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Popular but Weird and Dangerous Cures

The most dangerous, strange and yet popular snake oils and “treatments” in history, and why anecdotes and testimonials cannot be trusted

750 words, published 2012, updated Dec 19th, 2012
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canada bio
I am a science writer, a former massage therapist, and the Assistant Editor of Science-Based Medicine since 2009. I am nearly done with a long-procrastinated Bachelor of Health Sciences degree. I am a middle-aged runner and ultimate player with plenty of personal experience with athletic injury and chronic pain. Readers often want to know more about me and my qualifications, because my style and subject matter is controversial. Most importantly, yes, I used to actually believe and practice almost everything that I now debunk and criticize. I live by the ocean with my wife in beautiful downtown Vancouver.

SHOW SUMMARY

The colorful history of medicine and quackery is overflowing with people who “swore by” treatments that were bizarre and dangerous. Bloodletting was popular almost until the 20th century, despite being relentlessly harmful. 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, and stimulate their vitality (and virility) with powerful electric shocks. Women were sold Lysol as a douche … and women actually went along with it for a while. Voluntary lobotomy may be the craziest 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.

All of these terrible treatments, and many more obscure examples, had many fans and enthusiastic testimonials. People paid for them, believed in them, loved them, swore by them — that is how misleading testimonials can be. People believe what they want to believe.

The colorful history of medicine and quackery is overflowing with people who “swore by” treatments that were unusually bizarre and/or perilous.

(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.

Medieval European bloodletting tools.

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?

ZOOM

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.

HL Mencken

About Paul Ingraham

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.

Notes

  1. 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. BACK TO TEXT