By Ken Perrott 27/10/2015


The article How Quackery Sells from Quackwatch is ten years old but it still very relevant. Perhaps even more relevant than it used to be because of the increase in internet coverage. This has widened the possibilities for snake oil salespersons. But it has also widened the possibilities for propagandists who may not be selling something themselves but are promoting the ideologies that the snake oil salespeople rely on.

It is the last form of quackery that concerns me. I am one of the last persons to be attracted to “natural”/alternative health products and treatments. But I certainly have to battle the “natural”/alternative health propagandists in the comments section of this blog and elsewhere on the internet.

How Quackery Sells describes the ways quacks fool their customers and patients. But it is amazing that these same methods seem to come just as naturally to the internet commenter or troll who devotes so much time to attacking bloggers who promote or defend science. This could describe the troll:

“Modern health quacks are supersalesmen. They play on fear. They cater to hope. And once they have you, they’ll keep you coming back for more . . . and more . . . and more.”

“Most people think that quackery is easy to spot. Often it is not. Its promoters wear the cloak of science. They use scientific terms and quote (or misquote) scientific references.”

And these are methods common to quacks and trolls promoting quackery.

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Appeals to vanity

“A subtle appeal to your vanity underlies the message of the TV ad quack: Do it yourself—be your own doctor.”

Yes – and that is a common message of these internet trolls. Be your own doctor – don’t trust the professional!

Turning customers into salespeople

“Most people who think they have been helped by an unorthodox method enjoy sharing their success stories with their friends.”

And how many trolls have told us about their bad experiences with community water fluoridation (CWF)? All the aches and pains, irritable bowel syndrome, etc., that go away when they stop drinking fluoridated water – and reappear when they accidentally do drink it! They pretend to speak from authority even though it is “difficult to evaluate a “health” product on the basis of personal experience.”

Trouble is:

“Since we tend to believe what others tell us of personal experiences, testimonials can be powerful persuaders. Despite their unreliability, they are the cornerstone of the quack’s success.”

Perhaps that is why the anti-fluoride troll relies on such personal claims. Polite people are afraid to doubt them – yet when asked for specifics b y rude people like me they often run away.

The use of fear

The article says about this:

“Quackery’s most serious form of fear-mongering has been its attack on water fluoridation. Although fluoridation’s safety is established beyond scientific doubt, well-planned scare campaigns have persuaded thousands of communities not to adjust the fluoride content of their water to prevent cavities. Millions of innocent children have suffered as a result.”

Clinical tricks

“The most important characteristic to which the success of quacks can be attributed is probably their ability to exude confidence. Even when they admit that a method is unproven, they can attempt to minimize this by mentioning how difficult and expensive it is to get something proven to the satisfaction of the FDA these days. If they exude self-confidence and enthusiasm, it is likely to be contagious and spread to patients and their loved ones.”

Or, in the case of anti-fluoride campaigners, spread to local body politicians when these self-declared “experts” make submissions full of misinformation and distortion of the scientific articles they cite.

“Another potent technique is cultural association, in which promoters ally themselves with religious or other cultural beliefs by associating their product or service with an article of faith or prejudice of their target audience.”

Anti-fluoride campaigners are past masters at taking advantage of widespread concern for the environment, desire to support and return to nature and the sensible fear of contamination.

Handling the opposition

“Quacks are involved in a constant struggle with legitimate health care providers, mainstream scientists, government regulatory agencies and consumer protection groups. Despite the strength of this science-based opposition, quackery manages to flourish. To maintain their credibility, quacks use a variety of clever propaganda ploys.”

“They persecuted Galileo!” – “Today’s quack boldly asserts that he is another example of someone ahead of his time.”

The charge of “conspiracy.” “How can we be sure that the AMA, the FDA, the American Cancer Society, drug companies and others are not involved in some monstrous plot to withhold a cancer cure from the public?”

Anti-fluoride campaigners continually resort to conspiracy to explain the near unanimous support of health authorities for CWF.

“Claims of “suppression” are used to market publications as well as treatments. Many authors and publishers purport to offer information that your doctor, the AMA, and/or government agencies “don’t want you to know about.””

So often the troll claims that their doctor refuses to recognise the symptoms they claim CWF cause. And as far as the scientific and science publication establishment is concerned – of course they suppress any data supporting the anti-fluoride claims.

“Another diversionary tactic is to charge that quackery’s critics are biased or have been bought off by drug companies.”

“Shill” must be the most common term of abuse used by the anti-fluoride troll against anyone attempting to communicate the science behind CWF.

“Quacks like to charge that, “Science doesn’t have all the answers.” That’s true, but it doesn’t claim to have them. Rather, it is a rational and responsible process that can answer many questions—including whether procedures are safe and effective for their intended purpose. It is quackery that constantly claims to have answers for incurable diseases. The idea that people should turn to quack remedies when frustrated by science’s inability to control a disease is irrational. Science may not have all the answers, but quackery has no answers at all! It will take your money and break your heart.”

That seems obvious to me but how often do we get trolls effectively rejecting, or disparaging, science as a way of understanding reality? How often do the “failures” and mistakes of science – usually more imaginary than real – get trundled out. Anti-fluoride campaigners seem unable to understand that recognition of the problems due to smoking, lead in petrol or prescription of thalidomide to pregnant women are an argument for science, not an argument to ignore science.

How to Avoid Being Tricked

“The best way to avoid being tricked is to stay away from tricksters. Unfortunately, in health matters, this is no simple task.”

“Sad to say, in most contests between quacks and ordinary people, the quacks still are likely to win.”

Well, I guess health experts and scientifically informed sceptics are not fooled. Trouble is, when the information peddled by trolls is presented unchallenged to local body politicians or decision makers these “ordinary people” are often fooled.

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