Though it’s certainly not an original observation, I’ve begun to see some repeating patterns of behavior associated with unreliable and unscientific medical claims, and I think it might be useful to review some possible warning signs that one is dealing with quackery or nonsense. Certainly, not all of these markers will be found in the claims or marketing of every unsubstantiated medical approach, and some of them may well be found attached to legitimate or correct claims. However, viewing hem as risk factors or red flags can help one to separate the pseudoscientific from the scientific and the truly helpful from the nonsense.
1. The Galileo Complex-
Most idiosyncratic ideas that conflict with the mainstream understanding of reality turn out to be wrong. As Michael Shermer puts it: “History is replete with tales of the lone scientist working in spite of his peers and flying in the face of the doctrines of his or her own field of study. Most of them turned out to be wrong and we do not remember their names…The person making the extraordinary claim has the burden of proving to the experts and to the community at large that his or her belief has more validity than the one almost everyone else accepts.”
The exceptions stand out precisely because they are exceptions. People with questionable ideas like to compare themselves to Galileo or other historical figures who were widely doubted and whose ideas were vilified and suppressed in their own era but who were later vindicated by science and history. This is a neat little bit of self-aggrandizing spin that is a lovely example of the availability heuristic and cherry picking fallacies. Because such cases are unusual, they stand out in our minds, which makes us likely to see them as more common or representative of the norm than they are, and because we wish to validate our own ideas we tend to notice and cite only those examples which support our claims and ignore those which do not. So any book, web site, or lecture which makes comparisons to Galileo or other such figures should be suspect in terms of the soundness of the reasoning and the intellectual honesty and humility of the author.
A lovely example of this is a book by a lawyer who often defends alternative medicine providers against government regulation, Richard Jaffe, who titled his own book about his work Galileo’s Lawyer.
2. The Dan Brown Gambit-
Despite some worrisome signs of growth and the lax oversight by government thanks to effective legislative lobbying, alternative medicine is a fairly small, largely marginal element of healthcare overall. It tends to serve primarily affluent clients with chronic complaints, often involving largely subjective symptoms such as pain or fatigue, and people with philosophical predilections towards it such as postmodernist liberals, some varieties of libertarians, and those generally suspicious of modernity, materialism, and methodological naturalism. Mainstream science-based medicine has earned the confidence of people by producing unequivocal results, it is generally preferred by most people unless they have one of these philosophical objections to it or a condition which science does not yet have clearly effective treatments for.
Unable to accept this fact, many CAM advocates argue that their methods are better but have failed to replace scientific medicine due to a conspiracy of suppression by the medical-industrial complex. A nice example of this comes from one of the more extreme alternative medicine sites, Shirley’s Wellness Café:
“Dr. Guylaine Lanctot, M.D. – The medical establishment works closely with the drug multinationals whose main objective is profits, and whose worst nightmare would be an epidemic of good health. Lots of drugs MUST be sold. In order to achieve this, anything goes: lies, fraud, and kickbacks. Doctors are the principal salespeople of the drug companies. They are rewarded with research grants, gifts, and lavish perks. The principal buyers are the public – from infants to the elderly – who MUST be thoroughly medicated and vaccinated…at any cost! Why do the authorities forbid alternative medicine? Because they are serving the industry, and the industry cannot make money with herbs, vitamins, and homeopathy. They cannot patent natural remedies. That is why they push synthetics. They control medicine, and that is why they are able to tell medical schools what they can and cannot teach. They have their own sets of laws, and they force people into them. That is a mafia. This sensational expose’ also uncovers the truth behind vaccines, AIDS, cancer, the World Health Organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Bank, and more. Dr. Lanctot, M.D is the author of The Medical Mafia How To Get Out of It Alive and Take Back Our Health and Wealth.”
These arguments resemble those found in many Dan Brown novels, in which thin threads of evidence are used to claim that venal cabals of robber barons collude with doctors to maintain people in a state of constant illness, despite the availability of cheap, natural cures for all diseases, solely because of their devotion to profit and power. This is closely related to both the Galileo Complex and what I have elsewhere called the David and Goliath Myth. As in most every other human endeavor, claims of shadowing conspiracies to silence the truth ought to be viewed skeptically, as they are often a cover for the simpler fact that vacuous and mistaken ideas fail to find acceptance because people simply aren’t fooled by them.
3. Deep Secrets-
Difficult to disentangle from the phenomena already cited is the slightly twist on the underlying theme I call Deep Secrets. Many advocates of alternative medicine will claim they have found simple and obvious knowledge that has been hidden from the rest of us, either by our own slavish acceptance of the propaganda of the Medical-Industrial Complex or because the secrets have been actively suppressed. A couple of examples of this are Dr. Andrew Jones book The Veterinary Secret, Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, but there are many others. Claims of secret wisdom uncovered by lone geniuses and available to you free (as long as you buy their book, DVD, etc), should always raise one’s suspicions.
4. The One True Cause of All Disease-
Harriett Hall at Science-Based Medicine has written eloquently about this phenomenon. Many CAM proponents claim their method is based on understanding the “true underlying cause of disease,” while scientific medicine is merely treating symptoms. Most times, this “true cause” is some sort of perturbation of a vitalist energy detectable only by the intuition of the practitioner. While people prefer the simple and definitive to the complex and ambiguous, reality is under no obligation to conform to our wishes for it, and reality is often complex and ambiguous. If there were one simple and obvious true cause for all illness, I cannot imagine that it would not have been found and manipulated at some point in human history with such great success as to eliminate all disease and displace all other models of health and well-being. The failure of this to happen is one of the better bit of evidence against the claim. And I have wondered aloud before how CAM proponents rationalize the use of multiple therapies concurrently each of which is based on totally incompatible One True Causes of disease. A cause for doubt if ever there was one.
5. If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Is-
An old maxim, but a sound one. People will often investigate with a sharp, critical inquiry the details of a new electronics or automotive purchase looking for solid evidence on which to make a choice, and yet the same people will throw common sense and skepticism away when fed an appealing line of pseudoscientific sales patter by an alternative medicine advocate. Practitioners of scientific medicine are often at the public relations disadvantage of having to be truthful with our patients and clients, including admitting to the limitations of our knowledge an ability to solve their medical problems. Anyone who claims dramatic and unprecedented success with no risks should be pressed to produce more than their word or the testimonials of fellow believers to back up such claims, because such claims so often prove false in every area of human endeavor and medicine is no exception.