What Are the Signs of Medical Quackery?

Tips on How to Separate Dodgy Science from Medical Fact

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Credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Michael J. Ermarth

Medical quackery is loosely defined as the practice of palming off falsehoods as medical fact. It not always done for the purpose of financial gain but often to concoct or contort fact simply to suit one's own personal beliefs or pretensions.

Medical quacks will generally suggest they have skills or insights that qualify them as experts or have unveiled secrets that governments and business want to actively suppress.

Oftentimes they make remarkably convincing cases, even carrying professional credentials that provide them the veneer of respectability.

Quackery can extend to individuals or groups who deny science ("deniers"), who will cement their contrarian views by selectively choosing which pieces of science to accept and which to ignore. It can even include manufacturers of certain over-the-counter products and supplements, who tacitly suggest medical benefits that have never actually been established.

Despite efforts by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to weed out such claims, the internet today is awash with products and programs that claim to treat—and even cure—everything from cancer to diabetes to AIDS.

The problem with quacks is that the very term seems to suggest something almost buffoonish, easily spotted and readily dismissed. But the simple truth is that medical quacks succeed by preying on the doubts and fears of vulnerable populations, promising the kind of medical certainties that science often can't.

The Tell-Tale Signs of Medical Quackery

Sifting medical fact from pseudo-science can sometimes be tricky. However, there are several tell-tale clues to rely upon when faced with uncertain or questionable science:

1. Dodgy References

In order to satisfy the scrutiny of ethic review, clinical scientists will reference every facet of their research in exacting detail, allowing peers clear insights as to how conclusions were drawn.

It is why drug package inserts are so long and complicated—not only to pass legal muster but to ensure that all relevant evidence is publicly available even if you, as the consumer, can't fully comprehend it.

It's not enough, for example, to accept that "four out of five doctors surveyed" support a certain product with knowing how many doctors were actually surveyed; what types of questions were asked; who funded the research; and where the research was published. This is especially true  it's a hefty medical claim. 

Medical quacks will often omit medical references from their research or provide dodgy ones with no means to access actual reports (for example, by listing New England Journal of Medicine, 2014 and nothing else).

Another trick readily employed by quacks is single-source references, meaning a list of studies generated by a single person or entity.  Oftentimes these are done by the very individuals selling a product, or by a corporate entity that has not properly disclosed their connection to the research.

That's not saying that every product or supplement you come across needs an encyclopedic list of references in order for them to be considered real. But if ever faced with a medical claim that seems too good to be true, ask yourself: where is the real evidence?

2. Medical Cure-Alls

Always be suspicious of any product, device or program that promises remedy to a whole range of possible illnesses.  This is often seen with quack remedies for HIV which purport to bolster a person's immune response, the principles of which are then applied to any number of associated and non-associated diseases.

When a product claims to treat, for example, HIV, cancer and heart disease, underlying this claim is the  suggestion that the pathogenesis of these illnesses are essentially the same—and that's simply not the case

Sure, there are plenty of drugs on the market that has more than one medical application (aspirin, for example). But when any product actively promotes itself as treating (or lessening the impact of) a wide range of unassociated illnesses, be wary.

3. Medical Testimonials or Anecdotes

Medical testimonies are problematic even in contemporary drug advertising, wherein an individual will assert, in a TV or print ad, how a certain drug or product has greatly improved his or her life. It's an uncomfortable practice that we, as consumers, live with every day, and one that sometimes straddles a fine line between advertising and coercion.

It is the same practice regularly embraced by quack researchers. Rather than providing referenced science to support their claims, quacks will often rely solely on the anecdotal evidence or heartfelt testimonials as proof of their products veracity.

So how, you ask, can a person tell the difference between quack science and real science if we see the same approach being taken in the cosmetics and dietary supplement industries, for example? It's a fair question and often a tough one.

Firstly, remind yourself that cosmetics, vitamins, and supplements are regulated differently than prescription drugs, the latter of which require stringent clinical testing in order to gain FDA approval. 

It's one thing for a product to claim that you'll have a brighter smile and better skin if you use it. It's another if a product claims to treat or cure a specific disease. If ever encountering such a product, take any testimonial you see with a grain of salt. Use your best judgment and, better yet, contact your doctor for advice. 

4. "Centuries of Evidence"

The popularity of homeopathic remedies and traditional medicines like Chinese herbs are often supported by what practitioners will remind us are centuries of evidence. And that's fair. The fact that a certain product or technique has been embraced by millions over the course of generations does suggest benefits that would be wrong to outright dismiss.

Even among HIV practitioners, a number of natural products are frequently employed, including, for example, the topical or transdermal use of capsicum (a compound found in chili peppers) which can alleviate the pain associated with drug-induced peripheral neuropathy

But the fact that something has been around for centuries doesn't always translate to the larger consumer market.  We saw this with kava kava, a plant used extensively in the South Pacific for its relaxant and anti-anxiety properties. A derivative form, sold over the counter in Europe and North America, reportedly resulted in a number of deaths due to kava kava-induced liver toxicities. As a result, some countries have actively barred the sale of the product in any form.

The fact that something has been around for centuries is not, in and of itself, an endorsement of its benefits. While there is most definitely a place for complementary therapies, including in the treatment of HIV, don’t be swayed by ads that base their claims on "ancient wisdom" or how many centuries a product has been around.

Do your research, and inform your doctor if you every decide to use any form of complimentary medicine.

5. "Science doesn't know everything."

This is the one subject that medical professionals and quacks can agree upon: science does not know everything. And that's the point. The aim of medical science is to not only report what one finds in the course of research but what one doesn't find. The fact that something is shown to be inconclusive doesn’t mean that it is inherently wrong. It simply means that we, as a scientific community, do not know.

The same cannot be said for quack science.  At its very heart, quackery is characterized by a dismissal of traditional science by an individual or group, while refusing to concede any doubts about the validity of their own research. There is no room for introspection; no uncertainties to be explored. Quacks present their "science" as proof, while painting themselves as truth-tellers suppressed either by the government, corporations or the medical establishment.

Whether directly or indirectly, a vein of conspiracy runs through many of their arguments, and that’s a problem. By framing their products in such a way—either as a "newly exposed truth" or a "secret revealed"—quacks aim to undermine the confidence a person has not only in ethical science but in the healthcare system itself.

By identifying your own personal biases—the negative feelings you may harbor about government, health authorities or medicine itself—you can better separate science from pseudo-science and avoid falling prey to products that either waste your money or, worse yet, place your good health at risk.


U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "How FDA Evaluates Regulated Products: Cosmetics." Silver Spring, Maryland; accessed June 11, 2015.

U.S. Library of Congress. "Bill Text - 103rd Congress (1993-1994) S.784.ES -- Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994." Washington D.C.; published January 25, 1994.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Drug Record - Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)." Bethesda, Maryland; accessed June 10, 2015.

Haanpää, M. and Treede, R. "Capsaicin for Neuropathic Pain: Linking Traditional Medicine and Molecular Biology." European Neurology. November 2102; 68(5):264-275.

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