In the first of this two-part article, I discussed six popular tricks of the quackery trade. Some readers pointed out that these ploys are not exclusively used in alternative medicine. I agree. Quacks are everywhere, and unfortunately conventional medicine has its fair share of charlatans as well. Yet I would nevertheless suggest that the ploys mentioned in part one and the eight discussed below are more often used in alternative than in mainstream medicine.
Treating the root cause of the disease
Quacks regularly claim that scientifically orientated clinicians only treat the symptoms of their patients, whereas they treat the root causes of the illness. I have often wondered where this assumption and the fierce conviction with which it is so often expressed come from. I came to conclude that the explanations are quite simple.
— This notion is the mantra that is being taught over and over again in quack-colleges. It even constitutes a central message of most ‘textbooks’ for the aspiring alternative practitioner.
— More importantly in the context of this article, the notion is a clever sales trick. It sounds profound and logical to many consumers who lean towards alternative medicine.
— Crucially, it kills two flies with one stroke: it denigrates conventional healthcare and, at the same time, elevates quackery as reaching deeper than real medicine.
The idea that alternative practitioners treat the root causes is based on the practitioners’ understanding of aetiology. Traditional acupuncturists, for instance, are convinced that all disease is caused by an imbalance of life forces, and that needling acupuncture points will re-balance these forces and thus restore health. Therefore, they must automatically assume that they are treating the root causes of any condition.
If chiropractors believe that all diseases are due to ‘subluxations’ of the spine, it would seem logical to them that spinal ‘adjustment’ is synonymous with treating the root cause of whatever condition their patients are suffering from.
These are concepts that are deeply ingrained in the minds of alternative practitioners. And they have one embarrassing feature in common: they are false! Some practitioners surely must know that; yet I have so far not met one who therefore would have stopped using it. The reason must be that, as a trick of the trade for increasing their cash flow, it is invaluable.
My advice is to put your critical thinking hat on, explain to the practitioner who tells you he is able to treat the root causes of your condition that he is promoting a myth, and look for a proper physician.
Natural is good
Everyone working in advertising can confirm that the ‘natural’ label is a great asset for boosting sales of all sorts of things. Quacks have long appreciated this fact and exploit it to the best of their abilities. They stress the ‘naturalness’ of their treatments ad nauseam and, more often than not, they use the term misleadingly.
For instance, there is nothing natural in thrusting a patient’s spine beyond the physiological range of motion (chiropractic); there is nothing natural in endlessly diluting and shaking remedies which may or may not have their origin in a natural substance (homeopathy); there is nothing natural in sticking needles into the skin of patients (acupuncture).
Moreover, the notion of a benign ‘mother nature’ is naïvely misleading. Ask anyone who has been at sea during a storm, or who has been struck by lightning.
My advice is to see through such fairly transparent marketing slogans and to tell anyone who goes on about the ‘naturalness’ of his therapy to quack off.
When one attends a gathering of alternative practitioners, the term ‘energy’ is mentioned more often than at a board meeting of EDF. The difference is that quacks do not mean really energy when they speak of energy; they mean ‘vital force’, or one of the many related terms from other traditions.
Practitioners do prefer to use ‘energy’ because this sounds modern and impressive to many consumers. Crucially, it avoids disclosing how deeply steeped the therapists are in the obsolete ideas of vitalism. Whereas rational thinkers have discarded such concepts more than a century ago, quacks find it impossible to do the same.
My advice is to avoid all ‘vitalists’ and similar backwards thinkers, because adhering to long obsolete concepts is never going to deliver the treatment that is best for you.
Stimulating the immune system
‘Your immune system needs stimulating!’ – how often have we heard that from practitioners of alternative medicine? By contrast, conventional clinicians are usually cautious about such a therapeutic aim; they might try to stimulate the immune system in certain, rare circumstances. Quite often they even need to achieve the opposite effect and use powerful drugs to suppress the immune system. And in the rare instances where they do want to stimulate the immune system of a patient, they never use any of the treatments quacks swear by. There are several reasons for this:
— The alternative ‘immune stimulants’ do not really stimulate the immune system.
