Episode 90: The Quack Attack on Americans’ Healthcare (interview with Matthew

Brendan and Andrew welcome back award-winning journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, to discuss his new book, If It Sounds Like a Quack… A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine. Libertarians figured prominently in his 2020 book, A Libertarian Walks into a Bear (which we interviewed Matt about in Ep. 42), and they do here as well. Matt explains how the libertarian-instigated “medical freedom” slogan has helped to unite the quacks, make their fringe movement go viral, and threaten the future of science- and evidence-based healthcare. He and the co-hosts discuss the long history of struggle between quackery and evidence-based medicine, the mainstreaming of anti-vaxx sentiment in the space of one generation, the fear of zombies—and the far-right messaging encoded in talk of “zombies”—and other manifestations of quackery. They also discuss Matt’s criticisms of the medical establishment and government regulators, and they explore ways to fight back against the quack attack.

Plus current-events segment: What’s Really the Matter with Kansas (and Elsewhere)? The co-hosts discuss Alan Abramowitz’s new study, which shows that racism, not “economic stress,” is what has driven whites without college degrees into the arms of the Republican Party. A discussion of the study at electoral-vote.com is cited during the segment.

Radio Free Humanity is a podcast covering news, politics and philosophy from a Marxist-Humanist perspective. It is co-hosted by Brendan Cooney and Andrew Kliman. We intend to release new episodes every two weeks. Radio Free Humanity is sponsored by MHI, but the views expressed by the co-hosts and guests of Radio Free Humanity are their own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of MHI.

We welcome and encourage listeners’ comments, posted on this episode’s page.

Please visit MHI’s online print publication, With Sober Senses, for further news, commentary, and analysis.

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March 31, 2023


  1. Hey Brendan, Andrew and Matthew,

    What a great episode! The bit about the influence of the army on reinstating real medicine was a big surprise.

    As an experienced psychotherapist, there is one issue on which I can’t agree with you, and that’s your point about trust. I don’t think it’s about inspiring trust. On the contrary. Inspiring trust is exactly what the quacks do, and the romance scammers, and every huckster and con artist.

    In my view, what’s necessary in order to achieve solidarity and science acceptance, is to inspire courage. Frightened and disgusted people need their hand to be held, so they’re easy prey for strongmen and preachers who can mobilize their trust. They want to close their eyes and literally blindly trust the strongmen and the con artists to lead them through the scary darkness.

    Courageous people have the guts to think twice. Literally. You know that sinking feeling when you face yet another ugly truth about the world we live in, I suppose. People who don’t know how to be courageous have no tool to face these feelings, and so they have no tools for facing the facts. Rather than mustering the courage to stand in solidarity with others, they choose to be afraid and disgusted by other people and to undermine others where and when they can. That’s the basis of rightwing politics: the mobilization of fear and disgust. (Hence the recurring theme of ‘purity’, which is experienced as the antidote for everything that’s disgusting)

    Solidarity is a way of saying “I know that not everyone might be willing to have good intentions, but I insist on including them in my efforts for wellbeing, because I know that insisting on the exclusion will never get us to a better place”. You most certainly don’t trust all the people for whose rights you fight, do you? You don’t need to. You’re realistic enough and brave enough to understand that they may not be nice or even trustworthy. You still fight for them because you know that striving to share wellbeing is the only road to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence.

    It may be time for the left to try and clarify to others how courage works. And to help other people find the courage to face the facts and unite behind a common cause.

    For your information: did you know that the non-brave people tend to think that courage is a feeling? They wait for courage to be felt by them, because they are intensely emotion-driven. They have no idea that courage is an attitude that is based on mustering concentration and willpower in the face of fear. I encourage you to talk about fear and courage with the not-too-crazy rightwingers that you know. You may be surprised. They tend to sincerely think that heroes are people who feel enthusiastic and fulfilled when engaging in mortal combat. They believe that feeling courageous is a way of not feeling fear. They want to ‘feel that courage’ too so they look for the only way in which they can ‘have that feeling’. And that’s how they end up on a cult-like path, whipping themselves up into frenzies of ever more fear and disgust, until some sort of ‘panic high’ sets in, akin to the runner’s high. This how they end up addicted to a fear mongering repetitious disinformation streams. They need to keep the shots going in order to keep their brains high up in the panic daze, which they then tell themselves is the ‘feeling of courage’. I’m guessing it comes with an addiction to adrenaline as well, and I wish there were more research regarding this hypothesis.

