‘Female quackbuster aims to protect the vulnerable’, is the irresistible title of a paper that was Tweeted a few days ago. The paper is brought to us by the Zeus Information Service, a website whose stated aim is to “unite people and organisations worldwide who believe in the value of natural health therapies and want to continue to use them.”
Given the source, it’s not altogether surprising that the title of the paper is the only thing about it that is strictly true. Rose Shapiro is female and, since the publication last year of her book, Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All, the term ‘quackbuster’ would seem to be a fitting accolade. But the author of the paper — one ‘Lady Medea’ — isn’t enamoured with her, for some reason.
On and on drone these champions of the public good. Frankly we are tired of their boring diatribes and sick and tired of them. These Quackbusters must be really getting desperate, in order to warn the ‘vulnerable’ public that their health is being ‘put at risk’ by these alternative charlatans practising on the fringes yet another book has been hatched.
Suckers is a book I have a particular affection for and not just because the author was an occasional drinking companion in the pubs of Clerkenwell when we were both young hacks in the late 1970s. I like this book because it is informative, intelligent and irreverent. I’m not saying I would choose it over Ernst & Singh’s Trick or Treatment, which came out around the same time. In fact, if I could only pick one of the two books to re-read, I’d probably pick the latter because, ultimately, I think I got more from it. But they complement each other and, ideally, everyone should read both books.
I’ll happily admit that part of the reason I feel strongly about Suckers is that the face of the skeptics movement is mostly male and geeky while, as Shapiro reports, the majority of alternative therapy users are people like me: “middle-aged mothers in the moneyed and educated ABC1 group”. When somebody like me writes a book like that or, for that matter, does anything in furtherance of the noble cause of quackbusting, they earn a special place in my heart and I’m bound to leap to their defence when they are targetted by enemy agents.
So what does Lady Medea say about the book? Not a lot, to be honest. On reading her paper, I could only surmise that she hasn’t read the book properly and isn’t interested in its arguments because these are not even mentioned, let alone addressed. Instead, she calls the book a “diatribe”, then uses it as a springboard into a cathartic rant of her own about the increasing number of challenges against charlatan horseshit peddlars, both from well-informed individuals and from legislative bodies. (She doesn’t put it quite like that, obviously).
She is indignant about Shapiro having the temerity to write the book:
What are her alternative health qualifications? And if she has none, why is she pontificating on these subjects?
This is probably the scariest comment in the whole piece, if only for the Orwellian vista it evokes. Imagine a world where the only people allowed to “pontificate” on quackery are those who’ve passed exams in it like Lady Medea, who lists her own qualifications as: BSc, MSc [High Hons] Nutritional Therapy/Traditional Herbalism. No doubt these courses were of full of handy tips on how to restore balance, raise vitality, optimise wellness, etc, but they evidently lacked a module on critical thinking and how to make an argument. Instead they ran the usual ones on Big Scary Pharma, the Evils of Orthodox Medicine and How to Look like a Right Twat to Skeptics. Look at this:
For a very long time orthodox medicine has been in the saddle and has been smelling like a rose with the public, although the rose who wrote this book has the putrid stench of big, some very big vested interests, swirling all around her and the smell resembles anything but a rose, more like the reek of a rotting dungheap.
(She may have done an optional module on communicating like a 19th century tub-thumper on Speakers’ Corner).
Lady Medea isn’t a pleasant sucker, is she? And although she thinks most people are not qualified to criticise natural therapies, she considers herself more than qualified to pontificate about proper medicine. As what she says makes her sound as mad as a box of frogs, I’ll confine myself to just one example to give the flavour:
And now we have one of the world’s most famous icons Michael Jackson, dead, because of conventional drugs. These must have been prescribed and this can only be done by a state-registered orthodox doctor from the world of organised medicine.
That said, probably the only thing about the paper that really annoyed me was the misinformation about Simon Singh:
A certain doctor who was taken to court by the chiropractors has lost his case because in the opinion of the Judge, they are not bogus which means they are deliberately setting out to defraud the public.
Oh dear me! This refers to the preliminary hearing of the BCA v Simon Singh, when Mr Justice Eady ruled that the word ‘bogus’ implies deliberate dishonesty and, since Singh had used it about the promotion by the BCA of therapies for which there is not a jot of evidence, then he does have a case to answer in this libel action. (Singh maintains he did not intend to imply deliberate dishonesty, simply that the therapies are scientifically unsupportable).
The Judge did not express a personal opinion on whether or not chiropractic is bogus. I trust the inclusion of this shamless falsehood in the paper attests to the general quality of papers at the Zeus Information Service.
None of this will come as a surprise to those familiar with how quacks carry on and for those who’ve not read Suckers, I am happy to step up to the plate and tell you what Lady Medea forgot to say about the book, which is that it’s a well-researched and witty exposé of a multi-million pound industry that is based on nonsense and lies and which leeches resources from evidence-based medicine.
The book provides histories and some surprising facts about several major therapies and debunks all the myths about them. There is also useful information about how to spot a quack, not just by the language they use — buzzwords like ‘balance’, ‘wellness’, ‘harmony’, ‘quantum’, etc. — but also by the strategy of shrieking accusations about Big Pharma any time they are challenged and diverting attention away from their worthless therapies and on to the perceived failings of proper doctors.
It’s hard to imagine a better example of that strategy in action than Lady Medea’s paper. I’m most grateful to her for writing it and for the excuse to remind everyone of just how great a book Suckers is. It’s available to order here.