The Bottom Line

What's the big deal?  If a product, service or idea makes someone feel better because of the placebo effect, does it really matter whether the marketing claims are scientifically accurate or complete pseudoscience?  What's the harm?  It's OK to believe in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy isn't it?
Although biologically, chemically, medically and physically inactive products and services (placebos) are able to relieve some symptoms like pain, depression, anxiety, etc., it has never been demonstrated that they can cure diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart failure, viral and bacterial infections, etc.  Harm is usually not caused directly by the placebo product or service but by patients not seeking effective medical treatment for a serious health condition that can be treated by traditional medical practices.
Claims for products and services based on pseudoscience and wishful, magical thinking cannot be validated by scientific processes.  Scientists and medical practitioners try to expose the flaws and deceptions in the marketing practices of pseudoscientific processes and services.  Consequently, one of the primary marketing strategies used by manufacturers and promoters of placebo products and services is to try and discredit the processes and methods of science.  Harm is caused by sowing distrust of legitimate science and traditional medicine - which are actually the only way accurate knowledge about the natural world can be discovered and tested, and the only way new, safe and effective products and services can ever be developed.
What's The Harm?
The Dangers of Pseudoscience - New York Times 2013
Pseudoscience - rational-wiki
Science and Pseudoscience
Consequence - True stories about false things

What's the Harm? - Health

You might well ask, What is the harm in using and promoting all the different alternate treatments?

If the alternative health products and services don't really do anything except perhaps trigger the placebo response (and actually make someone feel better), or perhaps help someone feel like they have some control of their health situation and relieve associated stress problems, why criticize the products?  Sometimes the placebo response can actually cause a real, positive biochemical change in the body - frequently with pain or anxiety perception.  This 2012 Consumer Reports article describes the dilemma caused by the placebo effect.

de·cep·tive | /dəˈseptiv/
Adjective: giving an appearance or impression different from the true one; misleading.
"The magician completed the illusion with deceptive casualness"
Synonyms: misleading, illusory, illusionary, specious; ambiguous; distorted
If the only consequences of using products with no real biological effect (beyond the placebo) were either that there was no health effect or that someone actually felt better, the only legitimate criticism would be that deceptive marketed practices based on unproven, scientifically improbable processes and claims were used.  For example, a common claim of many products is that, "a smaller water cluster size helps the body hydrate better and removes toxins more effectively".  There is no theory that can explain how any of those claims (smaller cluster size, better hydration and toxin removal) are physically or biologically possible, and there is no reliable, reproducible evidence to support the claims.  However, drinking a bottle of 'clustered' water will be unlikely to cause any harm, and many people will feel better after drinking a bottle because that's what they were anticipating. 

Unfortunately, there can be negative consequences more serious than, I didn't notice any change."  Most people are wise enough to stop using these products or services in life threatening situations, and they seek real medical treatment (i.e. treatment where there is actual evidence of effectiveness) if their health situation continues to deteriorate despite using a pseudoscientific product or service.

However, some individuals fall completely under the spell of these illusionists and wind up seriously injured or dead. Tim Farley has developed a site, What's The Harm?, that provides real evidence of the 'dark side' of pseudoscientific products and treatments that are conveniently left out of the testimonial-driven marketing of alternative, pseudoscientific treatments.  Headlines about the death of an 18 month old girl in early 2015 from a treatable ear infection provoked this response, What’s the harm? A child dies a preventable death from an ear infection:  "...there can be grave harm when the use of ineffective alternative therapies keeps a person from using effective medical therapy. We have seen this over the years, for example, when parents following religions that do not believe in medicine and tell their adherents to rely solely on god for healing, which, sadly, does not work so well for diabetic ketoacidosis, pneumonia, or leukemia. Dead children, however, do not appear to deter belief in such quackery."  It is interesting to note the headline in the first news example above.  The parents did not ignore the ear infection - they treated their child with pseudoscientific remedies and recognized too late that their 'cure' was ineffective.

If the marketing honestly stated "Our products and services have been shown to be very effective placebos, and we have numerous testimonials from satisfied customers that demonstrate this effectiveness.  Our products and services may make you feel better and relieve a number of symptoms related to stress and anxiety, but they have not been experimentally demonstrated to cure or prevent any serious diseases or health problem.  If your condition does not improve, or if you have a serious, life threatening condition, visit your traditional medical provider." there could be no criticism of the product or marketing practice.  It has actually been experimentally demonstrated that placebo products can retain much of their effectiveness even when patients know they are taking 'sugar pills'. 

