New and updated Red Flags of Quackery

I think you should print out this handy guide to quack medicine and give copies to your gullible relatives — you know, the ones who are fending off colds with homeopathy and worry about vaccines and go to chiropractors for their headaches.

If you really loved them you’d do it now.


  1. Aquaria says

    I need to get this for my mother.

    You’d think she’d know better, given that she was an actual RN and CRNA, but nope, she believes this nonsense as much as any New Age nitwit.

  2. sc_2f30f4ac0ee604ffcb1bca6ea0ebeea9 says

    The only thing I would add to this would be to caution that while having the MD is usually a requirement for giving sound medical advice, it is not sufficient; Andrew Wakefield was an MD at the time his quack paper was published. We need to recognize that doctors are people too, and are subject to the same cognitive biases, as well as greedy impulses that we all can be subject to. We also need to recognize that the pharmaceutical industry is in the business of making money, not curing disease. All in all, though, this chart is an excellent reference and will ward you away from 90-95% of bullshit; we just need to be careful not to suspend our skepticism simply because the issue in question is part of established medicine.

  3. victor says

    I am am an MD myself and I need to add that D.O. (Doctor in Osteopathy)is also a perfectly good tittle too. I have several colleagues who are DO’s and are as well trained as an MD. The “evolution” of DO’s from an initially quackish profession to recognition that they needed to change is very interesting.

  4. rjohnston says

    There are very few organic foods that can’t be made better with some inorganic NaCl.

  5. says

    I actually would like to point out that not all (real) doctors have MD after their name. Infact MD isn’t the same qualification in every country. The US MD for example is a lesser degree than the british MD since the british MD is a post graduate medical degree while the american MD is not.

    American MD = British MBBS = European MuDr.

  6. says

    Thanks PZ!

    I still need to update this in the article, but I now put DO’s in the same place as Chiropractors. No Sympathy. Both cases are like going to wizardry school, and when a patient asks about the diploma on your wall, you say, “Oh. Yeah. Well, I don’t believe any of that stuff.”

    If Chiros and DOs want to sever themselves from their professions woo origins, they should just ditch it all together—rather than trying to win everybody’s acceptance by saying “But we’re better now, guys!” It’s akin to deciding you don’t believe in god, and instead of leaving your church, you work hard to make it more atheist.

    You’re always going to have the wackos who still do believe in subluxation, and as a result, the professions will always set themselves up for a “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

  7. says

    @4 Wakefield was/is an MD. My understanding is that he was being paid a fair bit of money to produce the results that he did.

    Of course, that fact that he was developing an alternate vaccine.

    I just wonder if he knew or anticipated what the result would be.

    Of course, a rational person would have said, “oh wait, that’s not what I meant and my study WAS flawed”… not parlay it into a worldwide movement that is responsible for the deaths of children.

  8. flapjack says

    I have a friend who’s response to every problem is to seek out the nearest new-age guru or snake oil merchant.
    About 3 years back he jetted off to Peru to chug ahahuasca in a mudhut with Shamans and was astonished when he wound up back in the UK institutionalised with his various neuroses upgraded to a full blown bi-polar meltdown. He kept explaining to me that ahahuasca was “natural” and couldn’t have possibly pushed him over the edge.
    I explained to him that uncut opium is natural too, but not normally perscribed for medicinal purposes.
    Said shaman also claimed he could cure HIV/AIDS by keeping a patient in solitary confinement for 3 months living off a diet of nothing but rice and bananas.
    Hey, they’re both natural, right?

  9. jimmauch says

    How dare you question natural products. A person I respected and admired llived his entire adult life on natural products. His cigarettes & Jack Daniels took him past 60 — barely.

  10. gmc says


    RN here and I will tell you you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a physician that is MD vs. DO if it wasn’t stitched on their lab coat. Probably because the same boards are taken, the same residencies completed, and almost the same didactic coursework passed.

