Can I invite you to join me in a little thought experiment?
Think of a totally useless therapy. I would suggest homeopathy but there are always some who would disagree with this classification. I need a TOTALLY useless therapy, and one where we ALL can agree on the label.
What about ‘Potentised Toe-Nail Powder’ (PoToNaPo)?
PoToNaPo is made from nail clippings, thoroughly sterilised, ground to a powder, serially diluted and potentised. Does anyone claim this remedy to be effective for any condition?
So, we all agree that PoToNaPo is completely ineffective.
Now imagine some charlatan claiming that PoToNaPo is a highly effective cancer cure. Let’s furthermore imagine that he is very successful with his claim.
(No, this is not far fetched! Think of Laetrile, Essiac, etc.)
Imagine our charlatan makes millions with PoToNaPo.
There would soon be some opposition to his quackery. The FDA would issue a statement that PoToNaPo is unproven. Perhaps the NEJM would publish an editorial saying something similar. Ethicists would frown publicly. And many sceptics would head to the pubs where clever guys would give talks about ‘the scandal of PoToNaPo’.
We all know it would happen, because it has happened with PoToNaPo-like remedies many times before.
Now imagine a different scenario, namely one in which our charlatan does not claim that PoToNaPo is a cancer cure; imagine instead he had claimed that PoToNaPo is a holistic medicine that boosts your well-being via re-balancing your vital energies which, in turn, helps with anxiety which in turn might have positive effects on things like mild chronic pain, depressive mood, tension headache, insomnia, erectile dysfunction and many more symptoms of daily life.
Let’s furthermore imagine that our charlatan is very successful with these claims.
No, this is not far fetched! Think of … well … think of any SCAM really.
Imagine the charlatan makes millions with PoToNaPo.
What would happen?
- He would be invited to conferences on integrative medicine.
- Become an honorary member/sponsor of the ‘College of Medicine and Integrated Health’.
- He would be interviewed on the BBC.
- The Daily Mail would publish advertorials.
- HRH would perhaps invite him for tea.
- Trump might hint that PoToNaPo cures virus infections.
- Ainsworth might buy his patent.
- There could even be a gong waiting for him.
- And yes … some sceptics would mutter a bit, but the public would respond: what’s the harm?
We all know that things of this nature might happen, because they have happened before with PoToNaPo-like remedies.
So what’s the difference?
In both scenarios, our charlatan has marketed the same bogus remedy, PoToNaPo.
In both scenarios, he has made unsubstantiated, even fraudulent claims.
Why does he get plenty of stick in the 1st and becomes a hero in the 2nd case?
Yes, I know, the difference is the nature of the claims. But the invention, production, marketing and selling of a bogus treatment, the lying, the deceit, the fraud, the exploitation of vulnerable people are all the same.
Why then are we, as a society, so much kinder to the charlatan in the 2nd scenario?
I think we shouldn’t be; it’s not logical or consequent. I feel we should name, shame and punish both types of charlatans. They are both dangerous quacks, and it is our ethical duty to stop them.
END OF THOUGHT EXPERIMENT