It is interesting that these alternative, placebo products are already required to carry a disclaimer that basically states the same thing, but is probably never interpreted that way.  For example, a disclaimer from an alkaline water sales site states, "The products and the claims made about specific products on or through this site have not been evaluated by the United States Food and Drug Administration and are not approved to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. The information provided on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advice from your physician or other health care professional or any information contained on or in any product label or packaging. You should not use the information on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any health problem or for prescription of any medication or other treatment. You should consult with a healthcare professional before starting any diet, exercise or supplementation program, before taking any medication, or if you have or suspect you might have a health problem."  The actual disclaimers you will find on all alternative, placebo products are almost identical to my 'Placebo disclaimer' above - they all actually state that there is NO Evidence the products treat or prevent any disease. 

If these products were actually effective, why not prove it with scientifically valid experiments so the processes and claims become legitimate science and actually help more people?

As Dr. Clarkson observed on season 5 of Downton Abby after informing Thomas he had been scammed by a fake treatment program, "Remember, harsh reality is always better than false hope."  Science provides methods and real hope for understanding and dealing with reality - whether it is pleasant, neutral or harsh.  Pseudoscience ultimately provides only false hope and no understanding.

What's the Harm? - Science

The negative consequences of pseudoscience extend beyond the harm that can be experienced by individuals who continue to use ineffective products and services while experiencing declining health.  Cultural Harm is caused by sowing distrust of legitimate science and traditional medicine -- which are actually the only way accurate knowledge about the natural world can be discovered and tested, and the only way new, safe and effective products and services can ever be developed -- to the general public.

A pseudoscience is a belief or process which masquerades as science in an attempt to claim a legitimacy which it would not otherwise be able to achieve on its own terms; it is often known as fringe- or alternative science. The most important of its defects is usually the lack of the carefully controlled and thoughtfully interpreted experiments which provide the foundation of the natural sciences and which contribute to their advancement.
Dr. Stephen Lower,
One common strategy of nearly all marketing programs for products, services and ideas that are based on pseudoscience and magical thinking is to try and undermine science.  Marketers proclaim that mainstream science is not to be trusted because theories are always changing followed by a litany of alleged failures, evils and greed attributed to science, the medical industry, government regulations, Big Pharma, etc. 

After dismissing science as untrustworthy, pseudoscience marketers then misdirect their audience from their own lack of scientific evidence and credibility to the glowing testimonials of effectiveness that have no scientific validity.

It is ironic that, even though pseudoscience-based marketers try to discredit real science and traditional medicine, they have discovered that weaving an illusion of scientific validity into their presentations helps sell their products and services.  It creates a veneer of Legitimacy and Authority.  However, that duplicity creates a dilemma: you can't claim to have products that are scientifically legitimate and then, at the same time, claim that the basic requirement of the scientific process, legitimate, well conducted and reproducible experiments that support your claims, don't really apply to you.  You can't, that is, unless you effectively employ one of the magician's most effective tool, misdirection, "a form of deception in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another." 

Carefully observe a presentation for product or service for which extravagant claims of effective treatment of some health problem(s).  If the product or service is based on ps

By discrediting mainstream science, the goal is to elevate their platform (alternative pseudoscience and wishful thinking) to legitimacy.  That argument actually does not work - even if mainstream science and traditional medicine were conclusively demonstrated to be completely untrustworthy and evil, that would not automatically validate the processes or conclusions of the alternative, pseudoscience community. 

Unfortunately though, successful efforts by pseudoscientific marketers to cast suspicion on the methods and processes of science make it extremely difficult for people who do not have a scientific background to distinguish truth from fiction when trying to understand complex science-related issues.  The result is that unscientific and unsupported claims like, vaccines are ineffective, cause autism and produce more harmful effects than benefits, are believed true by enough people to allow continued outbreaks and epidemics of largely preventable diseases like measles, mumps, rebella, chicken pox, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, influenza and tetanus. 

Carefully review the differences between pseudoscience and legitimate science listed below.  Which discipline would you choose to entrust your health and the health of your family? 

