Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Quackery is the practice of fraudulent medicine, usually in order to make money or for ego gratification and power. Those who practise quackery are called "quacks" and are in the business of selling false hope to ill-informed people who may be genuinely suffering. Most would consider such a practice highly unethical.
The word derives from quacksalver, an archiac word originally of Dutch origin, meaning "to boast about an unguent."
It is often difficult to distinguish between practitioners who are knowingly fraudulent and those who are merely deluded as to their own effectiveness. In libel cases in US courts against people who accused others of being guilty of quackery, the courts have ruled that accusing someone of quackery or calling him a quack is not equal to calling him a fraud — that in order to be both a quack and a fraud, the quack has to know that the medical services provided are unproven and ineffective.
Quackery has existed throughout human history. In ancient times, theatrics were sometimes mixed with actual medicine to provide entertainment as much as healing. This mix of quackery with actual medicine has varied in its usage throughout different cultures. This is not to imply that all shamanism is quackery. The differentiation is real healing versus false hope, regardless of the medical tradition. Often it is difficult to tell the difference.
The nineteenth century era of the rise of mass marketing of patent medicines is usually considered to have been a "golden age" of quackery. These medicines often had little in the way of active ingredients, or had ingredients designed to make a person feel good, such as what came to be known as recreational drugs. Morphine and related chemicals were especially common, being legal and unregulated in most places at the time. False medicines in this era were called by the slang term snake oil. The quacks who sold them were called "snake oil peddlers", and usually sold their medicines with a fervent pitch similar to a fire and brimstone religious sermon. They often accompanied other theatrical and entertainment productions that travelled as a road show from town to town, leaving quickly before the falseness of their medicine could be discovered.
Quackery is still found today in the form of heavily-marketed so-called "miracle cures", and "miracle" diet, weight-loss and fitness regimes. Once again, what makes this quackery is the sale of false hope, leading to unrealistic expectations on behalf of the consumer. Quackery can be found in any culture and in every medical tradition, as long as gullible consumers can be found.
A variety of medicines with heavy marketing campaigns may fall under the term "quackery". Full-page ads in "health" magazines and publications that cater toward a desperate, gullible, or otherwise needy demographic are popular places to sell the miracle product of the moment, as well as web sites where bizarre medical claims might be easier to get away with. Huge billboard ads for the latest pharmaceutical medication cannot by law make claims about the drug, but still perpetuate the desperation to try the newest pill to fix the problem, regardless of the nature of the problem. To add to the confusion, many heavily-marketed products may actually have real therapeutic benefit. However, what is the right remedy for one person may not be right for another. There is no panacea.
Many people cause their own health problems through poor lifestyle choices. To expect some pill, be it herbal or pharmaceutical, to address the problem without a lifestyle change is unrealistic. Poorly educated consumers take pills or request them from their doctors because of ad campaigns, without really understanding anything about how medicine is ethically prescribed.
People with no medical education often try to bypass professional medicine by self-prescribing over-the-counter remedies for problems that may need professional treatment. Most people with an e-mail account have experienced the strong-arm marketing tactics of spamming — the current trend for miraculous penis enlargement, weight-loss remedies and unprescribed medicines of dubious quality sold on the internet are perhaps the most common current form of quackery.
Many of the problems associated with the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics to treat many of the infections they were designed to treat comes from such a faddish approach. Antibiotics were heralded as the "magic bullet" when they were new, which caused abuse of antibiotics on behalf of both doctors and consumers. Some consumers insisted on getting antibiotics at every doctor visit, regardless of the problem, while some doctors have been all too willing to dispense antibiotics for viral infections for which antibiotics are known to be ineffective, simply because they had nothing else to offer their patient. Unethical prescription according to fad is a form of quackery, regardless of the nature of the medicine.
In the field of natural medicine, many practitioners prescribe natural remedies which they sell at a profit. This common practice could be viewed as a conflict of interest. Natural medical practitioners also run the risk of prescribing pills because patients ask for them, or out of faddish popularity. The profit motive is everywhere, in every aspect of medicine. A potential conflict always exists between the desire to make a decent living, the desire to make huge sums of money, and the desire to help others. The wealthiest corporations in the world are in the pharmaceutical industry. Herbal medicine has also become big business in recent years. Profiteering from the suffering of others is clearly unethical, yet it is also big business, with a long history.
In the field of alternative medicine, many professions are regulated, but some are not. Unregulated areas of medical practice can be particularly prone to quackery.
Reasons quackery persists
- Ignorance: Most people really do not understand how medicine works, how their body works, or how to distinguish between real medicine and fraudulence, and can be duped again and again into spending their money for a supposed "miraculous" solution to their problems. The easy fix is a great temptation to a great many people, even though the easy fix is rarely effective. Also, a great deal of ignorance about traditional and natural medicine has made it difficult to distinguish between what is outside of the mainstream but effective, and what is simply quackery. Quacks know this and exploit this ignorance for their own benefit and perpetuate the confusion. Unfortunately, many doctors in the past have unwittingly perpetuated this misunderstanding by labeling all natural medicine or traditional medicine as quackery, which is simply false. Some doctors have been all too willing to present themselves as experts on all medicine, regardless of their ignorance on the subject of natural and traditional medicines throughout the world. This has made the situation confusing almost beyond hope for many people. It is difficult to know who to trust when it is clear somebody is lying, but everyone is pointing their fingers at someone else.
- The placebo effect. Medicines or treatments, known to have no effect on a disease, can still affect a person's perception of their illness. People report reduced pain, increased well-being, improvement and even total alleviation of symptoms. For some, the presence of a caring practitioner and the dispensation of medicine is curative in itself, analogous to faith healing. The placebo effect is extreme in the treatment of clinical depression. Some studies show up to 80% of people will report an improvement in their condition after taking a sugar pill.
- Side effects from mainstream medical treatment. A great variety of pharmaceutical medications can have very distressing side effects. Many people fear surgery, often for good reason.
- Distrust of conventional medicine. Conventional medicine does not have a clean history. Much of medicine's past was in fact quackery. Doctors are often paid a very large salary, much more than many of their patients may consider ethical. They often receive money for a consultation without giving any treatment, as well as receiving valuable perks from pharmaceutical corporations who want to indirectly reward the heavy prescription of their drugs. Mistakes made by doctors are also reported extensively by the media. Iatrogenic disease is not uncommon. The regulatory committees of medical doctors are doctors themselves, which some would consider a conflict of interest.
- Cost. Pharmaceutical companies and medical practitioners often charge a lot of money for their services. Quacks can easily undercut them, by providing what they call a better treatment for much less money, though often there is deception involved about the actual cost of treatment.
- Desperation on the part of people with a serious or terminal disease, or who have been told by their practitioner that their condition is "untreatable". This also may include patients who want to be rid of less severe conditions like perceived penis size issues, baldness, or skin aging, that medical science cannot treat or cannot treat cheaply.
- Pride. Once a person has endorsed or defended a cure, or invested time and money in it, they may be reluctant to admit their error.
- Fraud. Some practitioners, fully aware of the ineffectiveness of their medicine, may intentionally produce fraudulent scientific studies and medical test results in order to fool their customers, and avoid any objective test which would reveal their quackery.
- Food faddism
- Electrical quackery
- Eye related quackery
- Magnet therapy
- Crystal healing
- Quackwatch — a guide and up to date information about quackery and health fraud, operated by Stephen Barrett, M.D.
- "Fake Science — Episode 265". This American Life, May 21.
- Cures and Quackery: The Rise of Patent Medicines — Illustrated Historical Essay
- The Sciencist
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