The colourful history of medicine and quackery is overflowing with people who “swore by” treatments that were unusually bizarre and/or actually hurting them. Even truly exotic claims can be embraced. Faith and ignorance are so powerful that they can easily obscure danger, even serious and immediate harm.
- Bloodletting was popular almost until the 20th century, despite being relentlessly harmful.1
- Some of the most lethal “cures” in history were inspired by the discovery of radiation.
- People happily drank metals like mercury and silver.
- Even drinking urine had near fad status for a while!
- They tried to purge disease with sulfuric acid.
- Women were sold Lysol as a douche … and women actually went along with it for a while.
- Voluntary lobotomy may be the most extreme of them all: it was a popular treatment for all kinds of psychiatric disorders, and at least fifty thousand people volunteered to have their brains lanced.
- Drinking bleach — “Miracle Mineral Solution” — is a contemporary and particularly popular and dangerous snake oil, with revived prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic.2 The product is promoted as a cure for anything (but especially autism, and lately COVID) “by a Scientologist who reportedly claims to be a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda galaxy.”3 In 2021, the “archbishop” of the “Church” that makes this poison was indicted4 — a rare case of health fraud so egregious that the authorities are actually doing something about it instead of merely disapproving.
Two more snake oils stand out because they are relevant to contemporary musculoskeletal and pain medicine: electrical stimulation treatments and ozone therapy. Both are used in modern forms that are less toxic but just as ineffective for the usual suspects, common and difficult problems like fibromyalgia, low back pain, and arthritis.
- People have always tried to stimulate their vitality (and virility) with powerful electric shocks and other strange uses of electricity.eg
- Ozone has been a relatively obscure but persistent snake oil for over a century, touted as an air purifier and medical panacea, but killing some people and harming countless others.5 Ozone is a toxic gas, widely used as a disinfectant, among many other industrial applications, and should never be inhaled.
And that’s not all! For some other colourful examples, see The 10 Most Insane Medical Practices in History. And a whole bunch of comedically explored examples, spend a happy hour listening to Caustic Soda’s terrific Quackery episode.
An ozone generator, an artifact from the (literally!) colourful history of ozone therapy. Ozone is a deadly toxic gas, but for decades consumers could buy ozone generators for self-treatment, like this bizarre vintage medical device of unknown provenance. It still “works”: it produces a strong ozone odour & the paddle causes the sensation of little sparks when applied to the skin. Photos by neon collector Jenny Beatty, used with permission. See several more high-res photos.
The unlimited power of belief to obscure harm
Remember that many people in history have died for the sake of delusional beliefs that defined their lives. It isn’t really surprising that people believe that they are being helped by things that are actually the opposite of helpful. Indeed, it is shockingly common.
All of the above treatments are the most awful and notorious examples of the power of belief, but there have been — and still are — countless examples that are more obscure less popular and/or extreme. People pay for them, believe in them, love them, swear by them … and that is how misleading testimonials can be. People believe what they want to believe, regardless of what it’s actually doing to them.
The fact that patients swear by us does not mean we are actually helping them. Satisfaction is not the same thing as effectiveness.
Chiropractor Preston Long, author of Chiropractic Fraud and Abuse: An Insider's Lament
How do we get fooled?
It’s easy to dismiss the examples above as historical oddities, but in fact people today still believe in many snake oils, some of which will seem bizarre to people in a hundred years — and some will still be going strong. But why do we believe in things that don’t really work, or even hurt us? How do we get fooled?
- Most problems eventually resolve on their own right around the same time we’re getting desperate and trying long-shot cures — the Darkest Before Dawn Effect. The snake oil gets the credit instead of natural healing.
- People are often doing more than one therapy at once, and we give credit to the wrong one.
- Humans are naturally suggestible, as you can see at any hypnosis show: we believe what we are told, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
- Sometimes we believe that a cure worked for a problem we never actually had in the first place — which makes it easy to cure.
- Our hopes and wishes make us remember anything that confirms what we want to believe, and ignore everything else (Confirmation Bias).
- We never want to admit, to anyone else but even to ourselves, that we’ve wasted our money.
- We want to be special and “in the know.”
- We want to please (especially authority figures and health care professionals), so we say nice things, and it’s easy: after all, half of all recoveries go better than average! (I was fascinated at how eager my massage therapy clients were to attribute any improvement to my “magic hands.”)
- Anything nice or optimistic that we say, we start to believe, because a basic principle of human nature is that “saying is believing.”
