“Science is basically an inoculation against charlatans.” - Neil deGrasse Tyson
There is an epidemic of supposed “experts” that want to tell us how to eat, exercise, lose weight, reduce stress and generally live our lives. Some of these people have no credentials in the area of expertise they claim to be an expert in. Others do have credentials or licenses and that makes them even more dangerous to the layperson who's seeking out advice about health and wellness. Two names that come to mind are Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Joseph Mercola.
What is dangerous about Dr. Oz and Dr. Mercola and the many other quacks like them, is that they are genuine doctors which lends them credibility and authority. People generally trust doctors and assume the advice they receive from them is credible and evidence-based. What's even more dangerous is that a good percentage of what Dr. Mercola and Dr. Oz recommend is actually good advice and might improve your health and wellness. But both of these gentlemen are ultimately snake-oil salesmen. They seamlessly mix fact and fiction and make claims about alternative treatments and medicines that are unsubstantiated, unproven and outright false.
A little bit of healthy skepticism and internet investigation reveals a lot about these two charlatans. Mercola seems to be the worst of the two. You can read an in depth breakdown of Mercola's empire and transgressions against science in this QuackWatch article authored by Stephen Barrett MD. This LiveScience article highlights five (of hundreds) bogus health claims made by Dr. Oz.
But the point of this post is not to demonize the above mentioned profit-hungry quacks. The point is to bring your attention to the plethora of false claims and false prophets that saturates the media that many of us consume. The only defense against being misguided by “experts” is to educate yourself on the topics for which you are seeking advice. Skepticism and a general understanding of the scientific method are essential and necessary tools for this process.
Whenever you see something that seems too good to be true, chances are it is and that it warrants further investigation. When someone makes a claim that sugar is the cause for cancer (all cancers?) and that by purchasing their exclusive, revolutionary, patented, breakthrough anticancer multivitamin health tonic, you will eliminate cancer and reduce your future cancer risk, your bullshit detector should sound the alarm. If at the end of any story there's a product to be sold, then the story is probably not a public service announcement and was crafted specifically to make you want or “need” the product. Below is a number of questions that can help you assess the quality of information/claims.
1. Ask yourself where the information is coming from. Is the source valid?
Example: Holistic Healer Bob claims that drinking rhubarb and celery shakes on a daily basis can eliminate pre-cancerous cells in your body. Bob offers no sources for his claim and cites no human studies conducted to test this specific claim. Bob doesn't go into detail about what he means by pre-cancerous cells and doesn't describe any mechanism why the above remedy should work. Bob is not an oncologist and has no medical credentials of any kind. Bob is certified in Reiki and Chakra Therapy from a non-accredited online institute.
The above example is a typical profile for an internet charlatan who you shouldn't take seriously. I'm not saying that Bob has bad intentions or that he's purposely trying to fool or hurt people. In fact, Bob might very much believe in his own pseudo-science. But the fact remains that Bob offers no genuine insight or information that should be taken seriously.
2. Ask yourself whether you are desperate for a solution to your problem.
Example: Susan's daughter was just diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia and the prognosis is not good. Susan's options are limited but Susan doesn't want to accept reality. She goes on the internet searching for a miracle cure that might save her daughter's life. She stumbles onto a website which looks like it was made in 1995 by a twelve-year old. The site claims that they have successfully cured childhood leukemia patients with their miracle herbal cure that was originally developed by the Mayan's. This secret tonic helps to balance the “energies” that are out of balance in cancer patients. Susan buys the herbal cure for the low price of $795 with a money order. Not surprisingly, the herbal cure does nothing to mitigate her daughter's cancer.
When people are desperate, their logical faculties are diminished. This leads to an opportunity for snake-oil salesmen and charlatans to take advantage of their weakened mental state. There are no simple solutions for complicated problems. No one is withholding the cure for HIV or pancreatic cancer because the financial profits and notoriety from such a discovery are too great to suppress. Sometimes there aren't any good options or solutions to a problem and lying to yourself rarely makes things better.
3. Ask yourself how much you know about the problem you're trying to solve.
Example: John went to the doctor and was told that his blood cholesterol and lipids are off the charts. The doctor recommended a few dietary interventions and some medication to correct this problem. But John doesn't really trust doctors. They're all just part of the establishment and are trying to keep people sick so they make more money. Instead, John goes to a Spiritual Nutritionist who recommends that John purchase a foam pad and some crystals for $400. This will surely counteract John's daily consumption of cheeseburgers and pizza.
If John admitted to himself that he doesn't understand human metabolism and physiology, he could take the first steps in learning more about what cholesterol is, how and where it's made in the body and what the current science is in treating patients with hypercholesterolemia. Instead John wants an easy solution to a complicated problem and doesn't want to alter his lifestyle to better his health. If you don't know about a particular subject, learn about it! If you're not willing to learn, then you'll remain a fool and will suffer the consequences of being a fool.
4. Be careful of those selling you “The Only Truth”
Some individuals are so sure of themselves and their beliefs. They have all the answers. They don't even need to entertain your concerns or counterarguments because they just know the world is a certain way. Be careful taking advice from such people because their beliefs are usually incomplete, inconsistent and plain wrong. The world is complex and ever-changing. There is no one set of principles that stand the test of time. The beauty of science is that it constantly tries to disprove itself. In science, we can never know anything for sure, we can only know what hasn't worked. This is in stark contrast with gurus, healers, religious clerics and the like who seem to possess “the only truth.” You would think that the “ultimate truth holders” would have done a better job at letting us know about dinosaurs, bacteria, nuclear weapons, and other planets. No religious texts or historical gurus make mention of any of these items.
The above list of questions is by no means complete but it is a good start to becoming more skeptical and critically examining information being presented to you. The cure for ignorance is knowledge and as you gain an understanding of the world around you, you become better equipped to to make quality life decisions. It is important to periodically examine our beliefs and to test them against the reality of the world.
I hope you were able to gain some insight into quackery and charlatanism from this post and I encourage you to test the claims of others. This includes both academics and non-academics alike. Don't let degrees and certifications fool you. Test the quality of claims on their own merits and not based on who is presenting the information.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this blogpost. Please feel free to comment below.