When we think of snake oil we think of the olden days when there were less regulation and science. It’s tempting to smirk and think people were less smart back then, what else explains cocaine toothache drops and smoking adverts that told you to “inhale to your heart’s content“?
But the truth of the matter is this: snake oil is bigger today than it ever was. People in the future will look at us today and ask — how were we so gullible?
History of nostrum
The word nostrum (also known as patent medicine) has been part of the English language since at least the early 15th century. Travelling salesmen blanketed the country selling the likes of snake oil and many other miracle elixirs. Here are three examples of nostrum we’d find if we went back in time by a hundred years or so:
Godfrey’s cordial was used to quiet noisy infants. This was achieved by putting the child into an opium-based coma, unfortunate side-effects included serious or lethal opium poisoning.
“There is no sore it will not heal, no pain it will not subdue.” This was the tagline for the “cure-all” potion called Wizard Oil. Ironically produced by a former magician, Wizard Oil was wildly popular in the 19th century.
Radithor was radioactive and based on the quackery that radioactivity was therapy for illnesses. Unfortunately, excessive use caused an unpopular side-effect: radiation-induced cancer.
Why pseudoscience is persuasive
There are a few reasons pseudoscience is persuasive. One reason is that it’s easier for us to add knowledge than remove it, according to Dr Micah Goldwater: “It’s … much easier to add things to our mental model of how things work than to take things away.”
In addition, once we start a certain behaviour it’s hard for us to admit we are wrong, this comes in the form of confirmation bias and the sunken cost fallacy.
We only look for information that confirms our beliefs and once we’ve spent time and money on a certain behaviour then it’s hard to turn back. Here’s an example:
- Eating celery is good for your teeth
- Multivitamins have no health benefits
I made the first statement up but if someone told you about the benefits of celery then adding this to your belief system is easy. If however, you’re a regular popper of multivitamins then the second statement is much harder despite it being true.
Biased and statistically flawed studies
Newspapers love to publish articles based on studies. One such newspaper is the Daily Mail which is littered with nonsense “EAT CHILLI PEPPERS IN LOCKDOWN EXPERTS SUGGEST”.
Many studies are paid for so biased, observational (which are unreliable) or underpowered so statistically flawed and false. It’s easy to make things up and mislead with statistics; it’s a field I work in so I know how easy it is. Next time you’re told how “x study proves this or that” just remember this: many studies are poorly designed so impossible to replicate, which has been called the replication crisis.
“Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure”Mark Twain
Modern day snake oil available today
Coca-cola was advertised as an effective treatment for morphine addiction, depression, alcoholism and impotence with similar extraordinary claims from 7 Up, Pepsi and Dr Pepper. They no longer make these outlandish claims but instead, lie about how their “diet” drinks are somehow healthier.
In a similar vein, the snake oil salesmen of old have been replaced with modern-day charlatans like Gwyneth Paltrow. Nothing has changed — we are still getting duped but the dupers have gotten better.
Multivitamins, omega-3 fish oil, vitamin C … you name it: taking vitamins for good health is the most popular modern day snake oil of our time. The vitamin supplement industry is worth billions. The truth gets diluted in a tsunami of PR and paid for studies. More often than not, the social media “health gurus” that advocate their usage are also profiting from them. The truth, however, is summarised in Professor Tim Spector’s book Spoon Fed:
“Virtually no vitamin or mineral supplement has been shown to have any benefit in proper randomised trials in normal people, and increasingly they are being shown to risk causing harm. If these chemicals were not protected by being called supplements, they would be banned.”
Anything endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow
The Goop Lab (on Netflix) with Gwyneth Paltrow is labelled as a documentary series but it’s more accurately an infomercial. Throughout the series, Paltrow promotes her brand and pseudoscience. Some of the crazy crap that Paltrow endorses includes bee venom therapy (which has killed people), vaginal steaming and walking barefoot (“earthing”) for curing depression and arthritis.
Needless to say, Paltrow profits from all of this tosh, and her store is full of modern day snake oil: Psychic Vampire Repellent, Crystal-Infused Water Bottle, Vagina Jade Egg and a $15,000 vibrator necklace. Unless vampires are an issue, it’s probably a good idea to ignore Paltrow and her online store of modern day snake oil.
Diet soft drinks
Coke is the poster child for the global obesity epidemic — which isn’t good for business. This is why diet soft drinks were invented to help consumers lose weight. The data, however, isn’t supportive. A meta-analysis of 56 studies found no weight loss benefit when comparing artificially sweetened beverages to ordinary sugar sodas. A good analogy could be low and normal tar cigarettes; consumers were led to believe one had a lower mortality risk which was later proved not to be true.
Amazon is flooded with charcoal teeth whitening products — many with thousands of fake reviews. I’ve been suckered into trying this fad and can vouch for their ineffectiveness. Although 96% of commercially available charcoal toothpaste claim to effectively whiten teeth: there is no scientific proof.
If you’re ever wondered why people wear those extra-long socks while exercising — it’s because they’re supposed to improve performance. Apparently they “elevate your workout and help your body to function at its best.” The hype with fads is rarely backed up with good quality science and compression socks are no exception. One study, however, did find a lessening in soreness post-workout for “recreationally active men” but zero performance gains. A far cry from the marketing spiel.
Traditional Chinese medicine
Why did we wait for a Covid-19 vaccine when there was already six Chinese medicines available as a cure? Needless to say, Chinese medicine claims are bogus but to counter this, Beijing has proposed a law to ban the criticism of Chinese medicine. China’s authoritarian stance is not surprising, what is, however, is the recent stance of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to promote the use of these unproven remedies. Many see this as the corruption of the WHO by China’s financial influence.
We now drink more bottled water than ever before and it’s America’s most popular beverage. The most expensive bottle of water sold for a breathtaking $60,000. The assumption by gullible consumers is that bottled water is safer and healthier, which is backed up with misleading advertising. In fact, the opposite is true; tap water is often better quality than bottled water, moreover, bottled water often just comes from the tap.
There’s been a war on diety fat for around 40 years and in that time everyone has gotten fatter even though diety fat has been reduced. Food manufacturers continue to trick consumers into thinking fat free food is healthier even though there’s no evidence to support this. The science has changed but food labelling hasn’t.
Goes without saying
There’s a bunch of goods and services that are obviously modern day snake oil and deserve a mention: Reiki (energy healing), copper bracelets (for arthritis), crystal healing, negative ion bracelets, essential oils, homoeopathy ….and many more!
Scepticism or Skepticism is a branch of philosophy that started out in the 3rd century BCE. The Greek word skepsis means investigation and we need to investigate whenever we are being told something by someone with a vested interest (which is often).
Consumption led economies thrive on modern day snake oil and we are being sold just as much worthless nonsense today as ever before. We are bombarded with marketing and political information on a daily basis, so we all need to become much better sceptics or as the Greeks would say: investigators.