- Our memories and senses are notoriously unreliable — ask any judge or lawyer. There are many famous examples of seemingly reliable testimony later proven wrong by hard evidence.
- We are strangely impressed by the age of an idea. “One of the most popular arguments is ‘It’s been around for 5000 years!’ So has contaminated water, but you don’t want to drink it, do you?”6
And more! All of which is why there is no cure so ridiculous that someone doesn’t swear by it, like dogs swearing that barking prevents death by mailman.show Dr. Mark Crislip said that the three most dangerous words in medicine are in my experience. Even most professionals don’t understand the limits of anecdotal evidence. “Sometimes we get it wrong,” points out Dr. Harriet Hall, The SkepDoc. Her explanation of how we get fooled is one of the best and clearest available: Why We Need Science: “I saw it with my own eyes” Is Not Enough.
If anecdotal evidence were actually reliable, then most folk medicine would still be the best medicine available today.
I always want to hear patients’ stories. They are an amazing source of important questions and inspiration … and both the telling and the listening are inherently valuable. So I am not anti-anecdote. I am against giving anecdotes too much weight as a form of evidence. That way lies madness. If anecdotal evidence were actually reliable, then most folk medicine would still be the best medicine available today. We be stuck bleeding people forever.
Medieval European bloodletting tools.
It is the natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true. In order to overcome that tendency it is not sufficient to exhibit the true; it is also necessary to expose and announce the false.
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter., or subscribe:
What’s new in this article?
2021 — Added ozone therapy to the list, with fascinating photos of a bizarre vintage ozone therapy device. Updated information on Miracle Mineral Solution (because the perperatrators were indicted this year).
2019 — Added drinking bleach, inspired by the FDA’s bizarre warning about it.
2012 — Publication.
- There is a legitimate modern medical application of “bloodletting” — although we don’t call it that. Bloodletting is an excellent example of medicine accepting a seemingly outlandish “alternative” treatment if it actually works, and bloodletting is indeed actually effective for one (rare) condition: hemochromatosis. That’s a build-up of iron in the blood, caused mostly by either a genetic disorder or repeated blood transfusion. It’s serious, and you treat it by basically diluting the blood: bloodletting! More formally, phlebotomy. But the exception proves the rule: bloodletting isn’t actually helpful for 99% of what it was used for historically. Hat tip to med student Bobby Hannum for the excellent footnote suggestion.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Warns Seller Marketing Dangerous Chlorine Dioxide Products that Claim to Treat or Prevent COVID-19 FDA.org. April 08, 2020.
Is it really “bleach”? Not off the shelf. The FDA:
Websites selling MMS describe the product as a liquid that is 28% sodium chlorite in distilled water. Product directions instruct consumers to mix the sodium chlorite solution with citric acid – such as lemon or lime juice – or another acid before drinking. In many instances, the sodium chlorite is sold with a citric acid “activator.” When the acid is added, the mixture becomes chlorine dioxide, a powerful bleaching agent.
- Mole, B. People are still drinking bleach—and vomiting and pooping their guts out. ArsTechnica.com. Aug 14, 2019.
Morales, C. $1 Million in Toxic Bleach Sold as ‘Miracle’ Cure, Officials Say NYTimes.com. Aug 25, 2021.
A federal grand jury in Miami has indicted Mark Grenon, 62, and his three sons, Jonathan Grenon, 34; Jordan Grenon, 26; and Joseph Grenon, 32; all of Bradenton, Fla. Prosecutors said on Friday that they violated court orders and fraudulently produced and sold more than $1 million of their “Miracle Mineral Solution,” a dangerous industrial bleach solution.
Mark Grenon, described as an archbishop and a founder, has also repeatedly said that the church “has nothing to do with religion,” and that he founded the institution to legalize the use of the bleach solution and to avoid going to prison, prosecutors said.
The church has promoted the bleach solution for years.
Jim Humble, a church founder and a former Scientologist, has claimed that he is a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda galaxy. Mr. Humble, who was not charged in the case involving the Grenons, said that he asked “to be put in the part of the space navy that watched over Earth,” according to an investigation last year by ABC7 in Los Angeles.
- “Ozone therapy” isn’t just a quaint vintage snake oil: it survives to this day in a variety of incarnations, not all of them as obviously dangerous and nonsensical as using ozone gas as an air purifier or medical panacea. However, even in some of its more medically plausible modern applications, it is controversial at best. See Ozone Therapy for Pain.
- Allen L. Excuse me, exactly how does that work? Hocus pocus in holistic healthcare. self-published; 2014.