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Quack Medicine: Six Telltale Signs That It’s Too Good To Be True

People who have been following me across various platforms for some time will know that my whole ‘schtick’ is research and self-experimentation. Understanding what works for your body is the most important thing that you can do when you’re healing, whether it’s from a chronic illness, or are just looking to become healthier.

One of the things that I’m becoming increasingly aware of is the slightly ‘darker’ side of the wellness community online. The places that offer seemingly bright beacons of hope for those who are sick, by offering easy solutions to far from easy questions.

I’ve talked about this a lot with my friend Colin. We actually became friends after he emailed me after I published an article on the Huffington Post about living with chronic illness in your twenties. We’ve been talking ever since, and one of the standard topics of conversation we keep coming back to is the quackery that is around in the wellness community.

When you’re in the dark place health wise (like I am right now), it’s so easy to desperately start searching for quick fixes and cures. Unfortunately, things don’t often work like that. In response, Colin has written a wonderful article about how you can empower yourself and avoid the unfortunate manipulation that can spread online. If you like this article, make sure to check Colin out on his blog, Not That Kind of Dr.

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With the glut of health information available online, there is more opportunity for people with chronic illness to learn more about their conditions. The problem, of course, is that much of the health information available online is bunk, and dangerous bunk at that. This misinformation – this quack medicine – may be well-intentioned or more sinister, but either way we need to learn to recognise it. To that end, I’ve put together this list of warning signs. These are rules of thumb only. Some reputable sources have some of these characteristics, but overall, the presence of any of the following should be a warning to you: quack medicine ahead!

1. They offer miracle cures

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Watch out for remedies, supplements, diets, regimens, and so on that claim to work instantly, with no side effects, on a wide range of conditions.

Be especially careful when the thing a website is pushing cures things such as fatigue, aches and pains, sleep disturbance, stress, etc.: these problems are caused by so many diverse things that almost everyone has them at one time or another, and therefore everyone is a potential customer! This is where scammers get the most bang for their buck.

2. They are being persecuted by a big conspiracy

Often purveyors of quack medicine will play the ‘conspiracy card’ to explain why mainstream medicine doesn’t accept their chosen theories. Now, it is true that powerful groups can marginalise threats to their stream of income. But it takes much more than an assertion on a website to prove such a claim.

There are enough conspiracy theories out there that one of them is likely true, but the odds that the one you’re reading is true are very low. So, as a rule, be suspicious.

3. They have a financial incentive

There’s nothing wrong with a company letting you know about the benefits of a legitimate product that it sells. But there is a difference between honest advertising of an effective remedy and the snake-oil salesmanship of quack medicine. The trouble is that it is difficult to tell which you’re dealing with, in the absence of other information.

In general, be on your guard when a supposedly informational website just happens to have something for sale — the very thing that their research has shown to be the solution to your problem! When there is the chance to profit by convincing you of something, expect the other side to fight dirty and be pleasantly surprised if your further research uncovers that they’ve been playing fair with you.

Be especially wary if what is being sold is only available through the website itself (or company, or person), and not from any other sources.

4. They are selling intangibles

When a product is for sale in a store, we understand that that product cost the store a certain amount to purchase or manufacture, and it makes perfect sense to compensate the store for their expense in bringing the product to us (plus a little extra, so they can keep the company running). Fine.

But when we look for health information online, we’re often bombarded with offers for intangibles: wellness coaching, courses, and ebooks, among other things. Of course it costs something to produce these, and make them available. But, judging from the quality of most of the intangible offerings that I’ve seen, the cost must have been minuscule. ‘Ebooks’ that are no more than pamphlets hastily produced in Microsoft Word, ‘courses’ that are no more than a 20-minute webcam rant that wouldn’t have garnered a hundred views on YouTube if it were free.

The price for these ‘products’, however, is not. What is the justification for charging, say, $25 for a 15-page ebook full of inspirational material? Other than profiteering, of course.

I understand that a lot of people have good information. I understand that coaching can have a valuable role to play in healing and the maintenance of good health. But for heaven’s sake, get a referral from someone you know in real life.

5. They are using sales-y tactics

Marketers have always used a variety of techniques to persuade you to buy their products. Some of these techniques occupy the nebulous grey area between ethical and unethical behaviour. Here I’m referring to tactics which manipulate features of human psychology to influence you to make decision which you would not make upon reflection. People hawking quack medicine love to have you make decisions without reflection.

What are these techniques? You’ve probably seen them a thousand times. They are things such as creating artificial scarcity: how can a webinar have limited ‘seating’, for example? Another example is providing fake testimonials. The fact that ‘Jessie K. from Pasadena, CA’ thinks you’re doing a good job means absolutely nothing if it’s written on your website’s sidebar. One technique that I love to hate is beloved of junk mailers everywhere. I’m talking here about the presumption of consent: “YES! I want to receive 30 days’ supply of [insert something shady here]”

Good health products don’t necessarily sell themselves, but what makes them good products is the fact that you would buy them if you reflected on the decision.

