In part one, we have dealt with three common tricks used by quacks to convince the public to consult them and to keep coming back for more. It has been pointed out to me that some of these tricks are used not just by alternative practitioners but also by real physicians. This is, of course, absolutely true. A quack can be defined as “a person who dishonestly claims to have special knowledge and skill in some field, typically medicine.” Therefore real doctors can be real quacks, of course. I happen to have an interest mainly in alternative medicine; that’s why I write about these type of quacks (if it helps keeping you blood pressure within the limits of normal, I can tell you that I occasionally also published about quackery in mainstream medicine, for instance here).

Anyway, now it is time to continue this series of posts by discussing three further common deceptions used by quacks.


Imagine a scenario where, even after, several therapy sessions, a patient’s condition has not improved. Let’s assume the problem is back pain, and that it has not improved a  bit despite the treatments and the money spent on it. Surely, many patients in such a situation are sooner or later going to give up. They will have had enough! And this is, of course, a serious threat to the practitioner’s cash flow.

Luckily, there is a popular ploy to minimize the risk: the practitioner merely has to explain that the patient’s condition has been going on for a very long time (if, in the above scenario, this were not the case, the practitioner would explain that the pain might be relatively recent but the underlying condition is chronic). This means that a cure will also have to take a very long time – after all, Rome was not built in one day!

This plea to carry on with the ineffective treatments despite any improvement of symptoms is usually not justifiable on medical grounds. It is, however, entirely justifiable on the basis of financial considerations of the practitioners. They rely on their patients’ regular payments and will therefore think of all sorts of means to achieve this aim.

Take my advice and see a clinician who can help you within a reasonable and predictable amount of time.


In the pursuit of a healthy cash-flow, almost all means seem to be allowed – even the fabrication of the bogus notion that the reasons for the patient’s problem were the poisonous drugs prescribed by her doctor who, of course, is in cahoots with BIG PHARMA. Alternative medicine thrives on conspiracy theories, and the one of the evil ‘medical mafia’ is one of the all-time favourites. It enables scrupulous practitioners to instil a good dose of fear into the minds of their patients, a fear that minimises the risk of them returning to real medicine.

My advice is that alternative practitioners who habitually use this or any other conspiracy theory should be avoided at all costs.


The notion that alternative medicine takes care of the whole person is a most attractive and powerful ploy. Never mind that nothing could be further from being holistic than, for instance, diagnosing conditions by looking at a patient’s iris (iridology), or focussing on her spine (chiropractic, osteopathy), or massaging the soles of her feet (reflexology). And never mind that any type of good conventional medicine is by definition holistic. What counts is the label, and ‘holistic’ is a most desirable one, indeed. Nothing sells quackery better than holism.

Most alternative practitioners call themselves holistic and they rub the holism into the minds of their patients whenever and however they can. This insistence on holism has the added advantage that they have seemingly plausible excuses for their therapeutic failures.

Imagine a patient consulting a practitioner with depression and, even after prolonged treatment, her condition is unchanged. Even in such a situation, the holistic practitioner does not need to despair: he will point out that he never treats diagnostic labels but always the whole person. Therefore, the patient’s depression might not have changed, but surely other issues have improved… and, if the patient introspects a little, she might find that her appetite has improved, that her indigestion is better, or that her tennis elbow is less painful (some things always change given enough time). The holism of quacks may be a false pretence, but its benefits for the practitioner are obvious.

My advice: take holism from quacks with a pinch of salt.

7 Responses to The tricks of the quackery trade (part 2)

  • Dr. Edzard, I want to thank you for educating the world about the true nature of quackery in conventional medicine and alternative “medicine” or fake medicine. It would be helpful but certainly not essential if you could underline key words instead of coloring them red because the red letters do not copy if one desires to make a copy of your esteemed statements. This not an issue when just a few words are highlighted. We have the same problem with other blogs if highlighted with blue ink vs. black. Thanks again and sorry for the petty request.

  • A pinch of salt? Why? for which condition exactly is NaCl a cure?

  • I always think it is highly ironic when the woomeisters claim that their “therapy” is “holistic”. The reality is, conventional medicine, and particularly general practice, is more holistic than any of the alternatives.

    Medicine embraces a multitude of modalities – it is truly multi-modal and multidisciplinary, with doctors and nurses collaborating with physical therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, social workers, dentists, podiatrists and speech pathologists, dietitians (have I missed any?). Medicine includes prevention, counselling, vaccination, surgery, antibiotics, insulin, radiotherapy, and a multitude of other modalities. It is a true biopsychosocial model, with collaboration between disciplines. IN addition, your doctor may well exclude a diagnosis and provide reassurance that no therapy is required.

    IN contrast, most sCAM providers offer a “therapy” from a single, and often fixed, view of the world, and will always try to convince you that you need their specific type of “remedy”, which you will need to buy from them. No, thanks.

    • Sue Ieraci: I’m in total agreement with everything you say, so this comment is not really a response to your post.

      Reading “Medicine embraces a multitude of modalities” put me in mind of the occasion, many years ago, when a friend in Heidelberg proudly drove me round their medical campus. “That’s a hospital for head and neck problems”, he said, pointing to a brand-new building, “and over there is the orthopaedic hospital. Coming up on the left is the maternity unit.” I found myself asking “What do you do if a pregnant woman sustains head injuries and a broken leg in a car crash? Do you divide up her body between the specialist buildings?”

      Note to any readers who think my joke supports the camists’ case that proper medicine is not holistic: no it doesn’t.

    • Sue: The reality is, conventional medicine, and particularly general practice, is more holistic than any of the alternatives.


      1Characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole (Oxford)

  • “It enables scrupulous practitioners” That should read: “It enables unscrupulous practitioners…”

    I love these posts but typos like that spoil the effect. I hope you don’t mind my pointing it out.

    On to read post 3!

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