UPDATE: Version 2.0 Available HERE >>
This post has been a long time coming: A list of red flags to help you identify a pseudoscience or quack modality. I don’t recommend reading this entire article in one sitting, just as I probably shouldn’t have written it in such a fashion. Think of it as a reference guide.
Before we begin, let me address the overarching red flag/rule to live by: If it sounds too good to be true. It probably is. Shall we, then?
“Toxins” – Apparently the world we live in is so polluted and poisoned that we couldn’t possibly survive without the need of some fancy detoxification device/patch/diet. Bull. These snake-oil scams have been around for ages, claiming to remove harmful pollutants from the body for a modest fee. They compare it to changing the oil in your car, because you know, your body can’t take care of itself. In extreme cases, hucksters were once known to craft pills that contained foreign objects or oils**. When the customer inspected their stool after taking the pills, they would find these objects and deduce that the pill had cleansed them from their gut. In today’s age of litigation, this is much rarer. These days, olive oil detoxification diets will claim that green lumps seen in the stool are the ‘toxins’ all bundled up and sent down the river. In actuality it’s just the obscene amount of olive oil they were taking.
Try this as a test, ask the pro-detox advocate to name some toxins, or even define what a toxin is. Most people will say something like “Uh Ionnuo” which is moonspeak. Kill them with fire. The fire of evidence-based medicine. Now, things get a little fuzzy when some quacks will prescribe chelation therapy to cleanse your body, which is a normal procedure for cases of heavy metals poisoning. You can insert a Pantera joke here. The danger is that chelation isn’t a gentle process, and using it frivolously can only cause more harm than good. Your liver does a fine job of cleaning out your blood, and if it wasn’t properly disposing of ‘toxins’ you’d know it for sure. Liver failure is serious business, and you won’t just feel a little sick or “lacking energy”.
“Energy” – This brings us to our next red flag. Popular culture would have you believe that energy is a field that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together. See? That was Star Wars. Point made. This is not how energy works. There is no ‘energy’ field floating around. Energy is the measurement of work capability, meaning it is the quantifiable amount of a force acting upon an object. Oops, I said the F word. It can come in many forms such as kinetic or electrical energy, but at their roots they are both the same thing, the result of atoms interacting with one another. You don’t just pluck it from the air, nor is it emitted by magic bracelets. It does not act on specific aspects such as brain activity or balance. These are merely the claims of hucksters taking advantage of a poorly understood scientific concept. The ‘quantifiable’ part is important, because many times, con artists will just make up a form of energy and claim it is undetectable by science.
Other types of energy include body energies like Chi (ki or qi depending on who you talk to) and the Chakra (energy vortices in the body that can be “blocked”) model which flow through the body and determine our health. We’ll be taking a closer look at this form in a future comic about Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Ancient Wisdom -Speaking of Chinese Medicine, the Appeal to Antiquity is a common logical fallacy that states “If something has been around for a long time, then clearly it works.” It is used to give credence to many ancient, yet erroneous practices. It often comes disguised as the excuse “It’s tradition!” It’s a logical fallacy because the only evidence it has to its merit is its age. You can make up your own Larry King jokes here. I’ll wait.
Ancient practices have no place in the modern world, no matter how near and dear they are. Times change, and when people don’t want to change with them, they demand that their ancient ancestral practices as somehow sacred and deserve respect, no matter how ludicrous they may be. Beware.
“Quantum” - Subatomic particles behave in ways that send the mind spinning. Twin particles entangled with one another respond to identical changes across vast distances. The positions of electrons appear to be anywhere and everywhere in a state of superposition until the act of observation pins it in place. Quantum Tunneling allows a particle to pass completely through a barrier otherwise thought impossible for no reason other than its kinetic energy is less than the potential energy of the barrier. But just as the laws of physics break down when entering the event horizon of a black hole, these quantum properties do not work at the macroscopic level. Entanglement will never allow you to communicate telepathically just as quantum tunneling doesn’t let you go through walls. Though I hear if you run fast enough, the empty space in your atoms passes through the empty space in the atoms of the wall. Go on, try it. I’ll wait here.
