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The Present State of Quackery

Sunday, August 7th, 2011


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries quackery was personified by the Snake Oil Salesman. Just what was he? And, for that matter, what is Snake Oil? Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from the Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis), which the Chinese used to treat joint pain. When translated to our culture, it was never effective in controlling pain or anything else for which it was eventually sold. Therefore, the most common usage of the phrase is as a derogatory term for quack medicine. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable and/or unverifiable quality or benefit. In simplest terms, the Snake Oil salesman was a peddler who sold an unproven remedy for medical problems people had. They preyed on the unsuspecting who desperately wanted a cure for what ailed them, even if none existed.

Are there such people today? We would like to think not. We live in a scientific society and are sophisticated and knowledgeable. It should be hard to fool us. Besides, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) was created in 1906 just to protect us from such. The unfortunate answer is that they are everywhere, just in different guise.

Today, exaggerated marketing for therapies, procedures, diets or products abound. These transcend all of medicine, but a large percentage of them are in the areas of cosmetic rejuvenation and lifestyle enhancement. This is partially because these areas are where people are already willing to spend their own money. The question is why they still exist. The answer lies in two basic facets of our present society and how complex it has become. We all need shortcuts in making decisions. Otherwise, we would never get anything done. One of the shortcuts we use is to trust authority. This works well as long as we are trusting real authority and what that authority is telling us is, indeed, factual. If the authority is not who he claims to be, or what he tells us is not factual, our shortcut fails us. The other problem is the sheer complexity of medicine itself. Here, the shortcut of consistency fails us. If a therapy or ingredient can do one amazing thing, to be consistent, we tend to believe it can do many other related things, when, in fact, it cannot.

Excellent examples of the latter are lasers and stem cells. Because lasers are extraordinary machines for some procedures, like resurfacing the skin to rid us of wrinkles or spots, when told they can also tighten loose skin and improve facelifts, breast lifts, tummy tucks or liposuction, we tend to believe they can. The truth is, they cannot tighten skin and those procedures done with the laser are no more likely to give a good result then those done other ways. Unfortunately, many of these myths get perpetrated by normally real authorities who have relied on another “authority” (the company selling the machine and the hype around it) without first checking the real data available.

Stem cells, too, are amazing cells and have fantastic, though yet to be proven, potential. Because Stem Cells have been found in liposuctioned fat, there is now a readily available source of them. Even then, they are quite sparse, concentrating them is very difficult and there is no data yet about what they are really capable of doing or, even, how to use them. Unfortunately, everyone has jumped on the Snake Oil Wagon and is touting wonderful rejuvenation, including Facelift, from the few cells injected, even without data that they make any difference.

In a similar vein, multiple hormonal therapies are offered based on one of their properties. Though not as popular as it once was, HGH (Human Growth Hormone) has been touted to build muscle and reduce weight. These are things it does help do, but only in conjunction with an exercise program and proper diet, which will accomplish your goals without the exogenous hormone. The new Snake Oil is HCG (Human Chorionic Gonadotropin) for weight loss. Again it is probably the accompanying diet alone (or the cost of the injections that cause you to adhere to the diet) that accomplishes your goal. The main problem with both these is the ancillary, unwanted effects they cause.

There are also multiple other unproven therapies out there, like Telomere Analysis, Mesotherapy, Ozone therapy, Platelet Rich Plasma for hair restoration and other things, and a multitude of “Marvelous” machines. These are all proffered by “authorities” in the field of cosmetic rejuvenation and lifestyle enhancement. They all have fancy certificates attesting to their expertise. The real question, as I said in a previous article, is who grants the certificate and, therefore, how much expertise do they really have.

So, since our normal shortcuts can fail us in this area, what do we do? To start, we need to question the expertise of the “authority.” How did they learn to do what they do, and who granted them their authority. Was it an American Board of Medical Specialists Board, such as the American Board of Plastic Surgery, or some other invented “Board?” Next, ask about the scientific data supporting the treatment, procedure or product. Has it been shown in multiple comparative studies to really be superior and to do what is claimed? Is the data specific for how it is now being used? If there are pictures, ask if they are typical and what else was done between the before and after. Also ask if the pictures are of the practitioner’s work. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it frequently is.