Anthropologyish Friday: Oriental Prisons pt. 3 Burma, China, and Japan

Smallpox victim, 1886

Welcome back to Anthropology-ish Friday: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.

An account from the Prisons of Burmah (aka Myanmar):

“The acquisition and annexation of Burmah by Great Britain, first the lower province with three-fourths of the seaboard, and then the entire kingdom, were accomplished between 1824 and 1886, in a little more than half a century, that is to say. Until this took place the country was generally in a state of anarchy, the king was a bloodthirsty despot, and the state council was at his bidding no better than a band of Dacoits who plundered the people and murdered them wholesale. The ruling powers were always anxious to pick a quarrel …

“The outbreak of hostilities led to cruel retaliation by the king of Burmah upon all Europeans who resided in the country, whether as missionaries or merchants engaged in trade. One of them, an Englishman, Mr. Henry Gouger, was arrested as a spy and arraigned before a court of justice with very little hope of escaping with his life. He was fortunately spared after suffering untold indignities and many positive tortures. Eventually he published his experiences, which remain to this day as a graphic record of the Burmese prisons as they then existed. He was first committed to the safe keeping of the king’s body guard, and confined with his feet in the stocks; then he was transferred to the “death prison,” having been barbarously robbed and deprived of his clothing. He was not entirely stripped, but was led away with his arms tied behind his back, bare-headed and bare-footed to the Let-ma-yoon, the “antechamber of the tomb.” ”

The following quotes are from Gouger’s account:

“While we were passing this week in the inner prison, a frightful event took place, which threatened the immediate destruction of the whole community; indeed, it is wonderful that the instinct of self-preservation did not deter our parent of the prison from executing his order. A woman was brought in covered with the pustules of the small-pox. … Even the Burmese prisoners themselves expressed their astonishment, but remonstrance was useless. The gaolers, however, showed a little common sense by placing the unfortunate creature in a clear spot by herself to avoid contact with the other inmates of the prison, with delicate threats of punishment if she moved from it.

“We never heard what induced this barbarity, but she was most likely suffering for the misconduct of some relative in the war, and the authority who sent her there could not have been aware of the disease, for she had not been among us more than twenty-four hours when she was again taken away.

Tobacco leaf and flowers from the Deli Plantation, Sumatra, 1905

“But by what means was infection averted? Inoculation or vaccination was unknown. Here were about fifty persons living in the same confined room without ventilation, and yet not one of them took the disease. The fact seems almost miraculous, and I should have doubted the nature of the malady had it not been acknowledged and dreaded by everyone, the natives as well as ourselves. I can only account for our immunity by the free use of tobacco.”

EvX: I’ve noted before that tobacco appears to have certain anti-parasitic and possibly anti-microbial properties. It’s ironic that something that damages your lungs might simultaneously protect you from infection, but it’s not a completely insane idea.

Back to the account:

““In the Indies,” says one old authority, “when one man accuses another of a crime punishable by death, it is customary to ask the accused if he is willing to go through trial by fire, and if he answers in the affirmative, they heat a piece of iron till it is red hot; then he is told to put his hand on the hot iron, and his hand is afterward wrapped up in a bay leaf, and if at the end of three days he has suffered no hurt he is declared innocent and delivered from the punishment which threatened him. Sometimes they boil water in a cauldron till it is so hot no one may approach it; then an iron ring is thrown into it and the person accused is ordered to thrust in his hand and bring up the ring, and if he does so without injury he is declared innocent. …”

“Another ordeal was to take the accused to the tomb of a Mohammedan saint and walk past, having first loaded him with heavy fetters. If the fetters fall off, he is declared to be clear. “I have heard it said,” is the comment of one authority who had little confidence in the good faith of the tribunal, “that by some artful contrivance the fetters are so applied as to fall off at a particular juncture.” …

“To follow this man on his reception and through his treatment will give a good idea of prison life in Burmah. His clothing was first issued to him; a loin cloth of coarse brown stuff and a strip of sacking to serve as his bed. His hair was close cut and his head was as smooth as the palm of his hand, save for one small tuft left on the crown; his name was registered in the great book, and he was led to the blacksmith’s shop, where his leg irons were riveted on him, anklets in the form of a heavy ring to which a connecting ring with two straight iron bars was attached. At the same time a neck ring of iron as thick as a lead pencil was welded on, with a plate attached, nine inches by five, on which a paper recording the personal description of the individual was pasted. …

