Sell ​​Snake Oil | Number 152

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street philosopher

Sean Moran chase away the hype around hypertension.

Isn’t that wonderful news? My picture shows a cheap magnetic bracelet that relieves pain and cures so many ailments – including the ‘silent killer’, high blood pressure. But it can’t cure anything. It’s not a panacea, it’s a scam.

I admit that false claims can have superficial plausibility. After all, we remember from school that our blood contains iron, the lack of which causes anemia; and magnets attract iron, don’t they? Well, sort of. You may remember magnets attracting iron filings in school science lessons. However, the iron in our blood is not in the form of iron filings, but is bound to the oxyhemoglobin molecule. And this structure is not magnetic, so nothing happens when magnets are approached. I am on iron pills right now so let me test this theory now.

Here are the results: fridge magnet and steel paperclips: attraction; fridge magnet and iron pills: no attraction. This is because the iron in the pills – and in the blood – is not in the form of metallic filings (Fe0), but is in the ionic embodiment of iron (Fe2+), which is not magnetic. (My apologies for including this bit of science in a philosophy article, but it’s really the only effective epistemic defense against medical scams like this, epistemology being the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge claims. By the way, if you say the following word out loud, you can test how attentive you paid in science class. Here is the word: “unionized”. If you said “un-irradiated,” you paid more attention to science lessons. If you said “unionized,” you paid more attention to history lessons.)

It is only the metallic, unbonded, unionized form of iron that magnets attract. Which is just as well for me, since I recently had an MRI. With magnetic resonance imaging, you are exposed to very strong magnetic fields when entering and exiting a donut-shaped scanner. The fields are about fifteen times stronger than the fields from the bracelets: 3000 mT, compared to 200 mT (“T” is for Tesla, after the eccentric Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla). If the hemoglobin had been vigorously affected by the magnets, I would have been in trouble; but i’m happy to report that i didn’t explode and become the jam in the donut. Thus, the claim that magnetic bracelets can affect our blood has been definitely undermined.

Magnetic bracelets can’t kill the pain either. In their systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (2007), Pitter et al concluded that there was “No significant effect of static magnets for pain relief compared to placebo”. And yet, the BBC reported in 2006 that sales of “therapeutic” magnetic devices exceeded one billion dollars worldwide. What’s going on? How does this scam keep fooling people?

snake oil
Photo © Sean Moran 2022

Snake oils and their sellers

Arthur Conan Doyle’s diagnosis of human madness is a little harsh: “It seems to me that there is no limit to the inanity and credulity of the human race. Homo sapiens! Homo idioticus !” (The land of mist, 1926). But he himself was deceived by hoax photographs claiming to depict fairies, taken by young girls in Cottingley, England, and published by him in The Strand Magazine of Christmas 1920. Perhaps then we are all epistemically flawed and susceptible to being cheated by cheaters of all kinds.

I want to help philosophy now readers to protect themselves from drug fraudsters, sometimes called “snake oil salesmen”. A key intellectual quality for philosophers is critical thinking. So how do you critically differentiate between real remedies and snake oil scams?

Surprisingly, the first snake oil sellers had some legitimacy. They sold a product that did exactly what it said on the tin. Although they didn’t know the biochemical basis for their potion’s healing action, they had empirical evidence of its effectiveness. In other words, they knew it worked. And it had a legitimate biochemical mode of action. The Chinese indentured laborers who built the Pan American Railroad system in the 19th century used the oils of the Chinese water snake as friction to relieve sore muscles and arthritis. The oils were rich in omega-3 fatty acids, so the remedy was pharmacologically effective. It wasn’t just a placebo, it really worked by reducing inflammation. Quackers then attempted to replicate this remedy, but their remedies used rattlesnake oils and they cite the Hopi Indian tradition. However, these oils contained only a fraction of the active ingredient of Chinese water snake oils, so their “cure” was relatively ineffective, aside from potential placebo effects (more on that soon).

Clark Stanley went even further in this fraudulent enterprise. Its flagship product, “Stanley’s Snake Oil,” contained no snake oil, neither Chinese nor American — only beef fat, red pepper and turpentine. This product fell on two key criteria for medical legitimacy: (1) Being more effective than a placebo (2) Having a plausible biological mode of action in the body. It didn’t fulfill either of them.

