How To Recognize Alternative “Medicine” Quackery


Here are a few criteria to help you spot quackery. They can prove very useful before wasting your money, time, and patience. Not to mention your health.

Reading time ~ 13 minute(s)

Alternative “medicine” is an alternative to science, therefore a risky, poorly documented, potentially hazardous system operating outside the boundaries of harsh demands placed upon academic medicine, and science in general.

Here is a list to help you recognize fake healing systems, fraudulent healers, and plain old snake oil medical “science”.

You should get really suspicious if a healing system, or a certain set of claims, seems to integrate well with the following criteria:

  1. No support for emergencies
  2. Works only in certain situations
  3. Works only for certain people
  4. Presents no proof, or selective “proof”
  5. Founded by non-specialists
  6. Appeals to faith and mysticism
  7. Appeals to “ancient wisdom”
  8. Uses pseudo-science and buzzwords
  9. Uses ambiguous positive terms inappropriately
  10. Uses the label “alternative” improperly
  11. Makes promises for cure and uses advertising
  12. Claims no side-effects
  13. Endorsed by celebrities

I recommend using this tidy thirteen-point list when you are faced with a decision regarding a new form of medical therapy.  Just go through it quickly and critically and tick the points that apply — you’ll end up with a synopsis that I really hope will be of help to you.

Let’s have a look at all these criteria in greater detail.

1 No support for emergencies

Medical emergencies are often very dramatic situations that really put the system and the practitioner to the test.

A system that offers nothing for emergency situations is obviously not only deeply flawed and incomplete (because emergencies represent a very big and serious segment of disease, often with fatal outcome), but also very questionable at principle level. Looking at homeopathy, which claims to be a full-blown system of healing, it offers nothing for, say,  cataclysmic hemorrhage. Its fundamental tenet, “like cures like”, is not only  absurd in an emergency, but plain dangerous.

Homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine, Bowen therapy, osteopathy, etc. all claim they can cure many diseases (more and more, in fact), but they have absolutely nothing to offer in real, dire emergencies. This is a very serious red flag, that should make you think twice.

In the science of healing, any systematic body of knowledge and practice is based upon sound, scientific principles that stay the same throughout the system. This is very important, as those principles are thus validated by everyday reality — the same fundamental principles are used in dire emergencies, as in chronic illness. To pass such validation, these principles are necessarily derived from the very real, physical world around, not simply made up, and then tried out in the world.

A medical system is defined by the principles it chooses to rely upon. The correctness of those principles needs to go through the ultimate test: that of positive results throughout the entire spectrum of problems presented to the system in question. A medical system cannot simply propose to solve only the most trivial health issues (borderline normality, actually), and then pretend to be taken seriously.

2 Works only in certain situations

The healing doctrine, or the drug, or the remedy, or the technique, presumably works only in certain, usually very limited situations. For example, “this is a fabulous therapy, but it only works after you’ve had your operation, ” a phrase many may have heard from their alternative practitioner.

This is not the same as certain drugs being used in certain situations, this is, again, about basic principles.

This type of unjustified restrictions put the claim under the spotlight.  A remedy either works, or it doesn’t. Sure, there are many nuances, but the principle remains.

3 Works only on certain people

Not groups of people, as in patient populations, but certain individual people. This is all about personalization, something very dear to everyone, and often-times a great selling point of quackery systems.

It’s being claimed (especially when proof is demanded) that this or that remedy or technique only works individually (hence the presumed impossibility of producing large studies), in the presence of the healer. Even on superficial scrutiny, this is a very dubious claim. Imagine claiming that Insulin only works on certain individual patients, and only if it’s administered by a certain doctor. Now this would be quite the alternative medicine for diabetes, wouldn’t it?

4 Presents no proof, or selective “proof”

There is an overwhelming lack of serious proof for most alternative medicine claims. There is so-called “proof”, in large quantities, all from questionable, unverifiable, and sometimes plain naïve or utterly insane sources. Another telltale sign here is the abundance of anecdotal evidence (casual — i.e., non scientific — observation and self-observation), and the endless stream of personal stories and testimonials. As dramatic or heart-warming these may be, they are not more trustworthy than any story you can come up with yourself following some happy coincidence that made your symptoms go away on any particular occasion.

But proof of the highest academic order (and even that should be approached with your critical faculties on alert) is often notably missing, or it often disproves these very claims. When the latter happens, “proof” selection and cherry-picking comes into play. If some alternative remedy has been shown to be, e.g., “possibly effective, but placebo effect cannot be ruled out” (I’m looking at homeopathy again), and later studies established that, indeed, all effects can be attributed to the placebo effect, well, the alternative remedy supporters will complete ignore these, and will keep on referring to the very few vaguely positive sources that don’t even state anything clearly, but do offer enough neutral information to allow the debate to continue.