““If there is a type of revolting human ugliness, it is the Burmese gaol-bird,” says the same authority, “with his shaven head and the unmistakable stamp of criminal on his vicious face. All convicts seem to acquire that look of low, half-defiant cunning from their associates, and a physiognomist would not hesitate to describe nine-tenths of the men before us as bad characters if he saw them in any society. Many of this gang are Dacoits, and their breasts, arms and necks are picture galleries of tattooed devices, fondly cherished by the owners as charms against death or capture. Some have rows of unsightly warts, like large peas, upon the breast and arms which mark the spots where the charms have been inserted,—scraps of metal and other substances inscribed with spells known only to the wise men who deal in such things. One or two natives of India are amongst the gang, and these are conspicuous by the absence of the tattooing universally found on the Burman’s thighs. A powerfully built convict at the end of the rank, in addition to the usual irons, has his ankle rings connected by a single straight bar, so that he can only stand with his feet twelve inches apart.

“‘Look at that fellow,’ says the superintendent; ‘he is in for five years, and his time would have been up in three months. A week ago he was down at the creek with his gang working timber, and must needs try to escape. He was up to his waist in water and dived under a raft, coming to the surface a good fifty yards down the stream. The guard never missed him until a shout from another man drew their attention, when they saw him swimming as hard as he could go, irons and all, towards a patch of jungle on the opposite side.’ Amongst a repulsive horde this man would take first place without competition. ‘Reckless scoundrel,’ is written on every line of his scowling face, and such he undoubtedly is. After the severe flogging his attempted escape earned for him, he assaulted and bit his guards and fellow prisoners, and the bar between his anklets was the immediate result.”

Chinese Prisons:

“According to Chinese law, theoretically, no prisoner is punished until he confesses his crime. He is therefore proved guilty and then by torture made to acknowledge the accuracy of the verdict. The cruelty shown to witnesses as well as culprits is a distinct blot on the administration of justice in China. The penal code is ferocious, the punishments inflicted are fiendishly cruel, and the prisons’ pig-stys in which torture is hardly more deadly than the diseases engendered by the most abominable neglect….

“Few Europeans have experienced imprisonment in China. One Englishman, Lord Loch, has given an account of the sufferings he endured when treacherously captured during the war of 1860. “The discipline of the prison was not in itself very strict and had it not been for the starvation, the pain arising from the cramped position in which the chains and ropes retained the arms and legs, with the heavy drag of the iron collar on the bones of the spine, and the creeping vermin that infested every place, together with the occasional beatings and tortures which the prisoners were from time to time taken away for a few hours to endure, returning with bleeding legs and bodies and so weak as to be scarcely able to crawl, there was no very great hardship to be endured…

“There was a small maggot which appears to infest all Chinese prisons: the earth at a depth of a few inches swarms with them; they are the scourge most dreaded by every poor prisoner. Few enter a Chinese prison who have not on their bodies or limbs some wounds, either inflicted by blows to which they have been subjected, or caused by the manner in which they have been bound; the instinct of the insect to which I allude appears to lead them direct to these wounds. Bound and helpless, the poor wretch cannot save himself from their approach, although he knows full well that if they once succeed in reaching his lacerated skin, there is the certainty of a fearful lingering and agonising death before him.”


“Japan as an enlightened and progressive country has made strenuous efforts to establish “as perfect a prison system as possible; one which is in harmony with the advancement of science and the results of experience.” These reforms were commenced in 1871 and were continued in various new prisons at Tokio, Kobold, Kiogo and upon the island of Yezo, all admirably organised and maintained. This movement was hurried on by the great overcrowding of the small provincial prisons on account of the accumulation of long-term prisoners. No proper discipline could be applied and there was absolutely no room for short-term offenders. Most of those sentenced to hard labour and deportation are now sent to the penal settlement on the island of Yezo, where they are employed both within the prisons and at agriculture in the open air. Every advantage is taken of the natural aptitudes of the Japanese, and the inmates of gaols prove the most expert and artistic workmen.”

EvX: Abashiri Prison is still there. According to Wikipedia,

Abashiri Prison … The northernmost prison in Japan, it is located near the Abashiri River and east of Mount Tento. It holds inmates with sentences of less-than ten-years.[1]

In April 1890, the Meiji government sent over 1,000 political prisoners to the isolated Abashiri village and forced them to build roads linking it to the more populous south.[2] Abashiri Prison later became known for being a self-sufficient farming prison, and cited as a model for others throughout Japan.[2][3]

…The prison is also known for its wooden nipopo (ニポポ) dolls carved by its inmates.[4]

It’s in Hokkaido, one of the snowiest places in the world.

