WDDTY’s ‘inconvenient’ editorial guide to recognising quackery

Over at QuackRag.com there is a blog post entitled ‘The inconvenient truth‘. From what I can gather, this article is the reproduced editorial of the latest print edition, which, though still to be found on the shelves of certain retailers who in their commitment to profit customer choice are complicit, I haven’t sought to purchase. It and numerous other WDDTY articles are receiving due treatment at the excellent new What “What Doctors Don’t Tell You” Don’t Tell Youproject, which I recommend as a comprehensive resource for material taking the QuackRag to task.

Quackery is seductive. For those who don’t know the signifiers, and/or are susceptible to its language, then it is understandable (to some extent) why many are beguiled. And once taken in, it is difficult to get them out again, so defensively protective do they become of their (self-) indulgence – think cult. But there is a pattern to quackery: commonly recurring rhetorical tools which the sufficiently sceptical can readily detect. And this particular WDDTY piece, with its woven inclusion of many of these identifying features, serves as an almost comprehensive guide to how to identify quackery.

The title, influenced by Davis Guggenheim’s, Al Gore-featuring film, is itself interesting. An example of the now common quack tactic of misappropriating and subverting the sceptic/scientific position. Science is a troublesome thing for quacks, because it exposes – inconveniently – their snake-oil bullshit; and so threatens their market and marketing, and unsettles those partial to lapping it up, like kittens under a cow’s dripping udder. That’s the problem with science – it tells you things you don’t necessarily want to know. It is why it often rubs up badly against belief-based stances. Quacks don’t want you to know they’re quacks; and their patients/clients/apologists don’t want to know they’re quacks – and certainly don’t want to confront the realisation that they are suckered in to/by patronising quacks.

The very first paranoid paragraph goes straight on the defensive, bleating about censorship. Here is the introduction of the conspiracy that WDDTY claims is railing against it. Interesting how WDDTY complains about ‘A small group’; a dismissive swat of a mere pesky irritation of no importance. A tactic that avoids admitting the actual large number of complainants and objectors to the ethos and contents of this cornucopia of charlatanism. So then why this lengthy, often hysterical, countering editorial? And ‘malicious falsehoods’ is a strong accusation; one that requires explication. Never mind responding to them on your own website and Facebook pages where, merely preaching to your converts, you can summarily block/remove any disagreeable comment (which is not the definition of ‘troll’).

The second paragraph is short and revealing. Though it does not explicitly state that homeopathy is effective against cancer, given WDDTY‘s shameless previous it is not unreasonable to presume the implication. A statement linking cancer with homeopathy is highly irresponsible. If you ever enter into dialogue with a homeopath or homeopathy apologist who promotes this line, then either challenge them, or suggest they go and tell it to the fairies at the bottom of their garden.

The tack shifts quickly sideways to the quack’s favourite heart-string puller – the personal testimonial. I am doubly suspicious of the use of testimonial anecdotes which purport direct family experience: invoking sympathy, they are difficult to criticise, immediately positioning the quizzical sceptic as heartless and vindictive, and necessitating judicious use of words. Such open willingness to share intimate details of a family member’s illness is entirely noble, and surely even more convincing than either first-person or second-hand testimonial, isn’t it? After all, why would anyone spin about their own family experience? Are such stories untouchable? No, this is a device to deflect attack; to avoid due challenge. This testimonial is so alarmingly distasteful, it raises serious questions. Whether the affected lady, who had ‘privately nursed the cancer [sic] for several years without telling anyone’ (including her husband), would have welcomed the subsequent public sharing of graphic details of her condition, we cannot know. But why did she deem herself sufficiently able to confidently reject medical consultation? Was it her eventually involved GP who made the terminal diagnosis without referral to a specialised consultant? And following her miraculous cancer recovery, what was the rationale for retaining and re-consulting the same GP who had erroneously pronounced ‘death sentence’? What tests did he conduct, upon which he could so reliably base conclusion that the cancer had ‘completely disappeared’? Wouldn’t such certainty require specific tests which could only be conducted by oncologists in a (conventional) hospital oncology unit? And note also, we do not know what the lady eventually died of, though it is implied that it was nothing to do with her cancer; rather, she was ‘divested of any further purpose’ by the death of her husband (despite the attentive care of other family members). Such a close relationship is touching; but again raises the question as to how she managed to keep her illness to herself ‘for several years’. Are these kinds of questions automatically no-go?

