Despite the fact that you’re reading this on a machine that most likely fits in your pocket and would have been inconceivable just 20 years ago you’d be forgiven for forgetting that humanity is actually at the peak of its scientific knowledge, so why is quackery still prevalent?
That’s because the last two and a half decades have seen a rise in anti-scientific notions spread throughout the internet and even into the mainstream. While truth and empiricism have been under attack across the board (climate change denial and power forwards claiming the earth is flat come to mind), nowhere has it lost more ground than in the realm of medicine and health.
Some studies show that in the 1990’s alone, there was roughly a 25% increase in the use of ‘alternative’ medicines. In the year 2017, a recent poll showed that approximately half of the population of the United States admits to having used some fringe, unproven or ‘alternative’ treatment.
Desperation as a Catalyst for Quackery
How did we get here? There’s a few factors, one that’s rather obvious, but still must be stated, is, of course, desperation. The sad fact is a lot of Americans don’t have any real form of health care coverage. Treatments that should be routine are often inaccessible, and it is people in this position that are the least likely to have the education necessary to avoid being preyed on by those offering any range of ‘all natural’, spiritual and ‘alternative’ cures.
The technology boom of the nineties changed the way falsehoods spread. Quacks and charlatans have always existed to take advantage of the vulnerable. For as long as men have gotten sick, other men have sought to lie to them for profit. The idea itself conjures up men standing outside dusty carts hawking oils to cure pains and lotions that would save lives. Unfortunately for an unsuspecting and frankly ignorant American public, the carts have been replaced by TV shows, blogs, and book deals.
You’ll find that some of these people still use titles like “Dr.” before their names, whether they earned it or not. However, many more have found that they simply don’t need to. In fact, publications like Natural News and its owner Mike Adams have found a public not just ignorant of science, but also suspicious of the imagined elitism of medical professionals.
False Claims + Nonexistent Proof = Quackery
Adams website doesn’t just sell his products, (although there are many, many products) it also spreads disinformation and conspiracy, mixing far right-wing politics with its quackery, and reading like the plot of an incredibly boring episode of The X-files. Statements made by Natural News range from denial of the lethality of the AIDS virus to the idea that Microsoft is involved with eugenics work, along the way, of course, Adam’s promises to cure his readers of diseases like diabetes and cancer… for a price.
It should be noted that Natural News is not just some back water fringe blog on the internet. Its readership is in the millions, and its articles spread through social media, shared by people who get roped in by calmer and less obvious false articles, laden with technical sounding jargon, little of which is real or used correctly.
It’s, of course, this abuse of semantics that the literal snake oil salesmen of the world have always used to confuse the public. A good con man never seems like a fraud to his mark. In fact, often they appear like a savior.
Dr. Oz’s Quackery
And no one likely plays that savior better in today’s modern landscape than Dr. Mehmet Oz. You’ve probably seen him on a TV chained to the wall of a laundromat or, ironically enough, in the waiting room of a medical imaging clinic. First coming to prominence as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, Dr. Oz now oversees his own pseudoscience empire. A graduate of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania as well as a professor of surgery at Columbia University. Dr. Oz brings the legitimacy of his medical career to the aid of the illegitimate treatments he espouses.
On his show, he has endorsed numerous fraudulent products and has even gone as far as recommending the services of faith healers. What might be more troubling, is that Dr. Oz may actually believe this, it’s been noted that he has kept a Reiki master on payroll to assist in every surgery he’s performed for at least several years. His false claims have had a very tangible effect on consumers, millions of dollars have been spent on products he recommends, an issue that found him being grilled by members of the U.S. Congress.
Of course, it can’t be under emphasized how important of a role politics has to play in all of this. In 1990, the U.S. Congress created the Office of Alternative Medicine, a pet project of then Senator Thomas Harkin, who believed that ingesting bee pollen cured him of allergies. This Office did not operate under the same guidelines as the FDA; it required almost nothing of the purveyors of different cures and tonics. What it did do was normalize belief in things that were at best unproven and at worst proven false.
In the decades that followed, we saw the rise of the so-called ‘Anti-Vaxxer‘ movement, something you’re by now no doubt familiar with. This provably false conspiracy theory that vaccines caused autism in children, first gained attention due to many celebrity endorsements. From there it grew out of control, getting the attention of fringe news and political commentators until it found itself being covered with some legitimacy by some respected mainstream news outlets. During last years presidential election two of the four ballot eligible candidates flirted with the idea that there may be some truth to the idea. One of those two, a medical doctor, backed down and admitted they knew it was patently false, the other currently lives in the White House.
Given the Presidents embrace of conspiracy theories and a congress that seems capable of accomplishing almost nothing on its own, there is little reason to believe this administration will begin any serious crack down or regulation on these claims. Unfortunately, it might be too late anyway as we see death tolls and illness related to quackery grow year after year.