Some Japanese Prison History:

“Even in the middle of the nineteenth century the same brutal methods of torture prevailed as in China (from where their bloody codes were mostly borrowed), and there are preserved collections of instruments of torture as diabolical as any known to history. Crime, too, was not lacking in those “isles of the blest,” and every species of moral filth and corruption abounded, which was shown in its true colours when the liberty of the press was granted, in 1872-1874. The number of executions and deaths in the native prisons at that time was said to average three thousand per annum.

“The chief prison of the empire, in Tokio, as described by Mr. William M. Griffis, who visited it in 1875, was very different in its sanitary appointments and general condition from the prisons of Tokio to-day. …

“Tokio has now two prisons; the first and chief is situated upon the island of Oshikawa at the south of the city, and the second, the convict and female prison of Ichigawa, is in the centre of the city. … Otherwise the two prisons resemble each other closely and a description of one will answer for both, says Mr. Norman, who described them in 1892, and gives the following account:

“The entrance is through a massive wooden gateway, into a guard-room adjoining which are the offices of the director and officials. The prison itself consists of a score or more of detached one-story buildings, all of wood and some of them merely substantial sheds, under which the rougher labour, like stone-breaking, is performed. The dormitories are enormous wooden cages, the front and part of the back formed of bars as thick as one’s arm, before which again is a narrow covered passage, where the warder on guard walks at night.

“There is not a particle of furniture or a single article of any kind upon the floor, which is polished till it reflects your body like a mirror. No boot, of course, ever touches it. The thick quilts, or futon, which constitute everywhere the Japanese bed, are all rolled up and stacked on a broad shelf running round the room overhead. Each dormitory holds ninety-six prisoners, and there is a long row of them. The sanitary arrangements are situated in a little addition at the back, and I was assured that these had not been made pleasant for my inspection. If not, I can only say that in this most important respect a Japanese prison could not well be improved. In fact, the whole dormitory, with its perfect ventilation, its construction of solid, highly-polished wood, in which there is no chance for vermin to harbour, and its combined simplicity and security, is an almost ideal prison structure. Of course the fact that every Japanese, from the emperor to the coolie, sleeps upon quilts spread out on the floor, greatly simplifies the task of the prison architect in Japan.

“On leaving the dormitories we passed a small, isolated square erection, peaked and gabled like a little temple. The door was solemnly unlocked and flung back, and I was motioned to enter. It was the punishment cell, another spotless wooden box, well ventilated, but perfectly dark, and with walls so thick as to render it practically silent. ‘How many prisoners have been in it during the last month?’ I asked. The director summoned the chief warder, and repeated my question to him. ‘None whatever,’ was the reply. ‘What other punishments have you?’ ‘None whatever.’ ‘No flogging?’ When this question was translated the director and the little group of officials all laughed together at the bare idea. I could not help wondering whether there was another prison in the world with no method of punishment for two thousand criminals except one dark cell, and that not used for a month. And the recollection of the filthy and suffocating sty used as a punishment cell in the city prison of San Francisco came upon me like a nausea.”

EvX: I find it interesting that a little over a hundred years later, a rank ordering of Burmese prisons as worst, Chinese prisons as moderately bad, and Japanese prisons as quite good (as far as prisons anywhere are concerned) probably still holds.

That’s all for today. Egyptian prisons next Friday. Take care and have a lovely, crime-free weekend.

Did tobacco become popular because it kills parasites?

While reading about the conditions in a Burmese prison around the turn of the previous century (The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths)(not good) it occurred to me that there might have been some beneficial effect of the large amounts of tobacco smoke inside the prison. Sure, in the long run, tobacco is highly likely to give you cancer, but in the short run, is it noxious to fleas and other disease-bearing pests?

Meanwhile in Melanesia, (Pygmies and Papuans,) a group of ornithologists struggled up a river to reach an almost completely isolated tribe of Melanesians that barely practiced horticulture; even further up the mountain they met a band of pygmies (negritoes) whose existence had only been rumored of; the pygmies cultivated tobacco, which they traded with their otherwise not terribly interested in trading for worldy goods neighbors.

