Forthcoming Events and Talks

Monday, November 30, 2009

I am sort of doing a 'book tour' at the moment - without a book...

The Persistence of Delusion

The late eighteenth century was a very creative time for inventing new forms of quackery and many became quite wealthy on the back on their invention. Of these creations, it is perhaps only homeopathy that has survived virtually unchanged into the 21st century. The majority of alternative medicines available today have been invented and developed within living memory, despite claims of their origins in antiquity.

What makes an alternative medicine successful? Why should homeopathy survive when the very popular tractors of Perkins have long since been forgotten? Could you have predicted this in 1800? Today, we have a new industry of quack devices protecting us from mobile phones. Should you invest in such enterprises?

In this talk, Andy will look at the factors that make pseudo-medicines thrive and why consumers and practitioners latch onto them. What implications are there for regulation and protecting the public from delusional or fraudulent claims.

I also hope to bring along a few historical and modern quack devices to see just how far we are advancing.

Monday, January 11 at 7:30PM
Sheffield Skeptics in the Pub.

Lescar Hotel
Sharrow Vale,
303 Sharrow Vale Road,
S11 8ZF

Tuesday 19th Jan 2010, 7.30pm
Leicester Skeptics in the Pub

Square Bar
5-9 Hotel Street

Tuesday, January 26 2010 at 6:30PM
Cambridge Skeptics in the Pub

The Maypole
20a Portugal Place

Saturday, 30th January 2010 10.45am-3pm
Centre For Enquiry
with Simon Singh (author of Trick or Treatment, and many other science best-sellers), Andy Lewis (Quackometer) and others. A skeptical look at alternative medicine, and no doubt the ongoing court case involving Simon Singh will be discussed too.

Conway Hall,
25 Red Lion Square, Holborn,
London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall.

Tuesday, February 2 at 7:30PM
Oxford Skeptics in the Pub

The Chequers Inn, Oxford
131a High Street

Thursday, February 18
Merseyside Skeptics in the Pub

Are Quacks Fraudsters?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Not necessarily.

In fact, I would sat that most people I have come across are not dishonest in the sense that they are knowingly ripping people off. Most quacks I discuss here genuinely believe what they are are talking about and think they are helping people. As such they are 'good' people.

What most quacks are guilty off, if anything, is a certain carelessness with the truth. They are delusional in that they hold false beliefs. Are they to blame for this? Not necessarily. We all hold delusional beliefs about one thing or another. Where culpability may start to creep in is when obvious canards get repeated in the face of them being shown to be false defenses. Homeopathists appear to be particularly good at this.

However, there are some real thieving gits out there too. People who knowingly are ripping people off. I will try to make this clear when I believe this to be true. However, motives are always are hard thing to fathom.

In he middle, is the quack who does not care about the truth. These are the Quack Bullshitters.

The Philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a rather marvelous essay entitled On Bullshit. It is worth quoting him,
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Who Funds the Quackometer?

If I had a pound for every quack who has accused me of being in the pay of 'Big Pharma' I would be richer than if I was really in their pay.

It looks like accusing someone of just being a shill for evil medical interests is a standard way that quacks avoid answering the criticisms made against them. Its very shallow. An experiment can be good and a scientific conclusion sound even if someone is receiving money from someone you don't like. I always try to criticise the science first - and then look for potential sources of conflict of interest if the science is found to be wanting. Quacks often do it the other way around. They use potential sources of conflict of interest as excuses for ignoring the evidence. Ignoring the science and just calling 'shill' is tantamount to calling someone a fraud - but in a cowards way.

So, for the record. This site costs less than a hundred quid per year to run. I do stuff in my own time and do not rely on contributions. I do not solicit contributions. I will be opening a quackometer shop to sell the odd mug or t-shirt. Hopefully, this will cover my hosting costs. Any excess will be used to buy dodgy quack products or services in order to show how real they are.
Since 2008, the quackometer has been hosted by Positive Internet who kindly offered to host the site for free as they like to support work like this. I am very greatful to them.

In my day job, I do not receive moneys or rewards from pharmaceutical companies or mobile phone manufacturers or anyone else that might cause a conflict of interest. If by some chance I do write about a company or service where I may have an interest, I will declare it. I hope the people who leave comments on this site will do the same.

By the way, if you want to send me cash, I can always set a precedent.

Who Am I and What are My Qualifications?

My name is Andy Lewis and I am the mad inventor of the quackometer. I also write the blog.

