Charles Krauthammer: The Perils of Pundit Psychiatry

By Chris Mooney | April 26, 2010 11:11 am

Brendan Nyhan has a great post about Charles Krauthammer and his claims about the mental illness of some of his political opponents. This is notable, and somewhat more than standard political misbehavior, in that Krauthammer is actually a psychiatrist. Some examples:

-“Now, I cannot testify to Howard Dean’s sanity before this campaign, but five terms as governor by a man with no visible tics and no history of involuntary confinement is pretty good evidence of a normal mental status. When he avers, however, that ‘the most interesting’ theory as to why the president is ‘suppressing’ the Sept. 11 report is that Bush knew about Sept. 11 in advance, it’s time to check on thorazine supplies.” (Washington Post, 12/5/03)

-“Well, it looks as if Al Gore has gone off his lithium again.” (Fox Special Report, 5/25/04)

And yet at other times, Krauthammer has disavowed precisely this sort of stuff, writing:

As a former psychiatrist, I know how difficult it is to try to understand the soul of even someone you have spent hundreds of hours alone with in therapy. To think that one can decipher the inner life of some distant public figure is folly.

Even the experts haven’t a clue. Remember that group of psychiatrists, 1,189 strong, who in 1964 signed a statement asserting their professional judgment that Barry Goldwater was psychologically unfit to be president? The very attempt to make such a diagnosis at a distance is malpractice.

So why do it, then, Mr. Krauthammer? Read Nyhan for more.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservatives and Science

Comments (19)

  1. Dark Tent

    Most of the other stuff is much ado about nothing (the equivalent of “You must be crazy if you actually beleive that…”), but I’d have to say that anyone “diagnosing” Terri Schiavo’s medical condition (or defending such a diagnosis) purely on the basis of videos really must have forgotten to take his meds (and also done rather poorly on his boards, if he’s an actual MD).

  2. badnicolez

    Does this post have any scientific merit? I can’t find any.

  3. ChH

    Chris, lines like “looks like Gore has gone off his lithium again” are not diagnoses at distance – they merely represent an old method of retaining the reader’s attention called “humor”.
    Contrast those pithy throw-away lines in Krauthammer’s opinion columns with a serious, signed diagnoses by over a thousand psychiatrists.

    Also, you have taken Krauthammer’s comment about Dean BADLY out of context. The column is a discussion of “Bush Derangement Syndrome: the acute onset of paranoia in OTHERWISE NORMAL PEOPLE”.

    This is obviously a tongue-in-cheek way of describing the irrational behavior & beliefs of sane people.

    The fact that you & Brendan Nyhan are trying to twist this into some kind of “gotcha” just makes you look irrational, rather than making Krauthammer look hypocritical.

  4. Sorbet

    Wait…Dean actually hinted that Bush knew about 9/11 beforehand? Even this Bush hater thinks that is off the deep end

  5. Old Gringo Stan

    Sorry Chris…..Krauthammer’s intellect is way above yours.
    Stan…a minority as a secular humanist conservative…..:)

  6. Noni Mausa

    Ah, Krauthammer. The man who tried to sell us a version of reality in which “elderly” can be judged on a sliding scale.

    That was June of 2008.

  7. Cheyenne

    Chris – It’s called humor. Something that certain science types aren’t very good at understanding.

  8. ChrisD

    Yeah. I’m no fan of Krauthammer, but Nyhan’s post seems pretty far off the mark. “Gore’s gone off his lithium” is hardly a “diagnosis.” Neither is anything else I see in Nyhan’s list.

  9. ChH

    Cheyenne, I agree – but I’d have said “certain liberal types” rather than “certain science types”

  10. I’ve read you article. I think you are confusing humorous references with diagnosis. Unfortunately, it means you are either a sloppy thinker or are purposefully trying to confuse the reader for your own agenda. In either case, its poor form.

  11. ChrisD

    @ChH & Cheyenne

    Cheyenne, I agree – but I’d have said “certain liberal types” rather than “certain science types”

    Do we really have to make these sorts of sweeping generalizations with every topic? I guess I’m a “science type”, and I’m certainly liberal, yet I found nothing to be upset about in the Krauthammer remarks that Nyhan listed.

    I can assure you that there are “certain conservative types” that I find to be conspicuously lacking in humor.

    Would it not have been quite sufficient, and more accurate, to just say “certain types”?

  12. LRU

    It’s an interesting point you & Nyhan bring up.

    Looking at the APA’s Principles of Medical Ethics, it’s pretty clear a psychiatrist may share his expertise on psychiatric issues with the public. I’m sure Krauthammer properly disclaims he is not the treating psychiatrist for any of the public figures he comments on nor does he offer any official sort of diagnosis. In that way, he breaches no fiduciary duties. Yet, it does appear he blurs an ethical line in some of his commentary.

    There does seem to be something fundamentally off about a psychiatrist who offers off-the-cuff remarks regarding someone’s mental health. It seems to go against the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath and also showcases an unfortunate lack of empathy and sense. Ah, well. Just because he’s a doctor, doesn’t mean he can’t be a self-aggrandizing ass. Right?

  13. Anthony McCarthy

    Well, I’m not a psychiatrist and Charles Krauthammer is a poisonous right wing hit man with no morals, no compunction about distorting the truth, no hesitation to call his opponents names and to hypocritically make comments about their mental health while condemning others who do the same. The man is a quagmire of ideological pathologies.

    And I’m not playing shrink when I say it.

  14. V.O.R.

    To complain about CK’s habit of (often jocular) remote diagnosis is kinda of like complaining about a rabid dog’s breath. Yes, it’s bad. And if you’ve got a sensitive nose it’s really going to irritate you. But it’s really the least of your worries.

    I share #14’s opinion of CK. In fact – internet diagnosticians take note – my eye/cheek twitched when I saw his CK’s name in the post title.

    Yeah, that’s right, just like Inspector Dreyfus.

  15. Woody Tanaka

    “So why do it, then, Mr. Krauthammer?”

    Because he’s a conservative commentator. And those people, by and large, with very few exceptions, have no morals to speak of (although in the general conservative population, in my experience, you are apt to find a slightly higher percentage of people with some morality. Not much, but some.)


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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