I always joked that I could have a profitable business if I engaged in quackery. I’ve got all of this science floating in my brain which I could use to confuse the customer and have them buy my quackery. But I have morals, so I don’t.
I just read a blog post by Melanie Trecek-King in Thinking is Power, a wonderful website that pushes critical thinking skills, something that I find is totally lacking in the quackery world. Anyway, I thought I take her nine steps and give it the old feathered dinosaur take — you know, a little snark, a lot of science, and a little bit of teaching. But read her article too, since I’m “borrowing” her ideas.
Before I start, it has become clear to me that all of the people pushing their quackery are also grifters — they sell their quackery for profit. Joe Mercola and Andrew Wakefield double down on their pseudoscience, just to add money to their coffers.
Please, don’t use this list to start your own profitable pseudoscience business. Use it as a method to weed out the quacks, woomeisters, and pseudoscientists.
Pseudoscience, the basis of quackery
I guess before we start, I need to explain what pseudoscience is. The following is the checklist of how you can identify pseudoscience:
- Use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims. Pseudoscience tends to present claims that are imprecise and are unsupported by complex scrutiny, including statistical analyses. If we look at the anti-vaccine claims, this is precisely what they do – they rarely present unbiased data, preferring anecdotes and unsubstantiated information that is, of course, much easier to digest than science.
- Extreme reliance on confirmation rather than refutation. Pseudoscience looks for evidence that supports its pre-ordained conclusions. Real science looks at all the evidence, including evidence that might refute the hypothesis. That’s why falsifiability is the cornerstone of good science.
- Lack of openness to testing by other experts. Pseudoscience researchers evade peer review before publicizing results, occasionally using press conferences to share their ideas. These pseudoscientists will claim that their ideas contradict the scientific consensus, so they must avoid the peer review process because that process is biased towards the established paradigms and consensus. They will use special pleading to claim that their results cannot arrive from the scientific method. And if they do publish their “data,” it’s almost always in low-quality, predatory journals. Or their research is retracted!
- Absence of progress. Pseudoscience usually fails to progress towards providing or even searching for additional evidence of its claims. We have been discussing autism and vaccines for over 20 years – science has produced over 150 epidemiological and clinical studies that have conclusively established that there is no link. On the other hand, pseudoscience has never produced a single peer-reviewed article that supports these beliefs. Sure, there are opinion pieces in poorly ranked journals that lack any research that meets the standards of high-quality science, but that hardly meets the standards of real science.
- Personalization of issues. Pseudoscience is often composed of closely tied social groups, and usually includes an authoritarian personality, suppression of dissent, and groupthink. In an attempt to confirm their beliefs, the group tends to identify their critics as enemies (see everything that Del Bigtree and Robert F Kennedy Jr say).
- Conspiracies. Pseudoscience attempts to make claims of a conspiracy on the part of the scientific community to suppress results that support the pseudoscience. For example, the anti-vaccine crowd has invented numerous claims about Dr. Paul Offit in an attempt to discredit him. And any time anyone supports vaccines, they’re accused of being a Big Pharma Shill, called various racial epithets, or worse. Pseudoscience pushers love to call science-based medicine as “Western medicine” or “allopathy” in an attempt to make it appear to be part of some grand conspiracy of bad medicine. Or they claim that modern medicine “treats the symptoms not the disease” which isn’t true, except when you have to treat the symptoms first.
- Use of misleading language. Pseudoscience tries to create scientific-sounding terms to add weight to claims and persuade non-experts to believe statements that may be false or meaningless. They often use established technical terms in idiosyncratic ways, thereby demonstrating unfamiliarity with mainstream work in the discipline. They love to Gish gallop all the way to their pre-ordained conclusion.
I usually can tell pseudoscience if there are no peer-reviewed articles, published in a good, not predatory, journal to support their claims.
Now that we know what is pseudoscience, we can see how they use it to make their quackery profitable. You’ll notice that some of the list of what makes something a pseudoscience is used to make quackery profitable.
1. Get the customer to commit
This is right out of the first course for any sales rep in any business. Ask for a commitment from the customer and keep asking.
Enticements are a perfect way to get that commitment. Free 30 day supply! Buy one get one free! Money-back guarantee!
Here’s what happens — sometimes you get better when you take the quack medicine. But it’s not causation, sometimes you do get better. Then you’re all over social media yelling about how the pseudoscientific medicine “treated” your illness and suddenly you’re better. Not only are you sold on anything else the quack sells, but you become an unintentional salesperson for the quackery.
And don’t forget the placebo effect — people who want to believe that it works, sometimes it works.
So getting the customer to commit is the first step in making money off of the customer. It’s what every salesperson does.
