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Quack spotting

Some experts are convinced that alternative medicine is rife with 'quacks'. This may well be so - I would argue, however, that unfortunately any field of healthcare has its fair share of charlatans. But how can we identify them?

Some experts are convinced that alternative medicine is rife with 'quacks'. This may well be so - I would argue, however, that unfortunately any field of healthcare has its fair share of charlatans. But how can we identify them?

Here I offer a few criteria which might help.

Prosecution complex

Most quacks claim that their ideas have not been more successful because some powerful ‘Mafia' is preventing them from becoming mainstream. The ‘Mafia' usually is the medical establishment, the pharma industry or some other wealthy organisation.

Testimonials

A hallmark of any quackery is the dominance of testimonials over proper research. Moving stories describing how the treatment in question changed a life for the better are very effective in convincing the public that the quackery in question is worth the money.

Incredible statistics

Quacks claim therapeutic success in at least 75% of all cases. As we all know, there are sadly not many evidence-based treatments which can boast of such a percentage. But the potential victims don't know that and are impressed.

Pseudoscientific lingo

To convince lay people, it seems to be necessary to sound scientific. As quacks are no scientists, the result of them trying their hand in science will be pseudoscience. Watch out for talk about quantum effects, cosmic energy, chaos theory or bioresonance.

Ancient wisdom

The application of science to medicine has achieved much but that does not prevent people from craving the time-tested knowledge from the ‘good old times'. If a treatment has its origins in ancient Chinese, Indian or Arabic texts, it definitely appeals to the lay public.

Inflated prices

By definition, quackery is worthless. But that does not mean it comes cheap. On the contrary, 'the more you pay, the more its worth'! So success crucially depends on asking for lots of money.

Looking at these criteria, I am tempted to create the Ernst ‘quackery scale' [EQS] based on these criteria. If we give one point for each of them, the maximum would be 6, and 0 would indicate the complete absence of quackery. But perhaps this approach is simplistic - which would itself be quackery?

Much better therefore to recommend the ‘Quackometer'. This website claims to do the 'evaluation' for you: type in the name of your favourite quack and, two minutes later, you have an automatic rating.

You should try it; it may not be entirely reliable... but it's great fun.

Professor Edzard Ernst

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