The homeless smoke at rates 3x higher than the rest of the population, though this might have something to do with the high correlation between schizophrenia and smoking–80% of schizophrenics smoke, compared to 20% of the general population. Obviously this correlation is best explained by tobacco’s well-noted psychological effects (including addiction,) but why is tobacco so ubiquitous in prisons that cigarettes are used as currency? Could they have, in unsanitary conditions, some healthful purpose?

From NPR: Pot For Parasites? Pygmy Men Smoke out Worms:

On average, the more THC byproduct that Hagen’s team found in an Aka man’s urine, the fewer worm eggs were present in his gut.

“The heaviest smokers, with everything else being equal, had about half the number of parasitic eggs in their stool, compared to everyone else,” Hagen says. …

THC — and nicotine — are known to kill intestinal worms in a Petri dish. And many worms make their way to the gut via the lungs. “The worms’ larval stage is in the lung,” Hagan says. “When you smoke you just blast them with THC or nicotine directly.”

Smithsonian reports that Birds Harness the Deadly Power of Nicotine to Poison Parasites:

Smoking kills. But if you’re a bird and if you want to kill parasites, that can be a good thing. City birds have taken to stuffing their nests with cigarette butts to poison potential parasites. Nature reports:

“In a study published today in Biology Letters, the researchers examined the nests of two bird species common on the North American continent. They measured the amount of cellulose acetate (a component of cigarette butts) in the nests, and found that the more there was, the fewer parasitic mites the nest contained.”

Out in the State of Nature, parasites are extremely common and difficult to get rid of (eg, hookworm elimination campaigns in the early 1900s found that 40% of school-aged children were infected); farmers can apparently use tobacco as a natural de-wormer (but be careful, as tobacco can be poisonous.)

In the pre-modern environment, when many people had neither shoes, toilets, nor purified water, parasites were very hard to avoid.
Befoundalive recommends eating the tobacco from a cigarette if you have intestinal parasites and no access to modern medicine.

Here’s a study comparing parasite rates in tobacco workers vs. prisoners in Ethiopia:

Overall, 8 intestinal parasite species have been recovered singly or in combinations from 146 (61.8 %) samples. The prevalence in prison population (88/121 = 72.7%) was significantly higher than that in tobacco farm (58/115 = 50.4%).

In vitro anthelmintic effect of Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) extract on parasitic nematode, Marshallagia marshalli reports:

Because of developing resistance to the existing anthelmintic drugs, there is a need for new anthelmintic agents. Tobacco plant has alkaloid materials that have antiparasitic effect. We investigated the in vitro anthelminthic effect of aqueous and alcoholic extract of Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) against M. marshalli. … Overall, extracts of Tobacco possess considerable anthelminthic activity and more potent effects were observed with the highest concentrations. Therefore, the in vivo study on Tobocco in animal models is recommended.

(Helminths are parasites; anthelmintic=anti-parasites.)

So it looks like, at least in the pre-sewers and toilets and clean water environment when people struggled to stay parasite free, tobacco (and certain other drugs) may have offered people an edge over the pests. (I’ve noticed many bitter or noxious plants seem to have been useful for occasionally flushing out parasites, but you certainly don’t want to be in a state of “flush” all the time.)

It looks like it was only when regular sanitation got good enough that we didn’t have to worry about parasites anymore that people started getting really concerned with tobacco’s long-term negative effects on humans.

Re Nichols: Times the Experts were Wrong

In preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, I wanted to make list of “times the experts were wrong.” Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it gives you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book.

Nichols devotes a chapter to the subject–expert failures are, he claims, “rare but spectacular when they do happen, like plane crashes.” (I may be paraphrasing slightly.)

How often are the experts wrong? (And how would we measure that?)

For starters, we have to define what “experts” are. Nichols might define experts as, “anyone who has a PhD in a thing or has worked in that field for 10 years,” but the general layman is probably much laxer in his definitions.

Now, Nichols’s argument that “experts” are correct most of the time probably is correct, at least if we use a conservative definition of “expert”. We live in a society that is completely dependent on the collective expertise of thousands if not millions of people, and yet that society keeps running. For example, I do not know how to build a road, but road-building experts do, and our society has thousands of miles of functional roads. They’re not perfect, but they’re a huge improvement over dirt paths. I don’t know how to build a car, but car-building experts do, and so society is full of cars. From houses to skyscrapers, smartphones to weather satellites, electricity to plumbing: most of the time, these complicated systems get built and function perfectly well. Even airplanes, incredibly, don’t fall out of the sky most of the time (and according to Steven Pinker, they’re getting even better at it.)