Furthermore, in this very important section, that of actual proof, alternative medicine chooses to adopt a very strange position, to say the least.

First, because “it only works on certain people, with a certain practitioner”, studies on large populations are as good as impossible, therefore any opportunity to really study the remedy is suspended from the very start — and this is seen as normal (it’s how the remedy works, after all) and alright. Through this subtle, yet utterly transparent subterfuge, alternative quacks simply exempt themselves from the rigors of science, while usually claiming their method is scientific — but science just didn’t catch up with it yet!

Secondly, there’s the very adventurous opinion that, in the end, proof is not all that important.

5 Founded by non-specialists

Currently, a physician may have to go through as much as ten to fifteen years of medical schooling before he or she can claim specialist status. An expert often amasses several decades in the field.

Samuel Hahnemann, the originator of homeopathy, studied medicine for circa three years. In the 18th century (which means three years were probably enough to accumulate all the medical knowledge of the time).  And was primarily a writer and translator. Tom Bowen (the Bowen Technique) lacked any medical training whatsoever. And so on.

This does not mean that there aren’t misguided doctors that helped create some alternative quackery (as with osteopathy), often meaning well, but lacking the knowledge and instruments we have today.

6 Appeals to faith and mysticism

This may be much more subtle than it seems. Simple things like using vague terminology, or subtly creating some sort of aura around the method or the practitioner, or frequent references to things normally outside the medical scope (like God, the Universe, etc.) — they all suggest foul play.

7 Appeals to “ancient wisdom”

The modern alternative medicine systems assume almost without fail that “old” equates “good” (natural, fresh, straight-forward, simple, noble, harmonious and so on), while “new” means “bad” (degeneration, toxicity, conspiracy, mistrust, war on nature, disharmony, etc.). This is very smart, as it appeals to the very human bias of seeing the past in a much more favorable light than the present. That’s when all good things happened – the good old days.

This bias (actually called “the rosy retrospection bias”) makes even the more reasonable people fail to realize that, with science, “old” usually means outdated, incomplete, often false, and rarely without risks and dangers. If some remedy or technique is old, has been abandoned for centuries (usually for good reason), and is now brought back in an almost inevitably twisted form, that doesn’t mean it’s an amazing rediscovered treasure. Often quite the contrary, it could be totally unremarkable historical trash. In any case, it needs to pass the filters of modern science before going in any of these categories. The point is, old does not mean better, nor safer or more natural. It just means old.

The ancient Ayurvedic system included couching as surgery for cataract, with outcomes much, much poorer than today’s procedures, but still practiced in some parts of the world. Should we go back to couching simply because it is old? And it kind of, sort of works?

Hippocrates of Kos
Hippocrates of Kos, the famous forefather of modern medical science

Poor Hippocrates of Kos  is a preferred target, and one constant  victim of this attribution. Many alternative medicine systems quote his principles as their foundation. This is another very clever idea, since Hippocrates is rightfully considered the father of modern academic medicine, therefore any reference to him bestows credibility upon those making it. Again, even reasonable people fail to realize that Hippocrates based his practice on things that we now know are plain wrong, and that he made a lot of well-meaning mistakes — it was the 4th century BC, after all.

He did do amazing things with the little information he had, and he left an enduring legacy. That doesn’t mean a reference to Hippocrates automatically validates a medical system. If Hippocrates is the best you can come up with, I’m afraid your system is really, grossly outdated. As a doctor, think about that if you contemplate an alternative medicine degree.

8 Uses pseudo-science and buzzwords

Terms like “energy”, or “quantum”, are littered all over some alternative medical systems. If “energy” is one very abused term throughout quack history, “quantum” is its modern counterpart. People use it casually, as if they have a thorough understanding of it, e.g., “this method is fully supported by the newest findings in quantum physics”.

Quantum theory comprises science models that are very difficult to truly understand, often very counter-intuitive, and therefore needs years of study to acquire a firm grasp on. None of the few people who have it have started an alternative medical system based on their knowledge.

“Energy”, however, is simpler to understand. Alas, people forget that energy usually comes in very trivial or common forms, and they often picture some sort of cosmic, plasma-like stream flowing through their meridians. Or whatever.

Throw “magnetism”, “fields”, “wave”, “molecular”, etc. into the mix, and you get a very random buzzword soup that should always raise your suspicions.

9 Uses ambiguous positive terms inappropriately

Repetition of terms like “detoxification”, “holistic”, “bio”, “natural”, that are essentially positive, but used in an inappropriate manner, maintaining an ambiguous scope for these terms. Never quite explained, or their meaning really explained within the context of the alternative system.

