Navigating the Snake (Oil) Pit

If you’re like me, your Facebook feed regularly includes a horrified post confirming just how awful something or someone is. Given the state of our politics, it’s totally understandable that–quite often– the friend posted satirical “news,” believing it to be true. Or was simply taken in by  misinformation promoted by partisans and/or propagandists.

This is a real problem. Most of us have been fooled at one time or another, and the damage done isn’t limited to politics, policy and celebrity culture.

I have previously blogged about my cousin who is a retired cardiologist. He shares what is probably a genetic trait in our family, namely, getting very pissed off when evidence-free,  off-the-wall assertions are taken as fact. Of course, that happens all the time with medical and health “news,” because few of us have the scientific background to evaluate these sorts of claims, or the time to thoroughly research them.

His previous book was “Snake Oil is Alive and Well;” he’s now followed it up with a more in-depth look at the various claims made about foods, diet aids, dietary supplements and much more–all of the information, misinformation and nuttiness that–whatever else they do– generally separate us from our money and our peace of mind. Here’s his description of the book:

Advice on matters of health often comes from companies that sell products on TV, or from individuals who promote treatments stemming from self-serving agendas. Information obtained this way is often unscientific, unbalanced, and, sadly, blatantly fraudulent. Unfortunately, surrounded by all this noise, mainstream physicians are seldom heard from; moreover, few are willing to devote the time necessary to expose those ubiquitous misconceptions and to provide countering advice stemming from sound scientific research. Making matters even more treacherous are the various branches of “alternative medicine” that provide untested or worthless “treatments”, placing patients at risk of being exploited, losing their money and damaging their health. Although such alternative methods are largely employed by non-conventional and unlicensed practitioners, occasional wayward “real” doctors imprudently transcend these boundaries and promote dubious methods to large audiences on TV and other media. It is no wonder that the public is confused!

As a member of the conventional medical community, I have decided to present a balanced picture of what works, what doesn’t work, what are outright frauds, and what we really don’t know. This book is intended to provide an introduction to contemporary scientific thought processes and serve as a guide for everyone on how to follow a healthy lifestyle while, at the same time, how to avoid wasting large resources on useless—sometimes dangerous—techniques and treatments.

For more information, you can visit his blog.


  1. I suppose there is irony in the fact that the technology that provides us with access to so much information just makes us more misinformed.

  2. I am thinking of Dr. Oz on TV. A group of top doctors from Columbia University, Stanford University, the University of N. Carolina School of Medicine and the American Council on Science and Health in NY has asked that he be removed from his faculty position citing his “egregious lack of integrity” for promoting what they call “quack treatments”. Dr. Oz has acknowledged that some of the products he promotes don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact. A recent British Medical Journal study examined the Dr. Oz show and The Doctors show. They found that about half of the recommendations either had no evidence behind them or actually contradicted what the best available science tells people. Some of the doctors said “why would anyone mistake those shows for anything but entertainment?”
    Another example of Navigating the Snake (Oil) Pit!

  3. Anybody who’s not pissed off in these times isn’t paying attention.

    Every day every one of us knows less and less of what we all together know. Nobody can keep up with the explosision of knowledge that marks our times. It will only get worse.

    There is nothing that can be done about that. In fact the best possible strategy, life long learning in place of life long entertainment, will only at best slow the rate that each of us is falling behind all of us.

    So, what to do? Rely on experts. Now’s the rub. How can we know who to trust?

    While there are zero no risk strategies in any aspect of life (remember Bernie Madoff had excellent credentials) the best one can do to identify who to trust is to ask are they problem solving or selling? If they are problem solving what are their qualifications? Education? Experience? Results? References? What evidence supports their claims to qualifications?

    Cumbersome questions but if the risk of bad advice is great enough, worth taking the time to evaluate the source of what you personally aren’t equipped to know. And we’re all forced by here and now to decide things that we have not invested sufficient time and talent to understand.

    The good news. Doing good research has never been easier. The bad? Doing bad research has never been easier. Question confirmation bias constantly. Is this what I wish was true or is it where the preponderance of evidence points?

    There is no avoiding trusting the experts in today’s world for any of us. The best we can do is assign trustworthiness based on confirmed credibility and capability. 20% instinct, 80% homework.

