseless assertion, the uncritical assimilation of popular superstitions, a great deal of prophecy after the event, much fanciful elaboration of detail, ringing the variations on a sufficiently complex and non-demonstrable preposition, cultivating a convenient vagueness of expression, together with an apologetic skill in providing for and explaining exceptions, the courage to ignore failure, the shrewdness to profit by coincidences and half-assimilated smatterings of science, and, with all, an insensibility to the moral and intellectual demands of the logical decalogue”—such, observes Jastrow, are the elements on which the medicoreligious nostrum-vender rides to most meretricious success. JAMA. 1911;57(11):905-906 Back to top Article Information Editor's Note: JAMA 100 Years Ago is transcribed verbatim from articles published a century ago, unless otherwise noted.
– American Medical Association
Published: Sep 14, 2011