Characteristics of Pseudoscience: Characteristics of Legitimate Science and Traditional Medicine:
1.  Uncontrolled testimonials are used to prove claims are true. 1.  Uncontrolled testimonials are used only as a potential starting point for further research.
2. The necessity of using controlled experiments that  reduce bias and validate claims are often dismissed as worthless and not needed. 2. Controlled, often blinded experiments are used to reduce bias and validate claims.
3. A 'scientific' vocabulary and 'evidence' that are either unsupported or poorly supported are only used to provide an illusion of respectability and authority. 3. The scientific vocabulary and evidence presented is well documented and well supported by controlled experiments or careful observations.
4. 'Theories' are often developed to support or justify a specific belief, bias, ideology or marketing strategy.  These 'theories' can only be tested and demonstrated as 'true' by those who have the same beliefs, biases ideologies or marketing strategy - not by 'unbelievers'. 4. Science is not controlled by beliefs, biases, ideology or marketing strategies.  Any legitimate theory can be examined and tested by anyone with any belief or ideology either providing confirming results or different evidence that can then be explored and tested.
5. 'Theories' are presented as unchanging Truth, and only 'evidence' that supports the Truth is accepted as valid. 5. All theories and hypotheses are tentative and can change or be dismissed as new evidence is acquired.
6. There are no monitoring systems or regulations employed to identify risks and ensure the safety and effectiveness of products and treatments. 6. Stringent monitoring systems and regulations are employed to identify risks and ensure products ans treatments are as safe and effective as possible.
7. There are no processes or requirement to regulate the type, quality or quantity of ingredients in a product. 7. There are strict processes and requirements to regulate the type, quality or quantity of ingredients.
8. Facts are located and 'evidence' is interpreted to support pre-existing conclusions. 8. Conclusions are drawn from facts that are carefully observed &/or gained by experimentation.
9. Critical Thinking - the process of carefully evaluating evidence by minimizing biases and considering all alternatives is discouraged. 9. Critical Thinking is a vital component of legitimate science and medicine.

Pseudoscience has no system of checks and balances, there is no plan or process within the community of those promoting enhanced/altered water products -- or any of the thousands of alternative treatments for which science cannot provide reliable evidence of effectiveness -- to detect, expose and correct misleading advertisements or fraud.

Because there are no procedures for testing and validating or rejecting new concepts and creating a real understanding of natural processes, pseudoscience has never produced anything (products, services or ideas) of real and lasting value.

Promoters of pseudoscience-based products or services seldom bother to make any attempt to provide experimental evidence to support their claims - they don't really need to, since their customers are convinced of effectiveness by testimonials.  There are a few pseudoscientific products marketed with claims that experimental evidence of effectiveness actually exists - alkaline water is one such product with lists of several dozen published papers alleged to prove effectiveness.  If you actually track down and examine these papers you will discover that the experiments are of low quality with obvious flaws in the methods or analyses &/or the results have nothing to do with the actual health claims made.

I am the first to admit that science, traditional medicine, government, Big Pharma, etc. are not perfect.  Science is fallible: it's a human endeavor; mistakes have be made (some deadly); poor quality experiments have been published; and individuals and groups have taken advantage of and corrupted the system for their exclusive gain.  But at least real science and medicine have checks & balances and structures in place to detect and minimize bad science and fraud.  Most of the 'evil-science' examples cited by pseudo-scientists were, in fact, discovered and exposed by legitimate scientists using standard scientific practices.

It is important to understand that most legitimate experiments carried out by mainstream scientists that have been reviewed and published can be successfully duplicated by anyone else in the world - whether the other scientists believe the results or not.  The published methods and analyses are transparent.  At any time, the results of a legitimate published scientific study can be called into question by other scientists who can read the protocols, evaluate the methods and analyses, repeat the experiments and obtain new evidence to support or challenge the original conclusions.  Pseudoscientific claims generally produce no specific claims or experimental evidence that can be duplicated or even challenged scientifically.

Some additional resources on immunization: - The anti-vaccine movement is one of the most dangerous forms of pseudoscience, a form of quackery that, unlike most forms of quackery, endangers those who do not partake of it by breaking down herd immunity and paving the way for the resurgence of previously vanquished diseases. However, anti-vaccine beliefs share many other aspects with other forms of quackery, including the reliance on testimonials rather than data. - In January, 2015 Jack Wolfson, an Integrative Cardiologist from Arizona outlined his plan for disease control: "We should be getting measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, these are the rights of our children to get it.  ...We do not need to inject chemicals into ourselves and into our children in order to boost our immune system."  Hopefully the irresponsibility of this belief is obvious to you. - In 2000, the United States declared that measles was eliminated from this country.  However, every year, measles is brought into the United States by unvaccinated travelers (Americans or foreign visitors) who get measles while they are in other countries. They can spread measles to other people who are not protected against measles, which sometimes leads to outbreaks.

    Copyright © 2005, Randy Johnson. All rights reserved.


Updated April 2015