6. They use science selectively

Never doubt the power of wishful thinking. When we want to believe something works, we’re more likely to accept evidence in its favour unquestioningly. Quack medicine pushers love to include scientific evidence for their products, but in a very selective way.

They’ll often simply state that ‘studies show’ that their product works, without ever naming the studies. Sometimes, the studies in question are mythical. Sometimes, they’re real, but out of date, irrelevant, or their conclusions are held by a minority of researchers.

Here, unfortunately, there is no shortcut to doing a little research yourself. Always demand the citations, and make sure that the studies being usedactually say what the advertising material claims they say.

Also, beware the use of scientific-sounding words used to give an air of legitimacy to something bogus. A quick Google or Wikipedia search will often clarify whether the wool is being pulled over your eyes.

Words of parting

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I don’t wish to malign anyone who is offering legitimate health products or services. The presence of some of these six ‘warning signs’ does not always signal quack medicine, but it always pays to be a cautious and informed consumer – even if all you’re consuming is information. Because the stakes are rarely higher than your well-being.

8 Comments

8 Comments on Quack Medicine: Six Telltale Signs That It’s Too Good To Be True

  1. Sam Sexton
    September 27, 2014 at 6:12 am (3 years ago)

    I came here expecting a lot of food quackery, but actually find this thoughtful article.

    There is so much food woo around, the biggest of these are when people state that all natural is best, and that chemicals are bad, regardless of the fact that everything we eat is chemicals.

    The BBC article really perpetuated those food myths.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lipman
      September 27, 2014 at 8:32 am (3 years ago)

      I remember seeing this amazing project online that was showing the chemical makeup of certain fruits. It was really refreshing to see that yes, everything is chemicals. I don’t think it necessarily perpetuated the myths, it just shared what is working for me. I get more unwell when I take medication, and they have caused some side effects that I’m still dealing with today. So I was just looking for another way. For me, and many of my friends, this approach works for me. It’s not for everyone, but as I’ve said many times, it’s about researching and finding out what works for you!

      Reply
  2. Ada Mournian
    September 27, 2014 at 7:23 am (3 years ago)

    Great advice. I’m always amazed at people who confuse clinical research or large-scale studies with googling something. Google finds links so you can type eg Substance X + weight-loss or Substance X + weight-gain and get millions of results; neither prove anything. Also there’s the emotional blackmail side of things. Well-meaning people will no doubt suggest things they have read about (from similarly conducted research) or heard about from a friend. You have to stay pretty tough-minded.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lipman
      September 27, 2014 at 8:33 am (3 years ago)

      Definitely, it’s something that I came across so much when I was first getting started, and I think it’s so important that people are aware of the potential traps…especially when you’re so desperately ill that you’ll cling onto anything!

      Reply
  3. Sandy
    September 27, 2014 at 5:23 pm (3 years ago)

    I have had ill health for many years, on and off. I know I begin to feel better when I eat certain foods and I know certain foods make me worse, but I’m desperately wanting to get better and stay healthy. This has been going on for decades and I just want the chance at a normal life. Maybe this blog will help point me in the right direction. I came here after reading about your blog on the BBC. I’m intrigued.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lipman
      September 28, 2014 at 7:24 am (3 years ago)

      Thanks Sandy! I found that keeping a really in-depth food diary was really helpful when trying to figure out how I reacted to foods. I would write down everything from what I ate, what meds I took, how I felt during, after, before, when I woke up, any external stressors. It really helps you put things together and get a better understanding of how your body interacts with your food and your surroundings! Maybe that’s a good way to start? Good luck!

      Reply
      • Sandy
        September 28, 2014 at 9:15 pm (3 years ago)

        Thank you. I will give it a try.

        Reply
  4. John Crocker
    September 27, 2014 at 11:44 pm (3 years ago)

    Wise words indeed! It’s so good that you found a helpful and wise friend in Colin too. You seem to be doing a lot of original research on yourself. I totally agree with you about the quackery and suspect information that is best avoided unless you have money to burn! I am sure you have also found some sound scientific bases for the various things you have tried but wonder if you have followed any of the scientists I consider honest and trustworthy in their contributions on the internet and their books. If you or those following your blog have not found them I recommend John Robbins, T Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselsteyn, Neal Barnard and Dean Ornish. All of these accord very well with the way you have followed so far and their books contain a wealth of solid peer-reviewed science to back up their claims.

    One thing I would want to add is that there is indeed a conspiracy to silence the message and it comes from big pharmaceutical companies and big agro-chemicals because it is not in the interests of either to have people get healthy through good wholesome food.

    My final word is that I am so pleased to see a fellow Londoner giving such a great lead and wish you every success as you continue your quest.

    Reply

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