How to quack-proof yourself

There are an awful lot of fraudulent, deceptive and just plain nonsensical medical claims out there.  Some are merely stupid.  Others are actively harmful to your health.  I’ve been the recipient of more than my fair share of spam from vendors of such quackery since my disabling injury in 2004, and I’ve learned to be deeply skeptical of them.

Now Dr. Amy Tuteur, a former clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, lists ‘Six red flags you need to recognize to quack-proof yourself‘.  Here’s an excerpt.

Americans tend to be pretty savvy about advertising. Put a box around claims, annotate them with the words “paid advertisement” or “sponsored content” and most people approach those claims warily. Unfortunately, the same people who are dubious about advertising claims are remarkably gullible when it comes to quackery.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is surprisingly easy to tell quackery apart from real medical information. Quack claims are typically decorated with red flags … if you know what to look for. What follows is a list of some of those red flags.

1. The secret knowledge flag: When someone implies they are sharing secret medical knowledge with you, run in the opposite direction. There is no such thing as secret medical knowledge. In an age where there are literally thousands of competing medical journals, tremendous pressure on researchers to publish papers, and instantaneous dissemination of results on the Internet, nothing about medicine could possibly be secret.

There’s more at the link.  Very useful and highly recommended reading.



  1. Everyone should read this. I know my Dad has fallen victim to that, spending money on "miracle herbs" and such when he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer. I had to educate him. There are some wonderful, healing, herbs, some of which I take but none are a miracle, secret cure for cancer, just an enforcement of our own immune system He wasted a lot of money but it was the false hope that made me angry at such companies.

    I've done it too, the $100 face cream that's supposed to make me look 18, when good old olive oil and honey do a better job.

    Thanks for sharing Peter.

  2. Yeah but….

    For instance, she says, A pervasive theme in quackery is the notion of the brilliant heretic. Believers argue that science is transformed by brilliant heretics whose fabulous theories are initially rejected, but ultimately accepted as the new orthodoxy. Like plate tectonics? Like the big bang theory vs. the steady state models? She's going against perhaps the most quoted book in all of science, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (I get no money from Amazon links, just pointing out what I'm talking about, yada, yada, yada.)

    Like Neil deGrasse Tyson, she makes the mistake of saying since science is self-correcting and is right in the long run, it's always right. In general, science is always wrong; if it was always right, why would it be need to be self-correcting? Something would be proven, then put on the shelf while new things were conquered. If this is true at all, it's only true in math.

    In reality you get things like the recent paper where a well-funded lab tried to replicate cancer research and found about 1/4 of 67 papers could be verified. My favorite quote: "I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they'd done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It's very disillusioning." Which reminds me that one of the most downloaded academic papers in history is John Ioannidis' Why Most Published Research is Wrong.

    Scientific revolutions, as Kuhn and others say, don't happen because the weight of evidence overthrows the old beliefs, they happen because the old scientists die off.

    Gary Taubes, one of my favorite science writers, and a guy who has won many rewards at it, says, "And here’s the challenge to both the scientist working in the field and the lay observer following along: how do we tell the difference between the one in a million times, say, that an outsider comes along and gets it right, and the other 999,999 quack-driven attempts? The numbers alone tell us that the best idea is always to bet against the outsider, that we’re always best served by ignoring him or her and getting back to science as usual (what Kuhn called “normal science”). The odds are enormously in our favor if we do so. But, still, when a paradigm is shifted, it’s going to be an outsider who does it,…"

  3. Aauggghhh (as Calvin says) "Gary Taubes, one of my favorite science writers, and a guy who has won many rewards at it, says," is of course supposed to be "…has won many awards at it,…"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *