Vulnerability to Quackery

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Despite the advanced state of medical science, many people with health problems turn to dubious methods. Faced with the prospect of chronic suffering, deformity, or death, many individuals are tempted to try anything that offers relief or hope. The terminally ill, the elderly, and various cultural minorities are especially vulnerable to health frauds and quackery. Many intelligent and well-educated individuals resort to worthless methods procedures with the belief that anything is better than nothing. Victims of quackery usually have one or more of the following vulnerabilities:

Lack of suspicion

Many people believe that if something is printed or broadcast, it must be true or somehow its publication would not be allowed. People also tend to believe what others tell them about personal experience. Many people believe that any health-related claim in print or in a broadcast must be true, and many are attracted by promises of quick, painless, or drugless solutions to their problems. The mass media provide much false and misleading information in advertisements, news reports, feature articles, and books, and on radio and television programs. News reports are often sensationalized, stimulating false hopes and arousing widespread fears. Many radio and television producers who promote unsubstantiated health claims say they are providing entertainment and have no ethical duty to check the claims.

Belief in magic

Some people are easily taken in by the promise of an easy solution to their problem. Those who buy one fad diet book after another fall into this category.

Overconfidence

Despite P.T. Barnum's advice that one should "never try to beat a man at his own game," some strong-willed people believe they are better equipped than scientific researchers and other experts to tell whether a method works.

Desperation

Many people faced with a serious health problem that doctors cannot solve become desperate enough to try almost anything that arouses hope. Many victims of cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS are vulnerable in this way. Some squander their life's savings searching for a "cure." Many people suffer from chronic aches, pains, or other discomforts for which medicine cannot offer clear-cut diagnoses or effective treatment. The more persistent the condition, the more susceptible the sufferer may be to promises of a "cure." Many people in this category fall into the hands of doctors who make fad diagnoses such as hypoglycemia, "candidiasis hypersensitivity," or "multiple chemical sensitivity." Fears of social unacceptability or growing old (wrinkles, loss of hair and sensory acuity, decreased sexual potency, and incontinence) can also lead people astray.

Alienation

Some people feel deeply antagonistic toward scientific medicine but are attracted to methods represented as "natural" or otherwise unconventional. They may also harbor extreme distrust of the medical profession, the food industry, drug companies, and government agencies.

This article was revised on January 20, 2005.