Dr. Walt’s Warning Signs of Quackery

I ran across a series of posts from a physician which I think do a thorough job of identifying warning signs of unscientific, irrational or outright quack medical treatments. They’re not organized in a particularly systematic way, but they cover a lot of important ground. Below are the specific headings grouped under the post in which they appear, with the details to be found on Dr. Walt’s page.

Warning Signs- Post One
1. Is the product or practice promoted as a “Major Breakthrough,” “Revolutionary,” “Magic,” or “Miraculous”?

2. Do the promotions try to simply elicit an emotional reaction rather than present clear information to help you make an informed decision about the product?

3. Is only anecdotal or testimonial evidence used to support claims of effectiveness?

4. Are claims made about scientific support without giving specific details?

5. Is the information about the therapy or product being provided by a professional lacking in the proper credentials?

Warning Signs- Post Two
6. Are technical words used without a clear definition?

7. Would a treatment require you to abandon any well-established scientific laws or principles?

8. Do proponents claim that a medical system is so flawless (“airtight”) that there is no need for further testing?

9. Is the treatment said to be effective for a wide variety of unrelated physiological problems?

10. Is the product a quick and easy fix for a complicated and frustrating condition?

Warning Signs- Post Three
11. Does the proponent of the therapy claim to be criticized unfairly?

12. When challenged, do defenders attack the critic instead of responding to the challenge?

13. Do proponents claim that research will prove their therapy is effective as soon as studies are conducted?

14. Is training to provide the therapy offered only at obscure private institutions instead of accredited professional schools?

15. Do proponents use expertise in other areas to lend weight to their medical claims?

Warning Signs- Post Four
16. Is a therapy encouraged simply because it’s been used for centuries by people in some remote place?

17. Do proponents use statements that are basically true but unrelated to the therapy?

18. Do proponents blame failed tests of effectiveness on skepticism or outright nonbelief of observers?

19. Do proponents claim it is too difficult for most to understand how a therapy works, or that only the “enlightened” can understand?

20. Does the proponent disguise the truth with vague and misleading statements?

Warning Signs- Post Five
21. Does the product you’re considering require advance payment?

22. Does the advertisement promise a “money-back guarantee”?

23. Is the therapy available only in other countries?

24. Are there conflicts of interest?

25. Is the term “natural” the main advantage of the remedy?

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13 Responses to Dr. Walt’s Warning Signs of Quackery

  1. jre says:

    Hmmm … I dunno.
    Elsewhere in Dr. Walt’s writings, we find a fuller explanation of how he feels about alternative medicine, and why he feels that way:

    Some alternative therapies refer to the spirit in ways that are alien to Christianity.
    Unless you understand the roots of a particular therapy, you may find yourself involved in a practice with a theology dangerously different from what Jesus taught or what he would have us follow.

    Much in alternative medicine has little quality scientific evidence to support its assertions of healing. However, as we shall show, some therapies have excellent scientific support, yet are not utilized by many conventional Western physicians.

    Other therapies, with proper testing, might gain proof of the value claimed. Without such proof, no one, not even the experts in alternative medicine, knows for certain whether the untested, unproven alternative therapies actually have healed anyone or not. All we know is that patients relate how they were helped, or how they entered long-term remission, or were cured after using some unproven alternative therapy.

    If Dr. Walt’s real reason for being critical of alternative therapies is that he suspects Jesus wouldn’t like them, I’ll allow him all the respect his faith deserves, but discount his advice heavily.

  2. jre says:

    Not to flog the issue too heavily, but just to clarify:

    Bad reason for not believing in alternative medicine: Jesus doesn’t like it.

    Good reason for not believing in alternative medicine: It’s baloney.

  3. skeptvet says:

    Yes, I browsed around Dr. Walt’s site, and there’s no question we aren’t approaching things at all from the same point of view. Nevertheless, the specific critiques I linked to seem perfectly rational and appropriate, so I felt it was worthwhile listing them here.

    The relationship between religion and attitudes towards CAM is a complex and interesting one. You can find both devoted followers of alternative medicine and vehement critics of it in religious communities, both camps defending their position as orthodoxy for their particular faith.

    Here’s a previous post on the subject from a while back.

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  5. jre says:

    I want to be fair to Dr. Walt, and must confess that I have not spent enough time reading his work to really know where he stands on the relationship between science and faith.

    But I’ll propose a test case. If Dr. Walt accepts that the best available evidence lends zero support for the efficacy of therapeutic prayer, then I will take his views on alternative medicine at face value. Bonus points if he acknowledges that it was a silly question to ask in the first place.

    If, on the other hand, he gives an evidentiary pass to spiritual approaches that comport well with his own beliefs, I have to judge that he is not committed to science, but simply engaged in a turf war over who has the best imaginary friend.

  6. skeptvet says:

    I think we need to be careful about expecting people to be either 100% internally consistent in their world view or 100% consonant with our own before “taking them seriously.” I have no doubt Dr. Walt and I would disagree about matters of faith and science, but I don’t see that making it impossible or inappropriate for us to find common ground on some issues or to make common cause when we can. I can either be an ideologically pure community of 1, or I can find points of agreement where possible with thoase I disagree with on other points.

  7. jre says:

    This is an area where — appropriately enough — we can agree to disagree.

    In cases where I need to form an alliance with someone of differing views, e.g. to achieve a political objective, I am perfectly happy to overlook our differences as less important than our shared goal.

    In other cases, I am just as happy to “be an ideologically pure community of 1” because the core value in dispute is more important to me than whatever I might hope to gain by making common cause with my disputant.

    This is one of the latter cases. I do see that Dr. Walt recognizes the central importance of evidence in evaluating medical claims, and he has some good insights into the marketing flim-flam that serves to promote many alternative therapies. He also states candidly that Christian belief is at the top of his evidentiary priorities, saying of alternative therapies that “Some work, some don’t, some harm and some the Bible expressly forbids.”

    Elsewhere he says

    … [other practitioners] believe in practices whose world view is radically different from biblically based beliefs. Both sides use some of the same terms, but the meanings are quite different.
    For example, Therapeutic Touch seems, on the surface, to be related to the laying on of hands. The practitioners claim to be following in this tradition after removing the religious context from the practice. However, the nurse who helped develop the practice is a Buddhist and admits that the principles behind Therapeutic Touch are the three main principles of Buddhist teachings.

    To my mind the essential question is whether objective evidence for the efficacy of a given treatment can be adduced, not whether it is Christian or Buddhist in its nature. Dr. Walt does not see it that way.

    If there were some issue important to me — say, state licensing of homeopaths, or something similar — could I work with Dr. Walt to achieve a shared goal? Absolutely.

    In a more general sense, can I (to borrow your phrase) take Dr. Walt seriously? Not really.

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  10. Alice says:

    He forgot one sign, that is so obvious…

    “The doctors, pharmacies and/or scientists are greedy and doesn’t want to you to know about this”…

  11. D. Hansen says:

    Sigh … It’s 100 years (give or take) since scientists went beyond the simple explanations of the universe* — i.e., Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr formulated relativity and quantum mechanics in early 1900’s {theories that have consistently been proven correct} — yet people are STILL relying on 2000+ year old writings. Time to MOVE ON, people!

    * where simple = Newton’s calculations for gravity, etc.

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