UPDATE: 4/30/2013 – If you’re visiting from the RDF or IFLS… Hello! Welcome! I’m so sorry. I’d like to head this post off with a disclaimer: This post is really old. Ancient by internet standards. I’m fully aware of all the problems this version of the Red Flags has. I know how weak the “Doctor” panel is, for example. Rest assured, when I get around v3, you can expect a cleaner, tighter, stronger guide. Better than ever before.
A long while ago, I drafted what was then an unparalleled visual guide to snake oil and quackery. So the Red Flags of Quackery was born. It was deemed worthy by the intertubes, and saw it’s way around the net. In the accompanying article, I stated that I would continue to build upon the guide, strengthening the criteria and adding more red flags. Today I make good with my promise.
What’s new? Aside from some clearer language on panels such as “Quantum” and “Toxins,” you may notice there are a slew of new panels up. I’ll try to roll through them quickly, linking to appropriate examples:
Testimonials: Quack remedies are usually covered with positive anecdotes from your grandmother or best friend, but it’s important to remember that this is all anecdotal evidence. It means absolutely nothing.
“Helps Your Body…”: I once met an Osteopath at a small gathering. I nearly bit my tongue off as she told me about how she “helps the body heal itself.” Which is a clever way of saying “I don’t do anything, but feel free to thank me when you get better. Toodles!” Also note that if your body was really “off balance” or needed help “removing toxins.” You’d be at a real doctor, not buying herbs at CVS, because your skin would be yellow and you wouldn’t be able to stand.
Celebrity Doctor: The appeal to authority. Once somebody has attained some celebrity status or a Nobel prize or two, they feel they can say anything, and people feel they must be right. This is wrong. I’m sure Dr. Oz is a great surgeon, but when he decides to start endorsing psychics and charlatans, you have to look past any accolades he had previously garnered.
“Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.” -Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World
“Buy My Book”: Pretty simple. A simple way to duck medical research protocol is to publish a book. Why go through all that peer-review nonsense when you can reach your credulous audience directly? Be wary of anyone who claims to know something, but makes you buy their product to find out. Another red flag is that said doctor publishes in his or her own journal, or in crappy journals centered around their woo of choice.
Burzynski is a Fraud: Sorry, that was for SEO purposes. Stanislaw Burzynski is a biochemist and physician that runs a cancer treatment center out of Texas. He has come under fire recently when word began spreading that his “treatment” involves taking tons of cash from sick, desperate cancer patients with the promise to put them in his miracle cancer cure clinical trials. Woah. WOAH. Red flags should be going up all over the place. Selling spots in your clinical trial? That’s not how it works, buddy. That’s already an invalidated, contaminated, worthless experiment. But if that wasn’t bad enough, did I mention his “treatment” was declared ineffective as early as 1983, and oncologists have branded it “nonsense.” To top it all, after he rips the money out of their cold, dying hands, he doesn’t even publish his results.
His asshattery was brought to the limelight by skeptical dynamo Rhys Morgan and the Streisand Effect. Upon hearing about Morgan’s blog posts, Burzynski sent some douchebag after him, making threats of litigation and even sending him pictures of his house. Supporters of Morgan, including Simon Singh and his amazing legal team, pushed back and showed the world that Burzynski is nothing but a litigious bully and a fraud.
Not a Real Doctor: Pretty simple. Chiropractors like to call themselves “Dr.” I can do that too. My name is Dr. Maki Naro. I have a PHD in Fine Arts. Go ahead, look it up. I didn’t go to art school for four years just to be called “Maki.” The title gives them an air of legitimacy, but don’t let it fool you.
Of course, use your judgment. When your RN or NP tells you to take your medicine, please comply. They’re all on the same side. Except for Dentists.
(Fucking) Magnets: This just needed to be here. Magnetic bracelets don’t do anything. If a refrigerator magnet could affect your health, what is the Earth’s magnetic field doing? This sort of belief ties in closely to belief in things like “living energy fields,” chi, reiki, and auras in the sense that the claimant states that you have some sort of energy that can be manipulated to your benefit. Pfft. Powerful, rapidly oscillating magnetic fields on the other hand…
Hostility to Criticism: This is a good one that applies to many of the panels above it. Nothing says, “sore loser” like trying to sue your critics when they call you out on your bullshit. Just a note if you plan to do this (sue, that is), the law isn’t really on your side anymore, and as we saw with Rhys Morgan, we’re not going to take any bullying from snake-oil charlatans.
“Western Medicine”: Part of a series of false dichotomies created by alternative medicine proponent. By differentiating between Western and Eastern medicine, it gives the false pretense that there is such a thing. This is false. As stated by the Minchin Declaration:
And try as hard as I like, a small crack appears in my diplomacy-dike. “By definition”, I begin. “Alternative Medicine”, I continue, “Has either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work. You know what they call “alternative medicine” that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” -Tim Minchin, Storm
As with v1.0, I’m keeping this open to suggestions. So far my goal is to get a 5×5 bingo board going. Though you can sort of play as it is (I suggest that, like pseudoscience, you make illogical leaps and questionable connections to create a match of four). Enjoy!
Update: Legendary alt. med critic Edzard Ernst had an article in the Guardian about Britain’s new “College of Medicine” and its bait-and-switch tactic of reeling people in with promises of “holistic, patient-based care” and “innovation” while basically just treating with homeopathy or other quack remedies. I bring this up because a commenter amusingly pointed us to the NCCAM website as a source, when it’s really just a lobby group for quacks, meant to give legitimacy to alternative medicine in the form of “regulation” (Implying that if a modality needs regulation, then clearly it means it is efficacious). It’s a quite common tactic alt. med. lobbyists use to get their foot in the door.
I have many of you to thank for suggestions, especially commenters on Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, and Reddit. I’ll begin adding names here as soon as I track you all down. Thank you for your support. We at Sci-ence.org salute you!