Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Want to scam some money from people with quack medical products?

The Science-Based Medicine blog provides a steady flow of debunking information about "alternative" medicine scams, aka, quack medicine.

Steven Novella has a useful and entertaining post Quantum Snake Oil – A Primer 01/15/2014 about the various forms of woo (a term for unproven esoteric claims, as in "woo-woo") we commonly run into these days in the alternative medicine branch. He suggests a "thought experiment":

... for the sake of this thought experiment let’s assume that you have no morals, ethics, or conscience. You are comfortable lying to people, even if they are sick, and even if it will harm their health.

Your task is to get as many people as possible to believe that small bits of plastic can improve their health and treat their symptoms. This is not as difficult as it may at first appear, and the payout can be huge. Small plastic stickers can be mass produced for pennies. The primary investment will be creating and maintaining a website. Then, if you can get people to believe that the plastic stickers are magical, the money will come rolling in.
He then recounts several common techniques that quacksters to make phony health claims while staying technically on the right side of the law. Some of the most notable ones:

All natural: Whatever else we claim, we’ll sell our magical stickers as "all natural." People have been primed to prefer everything "natural." We don’t have to worry about how to define the term, it’s not regulated. And to boost this effect we can scare monger about drugs and chemicals. We can tell people they don’t want chemicals in their bodies, even though they are made of chemicals – trust me, this will work.
Endorsements: ... Or we can find some celebrity endorsements. For some reason the public will listen to celebrities, even when they have absolutely no training or background relevant to their endorsement. In fact – they are famous for being successful in an industry based upon fantasy and pretending. Don’t try to make sense of it – just know that it works.
Testimonials: People are more likely to believe other people than scientific data. This one is not optional – we need to have plenty of testimonials with "real" people saying how wonderful our product is.
I think that for most people who use these things, in the end it's more for inspiration or fun, and not as a serious cure for a serious disease.

But "alternative" medicine definitely has its dark side. And the dark side is often the most profitable, especially with fraudulent cancer cures. Some of them bilk big money out of scared, often terminally ill patients and their families. And people with have cancer cases for which real medicine has a high likelihood of successful treatment will sometimes opt for useless "alternative" treatments until their disease becomes far more difficult to treat with real medicine.

That's why skeptical sites and publications like Science-Based Medicine are so important. They provide vital information and insight into medical scams that can and do cause real harm to people.

I'm very much in favor of people taking a critical attitude toward their real medical providers, asking questions and learning themselves health and treatment issues. But it should be done from reality-based sources, not from scamsters or faith-healers.


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