If you want to sell a new pop psychology book or promote a social cause or a welfare-oriented charity, one thing that you need to do is to capture the imagination of large numbers of the type of person who might be interested in your socially-oriented project. I can think of no better way to grab the attention, arouse the emotions and capture the imagination of inquisitive people-oriented types than to start your presentation with a striking atrocity story, preferentially one with a female victim, and then follow-through with talk about empathy and neuroscience, two hot topics. Last November I saw this strategy employed very effectively in an interview on the ABC’s interview TV show One Plus One, in an interview with Camila Batmanghelidjh. Batmanghelidjh is a British businesswoman, charity leader and according to the ABC, a psychotherapist. Towards the beginning of the interview she recounted an extraordinary story about a girl becoming an “elective mute” as the result of either this girl or her sister (it is not completely clear from the recounting) being deliberately electrocuted by an abusive step-father who was said to have wired the child up to mains power. If Camila’s outfit hadn't already caught the viewers’ eyes, that story certainly would have caught their ears and their imaginations.
The strategy of grabbing the public’s attention at the outset with a memorable atrocity anecdote followed by discussion of empathy and neuroscience has recently been employed twice by the author of a new pop psychology book, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from Cambridge University in the UK, in an article that has publicized his book, and also right at the beginning of the book itself. The title of the book in the UK is Zero Degrees of Empathy published by Allen Lane and in the US it was published by Basic Books under the title The Science of Evil. Baron-Cohen has recently written and spoken about two Nazi atrocity anecdotes, but it is the story about an alleged grotesque operation on hands that I am particularly interested in. This is Baron-Cohen’s account as published on April 9th 2011 in New Scientist, a weekly UK-based science magazine:
“As a child growing up in a Jewish family, my father told me that the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades, and about what had happened to the mother of one of his former girlfriends. When my father met Mrs Goldblatt he was shocked to see that her hands were reversed. The Nazis had severed her hands and reattached them so that if she put her hands out palm down, her thumbs were on the outside and her little fingers on the inside.”
In this interview article Baron-Cohen went on to discuss empathy, cruelty and neuroscience. This anecdote was also recounted by another author reviewing Baron-Cohen’s book at the UK’s Independent newspaper. The anecdote was given a most prominent place in Baron-Cohen’s recent book, taking up most of the second paragraph of page one:
“My father also told me about one of his former girlfriends, Ruth Goldblatt,i whose mother had survived a concentration camp. He had been introduced to the mother and was shocked to discover that her hands were reversed. Nazi scientists had severed Mrs Goldblatt’s hands, switched them around and sewn them on again so that, if she put her hands out palms down, her thumbs were on the outside her little fingers were on the inside.”
Only the most obsessive, detail-oriented reader is likely to uncover the truth about the Goldblatts, buried in the notes section on page 144 at the back of the book, that there is in fact no Ruth Goldblatt whose mother is Mrs Goldblatt with reversed hands:
“Her name has been anonymized as I have not been able to trace her to seek her consent for her real name to be used.”
At the risk of being branded a Holocaust denier (which I most certainly am not), I feel compelled to state that I have doubts about the truth of Baron-Cohen’s anecdote about the Jewish lady with the reversed hands, and I believe that if a person of Baron-Cohen’s standing and influence, as a professor working at two different departments at Cambridge University, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, and the Director of that University's Autism Research Centre, and an international authority on autism and the author of influential psychology books for professional and popular readerships, has showcased an untrue story in his writing, then a lot of things must be thrown into question.
Why do I have doubts about the anecdote? My main reason for skepticism is that I simply find the story hard to believe. Although I only have knowledge of the human body that was gained from being top of my class in high school human biology classes, I do wonder how the operation described could have been possible. Normal medical transplant operations do not reattach limbs the wrong way around, as is described in the anecdote. I have looked at diagrams of the human wrist and forearm, and I doubt that it would be possible to connect the arteries, veins, nerves and tendons the wrong way around so that they could match up and work and the patient survive with alive hands. I believe there are also two bones in the forearm that would need to mesh, the radius and the ulna, which are not symmetrical and which pivot around each other. I would imagine that a hand transplant would be very complex and technically demanding operation when attaching one hand the right way around. I have a hard time getting my mind around how this operation would have been done twice over, in an anatomical mismatch, by some quack who would work for the Nazis, in a concentration camp in the 1940s. Wouldn't this kind of job require a skilled surgical team, or two?
