Thursday, June 16, 2011

Combating Quackery

Better Business Bureaus have been in a continuous battle against quacks (con artists who claim to have medical expertise) for nearly a century. Previously, quacks relied on the imprecise nature of medicine and filled in gaps of understanding with wild fabrications so as to convince patients to buy their fictitious remedies. Dismantling medical misconceptions has always been challenging because traditional medicine also originated with unfounded theories.  During the middle ages, people thought emotions were controlled by the secretion of fluids, called humours, from different organs. Doctors practiced bloodletting (the piercing flesh to release "bad blood") for most of human history. Because of doctors' crude misunderstanding of biology, quack products were often superior to the traditional medical techniques that could, and did, kill patients. For example, homeopathy does nothing.  However, during the eighteenth century, unlike traditional practices, homeopathy didn't bleed people to death when they had the flu. Patients perceived an improvement in health using the technique and it gained some respectability. People at the time didn't know that nearly all medicine in use ranked somewhere on a scale between fatal and ineffective.

Fortunately, the current public has a basic understanding of germ theory and physiology. Because of that, quacks largely avoid using medical excuses for how their products work. Unfortunately, they now manipulate scientific language to the same effect.  Their claims violate the laws of possibility by redefining terms like "zero-point energy," "quantum physics," and "cellular biology."  They need not fully understand the concepts because their only purpose is to misrepresent them.  By using scientific jargon, they bamboozle many people into believing they know what they're talking about. Quacks choose particularly difficult concepts to comprehend and have no problem explaining things in any which way that suits them. When consumers attempt to verify the science behind the product, they find that scientists frequently have difficulty explaining complex scientific theories in a way that laymen can grasp the concept. One side or the other often loses patience leaving the consumer where he started.

The most recent quackery spectacle came when the Australian authorities forced Power Balance Wristbands to admit they were a scam. After stating they were sorry, that they misled everyone, and then offered refunds, they shut down the Australian website. The company claimed that the wristbands increased strength and balance in the wearer because a hologram sticker on the band emitted a frequency that interacted with the electrical field of the human body. Dr. Harriet Hall ridiculed the product in an article for Device Watch and a thorough debunking of its claims in a University of Wisconsin trial. Yet, this company sold millions of wristbands, athletes endorsed them, and in America, the business still running strong.

Power Balance succeeded in its pseudoscientific campaign by misusing terms such as hologram, frequency and electrical field. Overloading consumers with unrecognizable jargon can cause consumers to feel adrift, out of their depth. It can nudge them to trust information that comes from the most confident source.  Of course, marketing materials always sound confident, even when they contain false information.

Holograms DO NOT interact with the body's electromagnetic field.  A "hologram" is a visual effect. Visuals cannot interact with bioelectromagnetism. In fact, if this wristband produced a strong enough frequency to interact with the body's energy field, it would cause compasses to spin.  Because it is just a piece of plastic, no such effect happens. Nor can holograms increase strength.  The only way to increase strength is to build muscle. Unless this wristband causes the muscles to strain and rebuild (it doesn't), it cannot help your body increase muscle mass. Power Balance misrepresented reality in order to sell spongy plastic with a shiny sticker for sixty dollars.

Power Balance wristbands are just the latest exposed quack products in crowded company.  Amega Wand claims that its product reduces pain by using a conceptual scientific theory known as zero-point energy. This is nonsense.  Copper Bracelet manufacturers claim that copper reduces arthritic pain when in close proximity to joints.  Along with "magnet therapy," this too has been debunked. The pain relief field of medicine has long been the target of miraculous pseudoscientific claims, but similar claims are made about cosmetics, weight loss, and even cancer and AIDS treatment.

Consumers will always have difficulty verifying the truth of medical and scientific claims, but they can take a few precautions. Manufacturers that make medical claims should immediately cite it with sources. If the claims are not sourced, consumers should disregard them. If the claims are sourced, then the consumer can check whether the citations are legitimate by visiting websites dedicated to investigating false scientific claims (www.medicalscienceblog.org, www.randi.org, www.devicewatch.org). Some skepticism should be exerted when investigating alternative medicines.  It is unlikely that a company will discover miraculous new remedies and treatments without receiving 1) considerable accolades and awards, 2) renown in the scientific community and, 3) reinforcement of claims by peer review. Quacks have none of these.  Sometimes quack companies will make up their own awards and even create fake medical journals to help sell their smoke and mirrors, so consumers need to be sure to check the credibility of all the company's claims. Quacks will lie about anything and sink to any level for profit.

While consumers may not be able to fully grasp the intricacies of quantum physics or cellular biology, they should be able to find enough information to determine whether a claim is unlikely or even impossible.  Consumers should check Wikipedia, which is a great asset for understanding the basics of scientific and medical concepts. Consumers should ask around, visit their doctors, and even call the Better Business Bureau to find out if we have complaints about products operating as advertised. Most importantly, consumers should not rush into buying any medical product. They have all the time in the world to make a decision and should take advantage of it. Many lies will be exposed with the simple passage of time.

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