    Skip the sales talk.

    Experts know that their advice ultimately rests on evidence. Their expertise most of the time is healthy skepticism. Show me. Non experts are not equipped for skeptisism, only cynicism or gullibility. If you’re in the expert business your livelihood is based on credibility. You have to be the skeptic for those that rely on you. If you aren’t, it will become known.

    We are only a few generations removed from the times when all the knowledge necessary for survival could be learned at your parents knee. Today all of the knowledge necessary for survival would take many lifetimes to learn and by the time you learned anything it would be obsolete.

    Sense that makes sense to your senses, common sense, is necessary but no longer sufficient. Evaluating expertise is a requirement. And granting credibility carefully is essential.

  4. I usually research claims that come across my Facebook posts, but occasionally one will fool me. It is pretty easy to go to the source cited, such as the Pope’s recent encyclical on global climate change or the Indiana State Constitution.

    The hardest to verify are “news” items reported by a “journalist” who has provided either incomplete or misleading details. Those absent details are often less salacious and attention-grabbing than what actually been reported. Too often speculation and rumor get reported by one news organization then another will report the same information as fact using the first reported items as fact. It is sloppy work and IMO only used as means to increase revenue for the organization without having to do any actually journalistic investigation.

    I have just finished reading Bill Bryson’s book, “Summer, America 1927”. He writes about several “news” events of the time that were hyped all out of proportion to the content, often with “facts” either completely made up or selectively edited to sensationalize the events and thus increase revenue for the papers and magazines involved.

    Some things never change. They just happen to reach us faster nowadays.

  5. It seems that life, particularly modern life, must be frighteningly complex for those who do not possess strong intellect and superior critical thinking skills. And this is not a right/left problem. The same sort of bewilderment results in believing Obama is a foreigner, GMO’s are an attempt at population control, 9/11 was staged, a shaman will heal your cancer, and of course the grandaddy of all mind-viruses, that there is a magic man in the sky who listens to you and looks after your soul.

    I always got a little kick out of those “Left Behind” books, as the audience thought it was about unsaved souls being left behind during the rapture, when it seemed to ironically indicate that the audience had already been left behind by modernity.

  6. I’ll read this guy’s book — with a clear conviction that alternative practices DO work – my own health history is my evidence. What does concern me is the Internet-article habit of subsituting ridicule and mockery for research. To me, this is a red flag that the writer is a paid shill for corporate interests — the “approved snake oil” of profit-driven medicine. For example, a single Google search for “medicinal value of honey” provides studies by the NIH and many credible studies published in peer-reviewed journals that validate the claims that honey is an effective remedy in some instances. Ditto the spice turmeric. But it’s easier for bloggers to ridicule than to research.

    In fact, I think the entire use of the term “snake oil” obscures a topic that MUST be included in any discussion of what to believe or not believe about medicinal claims.


    Where is the cash cow? With the conventional medicinal/corporate practices — the entire “wealthcare” system of pharma corporations and insurance companies. Where is the “snake oil”? In anything that occurs outside of the wealthcare system. Likely evidence that something is “snake oil”? Insurance companies won’t cover the treatment.

    To step out of the wealthcare system into a range of affordable treatment choices which operate from an entirely different mindset and expectation paradigm is to step into the world of alternative medicince, traditional medicine, frontier medicine, vibrational medicine, and quantum physics.

    Making this step does not absolve anyone from the requirement of critical thinking and radar for unsubstantiated hype.

    The trick is to know that many claims of alternative treatments *can* be substantiated – and conventional “wealthcare” study methods are often the *wrong tool* for measuring the success of alternative treatments. Then, the decision to accept the alternative treatment is entirely up to the patient … and part of the attraction is that it’s going to be much less expensive, few to no side effects, and will involve the patient as a conscious partner rather than a hunk of meat being acted upon.

    All that said, I look forward to reading the cousin’s book.

  7. Your cardiologist relative is in good company. Thus why teachers get so upset when education policies are created by people who don’t work in the field of education. And why scientists are upset because legislators don’t want their testimony. And why women get upset when reproductive policies are created by men.

