The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Snakeoil SalesmanA man and his six year old son sit down in front of the TV one Saturday afternoon and turn it on.  An old black and white western is showing.  The father sits back and enjoys, while the child watches with intrigue.  A gentleman with an elaborately painted cart enters the screen and starts making boasts about a new medicine he has that will “cure what ails ya”.  A clearly sick person at the back of the newly gathered but inquisitive crowd wanders up and takes a sip of the salesman’s elixir.

Within minutes, the sick person’s face is clearing, voice is becoming less hoarse and energy is filling his body.  He buys two bottles of the elixir and wander off happily as the crowd behind him suddenly fill with excitement and start clamoring to be the next customer.  The sheriff then turns up, settles the crowd, shames them by telling them this man is nothing more than a snake-oil salesman and sends him out of town to the sound of boos and hisses.

Son: Dad, what’s snake oil?
Father: Well son, many a year ago men like that used to wander from town to town selling fake cures.  That first person who came up was actually in league with the salesman, a friend, acting and pretending to get cured.
Son: So the oil of snakes has no affect?
Father: No son.  It was all a scam.
Son: Wow dad, how did they fall for it?
Father: Medicine back then wasn’t what it is today.  There were many many more things it couldn’t cure or help with, and communication was also much slower which gave these people the ability to wander from one town to the next before word of their fraudulent activity could be passed on.  Today though, people are much smarter and medicine is much better.
Son: *laughing* Yeah, nobody would be silly enough to fall for that today.

The above is a rough transcript of a conversation I distinctly remember having with my father when I was a young child.  That last line by me is the one I would like to emphasize here.  In my innocence I made one horrible and fatal mistake, one I regularly continue to make to this very day.  I gave people in general the benefit of the doubt.  I gave people in general more credit than they were worth.

I was going to say it is sad to see that people still do fall for this snakeoil today, but that statement would be wrong.  It is actually much more accurate to say it is appalling and horrifying that people are still falling for it today, especially with the advances modern conventional medicine has and continues to make.

The snakeoil I am referring to, of course goes by a very different name.  Today it is called Supplementary, Complimentary and Alternative Medicine.  New name, new spins, but still the same old tale.  Reiki, Homeopathy, Chiropractic, Acupuncture, Detox, Crystal healing, Alkaline Water, the list goes on.  People flock to it by the millions making it a multi-billion dollar industry.

Most of the modern forms of snakeoil like to make claim their proof is that they have been around unchanged for hundreds of years.  They like to compare the results they had a few hundred years ago to the results of conventional medicine a few hundred years ago.  The problem with this of course, is that a few hundred years ago there was a lot we didn’t understand at all about the human body.  Conventional medicine back then was very experimental, trial and error, and made a lot of horrible mistakes.  Leeches, bloodletting anyone?

In those days, a frightening amount of the time it was actually better to do nothing at all than what a conventional doctor would try to do.  This is where these alternative medicines got their foothold.  They would prescribe a patient a “solution” that was equivalent of doing nothing.  The patient would get better on their own.  The “solution” got the credit.

People and governments quickly got sick of the poor recovery rate of conventional medicine though and started putting controls in place.  Conventional medicine quickly had to start proving that its solutions actually worked.  As targets for efficacy and accuracy were met, more were introduced.  Controls got tighter upon the discovery of the placebo affect, which is where you make the patient think you’re doing something when in actual fact you’re doing nothing.  Conventional medicine then had to prove they could do better than placebo for approval.  The controls on testing got ever tighter.  The number of people required for testing got higher.  The rate of people having adverse reactions got ever lower.  The allowable amount of contaminants and external influences got even lower.

Year by year, decade by decade, century by century, conventional medicine improved in any and every conceivable way.  Alternative medicines stayed the same.

I have said it many times before.  If Supplementary Complementary and Alternative Medicine practitioners want to play medicine or play doctor, they should jump through the same hoops that modern conventional medicine does.  The industry and its supporters which today are busy lobbying government to put it on the same pedestal as Modern Conventional Medicine should stop their lobbying at the government, and instead focus on the industry itself.  Once S.C.A.M. practitioners are able to demonstrate as effectively as modern conventional medicine that they have the same efficacy rates, they will automatically be on the same pedestal.  By trying to lower the bar or get a free pass they are doing nothing more than embarrassing themselves and putting innocent peoples lives at risk.

Majority of the time when I get in to or watch debates on the topic of SCAM, I see everyone around me pulling out their reasons for being in the debate.  Medical Doctors, Nurses, Physio’s, Scientists, family people, people personally affected with a related disability or illness.  I am none of these.  Single, no kids, work in Information Technology.  I seemingly have nothing relating me on a personal level to this topic, yet it’s still something I care very passionately about.  My reason is because I distinctly remember 24 years ago, I sat on my fathers knee and while laughing said “Yeah, nobody would be silly enough to fall for that today”.

It horrifies me and it seriously sickens me that despite the level of medicine, education, technology,  and communication we have to day, just how wrong I was.  That is why I care.

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