The Quackometer and blog are experiments in critical thinking. If you read what I am writing, I very rarely venture past using a basic understanding of science. Most of the time, what I am doing is spotting common errors of thinking and argument, such as post hoc thinking, magical thinking, selective thinking and appeals to authority. As such, examining the claims of alleged quacks rarely relies on detailed medical knowledge. As such, being critical of health claims rarely needs detailed medical knowledge and, as such, this is something we can all take part in and debate.

A common response to my posts has been to question my qualifications for writing. This is known as an ad hominem attack and I will always try not to engage. The truth of whether homeopathy is better than a placebo has nothing to with what exams I have sat, and how many hours I have studied homeopathy texts. Either it works or it doesn't. Our food today is either OK to eat or worryingly nutrient poor. The certificates on my study wall have nothing to do with this. These days, we all have access to vast amounts of information on the web. I want to debate what is good evidence and what is rubbish. I want to see who is presenting good arguments for their claims and who is talking gobbledegook.

For this reason, I do not want to offer chances for my critics to start fights about my education. I want to stick to the arguments. I am not trying to be anonymous. You can contact me whenever you like and I will gladly engage with you, but lets focus on the arguments rather than personal details.

Oh, and the usual disclaimer. This is a site about critical thinking - it is not giving medical advice. Go and see your doctor if something is worrying you.

See also:
Who Funds the Quackometer?

*photo by blue matrix photography

What is Quackery?

Definitions are hard. You could argue that one person's quack is another's health professional. I do not want to limit the definition to just those people who practice Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Your local GP may, on occaisions, resort to quackery. Also, a CAM practitioner may be very diligent in how they present themselves. I shall take a working definition from the excellent Quackwatch web site. This definition appears to be quite neutral as to what sort of person is the source of the quackery...

Quackery, in the broadest terms, is "anything involving overpromotion in the field of health."

A quack is "a pretender to medical skill; a charlatan"
and "one who talks pretentiously without sound knowledge of the subject discussed."
(This is is essential to the Quackometer Project as spotting quackery depends on spotting this pretentious, out-of-context vocabulary.)

Quackery is often, but not always, linked to health fraud where there is "the promotion, for profit, of a medical remedy known to be false or unproven."
How can you spot Quack? - they nearly always do the following:-

  • Flaunted qualifications and credentials - this is just an 'appeal to authority'. Quacks often award themselves impressive qualifications or buy them from non-accredited 'colleges' usually in he USA.
  • Exagerated and inflated claims - diets, cures or remedies appear to solve a whole host of illnesses and problems, not just one problem - they are non-specific. Foods are not just foods, but 'superfoods' etc.
  • More often seen on TV, newspapers, magazines with their 'latest findings' than in scientific journals, conferences, text books.
  • Works alone - a sole genius in a world that won't listen.
  • Use of out-of-context language, e.g. energy, frequencies, vibrations, biomagnetic, quantum, detoxification, organic, holistic... These words are often stolen from other disciplines (usually physics) with the quack having no idea what they mean. Their use in health matters is pseudoscience and meant to sound impressive and to bamboozle the gullible.
  • Lots of impressive testimonials - little or no independent peer-reviewed research, no ballance in reviews of research, i.e. no mention of negative results, untracable privately published 'research', lots of 'happy customers'. Testimonials count for nothing - anyone can get them for anything. People fool themselves over the effectiveness of treatments.
  • Claims to be standing up for ordinary people against the conspiracy of 'big pharma', doctors, scientist, the government, multinationals and other great evils (who might disagree with them).
  • Say there is always a need for a personalised questionaire, consultation, membership (with them, not your GP) - just a way to flog more rubbish.

...and much more, Maybe I can add to this list in my blog as time goes by.

Find out more about quackery here...


Getting in Contact

Leaving Comments

Please feel free to leave comments on any of the blog entries, or general comments here. I accept comments from all, critical or supportive.

I will only delete comments if they are offensive or not in the good spirit of debate, or are so far of topic that it can only be seen as trolling.

If you wish to post as Anonymous then please try not to do the following four things that almost all anonymous posters do:
  • write about something unconnected with my article
  • offer an anecdote about your own personal struggle with toxins and how homeopathy cured your disease that the doctors had given up on
  • accuse me of being ignorant
  • show your own ignorance by saying something profoundly daft.

Please also read the FAQ first too.

Emailing me

You can email me at:

About Me

The Quackometer has been developed by Andy Lewis. If you wish to get in contact then please read the FAQ and then email me. Details in the About section.


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