The colourful history of medicine and quackery is overflowing with people who “swore by” treatments that were unusually bizarre and/or actually hurting them. Faith and ignorance are so powerful that they can easily obscure serious danger.
- 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.
- They tried to stimulate their vitality (and virility) with powerful electric shocks and other strange uses of electricity.eg
- 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 is more recent history and continues to this day: the FDA just issued a warning about it. Stranger still is that the practice promoted as a cure for basically anything (but especially autism) “by a Scientologist who reportedly claims to be a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda galaxy.”2 I’m not making this up.
(And that’s not all! For some other colourful examples, see The 10 Most Insane Medical Practices in History.)
All of these terrible treatments, and many more obscure examples, had many fans and enthusiastic testimonials. People paid for them, believe in them, loved them, swore by them — that is how misleading testimonials can be. People believe what they want to believe.
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
Medieval European bloodletting tools.
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?”3
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.
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.
What’s new in this article?
2019 — Added drinking bleach, inspired by the FDA’s bizarre warning about it.
2012 — Publication.
- Ironically, bloodletting is actually an excellent example of medicine accepting a seemingly outlandish “alternative” treatment … if it actually works. And bloodletting is 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.
- Mole B. People are still drinking bleach—and vomiting and pooping their guts out. ArsTechnica.com. Aug 14, 2019.
- Allen L. Excuse me, exactly how does that work? Hocus pocus in holistic healthcare. self-published; 2014.