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June 13, 2012
How Real Is The Science Behind Snake Oil?


Regardless of the merits of the scientific method in the analysis of the exterior world, it is still open to many forms of abuse. It is always important to remember the results of any particular study mean nothing unless proven through continual repetition of the study's methodology. The importance of being able to replicate results is something instilled in every elementary school science student and yet as we enter adulthood we often tend to take with a great deal of faith any professions of scientific knowledge. Have you seen the data? Science is built on skepticism.



The word Science has an interesting etymology, whilst many attribute it to the Latin word "Scientia" meaning "knowledge" there is also an earlier etymological link from the Proto-Indo-European word "Scindere" meaning "to cut or divide". This is the primary methodology of science, to prise apart reality into its component parts in order to better understand how the whole functions. Cartesian logic began with the separation of mind and matter and the scientific method depends upon the separation of the observer from the observed. Whilst the absolute separation between mind and matter has now been shown to be entirely fictitious the importance of objectivity within the scientific method remains undiminished.

Advertisers and product manufacturers have certainly used this inherent cognitive bias towards trusting "scientific facts" in order to market products which they claim have a scientific basis in their effectiveness. The same is of course true within ideologies and politics. Whilst many choose to focus on the large scandals such as the climate change research centre fraud, countless fraudulent scientific claims are made every day in advertising, often with no repercussions. 

Even the finest intellects are not immune from bias and misinformation. The pseudoscience utilised by the eugenicists of the 19th and 20th centuries is a great example. Some of the most famous names in science were from aristocratic families and were great fans of the now debunked eugenicist creed. They believed their intellect was a result of superior breeding pedigree which made them natural kings of the Darwinian jungle. Real common sense studies on the impact of superior diet and good education simply did not fit the bias and measuring the sizes of people's heads was preferred! The fraudulent agricultural theories of the Soviet scientist Lysenko were accepted for decades amongst the Soviet party leadership largely based on the fact that they were simply different from the West.

Such examples always look so obvious when seen from the perfect standpoint of hindsight but can we be so confident of our own beliefs? A wise person knows how little they know and when we are choosing health products today are we making sure to observe our own biases? Are we remembering science class and the rigid methodology of repetition and access to data which real science involves? Or are we simply buying what makes us feel good?

Many modern day snake oil salesmen have claimed scientific credentials for their products, a recent case was that of "Lipoban" which was a fat loss supplement sold using false medical and scientific credentials. The inclusion of Doctors names without their knowledge and consent was only the tip of the iceberg. The owner of the scam product defrauded 130,000 people and claimed that not only was his product "scientifically designed" but that customers were getting a great price because they would be part of a giant study to once again prove this new "wonderdrug". There was of course no study, no real active ingredient and certainly no science! The man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a variety of fraud related charges.

Whilst there are many predators in a monetised society, the fact of the matter is that many people allow their desire for a quick fix solution to bias their opinions. This is definitely true of the supplement industry where folk would rather spend lots of money on a quick pill than spend time on an organic diet or exercise. There are many healthy supplements out there that can really make a difference to your life but don't put anything into your body without researching it first and teach your children how to recognise the difference between education and advertisement.

The best defence against frauds and quacks is a simple realization, science is something for everyone, not just "scientists". We all have a duty to think for ourselves, to utilise "Scindere" and separate fact from fiction. Use the scientific mindset to rationally analyse the evidence before you, the more we research and share this information with our communities the more enlightened we will become as a whole. In such a society companies will be unable to use cheap slogans like "scientifically proven" to take your money and risk your health. Democratise science!

By Sanny Weiss


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