In 2009 Jon Stewart brought CNBC financial analyst-cum-goofball Jim Cramer on The Daily Show for a now legendary takedown. I often think about this interview because I think it gets to the heart of what’s going on with people like Daniel Amen. At one point this exchange takes place:
STEWART: Isn’t there a problem with selling snake oil and labeling it as vitamin tonic and saying that it cures impetigo… Isn’t that the difficulty here?
CRAMER: I think that there are two kinds of people. People [who] come out and make good calls and bad calls that are financial professionals and there are people who say they only make good calls and they are liars. I try really hard to make as many good calls as I can.
Cramer seems hurt by the insinuation that he would deliberately peddle bad advice. The issue here is integrity of intention versus integrity of method. If you watch the full interview, you’ll question whether Cramer has any integrity whatsoever, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the “calls” ventured on the show really represented his best guesses about what the market would do. By presenting those guesses as financial advice, he was still behaving unethically, because they weren’t very good guesses and there was no reason to believe they were. His method wasn’t adequate to ground his conclusions.
By all accounts Dr. Daniel Amen gives the impression in person of being a kind, caring individual. He claims 75% of his patients report improvement after receiving therapy, which may well be true. None of that changes the fact that the science doesn’t support his claims about brain scans.
I know people who believe that the Jim Cramers and Daniel Amens of the world are deceivers who know exactly what they’re doing. While that may be true of some of them, I don’t think it’s true of all of them, and I kind of doubt it’s true of most of them. It’s the rare person who’s cold-blooded enough to live with that image of himself. I suspect most of them believe good intentions are what counts. While this may be true in personal relationships, in some professional fields — including financial advice and psychiatry — intentions don’t count for much without methods.