— Stimulating the immune system is rarely a desirable therapeutic aim.
— Stimulating a normal immune system is hardly possible.
— For many of us, stimulating the immune system might even be a very risky business (if it were at all achievable).
My advice is to ask your practitioner precisely why he wants to stimulate your immune system. Then ask him to try stimulating his own immune system first and to show you the proof that his therapy can do the trick.
Critics don’t understand
Sooner or later, someone will object to quackery. If that happens, the quack has several options to save his bacon (and income). One of the easiest and most popular solution is to claim: ‘Of course you disagree with me, because you do not understand!’
Subsequently, the quack would deploy all his charisma and explain that, in order to achieve the level of expertise he has acquired, one has to do much more than to know a bit about science. In fact, one has to understand the treatment in question on a much deeper level. One has to immerse oneself into it, open one’s mind completely and become a different human being altogether. This cannot be achieved by study alone; the process requires years of meditative work. And not everyone has the ability to succeed on this difficult path. It takes a lot of talent, energy, insight and vision to become a true healer.
Critics who disagree with quacks are really to be pitied. They fail to exist on quite the same level as those who are ‘in the know’. Therefore, one must not get annoyed with those who disagree — they cannot understand because they have not seen the light.
My advice is to read up about the no true Scotsman fallacy; this might help people to look beyond the charisma of these gurus and expose their charlatanry for what it truly is.
Research is being suppressed
Some critics seem immune to charisma and stubbornly insist on evidence for the therapeutic claims made by quacks. That attitude can be awkward for the charlatan — because usually there is no good evidence.
Cornered in this way, quacks often come up with a simple but effective conspiracy theory: the research has been done and it has produced fabulous results, but it has been supressed by… well, by whoever comes to mind. Usually Big Pharma or ‘the scientific establishment’ have to be dragged into the frame.
According to this theory, the pharmaceutical industry (or whoever else comes in handy) was so shaken by the findings of the research that they decided to make it disappear. They had no choice, really; the alternative therapy in question was so very effective that it would have put Big Pharma straight out of business. As we all know Big Pharma to be evil to the core, they had no ethical or moral qualms about committing such a crime to humanity. Profits must come before charity!
My advice is to explain to quacks that such conspiracy theories do, in fact, merely prove that his quackery is not an effective therapy against his prosecution complex.
Critics are bought and corrupt
If, despite all these protective ploys, critics become threatening to the quackery trade, an easy and much-used method is to discredit them. If other ploys, like the ones above, fail to silence the critics, the next step must be to attack and claim that the critics are corrupt. In fact, they receive money from some interested party, like Big Pharma. Why else would they spend their time exposing quackery?
Many people — quacks included — can only think of financial motivations; the possibility that someone might do a job for altruistic reasons does not occur to them. Therefore, it sounds most plausible that the critics are criticising for money — after all, the quacks also quack for money.
My advice: do your own research and find out for yourself who might be bought by whom, and who has a financial interest in quackery selling well.
Even Nobel prize-winners agree with us
It is true, there are some Nobel prize-winners who defend homeopathy or other bogus treatments. Whenever this happens, quacks have a field day, cite the Nobel laureate ad infinitum and imply that his or her views prove their notions to be correct.
Little do they know, in fact, that all they are doing is milking yet another classical fallacy, the ‘appeal to authority’. Incompetent statements from VIPs occur every day; they demonstrate merely that even exceedingly bright, successful or famous people can be as silly as the next person.
My advice is to check first what the Nobel laureate actually said — more often than not, a much-publicised quote turns out to be a misquote. Second, find out what his or her qualifications are for making such a statement; a Nobel prize in literature, for instance, is not an ideaal qualification for commenting on healthcare issues.
Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, is the author of A Scientist in Wonderland and the awardee of the John Maddox Prize 2015 for standing up for science. He blogs at edzardernst.com.