But these seem like the kind of experts that most people don’t second-guess too often (“I think you should only put three wheels on the car–and make them titanium,”) nor is this the sort of questioning that I think Nichols is really concerned about. Rather, I think Nichols is concerned about people second-guessing experts like himself whose opinions bear not on easily observed, physical objects like cars and roads but on abstract policies like “What should our interest rates be?” or “Should we bomb Syria?”

We might distinguish here between practical experts employed by corporations, whose expertise must be “proven” via production of actual products that people actually use, and academic experts whose products are primarily ideas that people can’t touch, test, or interact with.

For ordinary people, though, we must include another form of experts: writers–of newspapers, magazines, TV programs, textbooks, even some well-respected bloggers. Most people don’t read academic journals nor policy papers. They read Cosmo and watch daytime talk shows, not because they “hate experts” but because this is the level of information they can understand.

In other words, most people probably think Cosmo’s “style expert” and Donald Trump are as much “experts” as Tom Nichols. Trump is a “business expert” who is so expert he not only has a big tower with his name on it, they even let him hire and fire people on TV! Has anyone ever trusted Nichols’s expertise enough to give him a TV show about it?

Trump Tower is something people can touch–the kind of expertise that people trust. Nichols’s expertise is the Soviet Union (now Russia) and how the US should approach the threat of nuclear war and deterrence–not things you can easily build, touch, and test.

Nichols’s idea of “experts” is probably different from the normal person’s idea of “experts.” Nichols probably uses metrics like “How long has this guy been in the field?” and “Which journals has he been published in?” while normal people use metrics like “Did CNN call him an expert?” and “Did I read it in a magazine?” (I have actually witnessed people citing margarine advertizements as “nutrition advice.”)

If anything, I suspect the difference between “normal people’s idea of expert” and “Nichols’s idea of experts” is part of the tension Nichols is feeling, as for the first time, ordinary people like me who would in the past have been limited largely to discussing the latest newspaper headlines with friends can now pull up any academic’s CV and critique it online. “The people,” having been trained on daytime TV and butter ads, can now critique foreign policy advisers…

Let’s sort “people who distrust experts” into three main categories:

  1. Informed dissenters: People who have read a lot on a particular topic and have good reason to believe the expert consensus is wrong, eg, someone involved in nutrition research who began sounding warning bells about the dangers of partially hydrogenated fats in the ’80s.
  2. General contrarians: Other people are wrong. Music has been downhill ever since the Beatles. The schools are failing because teachers are dumb. Evolution isn’t real. Contrarians like to disagree with others and sometimes they’re correct.
  3. Tinfoil hatters: CHEMTRAILS POISON YOU. The Tinfoil hatters don’t think other people are dumb; they think others are actively conspiring against them.

People can fall into more than one category–in fact, being a General Contrarian by nature probably makes it much easier to be an Informed Dissenter. Gregory Cochran, for example, probably falls into both categories. (Scott Alexander, by contrast, is an informed dissenter but not contrarian.)

Tinfoil hatters are deprecated, but even they are sometimes correct. If a Jew in 1930’s Germany had said, “Gee, I think those Germans have it out for us,” they’d have been correct. A white South African today who thinks the black South Africans have it out for them is probably also correct.

So the first question is whether more people actually distrust experts, or if the spread of the internet has caused Nichols to interact with more people who distrust experts. For example, far more people in the 80s were vocally opposed to the entire concept of “evolution” than are today, but they didn’t have the internet to post on. Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, probably doesn’t interact in real life with nearly as many people who are actively hostile to the entire edifice of modern science as the Kansas City School Board does, and thus he may have been surprised to finally encounter these people online.

But let’s get on with our point: a few cases where “the experts” have failed:

Part 1: Medicine and Doctors

Trans Fats

Artificially created trans (or partially hydrogenated) fats entered the American diet in large quantities in the 1950s. Soon nutrition experts, dieticians, healthcare philanthropists, and the federal government itself were all touting the trans fat mantra: trans fats like margarine or crisco were healthier and better for you than the animal fats like butter or lard traditionally used in cooking.

Unfortunately, the nutrition experts were wrong. Trans fats are deadly. According to a study published in 1993 by the Harvard School of Public Health, trans fats are probably responsible for about 100,000 deaths a year–or a million every decade. (And that’s not counting the people who had heart attacks and survived because of modern medical care.)

