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On Ridicule

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

The word ridicule in the subtitle of this blog requires an explanation. Attempts to argue with those who hold unfounded, erroneous beliefs and who practice them daily are often futile. Taking my cue from Thomas Jefferson, unintelligible propositions—of which chiropractic posits many—should be addressed through satire and mockery. However, if my purpose in writing all this is merely to make fun of the chiropractic profession, there would be little value in it. A rational response to folly is called for when it is so widely disseminated and affects the lives of millions.

Much has been said about the pointlessness of arguing with fools. Proverbs tells us, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him” (26:4). And Mark Twain: “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” The Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec (1909-1966) said it this way: "The only fool bigger than the person who knows it all is the person who argues with him." My personal favorite is this one from George Bernard Shaw: "Arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon. No matter how good you are, the bird is going to shit on the board and strut around like it won anyway." On many occasions I have felt like an idiot after attempting to convince chiropractors of their foolishness, occasions where ridicule would have been unsuitable and offensive. But would that have mattered?

Jefferson wrote his statement about ridicule in an 1816 letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, a Dutch scholar and Mennonite minister who was an early advocate of Dutch support for American independence during the Revolution. (, accessed December 4, 2021.) The complete sentence from which the quote is excerpted is thus:

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. (, accessed December 4, 2021.)

Jefferson prefaced this comment by stating, "… I rarely waste time in reading on theological subjects, as mangled by our Pseudo-Christians. …" Such comments by an ex-president today (Jefferson's term ended in 1809) would be sensational fodder for our news media, but I suppose a respected statesman could get away with this kind of blasphemy back then, especially in the absence of CNN, Fox News, and the like.

Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) was a community organizer and activist. The principles outlined in his book, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, have been practiced by many government, labor, community, and congregation-based organizations and political campaigns. My use of ridicule may be more closely aligned with Saul Alinsky's definition:

Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage. (, accessed December 5, 2021.)

HL Mencken (1880-1956), the acerbic satirist, journalist, and cultural critic, epitomized the use of ridicule in his attacks on the chiropractic profession. In a 1924 essay, he wrote that

… the chiropractic pathology … is grounded upon the doctrine that all human ills are caused by pressure of misplaced vertebrae upon the nerves which come out of the spinal cord—in other words, that every disease is the result of a pinch. This, plainly enough, is buncombe. The chiropractic therapeutics rest upon the doctrine that the way to get rid of such pinches is to climb upon a table and submit to a heroic pummeling by a retired piano-mover. This, obviously, is buncombe doubly damned.


If a man, being ill of a pus appendix, resorts to a shaved and fumigated longshoreman to have it disposed of, and submits willingly to a treatment involving balancing him on McBurney's spot* and playing on his vertebra as on a concertina, then I am willing, for one, to believe that he is badly wanted in Heaven.

The kindest criticism that can be applied to Mencken is that he was an elitist. He also appears to have been a racist, anti-Semite, and eugenicist. His criticism of chiropractic extended further than anyone would dare publish today.

… it seems to me that the current coddling of the half-witted should be stopped before it goes too far if, indeed, it has not gone too far already. To that end nothing operates more cheaply and effectively than the prosperity of quacks. Every time a bottle of cancer oil goes through the mails Homo americanus is improved to that extent. And every time a chiropractor spits on his hands and proceeds to treat a gastric ulcer by stretching the backbone the same high end is achieved.

I don't believe I need to go as far as Mencken did to raise the ire of many chiropractors. I doubt Mencken's nonconstructive criticism did little to improve the quality of chiropractic care. I don't have high expectations that my critical comments will have a positive effect either, but I will make attempts to save the few babies that lie hidden in those murky bath waters.

Ridicule aside, the best response to unintelligible propositions is a tremendous belly laugh. Laughter at the true comedy of an absurd hypothesis—think of Flat Earthers—is healing. Hopefully the one who is laughed at can share in the belly laugh with the realization that the idea is indeed preposterous.


* McBurney's point, located on the right side of the lower abdomen, is closest to the most common location of the appendix.


About J. Michael Burke, D.C.

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During 45 years of diverse experience as a chiropractor, I have witnessed and documented many facets of the profession and the follies of many chiropractors, myself included. My involvement in various activities and endeavors has ranged from cracking necks and backs to developing a managed alternative healthcare network to investigating fraud.

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