Tag Archives: Snake Oil

Navigating the Snake (Oil) Pit

If you’re like me, your Facebook feed regularly includes a horrified post confirming just how awful something or someone is. Given the state of our politics, it’s totally understandable that–quite often– the friend posted satirical “news,” believing it to be true. Or was simply taken in by  misinformation promoted by partisans and/or propagandists.

This is a real problem. Most of us have been fooled at one time or another, and the damage done isn’t limited to politics, policy and celebrity culture.

I have previously blogged about my cousin who is a retired cardiologist. He shares what is probably a genetic trait in our family, namely, getting very pissed off when evidence-free,  off-the-wall assertions are taken as fact. Of course, that happens all the time with medical and health “news,” because few of us have the scientific background to evaluate these sorts of claims, or the time to thoroughly research them.

His previous book was “Snake Oil is Alive and Well;” he’s now followed it up with a more in-depth look at the various claims made about foods, diet aids, dietary supplements and much more–all of the information, misinformation and nuttiness that–whatever else they do– generally separate us from our money and our peace of mind. Here’s his description of the book:

Advice on matters of health often comes from companies that sell products on TV, or from individuals who promote treatments stemming from self-serving agendas. Information obtained this way is often unscientific, unbalanced, and, sadly, blatantly fraudulent. Unfortunately, surrounded by all this noise, mainstream physicians are seldom heard from; moreover, few are willing to devote the time necessary to expose those ubiquitous misconceptions and to provide countering advice stemming from sound scientific research. Making matters even more treacherous are the various branches of “alternative medicine” that provide untested or worthless “treatments”, placing patients at risk of being exploited, losing their money and damaging their health. Although such alternative methods are largely employed by non-conventional and unlicensed practitioners, occasional wayward “real” doctors imprudently transcend these boundaries and promote dubious methods to large audiences on TV and other media. It is no wonder that the public is confused!

As a member of the conventional medical community, I have decided to present a balanced picture of what works, what doesn’t work, what are outright frauds, and what we really don’t know. This book is intended to provide an introduction to contemporary scientific thought processes and serve as a guide for everyone on how to follow a healthy lifestyle while, at the same time, how to avoid wasting large resources on useless—sometimes dangerous—techniques and treatments.

For more information, you can visit his blog.

Health and the Market

Well, I see that the Congressional GOP is threatening to shut down the government in October if the Democrats block repeal of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and the partisan rhetoric is predictably flying.

A Democratic friend sent me an email listing the multiple sins of the Bush Administration, from wars of choice to decimation of the economy to the massive increase in the national debt; the message was something like “You didn’t get mad about any of these things, but now a black guy wants to provide healthcare to Americans who don’t have it, and that makes you mad!?” A Republican friend sent me a similarly incendiary message insisting that Obama is a “socialist” who hates capitalism and wants to destroy the market “that made American health care the best in the world.”

Let’s stipulate that not everyone who opposes Obamacare is a racist, and that American healthcare before the ACA was not only not the best in the world, but actually ranks around 37th. Other than that, my purpose is not to engage these arguments, but to point to a perfect example of the way “the market” works in areas like healthcare, where buyers and sellers are not on equal footing, and do not possess the sort of equivalent information that is necessary for markets to work.

I have previously referred to a book written my cousin, Morton Tavel, in which he takes on the “snake oil” aspects of the healthcare industry. He has now created a blog devoted to the subject, and his first post is a perfect example of “the market” in medicine–a discussion of all the ads about “low T”–testosterone deficiency. I encourage you to click through and read the whole post, but the bottom line is that  “low T” is extremely rare. The numbers the manufacturers are hyping are misleading at best and fraudulent at worst, and the “remedy” they are promoting is expensive, unnecessary and unlikely to restore the virility of the aging men who miss their morning erections.

Markets are wonderful where they work. And they work more often than they don’t. But in those areas where they don’t work, they enable the snake oil salesmen who prey on the unwary and drive up costs for everyone.

As with so many policy debates, this isn’t an “either-or” debate between all market all the time and socializing every aspect of the economy. We “socialize” functions that markets cannot efficiently provide–police and fire protection, infrastructure provision, national defense, public education. We leave to the market those economic areas where markets have proven their effectiveness.

The decision whether to leave an activity to the market or provide it through government should be based on evidence, not ideology. And as every other western industrialized country has long recognized, the evidence for government’s role in healthcare is overwhelming, just as the evidence for the market in consumer goods and manufacturing is overwhelming.

The evidence also tells us a lot about elected representatives who–having lost the argument–are willing to shut down the American government in order to protect the profits of health insurers and drug companies.

The Persistence of Snake Oil

Morton Tavel, a well-known Indianapolis cardiologist, has previously confined his writing to medical journals and textbooks. Recently, however, he has written a very readable book intended to discomfit most of its readers. “Snake Oil is Alive and Well: the Clash Between Myths and Reality” takes on the logical fallacies and medical frauds so near and dear to the hearts of most Americans.

Full disclosure here: I would never have come across this e-book on my own; the author is my cousin. That said, I downloaded it from Amazon a few weeks ago and have now finished reading it. And my connection to the author is absolutely irrelevant to my recommendation–honestly!

For most readers, the value of the book will lie in its clear explanations, especially its exhaustive lists of medical/dietary hocus-pocus and distinction between good and bad science. Most of us have fallen for at least some of the identified quackery at one time or another.

For me, however, the central “take-away” was a meditation on the unquenchable desire of most of us humans for quick and easy solutions to our problems.

That desire is in tension with the scientific method, which is slow and painstaking and requires empirical observation and the accumulation of evidence over time before (inevitably conditional) conclusions are drawn. We want answers and we want them NOW!

If you would enjoy a brief jaunt through the history of folks who have preyed upon that all-too-human desire for instant gratification, a look at some of the con men and quacks whose nostrums are usually intended to “cure” our solvency rather than our aches and pains, this is a good read.

Be warned, though: it won’t cure what ails you.