The first people to question the nutritional orthodoxy on trans fats (in any quantity) were probably the General Contrarians: “My grandparents ate lard and my parents ate lard and I grew up eating lard and we turned out just fine! We didn’t have ‘heart attacks’ back in the ’30s.” After a few informed dissenters started publishing studies questioning the nutritional orthodoxy, nutrition’s near-endless well of tinfoil hatters began promoting their findings (if any field is perfect for paranoia about poisons and contaminants, well, it’s food.)

And in this case, the tinfoil hatters were correct: corporations really were promoting the consumption of something they by then knew was killing people just because it made them money


If you’re old enough, you remember not only the days of Joe Camel, but also Camel’s ads heavily implying that doctors endorsed smoking. Dentists recommended Viceroys, the filtered cigarettes. Camels were supposed to “calm the nerves” and “aid the digestion.” Physicians recommended “mell-o-wells,” the “health cigar.” Some brands were even supposed to cure coughs and asthma.

Now, these weren’t endorsements from actual doctors–if anything, the desire to give cigarettes a healthy sheen was probably driven by the accumulating evidence that they weren’t healthy–but when my grandmother took up smoking, do you think she was reading medical journals? No, she trusted that nice doctor in that Camel ad.

Chesterfield, though, claimed that actual doctors had confirmed that their cigarettes had no adverse health effects:

In the 70s, the tobacco companies found doctors willing to testify not that tobacco was healthy, but that there was no proof–or not enough data–to accuse it of being unhealthy.

Even when called before Congress in the 90s, tobacco companies kept insisting their products weren’t damaging. If the CEO of Philip Morris isn’t an expert on cigarettes, I don’t know who is.

The CDC estimates that 480,000 Americans die due to cigarettes per year, making them one of our leading killers.

Freudianism, recovered memories, multiple personality disorder, and Satanic Daycares

In retrospect, Freudian Psychoanalysis is so absurd, it’s amazing it ever became a widely-believed, mainstream idea. And yet it was.

For example:

In the early 1890s, Freud used a form of treatment based on the one that Breuer had described to him, modified by what he called his “pressure technique” and his newly developed analytic technique of interpretation and reconstruction. According to Freud’s later accounts of this period, as a result of his use of this procedure most of his patients in the mid-1890s reported early childhood sexual abuse. He believed these stories, which he used as the basis for his seduction theory, but then he came to believe that they were fantasies. He explained these at first as having the function of “fending off” memories of infantile masturbation, but in later years he wrote that they represented Oedipal fantasies, stemming from innate drives that are sexual and destructive in nature.[121]

Another version of events focuses on Freud’s proposing that unconscious memories of infantile sexual abuse were at the root of the psychoneuroses in letters to Fliess in October 1895, before he reported that he had actually discovered such abuse among his patients.[122] In the first half of 1896, Freud published three papers, which led to his seduction theory, stating that he had uncovered, in all of his current patients, deeply repressed memories of sexual abuse in early childhood.[123] In these papers, Freud recorded that his patients were not consciously aware of these memories, and must therefore be present as unconscious memories if they were to result in hysterical symptoms or obsessional neurosis. The patients were subjected to considerable pressure to “reproduce” infantile sexual abuse “scenes” that Freud was convinced had been repressed into the unconscious.[124] Patients were generally unconvinced that their experiences of Freud’s clinical procedure indicated actual sexual abuse. He reported that even after a supposed “reproduction” of sexual scenes the patients assured him emphatically of their disbelief.[125]

To sum: Freud became convinced that patients had suffered sexual abuse.

The patients replied emphatically that they had not.

Freud made up a bunch of sexual abuse scenarios.

The patients insisted they remembered nothing of the sort.

Freud decided the memories must just be repressed.

Later, Freud decided the sexual abuse never actually happened, but that the repressed, inverted memories were of children masturbating to the thought of having sex with their parents.

So not only was Freud’s theory derived from nothing–directly contradicted by the patients he supposedly based it on–he took it a step further and actually denied the stories of patients who had been sexually abused as children.

Freud’s techniques may have been kinder than the psychology of the 1800s, which AFAIK involved locking insane people in asylums and stomping them to death, but there remains a cruel perversity to insisting that people have memories of horrible experiences they swear they don’t, and then turning around and saying that horrible things they clearly remember never happened.

