The Age of Quackery

In my last post I discussed how Hopi Ear Candles has nothing to do with the American Hopi tribe and was a technique that had only been scalding ear drums since the Eighties. Quackery likes to sell itself on its ancient roots and traditional heritage. But, by the looks of it, most quackery techniques have much more modern roots. Someone emailed me to ask if I could expand on this, so here goes:

Reiki is a technique that claims to be able to channel healing energy from the ‘cosmos’ through an ‘attuned’ practitioner, and into the customer. Its language is that of mystical cosmic energies and draws on its Eastern origins. In fact, Reiki was invented in 1922 by Usui-Sensei and has been criticised as being little more than a pyramid scam where ‘attuned masters’ get paid to ‘attune’ new recruits.

The belief that feet are connected to the rest of the body through some sort of life force and that massaging the right part of the foot can affect diseased organs goes all the way back to the 1930s and was largely invented by an American, Eunice Ingham. It is not recorded if she had a foot fetish.

The belief that cosmic qi can be drawn through the body through regulated breathing exercises and movements to produce healing has its origins in the 1950’s. Mao’s China saw the revolutionary Chinese medical establishment, concerned with the Westernization of medical practice in China, create a popular spiritual healing technique. It did not take off though as a mass movement until the 1980’s. Expect to see it as an Olympic sport this year.

Applied Kinesiology
AK is a practice of diagnosing illness by testing muscle strength when presented with various chemical or nutrient challenges. The mere presence of an allergen in a nearby bottle can weaken muscles, apparently. This bogus technique was utterly made up by a chiropractor in 1964.

Bach Flower Remedies
The belief that doing weird things with flowers and brandy in order to capture their ‘energetic signature’ comes from the 1930’s. It was made up by a homeopath from Oxfordshire. As Nigella Lawson’s late husband so wisely said, flower remedies “make perfect sense on a sort of flowers-are-harbingers-of-good level which wouldn’t have grasped the public imagination quite so forcefully, I imagine, if (Dr Bach had) used 38 types of spider to produce the Bach Spider Remedies.”

Whilst scented oils have been in widespread use in many cultures for many centuries, aromatherapy was invented by a Frenchman in the 1920’s. The french chemist burnt his arm in a laboratory and plunged his arm into the nearest vat of liquid which happened to be laveder oil. From the single unusual event, the generalised technique of Aromathérapie was born, although plunging arms into vats is no longer necessary. Sniffing will do.

This technique is the oldest so far with its roots in early 19th Century Germany. Despite its Teutonic origins, homeopathy likes to define itself in opposition to ‘Western’ medicine. Samuel Hahnemann was experimenting with Cinchona bark as a cure for malaria. When he ingested it, he noticed he got quite ill. Some have suggested he was allergic to chemicals in the bark. Again from a simple false attribution, a whole multi-million dollar industry of delusion was born.

Osteopathy and Chiropractic
These ‘Bone Doctors’ are inventions of the late 19th Century. Andrew Taylor Still invented osteopathy in the 1870’s and said he could “shake a child and stop scarlet fever, croup, diphtheria, and cure whooping cough in three days by a wring of its neck”. Had he been watching the Victorian Simpsons? Chiropractic was based around the invented idea of ‘subluxions’ – blockages in the bones that caused all illness. Despite millions of X-rays inflicted on customers by chiropractors, no subluxions have ever been seen. Bone doctors are one of the few fully regulated quacks in the UK. Some chiropractors did not like this step and set up on their own over the past decade or so, and changing their name to evade the law of having to be registered. I will not mention them because they are attention seeking half-wits who would love the publicity.