I am not a doctor, so my opinion cannot have much authority, so I thought the best way to find out if this anecdote is even possible is to ask a qualified medical doctor who is a surgeon. Just to be sure that the doctor was an authoritative professional with current knowledge, I decided to ask a doctor who teaches about surgery at a highly-regarded university, and who has published papers. I contacted just such a person (whose name or details I will not divulge) and I outlined the anecdote describing it as an atrocity but not explicitly setting it in the Nazi era, in the hope that the story would be considered from a solely technical angle. He replied that he thought that it “sounds like nonsense”. This is an interesting comment, but it is not a statement that the anecdote isn’t possible, so I had to assume that the story remained within the realm of possibility.
I thought it couldn’t hurt to put this question in front of a larger group of people for opinions and consideration. As this was basically a scientific question, I thought a popular forum with the apparent purpose of answering scientific questions from members of the public would be a good place to expose this question. Once again I described the anecdote without the historical context, at the ‘Dr Karl’s Self Service Science Forum”, which is run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), described as “Australia's most popular online science forum”. As far as I can tell, my question never got through the moderation process and was never posted. I was not surprised, as I’ve had dealings with this forum before. Thanks for nothing, guys. Could I have my eight cents a day back, please?
It almost goes without saying that I did a lot of Googling in my search for any information or opinions about this anecdote. As I hadn’t yet obtained a copy of Baron-Cohen’s new book, I didn’t know that Goldblatt was a fictitious name. I wasn’t surprised to find some forum discussions of the anecdote as described in New Scientist, with virtually no serious informed discussion centred on the anecdote itself. One discussion group result in a Google search looked promising, but it had been taken down when I clicked on the link, and Google’s cached page of it had also gone to the twilight zone. It bothers me that people who appear to be Neo-Nazis have made great mileage out of the reversed-hands story. Because it does so much resemble an urban legend it has been held up as an example of a Holocaust story that is said to be untrue, and most predictably this has been cited by Neo-Nazis as evidence supporting their holocaust denial positions. This is a sorry spectacle to behold.
Right from the start I too had suspected this anecdote was an urban legend, as I could see that it has many of the hallmarks of apocryphal stories – it is sensational, it does not include details that can actually be traced, it is not a first-hand account, it is hard to believe and it is very similar to an older atrocity anecdote that I had heard many years ago, and which I had found hard to believe at the time, even though I was a mere slip of a girl back then. People who make a serious study of urban legends note that they are often recycled stories that have a long history in various forms and incarnations. The horrible anecdote that I had heard of in the 1970s was about the terrible reign of the African dictator Idi Amin. As that story goes, to get revenge on one of his wives, named Kay, who had an abortion, the all-powerful dictator Amin had ordered doctors to have her feet chopped off and reattached with the feet reversed. It was not specified whether she survived this operation or died, so the image is left in the mind of the listener of some poor woman walking around with her big toes on the outside.
I did a bit of Googling to research this anecdote, to check whether it was indeed an apocryphal story, and I dug up the story pretty much in the form of the story that I’d heard, and I also found what appears to be an account of the truth of the matter. It appears that the story was not true, but it was based very loosely on real events. I am happy to describe the Idi Amin story that I heard in the 1970s as an urban legend. Was the very similar Mrs Goldblatt story also one? I tried to join an international forum that supposedly examines urban legends, to solicit the views of people who possibly had some expertise in the area of urban legends, but my application for membership to this closeted society met with no response. Thanks for nothing, guys.
Now that I have read in Baron-Cohen’s book that he admits that he was not able to trace the source of his reversed limb story and that the names “Ruth Goldblatt” and “Mrs Goldblatt” were made up by Baron-Cohen and are not potentially traceable details of the story, I’m more sceptical than ever about the truth of this anecdote. The fact that I’ve also turned up a number of reversed limb atrocity stories without even looking for them through Google, some of them known to be unreliable, also adds to my scepticism.
