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Stop Swallowing The Snake-Oil: Calling con artists on their crap

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the credibility of the Internet. FoodBabe – who peddles fear by using scary words and a total misunderstanding of science – got ripped to shreds by ScienceBabe – who is awesome with her ninja-like dicing of bullshit using sharpened blades of fact. Belle Gibson,  who built an empire on a completely fabricated story about beating brain cancer with natural food instead of medicine, admitted that it was all a lie. And, of course, Dr. Oz is sitting on the hot seat, when his congressional hearing for pushing unproven remedies was followed up by a letter demanding he be removed from the Columbia University School of Medicine.

I mean, if you can’t believe pretty girls and TV stars, who can you believe?

This is good news. I think that we are finally becoming informed consumers of  health information. Which is important, because never has so much information been so freely available – and creatable – by and for so many people. But, seriously, most of it is crap.

For the most part, it’s harmless crap. No one ever died from watching a cat jump in and out of cardboard boxes. And while I LOATHE all the celebrity gossip and materialism, it is at least less likely to kill us than, say, being told to forgo cancer treatment and drink a bunch of smoothies instead.

I get worried when people – some well-meaning, some Charlatans – push really bad health information in front of consumers, sell false hopes of losing fat, prolonging life, sleeping better or maybe finally having the awesome sex that appears to be possible if you eat 16 pounds of oysters followed by 1 gallon of Turmeric tea, washed down with cayenne pepper and lemon juice, digested while standing on your hands for 12.5 minutes in a dark room that is precisely 58.3 degrees.

Still, this isn’t going to go away. People have been looking for magic cures since forever. I mean, Ponce de Leon found Florida while looking for the Fountain of Youth, in 1513.  (Actually, that’s just a rumor, but still, most of us learned that in History class.)  And he was hardly the first to look for it, there are records of this mythical place dating back to Herodotus in the 5th Century BCE.

Likewise, Snake-Oil salesmen have been there with a miracle in a bottle for as long as recorded history. PT Barnum made it an art, Madison Avenue made it an industry.

Let’s not be the ones who suffer for believing the lies. Whenever you read an article about shocking news that will greatly impact your health, run it through the following filters:

Is it based on peer-reviewed science? If an article simply says something like, “recent studies have shown,” but doesn’t link directly to those studies, that’s a red flag. If those studies were not done in an actual medical or academic setting that is recognized as such, that’s a red flag.

Then you have to look at the type of study, sample size, phase of research. “Preliminary studies suggest” means “we’ve just started to look at this, and although it’s way too soon to know what it means, we’ve observed this thing that might be a thing. Or it might not.” Do not make health decision based on preliminary findings.

Small sample size is equally dubious. “40 men were tested and this thing happened” doesn’t mean that it would happen again in different circumstances, or that it would happen to you, or anything really. It’s merely a “well, that might be interesting” statement.

The story of something happening to someone is called an anecdote. The same thing happening to a handful of people is a bunch of anecdotes. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” Anecdotes are fun. Huge numbers of them that happen over a long period are a reasonable thing to throw into your decision making process. But they are still not science.

Scientific study results in data that is replicable and verifiable. Some of it is applicable to real life in a meaningful way.

No, it is not infallible; we’ll get to that.

Is that science being interpreted correctly? You’ve all heard the phrase that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, right? Yes, science that is interpreted badly can lie. For instance, this recent study which clearly shows that our decreasing honey-bee population is causing an increase in juvenile arrests for marijuana possession.

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Oh, wait, that’s not what it says. I  mean, it does say that, but it’s meaningless. The two things are obviously unrelated. There is a correlation – those two thing both happened. But not causation – one did not cause the other. But let’s look at a more tangible hypothetical, shall we? I’m willing to bet that in roughly 95% of car accidents, the driver had pooped in the last 24 hours. Could you reasonably, then, conclude that pooping greatly increases the risk of car accidents in the following 24 hours? No.

This is a common trick in media: throw together a bunch of unrelated numbers – or incomplete data sets – to make it look like something shocking, miraculous, or terrifying is happening. Don’t fall for it. When in doubt, ask someone you trust, who knows how to interpret data. Like, maybe your health care provider.

Does it universalize the personal? “I did this amazing thing, and it will work for you too.” No. Just no. 1,000 times NO. Our lives, bodies, DNA, health and environments are all different. What works for one person won’t inherently work for another. It MIGHT, but won’t necessarily. It might even harm someone else. If someone, for instance, cured their menopausal mood swings with peanut butter, I’d be psyched too, cuz those make us all crazy. That said, peanuts will kill me, which is much worse than crying because I think my husband cares more about the dog than me. (Which is totally absurd, yet, something that still might happen when the flashes come over me. If peanuts could fix that, I’d just put my Epi Pen on IV.)

