Let me begin by acknowledging that medical quackery really does occur. The trope of the “snake oil salesman” exists because actual snake oil salesmen existed. But who are the real quacks today?
Certain self-appointed guardians of medical integrity (I won’t link to them because they don’t deserve the traffic, but if you’re reading here there’s a good chance you already know who they are) have set themselves up against anything and everything considered “alternative.” They consider alternative practitioners automatically “quacks,” sometimes even using cherry-picked articles or misrepresented arguments to make them seem illegitimate.
But what makes someone a “quack,” really? Is it being unconventional? Disregarding the status quo? Violating cultural norms? Choosing the traditional over the modern?
According to the dictionary, a quack is “a fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill,” “a person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to skill, knowledge, or qualifications he or she does not possess; a charlatan.” (A charlatan is, in turn, “a person who pretends or claims to have more knowledge or skill than he or she possesses.”)
By this definition, there are, indeed, some alternative practitioners who can be rightly considered “quacks.” A chiropractor who presents himself as an M.D. is a quack. An MLM salesman of herbs or essential oils with no actual training, who presents himself as an “herbalist” or “aromatherapist” or “naturopathic doctor,” is a quack.
But it is not quackery to merely share knowledge one actually has.
And it’s an inconvenient truth that by this definition, there are also medical doctors who are quacks.
An M.D. who presents himself as an expert on nutrition is (in most instances) a quack. A medical practitioner who sets himself up as an expert on vaccines — having never studied vaccines — is a quack. Doctors who state with certainty that there cannot be a connection between an environmental factor and a health condition, on the mere basis that a study hasn’t been done to prove the connection, are quacks. Those who insist there are no natural treatments for a given condition, even though they aren’t trained in any natural modalities, are quacks.
Truth and Evidence
This mindset of “quackery” is rooted in a special kind of authority worship that presumes allopathic (conventional modern) medicine is automatically and always evidence-based and superior, while anything that deviates from that is automatically contrary to evidence and inferior. The problem is, this presumption is irrational; it actually defies the evidence.
In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis introduced the idea that washing hands — especially after handling dead bodies in the morgue — before caring for laboring women could reduce the spread of illness. Semmelweis was viewed as a quack. His fellow physicians scoffed at such a “ridiculous” idea and continued doing what they’d always done.
Today, it’s common knowledge that handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of illness, and medical staff is expected to wash their hands regularly as a matter of course. The “quack” was right.
In the late 1950’s and into the 60’s, the government and major medical organizations started preaching that saturated fat raises cholesterol and causes heart disease, based on studies by Ancel Keys (which has some significant methodological issues). They began to teach the importance of a “low fat” diet, rich in modern seed oils, as well as the very hydrogenated oils that caused problems in Keys’ original studies. Anyone who questioned this new paradigm was considered a quack.
Decades later, the knowledge that hydrogenated fats are the major culprit became mainstream and, still later, an increased awareness that these novel polyunsaturated “vegetable oils” have problems of their own.
Episiotomy was introduced into American obstetrics in 1920; the argument was that childbirth was pathogenic, and routine episiotomy would be protective for mothers and babies. 1 The practice soon became routine, and some of the most pervasive assumptions were that it would prevent severe tearing and be easier to repair than minor-but-natural tears.
It wasn’t until 1980 that serious consideration was given to looking at the available evidence 2, at which point it was determined that episiotomy actually caused some of the problems it was believed to prevent. Yet as late as 2000, rates of episiotomy (‘though variable) were still quite high.
In fact, research shows that on average, it takes “17 years for scientific evidence to be put into medical practice.” 3
Clearly, medical consensus does not equal “science,” and “questions the majority belief” is a lousy measuring stick for quackery.