This is quite an interesting one and getting clear information is quite difficult. Advocates claim that acupuncture has roots in China going back many thousands of years. However, early forms look like they were more like bloodletting, using blades instead of needles. The main development of the techniques appears to have taken place over a few hundred years up to the Seventeenth Century before going into rapid decline. Acupuncture was once again revived during the Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao in the 1950’s as part of his (possibly cynical) plan to create a distinct ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ that could be quickly delivered to the vast population. The ‘barefoot doctors’ were given crash courses in acupuncture and herbal remedies and sent out into the countryside of China. A few decades later, every high street in the UK has a branch of Mao’s new medicine. That is a long way to go barefooted.

Of course, many alternative medicine practices may indeed have very old roots. Finding reliable information on this is quite hard as many histories are written by advocates and do not provide a dispassionate view. Ayurveda may well be a truly ancient practice. Herbalism, in its many forms, undoubtedly has roots in pre-history, although evidence that there is a consistent and continuous belief in the philosophies and the nature of remedies looks unlikely. As I have discussed before, herbal remedies look as if they may well have stronger cultural meanings than medicinal meanings and the attributed effects of herbs appear to change across times and geography.

What we see is that the vast majority of quackery is a recent invention that only pretends to have ancient roots. Just like the ear candles we saw last week, alternative medicine has thoroughly modern origins and so we are truly living in the Age of Quackery right now.

15 Comments on The Age of Quackery

  1. Re:Reiki being invented in ’22, and then from the page:
    Usui-Sensei travelled to Fukuyama town to meet with his creditors, and died there as a result of a stroke (he had apparently had several previous ones)”

    How do they compartmentalize these things?

  2. Good stuff, but babies and bathwater spring to mind … there are at least two possible reasons why these systems persist.

    One is undoubtedly the fact that, as PT Barnum’s rival David Hannum sagely opined, there’s a sucker born every minute. That clearly applies to devotees of homeopathy, ear wax burners, Bach floristas and most of the other crooks you list. (The quote more substantially linked to Phineas T Barnum, which is also very apposite, is ‘Every crowd has a silver lining’).

    The other is that there may be a few woo elements which actually work; and not via placebo or Hawthorne effects. That, I suspect, may apply to acupuncture, and osteopathy.

    I attended a conference in Norway last year where real scientists and a grab-bag of CAM people got together. Most of the CAM was uncritical rubbish, but I took the opportunity to ask a member of each of the 10 or so disciplines present if they could help me with chronic shoulder pain, which I have suffered for over ten years.

    I was bathed in radiation, rubbed with embrocations (homeopathic and herbal), and chanted to. All junk, of course. I was not expecting any benefit from the assorted quacks; nor could they tell me what was wrong with me, as none possessed any diagnostic skills. It was an amusing way of passing the time until a senior Norwegian immunologist was due to speak, and in any case I had ibuprofen with me.

    The last therapist was an osteopath. Within 3 minutes he accurately described the original trauma and when it had happened. He worked for minute inside my mouth (I wasn’t surprised by anything at this point); and my pain faded away. That was 8 months ago, and I am still pain-free.

    I don’t understand why it worked, and am deeply suspicious of ad hominem, anecdotal evidence which proves nothing. But every day I wake up and find I am not in pain, reminds me there may be a few nuggets of gold in all the CAM crap.

    (This osteo chap had no charisma or spiel. He went about his work like a plumber, and refused payment.)

  3. I didn’t realise that some promoted chiropady (sp?) for illness and disease, I thought it was just for joint problems, as I irregularly use a chiropractor for neck/shoulder problems with very good results.
    I am quite cynical and so generally quite sceptical of stuff like homeopathy.
    If someone is claiming that chiropady can cure diseases, then they are misrepresenting a genuine treatment, not using a fake treatment to make money

  4. I’m glad PaulC is free of his shoulder pain but I think one can be concerned about claims by osteopaths to treat (in this case by using another therapy) potentially serious conditions such as asthma:

    “…Increasingly Osteopaths and Physiotherapists are working with more and more patients seeking help with breathing problems such as Asthma.

    Osteopathic practitioners are in a great position to provide an education in breathing during their treatment sessions with patients and it is a great way to prolong treatment effects.