What is the background of the writer? I kid you not, I just got part way through a long article about gluten reactions (which was feeling a little dubious because it was NOT citing studies, just theories,) only to find out the main source was someone with a PhD in Asian studies. Closed that one quickly.

Being an authority on one subject does NOT make someone an authority on another subject. (Which is why I wouldn’t take dietary advice from Jamie Lee Curtis, even though I love her. Instead, I get my probiotics in either pill form or  from yogurt that doesn’t have tons of added sugar.)

Beyond that, are they connected to a special interest of some sort? Are they linked to a product that could “solve” the problem they’re convincing you that you have? Follow the trail. It often leads to either an incredible source or a conflict of interest.

And yes, this is where my beloved science can lead us astray. It is absolutely true that “big pharma” can fund studies to convince people they have a fabricated problem that drugs can solve. Sexual dysfunction on a mass scale comes leaping to mind. But damn, that turned out to be a goldmine. Or the low-fat craze that sold us both pills AND margarine. Total goldmine. Also total bullshit.

Science used incorrectly is just as dangerous as ignorance.

Does it sound too outrageous to be true? This is where Belle Gibson and Dr. Oz both got in big trouble: making health claims that everything from cancer to depression could be cured with just food and faith. That’s just nonsense, and rationally, we probably all know that.

But desperate people rarely make rational decisions. They are what is referred to as “easy pickins’.”

Look for words like “miracle” and “shocking” and “ancient secret they don’t want you to know.” Anything that sets you up with hyperbole and sucks you in with conspiracy is probably Grade A bullshit.

Likewise, if someone uses the word “chemical” to mean “a bad and dangerous thing that villainous people are poisoning you with,” they’re just full of it. EVERYTHING is a chemical. Some are made in labs, some are made in nature. They’re all chemicals, they all cause chemical reactions. As such, putting tons of them in your body because they’re “naturally occurring” makes no more sense than avoiding them just because they’re not.

That’s not to say that some people don’t have a vested interest in convincing you that an erection should hold strong for a solid hour if you’re a real man, they do. But that gets us back to “follow the money.” They will always try to sell you that idea and the little blue pill that goes with it. You, as an educated consumer, can know not to buy it.

Does it set up a false polemic? Look for and question any form of “Us Against Them” language that’s designed to scare you into buying the author as a solution to a problem. Some of those problems are real. Tooth decay is a simple example of a legit “us against them,” in which “them” is tooth-decay and “us” is people who – as science has shown in replicable and applicable research – need to brush our teeth.

But if the “them” is referring to a giant conspiracy that can only be combated with them there magic beans….. run. Fast. Especially if it’s the classic “Nature” vs. “Medicine” thing. Those are two great things that work great together. Healthy bodies eating wholesome food and getting exercise are more likely to reap the benefits of modern medicine when needed. It’s not an either or, and you shouldn’t listen to anyone who tells you it is.

What’s the risk / reward ratio? Oil-pulling as a natural way to enhance dental hygiene? Probably not a big risk there, go for it. Keep brushing and flossing, just in case. But smoothies to cure cancer? That’s a much bigger risk. Even Steve Jobs, arguably one of the smartest men on the planet, regretted counting on natural treatments for his cancer rather than surgery and other proven methods. Everyone makes mistakes, but you have to ask yourself if the risk is worth the reward.

Here’s what it gets down to: everyone is trying to sell you something. You don’t have to buy all of it.

You are responsible for the decisions you make, even when you base them on the “advice” of people you really want to trust. Like pretty girls and TV stars and sites that swear they have your best interest at heart. (They don’t. The only agenda of most web sites is to make money off of you. Which is fine, but you need to keep that in mind.)

Ultimately, you have to go with your gut. But do so using common sense and a basic understand of how both science and media can be used to manipulate you.

When in doubt, consult people who know more than you. Like, doctors. They probably know more about medicine than you do. You can even consult both a naturopath and a conventional doctor. The good ones will work with each other. Mine do.

And sure, crazy Aunt Edna’s vinegar tonic probably won’t harm you, so give it a shot. Just know that if vinegar could cure cancer, no one would be dying of cancer, anywhere, ever.

So that probably isn’t true.


** Note: this post was originally published with the word “shysters” rather than “con artists.” Friends of mine pointed out that although there is NO anti-Semitic meaning to the word, it sounds a lot like “shylock,” which does have anti-Semitic meaning. So I changed it after publication. Yes, I did check beforehand to be sure “shyster” wasn’t a racial slur, like “gypped.” it isn’t. But it sounds similar to one, so I changed it in order to err on the side of caution. 


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