How to Spot a Charlatan

Posted: November 9, 2014 in Alt Med, Vaccines
Tags: , ,

My paternal grandmother was known for her lack of skepticism. There was a saying in our family – “If the snake oil man is in town, she’s buying.” She insisted every time I saw her that she was getting better even though she clearly wasn’t. Perhaps she hoped sheer willpower would save her life but as I often pointed out to her, even if she’d magically been cured of her ailments, at 70+, she was on the wrong side of spry.

I used to think that getting taken in by charlatans was something only people on the fringe and a little unhinged tended to do (my grandmother used to also talk about the Bildebergs and something about global domination). However, as I’ve become more vocal about my position on vaccines (I’m for, very for, 100% for), I’ve noticed that people I consider relatively put together are buying into the weird, wild world of conspiracies. They’ll whisper to me about vaccines with things like, “Don’t you know what’s IN them?!” (I do, thank you, which ingredient would you like to discuss?) or “They cause autism!!” (for the 800 bajillionth time, they don’t. They don’t. They don’t. Stop it). In fact, I could list a dozen more but every single one of them is based on fear and misinformation.

So the next time you read an article on the internet, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is there a store?

Every single nutjob site out there that posts nutjob articles has a store. Mercola has a store. NaturalNews has a store. Tenpenny has a store. Seriously, I went to every one of these pages just to tell you for sure that they have a store. This is a red flag. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong (that would be a logical fallacy) but it does mean you should eye their information a little more carefully. Mercola, for example, sells a 30 day supply of his “Premium Immune Support” package for $69.97 that is put together based on claims from articles on his own website. Do you know how much my flu shot cost me? $0. If they are telling you something is bad but then offering to sell you something good, that is a red flag.

Calvin & Hobbes Natural

2. Do they cite their sources?

NaturalNews is notorious for citing themselves as a source. They’re so hilariously wrong 99.9% of the time that I wonder why they haven’t been categorized as a comedy site. However, for kicks, I’ve debunked their articles for friends because I can’t let that crap just go unanswered. When I manage to dig out their sources (by having to do my own google search), all I find are twisted words and lots and lots of lies. Occasionally they’ll have a link to a scientific study that usually doesn’t say what they think it says. So check the facts.

3. Google the title of the article.

I’ve found that crazy nutjob articles are usually only reposted on other nutjob sites, very rarely do they ever see the light of mainstream media. I’m not saying that this is the litmus test (all of these suggestions should be used together). What I’m saying is, if Mercola is posting it and then it’s NaturalNews and then it’s, you probably have a tabloid article on your screen.

4. Does it make any logical sense?

This seems obvious and yet I see the stupid onion article posted and reposted so clearly people are not asking themselves this last question. Why the hell would an onion suck the virus out of the air? If you really think it’s plausible look for the science behind it. Or at a minimum, please check Snopes. But just stop yourself and think “Does it make sense?” For example, all the claims made about vaccines boil down to having to believe that pharmaceutical companies are paying off all the scientists in the world. The entire world. Look, I know Big Pharma can be shady and I know they rake in a lot of money, but it makes more sense that they rake in the dough for things like Viagra and Cialis and painkillers than they do on vaccines (and truthfully vaccines make up less than 2% of their revenue). Where are the Facebook posts telling me Big Pharma is giving everyone erectile dysfunction?

This is by no means a comprehensive list. In fact, I recommend the less snarky post here. My point is, before you repost, before you whisper it to a friend, before you claim it as fact, check yourself. Make sure your source is good.

Oh. And get your flu shot if you haven’t.

  1. Sara says:

    I was looking at pages that Facebook recommends to me because my friends have “liked” them. So I ended up on Age of Autism, which by the way has essentially no useful information about autism, lots of lies about vaccines and guess what? They sell stuff. But the funny thing was that I saw a comment on there loaded down with “peer-reviewed” articles and I started clicking on some of the articles to read them.

    One of them was particularly deceptive and happened to have more than just a histrionic abstract available for viewing. It was a study that used a lot of “vaccines cause autism” catchphrases but uncovered nothing particularly useful. The researchers had taken brain cells, soaked them in thimerosal solution, and then reported the shocking findings that thimerosal alters mithochondrial activity of brain cells and does terrible things to their DNA. It sounds like the kind of experiment an undergrad might come up with just to gain experience in scientific writing…. or maybe the kind of experiment a charlatan would develop in order to keep prodding along a completely obliterated hypothesis about autism and vaccines. Anyway…

    I like this post over at AutismMum summing up that particular research paper

    “Overdosing Brain Cells with Stuff is Bad.”

    So yeah, even the flurry of links that go to articles (or abstracts) that look like useful science have to be looked at critically.

    Of course, people can avoid all of this by going to trusted sources in the first place and not clicking on every shocking article they see.

  2. jenniechris says:

    I love, love, love your posts about this stuff. I am going to do more research on why the general public can’t tell junk science from sound science because it’s fascinating. And potentially useful. :)

    PS: Got my flu shot!!!

    • Shannon says:

      Yay for flu shots!

      I don’t know much about what goes on in the public school system, but I’ve found that people don’t seem to be able to discern good and bad sources. I’m not sure where I learned it exactly (my dad was always a skeptic in the positive sense. He’s a Christian and he also taught me to ask hard questions).

      This post was just me beating my head against wall to have someone insist that some article by Mercola was totally legit. I’m like – how can you not see this guy is a snake oil salesman??? WHY IS THIS NOT OBVIOUS? And I did a quick self-check and said, why is it obvious to me? And these were the first things that I came up with.

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