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'Quackery' used to be a pejorative term describing medical charlatanism, i.e., health practices or remedies that have no compelling scientific basis. As medical charlatanism became more popular and as using pejorative terms became politically incorrect except for the formerly oppressed classes, 'quackery' evolved into 'holistic medicine,' 'alternative medicine,' 'complementary medicine,' 'complementary and alternative medicine' or CAM,' and integrative medicine.'

Quackery usually involves integrating metaphysics and such things as sympathetic magic with healing. Often, but not always, the major quality of quackery is fraud and the dispensing of useless or harmful treatments to vulnerable people who are dying. What quackery lacks in scientific study it sometimes makes up for by prescribing generous portions of caring—sometime sincere but often counterfeit—and overdoses of false hope.

De Kwakzalver, Jan Steen (1626-1679) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.Quackery is short for quacksalver and probably has nothing to do with the sound made by ducks. Quacksalver derives from two Middle Dutch terms and seems to mean healing with unguents. However, quacken means to boast, so a kwakzalver might be a healer who boasts, in which case medical quackery would be an oxymoron. Another possibility is that a kwakzalver is somebody who applies ointments or unguents haphazardly. The verb kwakken roughly translates as to throw something (on) carelessly or haphazardly.

The United States has a long history of quacks abusing the legal system by filing nuisance lawsuits aimed at censoring criticism. So far, the U.S. courts have sided with free speech against censorship. We still can't call people frauds, even if it is obvious to a certified moron that fraud is what is going on, unless a person has been convicted of fraud in a court. Referring to people as quacks, kooks, nutters, buttheads, or any of the more offensive names popularized by comedians, rappers, and bloggers usually get a free pass in U.S. courts. On the other hand, quacks can say pretty much whatever they want in response to their critics. Dr. Stephen Barrett of QuackWatch fame, and Dr. Terry Polevoy of Canadian Quackery Watch, for example, unsuccessfully sued Ilena Rosenthal for making  the following statements that were ruled not defamatory by a U.S. Court:

Dr. Barrett is arrogant, bizarre, closed-minded; emotionally disturbed, professionally incompetent, intellectually dishonest, a dishonest journalist, sleazy, unethical, a quack, a thug, a bully, a Nazi, a hired gun for vested interests, the leader of a subversive organization, and engaged in criminal activity (conspiracy, extortion, filing a false police report, and other unspecified acts.)

Dr. Polevoy is dishonest, closed-minded; emotionally disturbed, professionally incompetent, unethical, a quack, a fanatic, a Nazi, a hired gun for vested interests, the leader of a subversive organization, and engaged in criminal activity (conspiracy, stalking of females, and other unspecified acts) and has made anti-Semitic remarks.

In Holland, however, a federal judge has ruled that calling someone a quack (kwakzalver) is equivalent to calling him a fraud. The court ruled that kwakzalver conveys to the general public that someone is a swindler and practices medicine unlawfully. The court based its decision on what it considers the most authoritative Dutch dictionary at present. Critics of quackery might often believe that the quack is a swindler but that is not their usual meaning. From a critic's perspective, a quack is not always a swindler but he or she is always promoting or practicing a treatment of which the supposed benefits are unsubstantiated. This does not mean that there is no evidence for the quack treatment. There are always testimonials from satisfied customers that can be cited as evidence any treatment works. There are sometimes poorly designed or incorrectly interpreted studies put forth to support a quack treatment. To say a treatment's alleged benefits are unsubstantiated means that there is no compelling evidence supporting its claims of efficacy. Usually this means that the treatment has not been scientifically tested, that the scientific evidence for its efficacy is very weak, or that it has consistently failed scientific tests of its supposed benefits. Many quack medical practices have endured for decades or centuries and much study has gone into trying to figure out why they appear to be efficacious. The following are considered quackery by most defenders of science-based medicine: acupuncture, chiropractic, detoxification therapies, faith healing, homeopathy, iridology, naturopathy, reflexology, and therapeutic touch. One area where quacks seem to circle is among those dying of cancer.

Since most quacks have good intentions and are simply deluded about their work, the Dutch court has eliminated quackery by requiring that a quack be an intentional swindler. The court has found an efficient way to eliminate both quackery and criticism of dangerous kooks by its ruling. Kevin Trudeau should be proud.

See also ad hoc hypothesis, Edgar Cayce, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, control study, faith healing, holistic medicine, integrative medicine, Occam's razor, placebo effect, post hoc fallacy, pragmatic fallacy, regressive fallacy, selective thinking, self-deception, subjective validation, testimonials, and wishful thinking.

further reading

books and articles

Barrett, Stephen and William T. Jarvis. eds. The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America, (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993).

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science(New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957), ch. 16.

Park, Robert L. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford U. Press, 2000).

Randi, James. The Faith Healers (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Raso, Jack. "Alternative" Healthcare: A Comprehensive Guide (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994).

Raso, Jack. "Mystical Medical Alternativism," Skeptical Inquirer, Sept/Oct 1995.

Sampson, Wallace and Lewis Vaughn, editors. Science Meets Alternative Medicine: What the Evidence Says About Unconventional Treatments  (Prometheus Books, 2000).

Stenger, Victor J. "Quantum Quackery," Skeptical Inquirer. January/February 1997.


What's the Harm?

QuackWatch with Dr. Stephen Barrett


Alternatives to Medicine Topical Index Skeptic's Dictionary

The Museum of Quackery

The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America Chapter 18: Anti-Quackery, Inc. James Harvey Young, PhD

Mrs. Sickesz is a [*bleep*] and Part II. Sickesz in Higher Realms about white and black forces (about the legal situation in Holland)

Last updated 10-Dec-2015

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