Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the Director of McGill University’s Office of Science and Society, has written many books (seventeen by my count) mostly explaining the chemistry of everyday life. His latest book is right up my alley: Quack Quack: The Threat of Pseudoscience. I love his writing and his sense of humor and I could hardly wait to see what he had to say about quackery. He covers many topics that I had also written about, so I didn’t expect to learn anything new, but I did. I was both informed and entertained.

He says his archenemy is pseudoscience, in which facts are tortured until they fit some pet theory. Quacks “claim to have some special knowledge or skill that they do not actually possess.”

“The hallmarks of quackery include the bashing of conventional medicine, the use of words of praise from supposedly contented patients, and extravagant claims for painless cures for virtually all diseases.”

The 18th and 19th centuries are often regarded as the golden age of quackery. Dr. Joe has in his collection of historical items a booklet published in 1663 by Constantine Rhodocanaces explaining the wonders of his “Spirit of Salt of the World.” This panacea allegedly cures everything from scurvy to kidney stones, prevents putrefaction of anything in the stomach, prevents drunkenness, “keeps arteries from all filth, or slime, and sends away the water that lurks betwixt the skin and the flesh.” And more. What was in it? Hydrochloric acid! Dr. Joe finds this fascinating because it could have been written today about any quack nostrum, with the same type of testimonials, smearing of competing products, and claims of secret breakthroughs.

He describes the old-fashioned travelling medicine show. Before Houdini became famous, he worked for one of these shows, attracting an audience to hear the “doctor.” He and his wife Bess then circulated through the crowd, selling the potion. In another popular show, “Doc” Healy sold Kickapoo Indian Worm Killer. Purchasers were impressed when they passed long stringy “worms.” Of course they did, since string had been wound into a tight ball and packed into the pills. These medicine shows lost their appeal after the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act required the listing of ingredients.

The book is filled with countless examples of past and current quackery. Many were familiar to me and I had even written about them, such as homeopathy and Perkins tractors; but there were many more I had never heard of. I didn’t know about Dinshah Ghadiali, who claimed his colored light treatments would restore the Radio-Active and Radio-Emanative Equilibrium. I didn’t know that Electric Liniment pills contained 50,000 volts of electricity.

Dr. Joe is a great storyteller. He supplies fascinating details. I knew about Horace Fletcher’s advice to “fletcherize” chewing each mouthful of food until it was reduced to a liquid, but I didn’t know he had mailed human excrement to scientists to demonstrate that properly chewed food resulted in odorless stools! I hadn’t realized that P.T. Barnum was a champion of critical thinking who exposed hoaxers and séance scams and even offered a $500 prize to any medium who could prove an ability to communicate with the dead. I was surprised to learn that both Sigmund Freud and W.B. Yeats underwent the Steinach operation (tying off one of their seminal ducts in pursuit of rejuvenation).

Today there is another golden age of quackery facilitated by the Internet. The successes of science have predisposed consumers to accept all kinds of ridiculous claims that sound like they’re based on science but aren’t.

Dr. Schwarcz does more than read about claims and examine the scientific evidence (or lack thereof). He attends presentations and health fairs, buys the devices, and tries things for himself. He ordered a Crystaldyne pain reliever for $50 and got a $2 barbecue grill igniter. Pressing it against the skin and pushing a button may not relieve pain, but he found it useful as a replacement for the non-functioning igniter on his barbecue. He purchased Dr. Hidemitsu Hayashi’s Original Hydrogen Water Stick and consumed the hydrogenated water for a week with no results. After experiencing a sensation of energy emanating from the hands of a healer, he learned to release energy from his palms just like bioenergetic healers. After learning about the magic trick from James Randi, he was able produce the same effect by wearing a device attached to his leg under his pants. He underwent ear candling and then showed that the same debris accumulated in the candle when no ear was attached; his demonstration succeeded in convincing only one other person that it was bogus. The rest of the customers waiting in line at the booth at the fair continued to wait to be candled. I laughed out loud at the ignoramus who was amazed that the police caught him on video robbing a bank. He protested, “But I wore the juice!” He had read that lemon juice could be used for invisible ink and thought that coating his face with lemon juice would make him invisible to cameras!

Dr. Joe tried an orgone generator; he felt no orgone, only felt silly. He tried lying on a bed of nails; his pants got torn. He let Braco the Gazer gaze at him. He skewers celebrities like Dr. Oz, Suzanne Somers, Heather Mills (who says meat sits in the colon for forty years, putrefies, and ultimately kills you. No, Heather, it doesn’t), Tom Cruise, who calls psychiatry a crime against humanity because his Scientology beliefs claim that our problems are caused by mental implants received from space aliens, Gwyneth Paltrow, and others.

He tells an interesting anecdote about H.I. Rodale, the founder of Rodale Press. He had claimed his dietary regimen and supplements would allow him to live to a hundred, but he died onstage of a heart attack at age 72 while a guest on the Dick Cavett show, right after bragging that he never felt better. That episode never aired.

His pet peeves are the “natural” myth and the detox myth. And of course, the claim of “chemical-free.” Everything is composed of chemicals. Only a vacuum can be chemical-free.

He is greatly amused by the crazy pseudoscientific theories of quacks and quotes their silliness at length. He points out their ignorance of science. For instance, all kinds of claims are made for the benefits of moonlight, which is nothing but reflected sunlight. Nonsense is one of the words he most frequently uses. But he is also saddened that so many people believe the nonsense and forgo effective science-based treatments for cancer and other serious diseases.

He corrects the record on spinach. It is not a good source of iron; it contains oxalic acid, which inhibits iron absorption; Popeye never attributed his strength to spinach, and there was no decimal point error. He apologizes for not doing adequate fact-checking when he wrote about it.

One thing he refused to try was drinking his own urine. His writing is full of puns. In this case, he said if he attended a urine therapy conference and tried to claim expenses, he would be told “Urine trouble.”

The book ends with a list of 24 very useful points on “Dealing with Information and Misinformation”.

The book is a delight to read. You will be surprised, educated, and most of all, entertained. I highly recommend it, even for those of you who think you already know a lot about science, pseudoscience, quackery, and human error.

Author

  • Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.