This weasel tactic allows the sneaking in of another quack identifying feature: the media-appealing maverick; the lone pioneer operating outside the medical mainstream. Note how (in a paragraph that commences, ‘To be honest…’, which is often a warning flag as to the veracity of ensuing statement) they’ve worked in their WDDTY buddy, a certain Dr Patrick Kingsley. A bit of cursory research suggests that Kingsley was a GP (not, as far as I can tell, a cancer specialist) so averse to medicine that he reportedly never prescribed a single drug in 25 years of practice, during which he claims to have treated thousands of ‘incurables’. Though retired and no longer registered to practice medicine, he apparently continues to promote unproven treatments for the seriously ill. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a book to be had. ‘The New Medicine‘ purports to describe ‘Overcoming any disease without drugs or surgery’. You will note that this is given promotional ‘as featured in’ by none other than… Lynne McTaggart, who here provides ‘Your Blueprint for Beating Cancer’ (if you’ve read this far, then allow yourself a 2 mins & 19 secs diversion to watch her introductory film…), and bigs up Kingsley as one of the ‘world’s leading cancer therapists’, who completely cured her mother-in-law.

The mutual back-scratching is nauseating. But now notice what happens: immediately following their pronouncement that Kingsley’s high-dose intravenous vitamin C, hydrogen peroxide, modified diet and vitamin supplement regimen cured terminal cancer comes another quack referent: the disclaimer (in the text, rather than small print at the bottom of the page). They claim it worked; but don’t explicitly say it works. They are merely investigating the research (well, where is Kingsley’s published, then?) ‘… to allow our intelligent readers to make their own informed choices and decisions’, working in another quack tactic – the appeal to vanity; flattering their readership. And then immediately re-recommend the anecdote as valid evidence through more mutual back-scratching, citing the likewise highly dubious writings of Laura Bond (who, lo and behold, also has a book out). Bond gushes over the time she met the ‘expert on cancer’ Bryan Hubbard (funny, I thought he was a publisher), and Lynne McTaggart, who considers:

Belief is the first, most important factor’ to focus on if you have cancer. ‘What do you think will work for you? If you have a strong belief about something, that’s going to be the best cure.’

There follows another quick plug for homeopathy. The re-endorsement of this pseudoscience should be red flag enough. And just reflect on the hypocrisy at work here: the blatant anti-science rhetoric in a publication which frequently promotes homeopathy – that CAM variant which (among others) bends over backwards and ties itself in knots in its reaching efforts to rhetorically present itself as… scientific. Quick disclaimer: they’re not saying it can cure cancer. (Err…) Merely that its ‘considerable promise’ warrants ‘further investigation’. Why? What’s the point in expending research funds on a non-existent phenomenon? But you can be sure this pseudomedicine will yield plenty of future citation material, some of it irresponsibly published by journals which should know better.

The clunky (recycled) anti-science metaphors are further revealing; another quick anecdote, doubling as appeal to (an advertising) authority is worked in; then we are steered back, via a swipe at The Cancer Act, to the primary purpose of this sorry piece of retaliatory promotion: justification of the irrational stance that free speech should permit misleading information and the unchecked promoting and advertising of dubious treatments and products. Particular bile is reserved for Simon Singh and Sense About Science, with which they work in an appeal to bandwagon: ‘Singh and a small cluster of his Sense About Science associates’ (interestingly accused of instigating a hate campaign of trolls) vs ‘thousands’ of WDDTY supporters. And Singh is painted as having too much time on his hands, he alone ‘relentlessly pestering the Advertising Standards Association with complaints about our advertisers’. Really? The impression is given that this is a recent development, but complaints to the ASA about WDDTY‘s crass advertising have been underway – and being upheld – for some time. Singh and Sense About Science are dismissed as “experts” for quoting by newspapers which are now cottoning on. Ironic, this lambasting of ‘The Times article’s gross inaccuracies and misrepresentations’ from an organisation whose website still sports stale testimonials from several newspapers, including… The Times. This highlights another quack signifier: always positive, complimentary testimonials; never negative, critical ones.