2. Make claims that cannot be proven wrong
Grifters often use vague and untestable claims, because they aren’t falsifiable, one of the hallmarks of science. Falsifiability in science means that scientists are always testing hypotheses, potentially proving them wrong.
Pseudoscience makes these vague claims that are not falsifiable. And they rely upon the argument from ignorance — if I cannot prove it false, it must be true.
So they use vague claims like “boost your immune system.” I can’t falsify that because I don’t even know what parameters to use. What is boosted? Antibodies? B-cells? T-cells? Complements? TNF? They oversimplify the immune system when I know it’s a very complex system of interactions between biomolecules, cells, and organs. So how on earth can I put together an experiment that disputes that.
On the other hand, there is no evidence that these quack treatments can “boost your immune system,” which leads to the counter-argument from the grifter that the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Except that if you look hard enough the absence of evidence is really evidence of absence.
I’m sure you have heard other similar vague claims from the grifter quacks — “Keeps your digestive system in balance,” “strengthens the body’s natural defense system,” “optimizes cellular detoxification,” and “reduces fatigue and maximizes energy.” Just scan late-night infomercials, and you will see it all. The focus on the digestive system, like colon detoxification, always amuses me.
3. Overpromise and underdeliver
As a scientist, I rely on one basic principle — extraordinarily claims demand extraordinary evidence. If someone tells me that their new supplement will cure cancer (setting aside the fact that cancer is hundreds of different diseases), my first question is “prove it with peer-reviewed journal articles.”
Of course, my logic doesn’t matter to them. The quacks will overpromise “this supplement will cure cancer,” and underdeliver, “oh well, you didn’t take another supplement with it, so it didn’t work.” Oh yeah, they like moving goalposts.
4. Be confident
People frequently misunderstand scientific conclusions because, as I always say, all science is provisional. We say things like, “this drug may prevent cardiovascular disease.” We never say it will do this or that, we are very nuanced. That’s because new evidence may be uncovered that shows that it doesn’t prevent cardiovascular disease. When a scientist speaks, it always feels like they lack confidence in what they know. But nothing could be further from the truth, they’re just careful about conclusions.
Talk to quackery grifter, and you’d think they know everything. They will say “this cures cancer,” but after a few questions, you’ll realize they don’t even know a single thing about cancer biology. Like a master magician, they will double down on their claims. They will say things like “these cures have been proven over and over.” Evidence be damned.
5. Confuse with technobabble
It’s ironic that I feel guilty writing about the technical aspects of the immune system, trying to keep it easy without forsaking the complexity of it. I don’t want to technobabble anyone when they’re reading my articles. I cannot make my points if my science causes your eyes to glaze over, but science, especially when it involves human health, is quite complicated. But I avoid word salads to explain something — I might take two paragraphs just to explain a technical concept so that I know we’re all on the same page.
The grifters, however, need their technobabble, because most “customers” aren’t going to get into the weeds about it. So if they say “selenium and manganese will increase complements that boost antibodies against COVID-19,” you might think that they must know what they’re talking about. It sounds so sciencey.
They just use a random word generator (I’m sure one exists) that stuffs as many science words as they can into one sentence. Melanie Trecek-King uses a great example, “Rids the body of chronic inflammation at the cellular level by detoxifying the enzymes and microbiotics that can cause bioenergetic imbalances and impair the body’s ability to self-heal.”
6. Use testimonials and anecdotes
Since the quackery grifters lack real scientific evidence, published in real medical journals, to support their claims, they rely upon the age-old methods of trotting out testimonials and anecdotes. Snake oil salesmen have been using it for years.
The cancer cure quack will have a photo of a healthy person who claims to have been cured of cancer because of the secret supplement that only costs $500 a month. Whether that person was “cured” or not can’t be proven. And we don’t know how many others are getting real treatment from a real oncologist. Or they’re dead.
Even if these testimonials are true, we don’t know if it is a correlation, let alone causation, between the quackery and the endpoint. This is why we want published evidence — we can review the study methods, the analyses, and the statistics to determine if we think there is correlation and maybe causation.
There’s an old adage that is perfect here, “anecdotes are not data, and more anecdotes are not more data.” Anecdotes are subject to a whole list of biases — confirmation bias, cognitive bias, selection bias, and it goes on and on.
I have many rules on how I can tell a quack on the internet, but one of the first is whether there is a reliance upon anecdotes and testimonials — once I see or read that, I’m done. However, if there is a list of peer-reviewed articles in respected journals that support their claims, I’m going to read on.
7. Make use of logical fallacies
If there were a bingo game that included logical fallacies, I could win money every single day of the week. The number of logical fallacies (or related logical issues) I see from pseudoscience-pushing anti-vaxxers, grifters, and science deniers would make me a rich man in the world of logical fallacy bingo.