In the process of my quest for the truth about the reversed-hands anecdote, I've almost gained expertise in reversed-limb or extremities urban myths, and one thing that seems to be true is that in general these stories are untrue embellishments of real historical events - Idi Amin did really do many terrible things, but it appears that the reversed-feet story about his late wife Kay is untrue. Delphine LaLaurie apparently did do many terrible things to African-American people in New Orleans in the 1800s, but the story about her deliberately reattaching limbs incorrectly was most probably a fictional embellishment. Similarly, no sane, educated adult disputes that the Holocaust happened, or that the Nazis murdered massive numbers of civilians in death camps during WWII, but the story about the Jewish lady with reversed hands is nevertheless a bit hard to believe.
Why have I gone to all of this trouble to try to uncover the truth of this matter? I believe it is a serious problem that a man who is regarded as a world-class authority on autism, who tells the world what autism is and what type of people autistic people are, is happy to showcase an extraordinary story that he admits he has not verified with his own eyes and which includes false identifying information, in his own book that is about important matters of science, and also in a science magazine with major international standing. I cannot reconcile the idea that a scientific authority can display such a casual attitude towards the truth. If I assume that Baron-Cohen in good faith has believed this story but has not bothered to verify it, that indicates either a very sloppy or a contemptuous attitude towards verifying the truth, hardly qualities that I would expect to find in a professor from Cambridge and the director of a research organization. It would also indicate a naivety or a lack of knowledge in not realising how closely his anecdote resembles an apocryphal story, necessitating proper investigation and verification. If it turns out that the story is a medically impossible apocryphal story, presenting it as fact would call into question Baron-Cohen’s judgement, his basic common sense, and also his suitability for his position as a professor in a department of psychiatry, which is a medical specialty. The truth of this matter is not a minor detail, it is a reflection of the man who has spread this story, and we need to know exactly what type of man this is.
While researching something else I've come across a copy of the 2005 edition of the Guinness World Records and on page 21 is a paragraph giving the essential details of the world's "first hand transplant", with an accompanying photo of the patient Australian Clint Hallam with his creepy mismatched replacement hand. According to this authoritative annual book, this first hand transplant was done in France in 1998 by an international team of eight surgeons in an operation that took fourteen hours. There is now no doubt in my mind that the reversed-hands transplant anecdote recounted as fact on page one of both UK and US editions of Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen's latest book is untrue, impossible, and an absurd urban legend that would only be unreservedly believed by a child or perhaps by an adult who lacks education or has some odd cognitive deficit that causes a lack critical faculties. Why has a Cambridge professor with a considerable international reputation put such a thoroughly bizarre and ridiculous thing at the very beginning of his book? Does he believe it himself, or does he have a contempt for his readers in which he is happy to treat them as though they are idiots, or does he think the truth of a prosopsition is an unimportant consideration? How could such a piece of nonsense as a reversed-hands urban legend have been allowed by book editors and also book publishers to make it into print as a true anecdote in a supposedly non-fiction book? Why has this bizarre matter not been mentioned in any of the published reviews of the book that I have read? Am I the only person who has actually read the beginning of the book and thought about it in any seriousness? How is it that I, an unpaid blogger with no background in publishing or science beyond a very old degree in applied science, has noticed that a Cambridge professor has put a piece of nonsense at the beginning of his book, while presumably the professor, his book editor, his publishers in the UK and also in the US, and all of the many professional book reviewers who have written reviews of this book which have been published in some of the world's most respected newspapers, have all presumably been unable to detect a very bizarre and obvious problem with this book? How do so many people get paid for not doing their job? How can I get a job like that?
Links and References
Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011) Zero degrees of empathy. Allen Lane (Penguin), 2011.
Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011) The science of evil: on empathy and the origins of cruelty. Basic Books, 2011.
[US version of the above book]
Else, Liz (2011) The man who would banish evil. New Scientist. Number 2807 April 9th 2011. p. 32-33. Online title: Simon Baron-Cohen: I want to banish evil.
Faber, Judy (2007) Idi Amin's Son Criticizes Biopic. CBS News. Feb. 21, 2007.
[A horrible variation of the Idi Amin’s wife urban legend]
Guinnes World Records Ltd (2005) Guinness world records 2005. Guinness World Records Ltd, 2005.
Idi Amin dies.
[The article “Amin's Foot Soldiers” appears to debunk the Idi Amin’s wife urban legend.]
One Plus One - Friday 19 November
[story about Camila Batmanghelidjh followed by another story]
Top 10 most evil humans.
[An unreliable source with some severed and reattached limb atrocity stories.]
Witchalls, Clint (2011) Why a lack of empathy is the root of all evil. Independent. 5 April 2011.