Eventually Freudian psychoanalysis and its promise of “recovering repressed memories” morphed into the recovered traumatic memory movement of the 1980s, in which psychologists used hypnosis to convince patients they had been the victims of a vast world-wide Satanic conspiracy and that they had multiple, independent personalities that could only be accessed via hypnosis.

The satanic Daycare conspiracy hysteria resulted in the actual conviction and imprisonment of real people for crimes like riding broomsticks and sacrificing elephants, despite a total lack of local dead elephants. Judges, lawyers, juries, and prosecutors found the testimony of “expert” doctors and psychologists (and children) convincing enough to put people in prison for running an underground, global network of “Satanic Daycares” that were supposedly raping and killing children. Eventually the hysteria got so bad that the FBI got involved, investigated, and found a big fat nothing. No sacrificial altars. No secret basements full of Satanic paraphernalia and torture devices. No dead elephants or giraffes. No magic brooms. No dead infants.

Insurance companies began investigating the extremely expensive claims of psychologists treating women with “multiple personality disorder” (many of whom had so degenerated while in the psychologists care that they had gone from employed, competent people to hospitalized mental patients.) Amazingly, immediately after insurance companies decided the whole business was a scam and stopped paying for the treatment, the patients got better. Several doctors were sued for malpractice and MPD was removed from the official list of psychological conditions, the DSM-V. (It has been replaced with DID, or dissasociative disorder.)

I wrote about the whole sordid business at length in Satanic Daycares: the scandal that should have never been, Part Two, and Part Three.

(Ironically, people attack psychiatry’s use of medications like Prozac, but if anything, these are the most evidence-based parts of mental care. At least you can collect data on things like “Does Prozac work better than placebo for making people feel better?” unlike Freudian psychoanalysis, which contained so many levels of “repression” and “transference” that there was always a ready excuse for why it wasn’t working–or for why “the patient got worse” was actually exactly what was supposed to happen.)

All Doctors pre-1900

One of West Hunter’s frequent themes is just how bad pre-modern medicine was:

Between 1839 and 1847, the First Clinic at the Vienna General Hospital had 20,204 births and 1,989 maternal deaths. The Second Clinic, attended by midwives, had 17,791 birth and 691 maternal deaths. An MD’s care conferred an extra 6% chance of death. Births at home were even safer, with maternal mortality averaging about 0.5%

In that period, MDs caused about 1200 extra deaths. …

We know that wounded men in the Civil War had a better chance of surviving when they managed to hide from Army surgeons. Think how many people succumbed to bloodletting, over the centuries.

Ever wondered why Christian Scientists, who are otherwise quite pro-science, avoid doctors? It’s because their founder, Mary Baker Eddy (born in 1821) was often sick as a child. Her concerned parents dragged her to every doctor they could find, but poor Mary found that she got better when she stopped going to the doctors.

West Hunt gives a relevant description of pre-modern medicine:

Back in the good old days, Charles II, age 53, had a fit one Sunday evening, while fondling two of his mistresses.

Monday they bled him (cupping and scarifying) of eight ounces of blood. Followed by an antimony emetic, vitriol in peony water, purgative pills, and a clyster. Followed by another clyster after two hours. Then syrup of blackthorn, more antimony, and rock salt. Next, more laxatives, white hellebore root up the nostrils. Powdered cowslip flowers. More purgatives. Then Spanish Fly. They shaved his head and stuck blistering plasters all over it, plastered the soles of his feet with tar and pigeon-dung, then said good-night.

Tuesday. ten more ounces of blood, a gargle of elm in syrup of mallow, and a julep of black cherry, peony, crushed pearls, and white sugar candy.

Wednesday. Things looked good:: only senna pods infused in spring water, along with white wine and nutmeg.

Thursday. More fits. They gave him a spirituous draft made from the skull of a man who had died a violent death. Peruvian bark, repeatedly, interspersed with more human skull. Didn’t work.

Friday. The king was worse. He tells them not to let poor Nelly starve. They try the Oriental Bezoar Stone, and more bleeding. Dies at noon.

Homeopathy has a similar history: old medicines were so often poisonous that even if some of them worked, on average, you were probably better off eating sugar pills (which did nothing) than taking “real” medicines. But since people can’t market “pills with nothing in them,” homeopathy’s strange logic of “diluting medicine makes it stronger” was used to give the pills a veneer of doing something. (Freudian psychotherapy, the extent that it “helped” anyone, was probably similar. Not that the practitioner himself brought anything to the table, but the idea of “I am having treatment so I will get better” plus the opportunity to talk about your problems probably helped some people.)

