Educated consumers mean advanced scammers
Worldwide, the rates of literacy and scientific literacy are higher than they've ever been, so the purveyors of health and medical scams have had to become more advanced as well. They've gotten adept at using scientific lingo and other propagandistic techniques to peddle their spurious cures and treatments. These days, a Google search on just about any substance or therapy that may or may not be good for you will produce a long list of conflicting results and opinions, so it can be difficult to weed out fact from fiction.
But half the battle when it comes to judging the claims made by ads for any product is simply maintaining a healthy skepticism and knowing when to be suspicious. In the interest of promoting inquiry and discussion, I would like to present some of the buzzwords and catchphrases that are common in the alt-medicine industry and should trigger warning bells whenever they're written by someone whose operators are standing by to accept your credit cards. Note that none of these phrases constitutes proof or disproof of a claim - they're simply trigger words that tell you not to accept it at face value.
Ions and fields and quantum, oh my!dead cat.
That's what the scam artists count on. They target the vast majority of middle-class consumers who have just enough education to recognize science-y words but not enough that they aren't easily impressed by the jargon. So when they tell you about their new magnetic wristband that cures nausea, inspires weight loss, and oh, let's say, teaches you to speak fluent Italian in under three weeks, they can couch it in language about re-aligning the ions in your energy field, a certain percent of the population will be impressed by the seller's seeming scientific credentials and send in their $29.99 plus shipping and handling. Sometimes the modern lingo will be mixed with references to mysterious ancient arts - old mystical concepts like "qi" or "chi" will be justified using new language.
"Quantum" is the current darling of the miracle cure set. Quantum physics and quantum mechanics are real scientific disciplines, but as physicist Richard Feynman allegedly said, "if someone tells you they understand quantum mechanics, then all you've learned is that you've met a liar." Those who study it label quantum phenomena with titles like "spooky action at a distance", and in many cases the findings of their studies are counterintuitive and just plain weird. The genuine mysteries surrounding the sub-molecular world of quantum interactions make it an easy go-to catchphrase for anyone trying to describe something that doesn't seem to make sense.
"Well, normally I wouldn't think that taking lots of vitamin C would cure cancer, but it could make sense if its effects happen at the quantum level."
The Mystic Holistic
The best scams are the ones that have just a little bit of grounding in reality, and the concept of "holism" fits the bill. The basic idea is a sound one - that a variety of factors physical, chemical, environmental, and psychological can affect a person's health in an assortment of ways, and pursuing healthy practices in all aspects of one's life is a desirable goal. Good eating habits, physical fitness, and stress reduction all contribute to prevention, health, and longevity, and even in the presence of real medical problems, these can help alleviate symptoms and suffering.
But all too often these ideas get stretched and twisted into claims that bear no connection to any actual experimental results ever observed. Take, for example, the "holistic dentist" who argued that "sugar causes not only tooth decay but physical, mental, moral, and social decay as well"; he and is followers believed in pulling teeth to cure arthritis.
Holistic medicine also often relies on some vague, undefinable "spiritual" aspect of the healing process, or serves as a catch-all term for any kind of herbal treatment or questionable therapy outside the mainstream.
What THEY don't want you to know!
There's a reason not everyone knows about the new herbal miracle diabetes cure. Sinister forces are conspiring to keep you from learning this secret! Maybe it's "big pharma", protecting its profits; maybe it's the government, which doesn't want the public to know about the existence of the aliens who passed on this secret. Maybe it's just the competition in the alt-medicine market, whose miracle diabetes cures don't also make you taller and more attractive to the opposite sex.
Everyone loves the story of an underdog beating the odds. Everyone wants to feel like they're ahead of the curve once in a while, that they've discovered something wonderful that the rest of the world hasn't caught onto yet. Add in some mysterious, sinister nemesis, and you might have the makings of a good story - intriguing enough to make us, just maybe, ignore the circular logic and lack of evidence at the root of it. The marketers know this about human nature, and are adept at taking advantage of it.
The internet is the scammers' playground
The great thing about the internet is that it gives just about everyone a forum to freely speak about just about anything, anonymously if need be. The down side is that it gives just about everyone a forum to freely speak about just about anything, anonymously if need be. The search engines simply can't tell nonsense claims from true ones, and certainly can't navigate the vast gray areas in between. In an ideal world when someone Googled "homeopathic weight loss supplements", the top of the search results would say "Showing results for homeopathic weight loss supplements. Search instead for water" - but we're not there yet. As it stands, anybody with a little search engine knowledge can get a site ranked high just through balanced use of keywords and a smattering of backlinks. Another problem is that even on articles like this one which are critical of alternative medicine, the ads that show up around it are likely to point right to some of the very products it's railing against.
If, that is, you ever get to see it. Big Infobarrel might not want you to know about the ionic benefits to your mind, body, and spirit when reading this or my other article about alternative medicine causes a positive subluxation in your quantum chi field! Don't let the entrenched powers-that-be stop you from boosting your critical thinking skills using my new BrainJuice Elixir - now available at fine holistic health stores everywhere in original flavor, mocha, and french vanilla. Guaranteed to make you realize you've wasted money!