    Every time I talk to a person who suffers from fear of something or other, I have to explain to them that the ‘brave’ are actually full of fear. I have to explain to them that courage is not a feeling, it is a chosen behaviour, an attitude. It is all about taking action while feeling fear. Every time I explain this to them, they’re out of their depth. “How is it not a feeling?” they ask. We go over the ways in which they would teach a very young child to get over, let’s say, a fear of water. Some of them understand that this comes down to patient training with ever greater quantities of water. They can still rely on their love and understanding of a young child. But many of them have no idea. They might just bully a kid into submission instead of helping. So they’re also baffled by the discovery that there are human-friendly ways of learning to deal with fears. And human-friendly ways of teaching someone to deal with fears. If these people have been raised in an overall radical rightwing environment it is highly likely that they themselves have always been bullied and beaten into hiding their fears and blindly pushing through situations, so they’ve probably learned from a young age to work themselves into this ‘high’ in order to get by. I wish more leftwing people would understand how this dynamic works. There is a lot to be gained by applying this understanding in everyday life. There are a lot of people out there who might be calmed down, especially as this can be done through any normal conversation about any non-political topic. As long as it’s a conversation that is fear-aware and courage-minded.

    Thanks again for the great episode. Keep up the good work!


  2. Andrew,

    How do you account for the swing in voters ?
    What is the causal link if it’s not economic in nature?

  3. Hi J,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I’ll make sure that Matt sees it.

    I agree with what you say about “inspiring trust”–“Inspiring trust is exactly what the quacks do, and the romance scammers, and every huckster and con artist.” I think my remarks during the ep. reflect that: trust without understanding will lead people to “trust” the authorities like the CDC, but then turn against them when they “change their mind” (i.e., evaluate new evidence). So I brought up things like explaining probability and statistics, to promote the needed understanding. That might be a partial solution to the quack attack.

    Encouraging courage might also be a partial solution, as you say. Apart from one-on-one therapy, etc., I don’t know how that can be done, though.

  4. Hi Dr. Forbin,

    If “the swing in voters” refers to whites becoming more aligned with Republicans, it’s not a matter of “economics,” as the Abramowitz study, and much else, shows. Nor is it a matter of whites becoming more racist over time, on the whole.

    It’s a matter of people realigning their party preferences in line with their pre-existing racial attitudes, etc. E.g., as the Republican Party becomes more and more purely a racist, white people’s party, racist white voters have increasingly left the Democratic Party in favor of the GOP.

    Identity Crisis, by Sides-Tesler-Vavrick, which I reviewed here ( https://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/reviews-and-culture/the-baseness-of-trumps-base-a-review-essay-on-sides-tesler-vavrecks-identity-crisis.html ) contains a good, in-depth treatment of this racism-driven realignment of party identification.

    When I began researching the motivations of Trump voters, shortly after the 2016 election, especially voters who “flipped” from Obama to Trump, I initially thought it was plausible that they were driven by “economic distress” that the Trumpites had succeeded in racializing and weaponizing. In the abstract, it is indeed a plausible hypothesis. The problem is that there is NO real evidence to support it and TONS of evidence against it.

    The short version is that, once one controls for racial attitudes, etc., support for Trump and Trumpism is not stronger among whites who are lower-income, unemployed, etc. That’s just a pernicious myth, backed by nothing other than incessant regurgitation by Jacobin, etc. (and anecdotes like the same people having voted for a Black guy named Barack Hussein Obama–as if it were just an obvious fact that no racist would ever do such a thing!).

    Please see, in addition to my review of Identity Crisis:

    Part V of https://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/mhieditorial/resisting-trumpist-reaction-and-left-accommodation-marxist-humanist-initiatives-perspectives-for-2018.html




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