October 28th, 2022

A Note About Quackery

Against my better judgment, I often find myself perusing the internet. YouTube is my bugaboo, as I love to have video essays on while I do other work, but occasionally I’ll get distracted on Instagram or even just my Google News feed. I’m consistently amazed at how much bad information is out there. Like, I shouldn’t be surprised, obviously, given the past 3 years of pandemic living and our society’s less-than-stellar response. But I’m surprised that I’m seeing it, as I am neither a conspiracy theorist nor someone who spends enough time on social media to be in an echo chamber. So I guess my surprise is how quickly the many different internet algorithms push us all towards some pretty fringe information. I can watch a video about the benefits of a certain stretch or exercise, and then I’m given the option to watch about 3-5 different diet videos (not a thing I’m interested in or support, since spoiler diets all boil down to creating a caloric deficit) or suggested news videos, or some videos from sources that legally don’t claim to be news so they can’t be sued but still have news in the name because we are in one of the dumber timelines. Or exciting clips about young people unboxing things as I should somehow care about that, or segments from morning TV shows about how blueberries will cure literally anything. My point in all of this is that each and everyone of us, at any given point on the internet, is only a click or two away from dealing with quackery.

Quackery is someone making dishonest claims or misrepresenting expertise, often in the field of medicine, for financial gain. I guess I always thought it was pretty obvious that we all should be ignoring Joe Rogan because he just wants to sell protein powder and terrible MMA shirts, but somehow he continues to host a successful show full of misinformation from someone who is famous for hosting a reality TV show. Like, it’s hard for me to even say Rogan is a quack because he shouldn’t be considered an expert in anything. TV host I guess, I think Fear Factor had a good run. He was a commentator for MMA, and has a super strong kick according to internet rumors? But none of us think Joe Buck should be playing in the NFL just because he’s a commentator. Regardless, not someone we want to be taking medical advice from, or probably health and wellness advice. So we can look at someone like Joe Rogan and see he very clearly lacks any relevant expertise and also has financial reasons to promote the things he does. In fact, if we look at his business model, we can see him defending quacks and being against actual experts as a way to keep his business up and running. Easy to see the quackery, a non-expert just looking for financial gain. 

Rogan, Alex Jones, Marcus Aubery, lots of these people are easy quacks. But what about those people who sell shampoo, or mattresses, or toothpaste gum, or essential oils? Most of them are quacks. I didn’t actually check, but it’s a safe bet. If there is a buck to be made, snake oil salesmen are going to come out and try to take advantage. The human brain is kind of easy to fool, and social media makes it way easier. Many people will trust a product that is endorsed in a slick looking video than something that has good scientific backing. In my line of work, I see it with weird therapy types (like rebirthing, or scream therapy), but especially in products like crystals, oils, and supplements. So, you need to look for non-experts who have financial motivation as a key sign, as well as products that sound too good to be true such as:

      • Incredibly fast results to a complex problem
      • Claiming secret, ancient, or mysterious solutions
      • Very cheap options for something otherwise very expensive (like cancer treatment)
      • One product cures or fixes multiple problems at once

It’s also good to be wary of celebrity endorsements from non-experts (almost always just financial motivation), but something like a shoe style endorsed by an athlete could be legit. Quacks will also promote other questionable information (see all the aforementioned podcasters) because con artists want to find the easiest targets. If they can get you to believe a crystal will fix your mental health, then they can probably sell you a lot more useless stuff. So, stay away from non-experts, and even with experts you still need to use your critical thinking. Dr. Phil and Jordan Peterson are both quacks, but they have graduate or doctoral degrees. Experts who claim conspiracies are keeping them down or working against them almost always are peddling some version of falsehood, and rather than shutting it down they’re digging in and going to take advantage of vulnerable populations and extremely gullible people. 

Fighting quackery is hard, but stay off social media to find reputable sources. Scientific journals that are peer reviewed are the best bet, as that allows entire panels of experts to double-check each other’s work for flaws or unscientific processes. Scientific journals don’t always agree with the results of a study, but it rules out quackery from setting up a bad study or using unscientific methods to get predetermined outcomes. New research shows it doesn’t take long for the internet to start feeding you unreliable information, so know your sources and check your biases. If it looks like a duck, and it sounds like a duck, best bet is it’s a duck.