Today, “alternative” medical treatments like homeopathy and “faith healing” are less effective than conventional medicine, but for most of the past 2,000 years or so, you’d have been better off distrusting the “experts” (ie doctors) than trusting them.

It was only in the 20th century that doctors (or researchers) developed enough technology like vaccines, antibiotics, the germ theory of disease, nutrition, insulin, traumatic care, etc., that doctors began saving more lives than they cost, but the business was still fraught:

Source (PDF)

Disclaimer: I have had the whole birth trifecta: natural birth without medication, vaginal birth with medication, and c-section. Natural birth was horrifically painful and left me traumatized. The c-section, while medically necessary, was almost as terrible. Recovery from natural (and medicated) birth was almost instant–within minutes I felt better; within days I was back on my feet and regaining mobility. The c-section left me in pain for a month, trying to nurse a new baby and care for my other children while on pain killers that made me feel awful and put me to sleep. Without the pain killers, I could barely sit up and get out of bed.

Medically necessary c-sections save lives, perhaps mine. I support them, but I do NOT support medically unnecessary c-sections.

The “international healthcare community” recommends a c-section rate of 10-15% (maybe 19%.) The US rate is over 30%. Half of our c-sections are unnecessary traumas inflicted on women.

In cases where c-sections are not medically necessary (low-risk pregnancies), c-sections carry more than triple the risk of maternal death (13 per 100,000 for c sections and 3.5 per 100,000 for vaginal births.) Medically necessary c-sections, of course, save more lives than they take.

Given: 1,258,581 c-sections in the US in 2016, if half of those were unnecessary, then I estimate 60 women per year died from unnecessary c-sections. Not the kind of death rate Semmelweis was fighting against when he tried to convince doctors they needed to wash their hands between dissecting corpses and delivering babies, (for his efforts he was branded “a guy who didn’t believe the wisdom of experts,” “crazy,” and was eventually put in an insane asylum and literally stomped to death by the guards. (Freudianism looks really good by comparison.)

C-sections have other effects besides just death: they are more expensive, can get infected, and delay recovery. (I’ve also seen data linking them to an increased chance of post-partum depression.) For women who want to have more children, a c-section increases the chances of problems during subsequent pregnancies and deliveries.

Why do we do so many c-sections? Because in the event of misfortune, a doctor is more likely to get sued if he didn’t do a c-section (“He could have done more to save the baby’s life but chose to ignore the signs of fetal distress!”) than if he does do one (“We tried everything we could to save mother and baby.”) Note that this is not what’s in the mother’s best interests, but in the doctor’s.

Although I am obviously not a fan of natural childbirth, (I favor epidurals,) I am sympathetic to the movement’s principle logic: avoiding unnecessary c-sections by avoiding the doctors who give them. These women are anti-experts, and I can’t exactly blame them.

At the intersection of the “natural food” and “natural birth” communities we find the anti-vaxers.

Now, I am unabashedly pro-vaccine (though I reserve the right to criticize any particular vaccine,) but I still understand where the anti-vax crew is coming from. If doctors were wrong about blood-letting, are wrong about many c-sections (or pushing them on unsuspecting women to protect their own bottom lines) and doctors were just plain wrong for decades about dangerous but lucrative artificial fats that they actively pushed people to eat, who’s to say they’re right about everything else? Maybe some of the other chemicals we’re being injected with are actually harmful.

We can point to (and I do) massive improvements in public health and life expectancies as a result of vaccinations, but (anti-vaxers counter) how do we know these outcomes weren’t caused by other things, like the development of water treatment systems and sewers that ensured people weren’t drinking fecal-contaminated water anymore?

(I am also pro-not drinking contaminated water.)

Like concerns about impurities in one’s food, concerns about vaccinations make a certain instinctual sense: it is kind of creepy to inject people (mostly infants) with a serum composed of, apparently, dead germs and “chemicals.” The idea that exposing yourself to germs will somehow make you healthier is counter-intuitive, and hypodermic needles are a well-publicized disease vector.

So even though I think anti-vaxers are wrong, I don’t think they’re completely irrational.


This is the end of Part 1. We’ll continue with Part 2 on Wed.