  8. Included in my own system of detecting “snake oil” is being on the alert for claims by medical and other entities about being in the top 1% or in the top 10 of something. Why aren’t they in the top 5 or 4 or maybe the very top whatever. A little digging and one finds that the group making the designation is the association doing the lobbying for that group and to which the touted entity is a member.

  9. I can say with pride that I have been de-friended (on Facebook) by three people who viewed me as someone who likes to spit in their soup with the words, “This is not true. See (or other fact website) which reports that….” Or where I say, “This picture was taken ten years ago and that didn’t happen” or “The guy painted his house as an advertising gimmick, not because he was being persecuted by liberals”.

    Folks really are not as interested in the truth, as much as they are for their prejudices to be confirmed. I think I got a “thanks for the correction” once, and that was from a moderator/friend. I understand that these forwarded emails also come from people leaning left, but I’ve never seen one. They have all been right wing fringe, or what used to be called “fringe”. In any case, I don’t think I’ve lost much.

  10. There are facts reported by the few good journalists left, scientists, court room testimony, evidence based medicine, legitimate demographers and actuaries, etc.

    There is marketing which is completely based on confirmation bias. Buy because it’s rewarding for me.

    It’s pretty close to functional to just ignore marketing as being too unreliable to be useful.

    In other words turn off TV.

  11. I have become generally skeptical as the result of the barrage of advertising that makes claims that I cannot imagine a scenario in which they would be true – weight loss, stop smoking, beauty aids, regrow hair. The fact they run continuously on the second tier television channels indicates that they successfully lure people to hurry because it is only available to the next 500 callers.

    The success of this kind of advertising has carried over into other areas as pointed by other contributors. Their success shows how our critical thinking skills have eroded and how little power the FCC has to regulate these obviously false claims. We are still in a buyer beware world in spite of or because of the explosion of unregulated media.

  12. We always get a good laugh over the ads for medications, where the person in the ad is laughing, holding the baby and smiling appreciatively at her spouse when you hear all the possible deadly side effects of the drug that never seem to end. If nothing else, I guess you will die smiling.

  13. Thanks for providing the link to your cousin’s book. I scanned the review which reminded me of another book I have read and do have on my bookshelf.

    “Don’t Cross Your Eyes…They’ll Get Stuck that Way!”, a new book by myth-fighting Indiana University School of Medicine pediatricians Aaron Carroll, M.D., M.S., and Rachel Vreeman, M.D., M.S., debunks the pearls of medical wisdom that many people and even their physicians believe are true. It’s written in a light manner that appeals to all reading levels and is packed with myths and old wive’s tales, including a couple of Internet favorites among the soccer mom crowd: 1) sugar makes your child hyperactive, and 2) vaccines can cause autism.

    Here’s a link:

  14. Sabra–I have watched Dr Oz’s show, and really appreciate his (free) exercise videos. I know he sells things, like books, but I have a hard time finding anything very radical in his advice. I know a big deal was made about him endorsing products, and he was called up in front of a congressional investigative committee, but that was apparently more of his condemnation of GMO foods, excessive use of roundup, etc. I just don’t see ANYTHING at all even remotely snake oily about his show or his website. I grant you, I don’t watch very often, but I had to laugh when he said taking a daily vitamin that contained 100% of daily requirements pretty tame. Hard to argue with that (except I don’t take any daily vitamins) and find most of his show pretty informative and practical. PLUS the things hawked on christian tv make much wilder claims about their ‘products.’ Plus, there has been such a concerted effort to slander him (comments left calling him an osteopath when he is an MD, and teaches at Columbia University, which, last time I checked was still considered pretty prestigious) so after watching his show, watching some of the ‘hearings’ and knowing how corrupt our current government is, I find myself thinking his ‘quackery’ is more smoke than fire. Like I said, I enjoy the freebies on his website, and don’t make purchases. I did pick up his ‘You on a Diet’ book at the Goodwill Store, which seems exceedingly tame (lose weight around your waist, portion size, exercise–absolutely nothing non-mainstream) so the overreaction to him seems a lot more likely the result of a Monsanto slime campaign.

    Plus, I usually go to Mayo’s for info. I like their general rules like, don’t use anything that hasn’t been on the market for 10 years, etc., etc.

Comments are closed.