    The number of people in the UK suffering with Asthma has increased from 3.9 million in 1999 to 5.5 million in 2007. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that this figure will reach 10 million by 2015. The need for more health practitioners teaching breathing retraining has never been more overdue.

    What is the Buteyko Method?

    The late Professor Buteyko devised a programme that has been found to be very effective. It involves a gradual retraining of the breathing process, as well as specific diet and exercise management. Research into the efficacy of the Buteyko method has shown a major reduction in inhaler use within weeks of starting the programme and many patients have benefitted 100%, completely clearing their Asthma symptoms…”

    Not mentioned is the fact that asthma can and does take lives – over 1400 a year in the UK, according to Asthma UK. It needs proper medical supervision.

  5. Claire – I fully agree with you. I can see (dimly) how the osteo chaps might be able to help with certain musculo-skeletal issues, but when they start to make the more global types of claims one should reach for one’s revolver.

  6. I discovered this site 45 minutes ago.It is quite staggering in it’s sheer arrogance and far worse it’s ignorance.Of course there are quacks loads of them but please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.It would be simple to write pages! Here are three TRUE examples of supposed quackery. A year ago my left ankle swelled up.My excellent GP took the normal medical action,blood pressure,blood tests etc.When this did not show anything I did all the possible relevent specialists,no good.Eventually in desperation I visited a reflexologist who dealt with the problem in 1/2 an hour.It was caused by blocked lymph glands.It has not returned.My GP was big enough to admit that traditional medicine had this case and has found use for this quack with another patient.
    I was born with severe club feet in 1949.After surgery it was an osteopath who got me walking.In 1966 I put my back out affecting my sciatic nerve.Despite the pain I was told it was psychosymatic.Another quack put me right,a chiropractor. etc…….

  7. Patrick Holford may well be a self publicist but has been able to help thousands of people.Just take a brief look at the eminent Doctors who endorse his books.

  8. LMAO You really don’t like that information do you quack quack. You do realise your deleting of my corrosive post means I won you lost, don’t you. From now on your pathetic little blog is utterly worthless as you refuse to debate.

    Bad luck loser.

  9. The information is nonsense and has nothing to do with this post. I have told you several times now that if you post stuff that has nothing to do with the thread I will delete it. Consider it an act of mercy to protect you from your own stupidity. Look what a fool you make of yourself when you post something vaguely relevent, like on the “It’s a Stitch Up@ thread.

  10. Mr. Andy Lewis, allow me to correct you on an issue in which you are misinformed. Osteopathic physicians are fully licensed physicians in the Unified States who not only receive the exact same training as MDs, but also receive additional training in musculoskeletal manipulation. These techniques are health insurance-reimbursed medical procedures that have been honed upon decades of evidence-based research in peer reviewed journals, whose mechanisms of action, unlike reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy, etc., are anatomically and physiologically understood and documented. In addition, “Bone Doctor” is an antiquated misnomer, and osteopathic manipulative medicine accesses tissues beyond bone, such as muscle, nerve, fascia, lymphatics, vascular, etc. In an effort to avoid embarrassment from the informed public and the world’s 1000s of osteopathic physicians, it would behoove you to edit/omit certain aspects of this article pertaining to osteopathic medicine.

  11. Aspects of this article are incorrect. Osteopathic physicians (DOs) are fully licensed physicians in the United States who receive the same training as MDs, and also receive additional training in musculoskeletal manipulation. These techniques are health insurance-reimbursed medical procedures that have been honed upon decades of evidence-based research in scientific peer-reviewed journals, whose mechanisms of action, unlike reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy, etc., are anatomically and physiologically understood and documented. Therefore, there is no tolerance for quackery among the rigors of this practice. In addition, this article’s false use of the term “Bone Doctor” is an antiquated misnomer, and osteopathic manipulative medicine accesses and treats tissues far beyond bone, such as muscle, nerve, fascia, lymphatics, vascular, etc.

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