Once When My Back Went Out

New Zealand Herald, August 25, 1992

Denis Dutton


I was struggling with the vacuum hose to get to an awkward corner of the kitchen.

“What’s wrong? Afraid to bend your back?”, my wife asked with sweet sarcasm. Either she hadn’t seen those TV ads about how you shouldn’t use your back as a crane, or — more likely — she had seen them.

I felt a little pain down there someplace, and it didn’t go away. It got a worse, seemed to improve for a day or so, stayed barely tolerable for a week, and then became intense. It spread, and by the following weekend I was virtually immobile — unable even to roll over in bed, racked with unbearable pain every time I moved.

Long experience, not to mention the comedies of Molière, has made me skeptical of doctors; normally, I avoid their company. But I was in agony. So on a Sunday night I phoned Dr. Barrie Tait, who agreed to see me the next morning. In part, my desperation was dictated by the fact that I had to go to a conference (on the future of television) on Monday afternoon in Wellington. Things were looking bleak.

Dr. Tait was the soul of courtesy and professionalism. He’s the head of the Musculo-skeletal Department of Christchurch Hospital, you see. I bragged about that. People always want to convince everyone — especially themselves — that their doctor is a genius.

Finally, after a thorough examination, he took the crucial first step on the road to my recovery: he gave my disease a name.

“It’s lumbar dysfunction,” he said with quiet authority. To me this sounded both terrible and wonderful. I tried to translate from the Latin and kept coming up with something that seemed to mean “back not working too well.” What could he do for it, I asked eagerly.

“Nothing,” he said. Take pain killers and anti-inflammatories, and your back will probably heal itself. There was no point, he explained, in missing my conference. I should go ahead and walk as much as possible.

Which is what I did. I stopped by the chemist on the way to Christchurch airport, and by the time I was limping up to Victoria University things were improving. An vigorous argument about the use of TV licence fee money to fund mindless medical soap operas also seemed to help. The adrenalin produced showed that — for me at least — Shortland Street does have some clinical value.

As the hours wore on, my back got better and better, and later that evening, back home in Christchurch, I was virtually able to turn cartwheels in the living room. The pain was gone. After over two weeks of agony, my tortured back was miraculously “cured” in only a few hours

Over the years the New Zealand Skeptics have had many successes debunking claivoyants, spoon-benders, creationists, and various New Age scam artists. The Skeptics, however, have been much less effective in making any impact in the public gullibility about alternative medicine. In light experiences like mine, it’s easy to see why.

What if Barrie had hung a pendulum over me, said a mantra, given me a bit a chiropractic manipulation, a homeopathic preparation, or subjected my irises to learned analysis? And what if — like most desperate, pain-wracked patients — I’d wanted to believe that it worked?

Barrie would have had a convert for life. The psychological power of my spectacular “cure,” coming as it did after weeks of suffering, would have been overwhelming. Who cares what the bloody Skeptics have to say about alternative medicine when back-pain sufferers are similarly “cured” on a daily basis by chiropractors and other dubious healers?

And it’s not just back pain that has a record of spontaneous remission, but countless other afflictions as well. This — combined with the fact that people always want to believe in their healer, orthodox or quack — means that there will always be an army of satisfied customers ready to testify that some placebo had cured them where all the wonders of modern medicine had failed.

Having said all that, and accepting it at a rational level, I still in my heart suspect Barrie Tait is a medical genius. I can’t help it. You see, once when my back went out....

At the time this article appeared, I was Chairman of the New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Inc, popularly known as the Skeptics. — D.D.