Between Knowledge & Ignorance

Our epistemic position in life is an in-between position: unlike God as traditionally defined, we humans do not know everything; but we are not completely ignorant either. Our power of action is also limited: we are not all-powerful. But it’s just as well that we have such limitations, for they can work together in beneficial ways: as Thomas Aquinas once wrote, “It is better for a blind horse to be slow” (Sum, 1a2ae, Q.58, a.4). If we were omniscient, we would know exactly what awaits us – but without the divine power of omnipotence, we would be in the terrible position of not being able to do anything about it. Being epistemically imperfect can be an advantage. Sometimes it is better not to know precisely what awaits us.

We are all fooled from time to time too. For example, many jokes rely on ambiguities which the punchline then disambiguates. Consider a Bob Monkhouse joke (again, better to say it out loud): “I hate Italians…with their little slant eyes…Oh wait, I mean italics.” We deduce first that he is a despicable racist; then we deduce that he is confused; finally, the punchline restores our epistemic balance, making us laugh when we realize that it is actually typography. It’s just as well to be foiled by a magician’s sleight of hand, in fact, our pleasure depends on it. The trick is to avoid being bamboozled when there’s a lot more at stake than just entertainment. It is extremely unfortunate to fall for a quack’s “cure” if our disease is life-threatening and the “cure” does not work. We could be robbed of years of life by trusting an untrustworthy source of medical advice. If your blood pressure is high, which makes heart disease more likely, a magnetic wristband won’t lower it, unless the placebo effect is helpfully kicking in.

However, there is are reliable ways to lower blood pressure: by adjusting diet and exercise, or by taking medicine prescribed by a doctor. There are facts on the matter, and good medical practice is supported by empirical data. ACE inhibitors and beta blockers work: magnetic bracelets are ineffective. And yet we can convince ourselves that the false remedy is good, thanks to this well-established psychological phenomenon that is the placebo effect (from the Latin placebo meaning “I’ll please”), which sometimes makes a fake remedy work, to some extent. It does this by triggering endorphins, the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals, and releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. The placebo effect is a psychological phenomenon that relies on our ability to harness our thought powers to improve our health – although the effect is subjective: if you think the placebo is good, then it will be good, or less, it will appear to do good. The opposite phenomenon is the “nocebo” effect. If you think something is harmful, then it becomes harmful, regardless of objective realities otherwise. These are epistemic effects, because in both cases our beliefs deceive us and prevent us from accessing the truth.

Australian comedian Tim Minchin quips: “You know what they call proven alternative medicine? – Medicine.” I would quibble with his use of the word “proven” here – “demonstrated” would be better, as medical knowledge is tentative, not provable like math. However, he makes an excellent point. In the unlikely event that the If the “alternative” magnetic bracelet approach to high blood pressure would be demonstrated by empirical evidence to be effective, it becomes part of medical knowledge, otherwise it is pseudoscientific woo-woo, and to be avoided.

magnetic attraction

The seriousness of the medical fraud is such that the State should undoubtedly play a role in its fight. There’s no need to watch out for trickery by the comedian or conjurer, but scammers touting bogus remedies deserve special official attention. To protect the public from their own folly, they must be watched and prosecuted. (The word “madness” is perhaps a bit harsh, since the claims of magnetic bracelet sellers, while fallacious, have superficial plausibility.)

I have contacted the authorities here in Ireland who deal with this sort of thing. But to protect my own blood pressure, I almost gave up the long back and forth emails. Eventually, the Health Products Regulatory Authority acknowledged that the wristbands did not work: “when such wristbands have been reviewed, the HPRA has not seen evidence to date to support medical claims of this nature” (e-mail, 31/08/2022). They offered to take over the case, if I provided “further details including name of legal manufacturer or any product packaging/labeling or pictures if available”.

Snake oil has never existed here in Ireland since Saint Patrick drove all the snakes into the sea. Ironically we always seem to be drawn to fake magnetic bracelets. Caveat emptor. Fraudulent Cellar.

© Dr. Sean Moran 2022

Seán Moran teaches postgraduate students in Ireland and is a professor of philosophy at one of Punjab’s oldest universities. His doctorate is in philosophy, not medicine, so please consult a competent doctor if you are concerned by this article.