Today there are hundreds of alternative medical modalities which promise to treat a plethora of conditions. Due to the variety and complexity of alternative medicine, it is very difficult to separate the legitimate from the nonsense. There are however some indicators common to many quack medicines. Here are my top ten signs that your choice of alternative medicine/therapy may be quackery:
1. “Ancient Knowledge”. Does your therapy promise that it is based on modalities practiced for 1000s of years? This is a common logical fallacy known as “Argument from Age”. Don’t be fooled by this: just because it has been practiced for thousands of years, doesn’t mean anything apart from the fact that it has been practiced for thousands of years. Here are two things to consider:
i) Humankind has believed that the sun revolved around the earth for 1000s of years, that didn’t/doesn’t make it true;
ii) Tangible proof of the benefit of medicine is shown through statistics such as infant-mortality and life expectancy over time. The biggest change in life-expectancy rates occurred during the late 1800s and the 1900s with the following scientific improvements: sanitation, nutrition, vaccinations and micro-biology. If these ancient modalities are so successful why was the life expectancy so low 500 or 1000 years ago. It should be noted too that science is constantly involving; in fact, for something to be scientific, by definition it should be challengeable and testable. Many ancient therapies have not changed despite major scientific discoveries such as bacteria and viruses.
2. “No Side Effects”. Certain modalities promise no side effects. That doesn’t prove that the practice is necessarily effective. It however appeals especially to those with “what-have-I-got-to-lose” mindsets. This is a common call of practitioners of homeopathy where the remedies are often diluted to the extent that no molecule of the original remedy is actually left in the solution. It would be great if all medicine had no side-effects, unfortunately it is normally not the case. So be sceptical.
3. The “Holistic” Claim. The marketing ploy for many alternative therapies and medicines is that it provides the body with “holistic” treatment. Really? So you have HIV, you’re balding and yesterday you strained your hamstring – you mean there is something that can help you with all of that? Sounds too good to be true, so it probably is.
4. The “Un-falsifiable Diagnosis”. Psychic healers and, for example, reflexologists might comment that Mr Smith has a blockage with, for example, Mr Smith’s liver (or a meridian that flows through the liver – in the case of reflexology). There are two possible scenarios, either the patient does actually have a liver ailment or the patient does not. The first scenario would seem to validate the diagnosis and perhaps too the modality. With the second scenario however, the practitioner often resorts to the fact that if there is no ailment then there is instead a “vulnerability” of that organ and that patient could expect problems with the organ in the future (or perhaps the practitioner has caught the “ailment-waiting-to-happen” just in time). This is sometimes known as the “invisible dragon fallacy”: i.e. you can’t prove that there are invisible dragons so that means there is one if I say so. By this logic it would be assumed that the modality always works and that the practitioner is always correct.
5. The “Big-Pharma” Conspiracy. According to many alternative medicine practitioners, the likes of Pfizer, GSK and Merck are all conspiring to keep us sick so that they can sell more of their medicine so to expand their Evil Empires. Yes, apparently these companies have got together in secret and want us all to stay sick! No death-bed confessions, no leaked documents, no tangible proof exists, but yet the conspiracy theories abound. Apparently they are paying off doctors and government officials to keep quiet and these doctors who have taken the Hippocratic Oath are not speaking either. I’m not saying that these companies are sinless. Of course as the pharmaceuticals have regularly to make important decisions that affect the lives of human beings they will inevitably be never too far from controversy. But if in looking into something, it seems too far fetched, then it probably is.
6. The mention of “life force”, “prana”, “vital force”, “orgone energy”, “ch’i”, “qi”. Apparently there is universal life-force flowing through our bodies. If you are a reflexologist you may believe in 10 meridians which connect organs. If you are a acupuncturist you probably believe in 14 life lines. According to many of these practitioners we don’t get infected by a disease it is instead our bodies which are reacting to an imbalance in our energy or blockage in a meridian. Despite discoveries such as viruses, bacteria and the fact that since the advent of microbiology no scientific proof of life-energy exists, the theories of life-energy still abound.
7. The throwing about of Scientific Buzzwords. So there is yet no scientific evidence that
8. The “boost immune system” or “heal everything” promise . Does your herbal supplement, alternative therapy or spiritual procedure promise that it can “heal everything”? Well this should light up a few red lights on your Quackometer. Take one of the latest fads, wheatgrass. According to http://www.wheatgrassforlife.com apparently it has 90 out of the 102 possible minerals, it is full of vitamins and minerals and it is the closest thing to “the fountain of youth”. Sound too good to be true…it probably is. Take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheatgrass for the plant's nutritional value compared to broccoli. If you have time listen to the excellent 6th Podcast on http://www.Skeptoid.com. The human body is extremely complex and there is no one-thing that is the fix-all. Also, if the claims made by the supplement are vague (remember in most 1st world countries there are strict regulations about specific claims that you can make about a medical product/supplement that you are marketing) then be sceptical. If it seems too good to be true….it probably is.
9. The “Natural” claim . So it is “natural”, that must mean that it’s better for me, right? Wrong! Consider: mercury, arsenic, black-mamba venom – all natural and all potentially fatal. Many quack products are marketed that they are natural, appealing to the fact that the product must be better for you. Remember plants contain highly complex molecular structures and therefore should be considered as drugs. According to Dr Stephen Barrett of www.Quackwatch.com, about 50% of all drugs sold in the US are natural (e.g. quinine) and no doubt 1000s of other herbs will in the future be found or confirmed to help heal various ailments. Drugs prescribed by your doctor (natural or not) though should have gone through an extensive barrage of tests including animal and human double-blind testing before they become available on the market. Herbal remedies typically don’t and doses of the product could differ substantially. Just because it says "Natural" doesn’t mean it’s good or better for you.
10. The Oprah test . This is a little tongue-in-cheek, but if it’s been on Oprah, then be sceptical too!
Your comments, criticisms and additions would be most welcome.
For a list of logical fallacies see: http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html#age