For example, take “detoxification”. It is used by many methods and techniques as their main selling point. But when you simply ask what are the actual substances that need this special form of detoxification, the actual molecular formula or scientific name, and why don’t they get eliminated through normal physiological means, you are usually met with an impenetrable wall  of ambiguity, recursive definitions, and collateral references that point nowhere.

10 Uses the label “alternative” improperly

The very use of this word by an alternative medicine system, or by others to describe it, renders the whole thing dubious. An “alternative” suggests at least equality with that which the alternative is to. But here’s the catch: we’ll call it an “alternative” without ever proving that it is at least equal to the original.

Furthermore, because the best defense is attack, we’ll simply say it’s better than the original (as you probably guessed by now, it’s more natural, less traumatic, based on ancient wisdom, and approved by The Almighty Himself). This is borderline illegal.

That’s why the current trend is to use “complementary”, which doesn’t really change anything at the very essence of things.

Herbal treatment of true appendicitis in not an alternative (or complement) to surgical therapy, but really a form of non-treatment.

11 Makes promises for cure and uses advertising

This is a really obvious telltale sign. When quacks start promising that they can, or have already, cured cancer or other severe disease, and they sometimes quote thousands of cases, everyone should start their critical thinking engines. But thanks to wishful thinking and optimism bias, they often don’t.

No honest and well-informed (that is, well-learned and specialized in his area) healer will make promises like that, because the knowledge itself does not allow it. In addition to a dishonest, profit-oriented mindset, it takes tremendous naivety to be able to promise and guarantee cures.

In the case of cancer “miracles”, quacks often flaunt thousands of documents, but in the end you have to take their word for it. People hear of a miraculous cancer healing, and fall for it, failing to realize that nine times out of ten that particular case was never cancer to begin with.

Public advertising of such promises simply tops it all up, and exposes it for what it is: all too often just a money-making scheme. No wonder there is a lot of lobbying for health insurance coverage for alternative medicine, that will just ensure a steady flow of money regardless of results – those cannot be studied anyway, by definition (see above).

12 Claims no side-effects

Again, a very dubious claim. The known world never manifests pure action and reaction. There’s always some side-effect, some byproduct, like heat in certain chemical reactions, like new particles spawning from a subatomic collision. How could any medical remedy be without side-effects, assuming it has a main effect?

This would be in complete disagreement with how we know reality to work. A medical intervention either has an effect, and that has its side-effects, or, if it has no side-effects, it’s very difficult to believe it actually has any effect at all.

With this knowledge, the goal of academic medicine is to minimize side-effects, and they are, indeed, kept to a statistical minimum. When someone claims there are no side-effects whatsoever, and uses this as a selling point, be very wary of it — it’s likely quackery.

13 Endorsed by celebrities

The method or therapy is heavily endorsed by some media star-of-the-day, some sort of famous person, an actor, or singer, or TV personality, etc., usually a non-specialist.

Things that actually work are their own advertisement, they don’t need an inflated media image to draw attention. Appendectomy needs no huge advertisements panels, or prime-time TV commercials.

Every time you see a random celebrity praising some form or another of alternative therapy, ask yourself why do they do it, what’s the current medical opinion on it (is there one?), and how effective it really is. Really go beyond that actor’s or singer’s image, and focus on the proposed method. You’ll be amazed.

Final words

You are now equipped with a bare minimum that will prevent you from falling prey to quackery.

You don’t have to blindly accept the above – that would be precisely against my intentions, but you have to use your own critical faculties, always. Always ask others, and ask yourself “Why?” Why would shaken water heal anything? What is the underlying mechanism? Where are the studies?

Why does osteopathy claim it can heal anything other than some musculo-skeletal problems (which are dealt with by medical physiotherapy anyway, and sometimes even by a regular massage)? Which mechanisms would explain that healing power? Where are the studies? And so on.

In this day and age, naive, infantile, or plain outer worldly claims are no longer acceptable in medicine. In fact, not even serious, informed claims aren’t, unless they are proved first. Just as the Earth orbits the Sun, and not the other way around, so are things in medical science. Metaphorically speaking, academic medicine is Copernicus, while alternative “medicine” plays the Catholic Church of the time – ignorant, mystical, cryptic, opaque. Even if  we are usually presented with a reversed picture, in a very cheeky attempt to put academic medicine in the role of the retrograde tyrant.

Just as the heliocentric theory has no “alternative” whatsoever, not even for the sake of journalistic “balance” or freedom of speech, because it would be stupid (to put it mildly), so hasn’t medical science, unless that “alternative” is decidedly outside the scientific realm. In which case it should be advertised as such, and people should be fully aware that they are subjecting themselves to unscientific methods.

Alternative “medicine” is an alternative to science – something to keep in mind before resorting to it.

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