It would seem that Singh’s involvement has rattled WDDTY. Which, since his legal facing down of the British Chiropractic Association, is unsurprising: he has become a figurehead for science – and for encouraging scientists to call out instances of quackery. His name has gained important currency, and quacks don’t like it. So, they must move to discredit – both him, and science. Whilst claiming to encourage investigation and citing its cherry-picked ‘research’, WDDTY hypocritically entrenches its anti-science position. This is made blatantly obvious later in the article, under the sub-heading ‘Scientific fundamentalism’, which is immediately meant to inform you – or accord with your already held perception – that science is a belief position (the relativist’s ‘scientism’) like any other – and an aggressively fascistic one at that. This is journalism from the Humanities undergraduate school, akin to what you might find in some religious periodical promoting Intelligent Design as a valid dismissal of evolutionary materialism. The faith readership must be maintained. Those scientists and sceptics who have subjected WDDTY to scathing criticism and objected, in the public interest, to its availability, are all tainted by scientism – on which is founded the powerful medical establishment suppressing the provision of, and information on, ‘alternative’ treatments. This is the conspiracy theory again, wherein all its critics are ‘Big Pharma’-pocketed shills concerned with protecting revenue. But why, then, in hammering this point home with examples of Big Pharma’s disreputable practices, is encouragement to support the scientific sceptic-led AllTrials campaign not made? Is it because its instigator is an arch sceptic of the kind of health claims made by WDDTY (although that hasn’t prevented previous misappropriated quoting)? Because endorsing this joint initiative with (among others) Sense About Science would complicate this resort to The Fallacy of Negation?

This quackery giveaway – the conspiracy theory-mongering anti-science – is now becoming increasingly intertwined with the subversion of the definitions of scepticism and free expression. This WDDTY editorial employs this sleight, increasingly the resort of other promoters/endorsers of quackery: the gormless equating of free expression with freedom to mislead (and increasingly invoking Godwin’s law). This deception is reiterated in the final section, ‘Keep asking questions’, which offers up a few suggestions. Do the first and third of these constitute a nod to the AllTrials campaign? Does the first still let off the hook those ‘alternatives’ for which the randomised clinical trial is (conveniently) deemed inappropriate?

As for the second and fourth: these are bollocks! Which year’s worth of modules and training should be sacrificed in order to accommodate this ‘learning about nutrition, alternative modalities and new possibilities’? Good doctors continue updating their knowledge throughout their career. As for nutrition: good public health information (and common sense), grounded on solid basic (scientific) research, is available to all – including doctors. There is no need to make nutrition the specialist preserve of doctors (or quacks). And there is no need for magazines which claim nutritional expertise and advertise unnecessary products. And if doctors should not be induced by drug company sweeteners (AllTrials again), why should they ‘be rewarded for adopting non-drug therapies’?

So, to summarise those identifiers: The anti-science and pseudoscientific rhetoric; the (Big Pharma-led) medical conspiracy provision of the Fallacy of Negation default ‘evidence’ that alternatives work; the pioneering maverick who has hit on the secret which all doctors in the medical establishment are complicit in keeping from you; the emotive anecdotal testimonials; the miraculous recovery that reads too good to be true; the disclaimer; the claimed nutritional expertise; the flattering appeals to your vanity; and the increasing incidence of claiming the high ground on scepticism and free expression.

If all that doesn’t convince, then perhaps a good lashing of energy-balance-resonance-harmony-quantum-“I really don’t know what the feck I’m talking about”-medicine will do the trick.

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