Logical fallacies are simply arguments that are presented in lieu of evidence. That is, the quackery pushers don’t have real scientific evidence to back their claims, so they rely upon logical fallacies to make arguments that try to magically move us from seeing that they have no evidence.
Let’s look at some of my favorites:
- Post hoc ergo propter hoc — the post hoc fallacy is an argument that states that because a second event follows the first, the first event must be the cause of the second. Just because you take this supplement and then your headache disappears doesn’t mean the supplement had anything to do with it. The quackery grifters love to employ this, since they rarely have anything in the form of real evidence.
- Appeal to nature — this is the belief or suggestion that “natural” is always better than “unnatural”. It assumes that “nature” is good, and “unnatural” is not. These quackery salespeople love to say that their remedy is “all-natural,” which, to many people, sounds like it has got to work. If you don’t
- Appeal to popular belief — this is the claim that because a lot of people belief in the quackery, it must work. Once again, this is presented in lieu of real scientific evidence.
- Appeal to antiquity or tradition — this logical fallacy is based on the assumption that something is better or correct simply because it is older, traditional, or “always has been done that way.” Lots of quackery rely upon this, because people think that if ancient peoples did it, it must have worked. Most of the time, it actually didn’t.
- Strawman argument — this is an argument that misrepresents a position of the other side, in order to make it appear weaker than it actually is. Science is a logical method of answering questions about the natural world — sometimes, it gets it wrong, because science is self-examining and critical. So, the grifters will try to argue that physicians are always wrong (they aren’t), and that they have a better way of treating disease. Terms like “holistic,” “patient-oriented,” and “treat the disease not the symptoms” are strawman arguements that imply that physicians don’t do this. Real physicians actually do all of this with a science-based evidence approach to treatment. Oh right, the grifters lack evidence.
8. Illusion of expertise
This is under the umbrella of another logical fallacy, the argument from authority (or false authority). Essentially, it means that someone uses their credentials as the reason to believe in their quackery. Again, it comes from the lack of actual evidence supporting their claims, so they will use their MD, Ph.D., or some other credential to make it appear that they must be speaking the truth.
I don’t know how many grifters in the anti-vaccine world, who often sell their nonsense supplements for big money, have advanced degrees. Many of them don’t actually see patients anymore (see Andrew Wakefield), but they all have something in common — they lack independent, robust, and repeated clinical evidence of their claims.
When I’m arguing with someone pushing pseudoscience, they always ask for my credentials, as if that matters. I will reply that I am a janitor with a degree in sanitation science from Joe’s School for Automotive Mechanics and Janitors. Because I make my claims based on scientific evidence, not based on who or what I am.
The grifters, on the other hand, love to throw their MDs and DOs (doctor of osteopathy, which in the USA, are licensed as physicians) in our face, as if it that makes them the official authority on their quackery. I guess their medical degrees give them a license to sell junk medicine.
Sometimes they love to set up an organization or institution that makes it sound like they represent some high-minded scientific group, so their quackery must be legitimate. The “Foundation for Homeopathic Anti-Oxidant Science” sounds like they must have something going for them.
9. Any disagreement is a conspiracy
Ah, they don’t have evidence because a conspiracy against the grifters. Here are a few of them:
- The evidence isn’t published because Big Pharma owns all the medical journals.
- The evidence isn’t published because Big Pharma pays the FDA suppresses all cures.
- The evidence isn’t published because Big Pharma pays people to write blog posts about the cure.
- The evidence isn’t published because Big Pharma will send out their hit squads on me.
- The evidence isn’t published because Big Pharma doesn’t understand the “science” of the their treatments.
- The evidence isn’t published because Big Pharma makes more money selling treatments than cures.
- The evidence isn’t published because Big Pharma trains every doctor to ignore the real cures.
Apparently, Big Pharma is the most terrifying organization on the planet. By the way, some of us have made this an unofficial logical fallacy — The Big Pharma Shill Gambit. By now, it should be official.
Ready to become a quackery grifter?
I hope that you don’t take this as a recipe to become a grifter, but this is the recipe. Basically, it all boils down to making people not realize that they are moving your eyes from any evidence that supports their claims. Because they lack that evidence, they need other techniques to sell you on their quack treatments.
Be thankful that I don’t sign up to be a grifter — I’d be so successful because my technobabble would be top-notch. I’d use just enough real science to take your eyes off the lack of evidence.
Seriously, if you’re about to pay one of these pseudoscience-pushing grifters, check this list. Maybe you’ll see what they are doing, and then you’ll go back to your oncologist to get your cancer treated appropriately. Or you’ll get a vaccine to boost your immune system. Or you will take supplements to treat a diagnosed condition. Or you will quit worrying about your digestive tract.
Once again, many thanks to Thinking is Power as my inspiration for this article.