Most of us think of ourselves as savvy, informed individuals who approach the world with discerning eyes. But the truth is that we're often remarkably gullible when it comes to pseudoscience and quackery. That's the bad news. The good news is that it is surprisingly easy to tell quackery apart from real science.
Picture: Ryan Somma/Flickr
This post originally appeared on Dr Amy Tuteur's blog.
Quack claims are typically decorated with red flags, if you know what to look for. What follows is a list of some of those red flags — watch out for these types of claims, and you'll be better suited to spot pseudoscience quackery from a mile away.
Claims of Secret Knowledge
When someone implies they are sharing secret medical knowledge with you, run in the opposite direction. There is no such thing as secret medical knowledge. In an age where there are literally thousands of competing medical journals, tremendous pressure on researchers to publish papers, and instantaneous dissemination of results on the internet that you can search yourself, nothing about medicine could possibly be secret.
"It's All a Giant Conspiracy"
In the entire history of modern medicine, there has never been a conspiracy to hide lifesaving information among professionals. Sure, an individual company may hide information in order to get a jump on competitors, or to deny harmful effects of their products, but there can never be a large conspiracy because every aspect of the healthcare industry is filled with competitors. Vast conspiracies, encompassing doctors, scientists, and public health officials exist only in the minds of quacks.
If they're trying to sell something, quacks invariably try to flatter potential customers by implying that those customers are uncommonly smart, insightful and wary. They portray non-believers as "sheeple" who are content to accept authority figures rather than think for themselves. A real medical professional does not need to flatter you. He or she knows what is true and what isn't and shares that information whether it makes you happy or is the last thing you want to hear. You can believe it or not, despite attempts to influence you.
The Toxin Flag
I've written before that toxins are the new evil humours. Toxins serve the same explanatory purpose as evil humours did in the Middle Ages. They are invisible, but all around us. They constantly threaten people, often people who unaware of their very existence. They are no longer viewed as evil in themselves, but it is axiomatic that they have be released into our environment by "evil" corporations or unhealthy foods. There's just one problem. "Toxins" are a figment of the imagination, in the exact same way that evil humours and miasmas were figments of the imagination. Just because there may be harmful substances in your body doesn't mean they can all be treated as a single, monolithic "toxin."
Indeed, the chemicals responsible for more diseases than any others are nicotine (tobacco), alcohol (yeast) and opiates (poppies). The human body does not produce "toxins." The waste products produced by the human body are easily metabolized by organs such as the liver, and excreted by organs particularly designed for that purpose such as the kidneys.
"Brilliant Heretic" as the Source of Information
The quack often has no training in the relevant discipline, be it obstetrics, immunology or cancer care? No problem. A pervasive theme in quackery is the notion of the brilliant heretic. Believers argue that science is transformed by brilliant heretics whose fabulous theories are initially rejected, but ultimately accepted as the new orthodoxy. The conceit rests on the notion that revolutionary scientific ideas are dreamed up by mavericks, but nothing could be further from the truth. Revolutionary scientific ideas are not dreamed up; they are the inevitable result of massive, collaborative data collection, which can also be confusing to communicate, or even agree upon. Galileo did not dream up the idea of a sun-centered solar system. He collected data with his new telescope, data never before available, and the sun-centered solar system was the only theory consistent with the data he had collected.
Citing Esoteric Scientific Theories
Quacks love to baffle followers with nonsense, hence the invocation of esoteric scientific theories that they don't understand. Quantum mechanics and chaos theory, for example, are two incredibly difficult scientific disciplines, heavy on advanced maths. If you don't have a degree in either one, you aren't probably qualified to pontificate on them. The same thing applies to new, imperfectly understood areas of science like epigenetics or the microbiome. Both are genuine scientific concepts, but we are in the earliest stages of elucidating them, and people from non-academic backgrounds who claim to be experts should be treated with scepticism. There is real danger in insisting that they have current practical implications. We should learn from the terrible mistakes that were made when radiation was first discovered and and radioactive compounds were added to everything from water to make up under the false belief that radiation could prevent everything from ageing to death.
There is a saying in science that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Quack claims are typically extraordinary, but quacks don't offer evidence; they raise some or all of the six red flags, often in an attempt to trick you into buying what they are selling. When you see one of these red flags, you can be virtually certain that you are in the presence of bad science.
Six red flags you need to recognise to quack-proof yourself [The Sceptical OB]
Dr Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician gynecologist. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard College in 1979 and her medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1984. Dr Tuteur is a former clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. Her book, How Your Baby Is Born, an illustrated guide to pregnancy, labour and delivery was published by Ziff-Davis Press.