Dusty “leatherass” Schmidt recently wrote a blog post by in which he announces his retirement from online poker on the advice of a psychiatrist named Dr. Daniel Amen.
After answering thousands of questions, having two SPECT scans of my brain (one resting and one concentrating) and undergoing numerous neurological exams, I received the news. Essentially what I learned was that I had developed a pattern in my brain (while concentrating) that facilitated a very high functioning processing loop. This “loop” was able to move so quickly and so efficiently that it was no longer a mystery why I was able to play poker at such a high level and across so many tables. I was told that as long as I was functioning “within the loop” I was going to excel at it. But if I had to do anything outside of the loop within a few hours of being in the loop for a long period of time, I would get “stuck.” When you’re “stuck” you can hear the other person speaking to you and you may even want to answer them, but the words or actions just never quite happen…
After hearing some exciting things about my brain, I then got the bad news. The bad news is that what poker puts the human brain through is unsustainable. I was told that if I choose to play online poker as a full time career, I will likely die of a stroke before the age of 50. They said that the human brain simply does not have the capacity to put itself through 8+ hour days of mass multi-table online poker. They said that playing online poker to that degree was quite literally one of the very worst things you can do to your brain and body. They said it wasn’t quite as bad as being an NFL player or someone who works full time around organic solvents, but it wasn’t far off. It was on the doctor’s urging that I retire from full time online poker.
I’m actually not that worried about this. Aside from the highly dubious nature of the diagnosis, my own laziness provides a rock solid safeguard against playing the kind of volume Schmidt is known for. While I do worry about how much time I spend thinking about a stupid game, I hardly need a psychiatrist to tell me why that might be a problem.
What I am interested in is the nature of evidence, belief, and fraud. When a friend told me about Schmidt’s blog post, I was immediately skeptical about the role of brain scanning in the diagnosis. My girlfriend, Ali, is a neuroscience grad student, and I know from talking with her that the use of brain images in research is still at best provisional. Our knowledge of the brain is not advanced enough to draw detailed conclusions from these types of images. In light of that it seemed extraordinary that a psychiatrist could make sweeping claims about what poker does to the brain, based on images obtained from one person. Furthermore, Schmidt admits in his blog post to problems with drugs and alcohol; wouldn’t that be a sensible first place to look when evaluating his issues with his family?
Schmidt’s paragraph on Dr. Amen reads curiously like an advertisement: “Dr. Amen is well known around the world as perhaps the most innovative and successful psychiatrist in the world…His Clinics are world class…His work is world renowned.” This isn’t the language of psychiatry or of a patient describing his doctor; it’s the language of self-promotion. It kind of sounds like Schmidt is repeating verbatim the pitch he got at the clinic.
A Google search on Dr. Amen turns up a slew of critical accounts. This Washington Post piece is perhaps the most thorough: the author was careful to source quotes from a variety of sources in the neuroscience community; I wasn’t counting, but I’d guess at least a dozen scientists are quoted in the article. None of them are remotely convinced of the validity of Dr. Amen’s methods and claims.
This is where, if I were writing for a magazine or newspaper, I’d say something hedging and politic like, “There are serious doubts about Dr. Amen’s work,” or, as in the Washington Post,
Amen’s career is very troubling, for one of two things must be true.
One, Daniel Gregory Amen, born in 1954 in Encino, Calif., son of Lebanese immigrants, is 20 years ahead of virtually the entire psychiatric field (he says about three dozen other clinics use SPECT scans, but few as profusely as he does), and the establishment has failed to recognize a historic breakthrough.
Or, two, the man has grown fabulously wealthy — he lives in a $4.8 million mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean — by selling patients a high-priced service that has little scientific validity, yet no regulatory body has made a move to stop him.
But this is a blog, so let’s be real: Dr. Amen is full of shit. Clearly, this is also the point of view of the Washington Post article, but there seems to be a rule of journalism that the author must maintain an appearance of “balance” even if the evidence is predominantly on one side.
Something weird happens on the wikipedia pages of people like Dr. Amen. (By “people like Dr. Amen” I mean people who are almost certainly full of it, but who have not been unequivocally debunked, whether because their field is esoteric, they are not prominent enough to warrant the effort of discrediting them, or for other reasons.) The sites tend to be created and maintained by fans of the subject (or perhaps even the subject himself in some cases). As such, they give the impression that the subject is generally considered legitimate, with a whiff of controversy; when in fact he is generally considered a fraud, although there remains a shred of doubt. The talk side of the page often becomes an argument between passionate supporters and bemused wikipedia editors, who have no personal interest but stumbled on the page and noticed something fishy. I previously wrote about Andriy Slyusarchuk, who is a more straightforward — and hilarious: “The Head of Department for Public Affairs of MIA of Ukraine, Volodymyr Polishchuk said that ‘independent examination is conducted to check the mental health of Slyusarchuk, as well as his possible psychic and hypnotic abilities'” — example of this phenomenon than Dr. Amen.
I feel like there’s a lesson somewhere in here about our media and our understanding of truth. Self-promoters and bullshitters engage in their pursuit full-time, with all their energy. Meanwhile, it’s not in anyone’s interest to devote the necessary time or energy to straighten things out. Traditionally that may have been the purview of journalists, but these days few of them seem to honor that responsibility very scrupulously. That’s how someone like Daniel Amen becomes the most popular psychiatrist in America.