Meanwhile, in reality, quantum physics will never directly affect your life*. But ‘quantum’ is a funny word, and like energy before it, the public’s poor understanding of it is used to the charlatan’s advantage. Try peppering an explanation with ‘quantum’ sometime and watch the glassy-eyed nods in agreement. Deepak Chopra famously mangles quantum mechanics to promote healing and new age energy quackery. Last year a spiritual leader was convicted on rape charges for among many things, healing his female followers with his “organic penis“. Sigh. (There’s another red flag for you. The only person who can heal with their steel is Dragonboy Suede.)
The Panacea - This one is simple. There is no one thing that cures all ailments. There is no one thing that causes all ailments. Apply this red flag and watch the various pseudosciences light up the board. It’s just not that simple.
Natural Fallacy -This is another simple one. Natural = Good. Well, as comedian Matt Kirshen once stated “Heroin is natural. Nicotine is natural. A pack of wolves is natural.” Natural does not necessarily mean it is good and healthy, just as ‘unnatural’ does not equate bad. In fact, while you’re arguing this point, ask them to define ‘natural’ and ‘chemicals’. Then let them know that arsenic is natural and water is a chemical. BAM.
Conspiracy/Little Known Secret -This red flag can be reasoned out just by thinking two steps further. Say a man has developed a car that runs on dog pee, but the auto industry and Big Oil is keeping him down. Now only YOU can benefit from his discovery, because you’re so smart. Right. Even if Big Auto was keeping him down, what’s stopping the rest of the world? You don’t think China would gobble that up and blow us out of the water with their new free energy tech? See how it plays into the human desire to be in on something?
A more recent example, a man was diagnosed with cancer, and being the smart, counter-culture, stick-it-to-the-man hipster that he was, he googles cancer. To his horror he discovers that tumors feed on sugar (Biology anyone?). He stops his chemo immediately because they gave him sweets with his lunch, and he goes off on a magical mystery tour of quack-land, 100% certain that he has toppled western medicine. Where does this guy go to stick it to Big Pharma? Whole Foods. He is so fucking hip.
Finally, Putting Things Other than Medicine in Orifices Other than Your Mouth - You thought this was a punchline didn’t you?
Coffee Enemas –I rest my case.
Let’s not forget Ear Candling, which is not only dangerous, but illegal in some countries. It’s such a stupid idea that they had to make a law to keep people from sticking flaming objects in their ears.
Let me also take this time to talk to you about douching. Yeah yeah, I know. Big bearded guy talking about lady parts. Sit the hell down and listen.
The invention of the douche was one of necessity in an age where the vagina was viewed as a dirty hell-hole to where dirty nasty things are done and screaming demon babies emerge– unless you’re married, then it’s HUGS AND FLOWERS. Sadly, we still live in this age. So squirting vinegar solutions up in there is recommended by flowery sounding women on daytime TV commercials.
Draconian ideological and misogynistic reasons aside, all signs point to the eradication of natural flora to increase the risk of infection rather than prevent it. Listen, just like in your gut, which is also filled with awesome bacteria, you want the good bacteria to have a monopoly in there. If you’re stuffed full of helpful, non-virulent germs, the bad ones won’t be able to find food and will often be killed by the good ones. Clearing the poor buggers out? Not good.
So that’s it. Expect this post to updated now and then as either A) New Red Flags emerge or B) I got something totally wrong. We will also be referring to this comic in future posts about pseudoscience, quackery, and snake-oil. PEACE.
This post has been brought to you by Aluminium (Al).
* Now, that’s not to say we haven’t made leaps and bounds in technology based off of quantum physics. Flash memory, atomic clocks, and anything that uses superconductors are examples of quantum physic’s effect on our lives.
** For more details on this nugget, check out Ann Anderson’s book about the heyday of American Snake-Oil marketing.