The Persistence of Snake Oil

Morton Tavel, a well-known Indianapolis cardiologist, has previously confined his writing to medical journals and textbooks. Recently, however, he has written a very readable book intended to discomfit most of its readers. “Snake Oil is Alive and Well: the Clash Between Myths and Reality” takes on the logical fallacies and medical frauds so near and dear to the hearts of most Americans.

Full disclosure here: I would never have come across this e-book on my own; the author is my cousin. That said, I downloaded it from Amazon a few weeks ago and have now finished reading it. And my connection to the author is absolutely irrelevant to my recommendation–honestly!

For most readers, the value of the book will lie in its clear explanations, especially its exhaustive lists of medical/dietary hocus-pocus and distinction between good and bad science. Most of us have fallen for at least some of the identified quackery at one time or another.

For me, however, the central “take-away” was a meditation on the unquenchable desire of most of us humans for quick and easy solutions to our problems.

That desire is in tension with the scientific method, which is slow and painstaking and requires empirical observation and the accumulation of evidence over time before (inevitably conditional) conclusions are drawn. We want answers and we want them NOW!

If you would enjoy a brief jaunt through the history of folks who have preyed upon that all-too-human desire for instant gratification, a look at some of┬áthe con men and quacks whose nostrums are usually intended to “cure” our solvency rather than our aches and pains, this is a good read.

Be warned, though: it won’t cure what ails you.


  1. snake oil sales have been around for a long time. You are right about good science and quackerly.

  2. “…the unquenchable desire of most of us humans for quick and easy solutions to our problems.”

    I know you’re a David Brooks fan and he occassionally writes some winners. He’s mining the big picture of your quote as it applies to the economic decline of the West versus medical quackery in today’s column.

    As Brooks says in the summation, and (I believe) inherent in the book and your review, we have to be consious of our inherent weaknesses and drift toward depravity. While looking for an “easy way out” isn’t limited to our species, I think we’re also not supposed to build economic and governmental systems based on the most rosey of behavioral and fiscal scenarios.

    I don’t think the problem is as much capitalism versus socialism as responsibility versus consequences for being irresponsible- whether medical, political, personal, or whatever.

  3. For those looking for an amusing audio take on quackery, Google “quackcast.” It’s a podcast by an infectious disease doc who uses ridicule and scorn to attack the nuttery out there in the medical world. He’s also not afraid to pounce on professional journals when they publish something that smells of quackery.

  4. Thanks for the review, Sheila. “Snake Oil” looks like a good read, so I purchased it from Amazon. Thanks also, Bill, for the information on Mark Crislip’s “QuackCast”. I subscribed to the free iPod podcast and enjoyed it very much. I’m looking forward to future offerings.

  5. Should be iTunes podcast. Go to the iTunes store and type in QuackCast.

  6. Thanks for the book recommendation (nepotistic or not). I downloaded it for future reading. For the past few years I’ve been following the blog and podcast (NeuroLogicalBlog and Skeptics Guide to the Universe) by Steven Novella. He also recently authored a “Great Course” lecture in both cd and dvd formats. I think you would enjoy all.

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