Warning Signs of Quackery and Fraud – Part 1

Here’s an excerpt from my and Donal O’Mathuna’s book, Alternative Medicine: The options, claims, evidence, how to choose wisely. You find the book here. Each week, for the next 4 weeks, I’ll post another five warning signs.

So, when you suspect quackery or fraud, how do you know if your suspicions are right? What are some of the warning signs? When evaluating a medical claim, here’s what to look for:

We don’t claim this is an original list as we have heard these warnings from many people over the years. We’ve modified and combined these ideas and added some of our own. We hope that as you evaluate a new remedy, you’ll stay clear of the ones that are advertised along the lines of what we view as “quack ads.”

1. Is the product or practice promoted as a “Major Breakthrough,” “Revolutionary,” “Magic,” or “Miraculous”?

The real value of a medical therapy is rarely known until after it has been in use for many years. Only after a large segment of the population has received the therapy can a profile of the ideal patient be known. It often takes years to uncover the common side effects. Only after many people have used a therapy can we know with some certainty that it is truly effective.

Aspirin could fit into this category as a “miracle” drug. Just ask any arthritis sufferer who has tried it. However, over the years since its introduction in 1899, physicians have learned that up to 25 percent of the population may not be able to safely use aspirin. It can cause serious internal bleeding. Some may have an allergic reaction to it. And in a small number of children (up to age seventeen), aspirin use is associated with the potentially fatal Reye’s syndrome.

The passage of time has enabled physicians to standardize the dose of aspirin, understand who should and should not use it, and take advantage of its anti-inflammatory, anti-fever, anti-pain (analgesic), and anti-clotting properties.

We’re still learning about the benefits (and dangers) of aspirin. Only recently have doctors started recommending aspirin as an aid for preventing a heart attack or even something helpful to take-after calling 911-when you suspect you are having a heart attack.

2. Do the promotions try to simply elicit an emotional reaction rather than present clear information to help you make an informed decision about the product?

Marketing strategies play upon our emotions to get us interested in buying a product. Promoters of questionable health products prey upon the emotions of the vulnerable and the desperate. People are asked if they are tired of fad diets, then are presented with yet another.

Outrageous claims scare people into thinking their water, or food additives, or the air in their homes is poisoning them. And once the ad has you feeling scared, you’re ready to try anything that claims to protect you.

Guilt is another emotion that’s effective in a sales pitch. Here’s a quote from the booklet we mentioned that was distributed through the mail: “Let me be blunt: Cancer, heart disease, stroke, and the other major killers now fall into the category of ‘diseases for dummies.'”

The implication is that if you get any of these diseases, it’s your own fault! If only you had bought these products earlier!

3. Is only anecdotal or testimonial evidence used to support claims of effectiveness?

Quotes from numerous satisfied customers, even satisfied doctors and nurses, adorn Websites, ads on radio and TV, and magazines and newspapers. When a celebrity endorses a product, that’s meant to convey even stronger evidence that the product actually works even though the celebrity is no more qualified to speak about the product than you are.

4. Are claims made about scientific support without giving specific details? Even quacks and frauds will claim to have scientific evidence supporting their therapies, but it is important to examine the details. That’s also why it’s important to know what different studies can support. Watch out for the following:

  • Few or no references given to original research studies. Studies done by only one researcher.
  • Studies done at obscure, unknown institutions.
  • Studies reported in small or virtually unknown journals.
  • Studies reported decades ago.
  • Studies that have not been repeated.
  • Funding of research by someone with a financial or professional stake in the results.

By the time you have finished reading this book we hope you will know why these are important considerations. However, it may be difficult to find some of the studies and it takes some training to be able to evaluate them. That’s one of the reasons why we have systematically searched out and summarized the original research done on the therapies and remedies we evaluate in this book.

If the promotional material only says “studies have shown,” there may be important reasons why it’s not being made easy for you to evaluate the original research.

5. Is the information about the therapy or product being provided by a professional lacking in the proper credentials?

The essence of quackery is someone without adequate training giving medical advice.

Certainly, people can learn a lot about one treatment or condition. But when people recommend a remedy for cancer or arthritis, how do they know what your problem really is? A pain could have many causes-and it takes a lot of training to learn to properly diagnose a person’s condition.

And even then, we all know, trained professionals can be wrong. And don’t be misled by long lists of letters after people’s names. Some of these come from very short training courses or simply joining an organization.

Look for well-known credentials, like M.D., R.N., R.D., Ph.D., not an alphabet soup of unfamiliar qualifications.

Here’s the entire series:

You can find more information in my book, Alternative Medicine: The options, claims, evidence, how to choose wisely.