    From Wikipedia (which is not always a real source):

    “Holders of the DO degree are known as osteopathic physicians and have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as MDs. Although DOs have traditionally been family physicians, today many physicians holding the DO practice in every specialty field in medicine.
    DOs are licensed to practice the full scope of medicine and surgery in all 50 states, equivalent to their MD counterparts… According to Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, ‘the training, practice, credentialing, licensure, and reimbursement of osteopathic physicians is virtually indistinguishable from those of allopathic physicians, with 4 years of osteopathic medical school followed by specialty and subspecialty training and [board] certification.'”

    What it might have started off as has little to do with what it is now. Or do you want to talk about MD’s heavy reliance in the past on the theories of vital humors, circumcision to prevent masturbation, and heroin given for asthma and… well just about everything? I’m not saying ignore the past, but maybe step past it if there is no relevance to current practice.

  11. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    And what is with the 5 foods ads and their hatred of bananas that I keep seeing (when I’m not using my adblock enabled browser) of late?

    Stupid stupid stupid fad diet scumbag sellers.

    Are there any studies correlating placebo effectiveness with gullibility?

  12. jasonmartin99 says

    If I had nickel for every time I heard someone say, “It’s good for you, see, it’s NATURAL,”…
    The word “Natural” is a magical word for many people, and is treated with all the reverence of a god.
    My mother really needs to see this. I’m going to send it to her but I doubt it’ll do any good.

  13. Azkyroth says

    Gyah O.o

    The commentary inspired me to look up osteopathic medicine (which is what my PCP’s degree is actually in). I had no idea it wasn’t just a skeletal focus in actual medicine. No wonder she isn’t good for much besides rubber-stamping medication refills. >.>

  14. says

    I really can’t stand the whole Di$neyfied vision of nature alties go by. I’ve met far too many who seem to think nature’s all about twittering birds and fields of flowers for princesses to sing in. It’s like they believe nature exists to be subservient to humans. Nature’s not always red in tooth and claw, but people who know something about it know that it’s still got a nasty streak.

    Those herbs and such didn’t evolve to produce those chemicals to help us out, they evolved them to make more of themselves, often by way of making themselves poisonous or at least unappetizing with those chemicals. Any medical benefits we can derive (usually by extracting, purifying, and/or replicating the active ingredient) are just a coincidental bonus, unless we’re talking about herbs we’ve bred for such purposes.

  15. jean-denismuys says

    Chiropractors (called osteopaths here, though I am not 100% sure that’s quite the same) and homeopath are MD specializations here in France. This makes it all the more difficult to fight them.

    What do you do when real MDs prescribe homeopathy? when 100% of pharmacies show “homeopathy” signs on their windows?

  16. Midnight Rambler says

    To be fair, it’s good to be wary of medical advice from someone with an MD as well. At least where I live, if a doctor is accepting patients and/or accepts non-top-end health insurance, it’s a sign that they’re incompetent. Anyone who is good is fully booked up.

  17. anuran says

    #8 Avicenna

    since the british MD is a post graduate medical degree while the american MD is not.

    Are you sure about that? In the US one gets a bachelor’s degree and then goes on to medical school. One becomes and MD only after finishing medical school, passing a national licensing exam (something which the UK lacks) and almost always completing an internship and multi-year residency. The US does not have the UK’s intermediate status of “junior doctor”.

  18. ambulocetacean says

    osteopathic physicians is virtually indistinguishable from those of allopathic physicians

    Huh? “Allopathic” is a word invented by Samuel Hahnemann to mean “non-homeopathic”.

    Alt-med quacks and wankers now use it to refer disparagingly to real medicine.

    What is it doing in that sentence? If osteopaths want to distinguish themselves from the woo-mongers they might want to choose their words more carefully.

  19. Aquaria says

    Are you sure about that? In the US one gets a bachelor’s degree and then goes on to medical school.

    In the UK, the path is a five year undegrad program, two years of “foundation” training, and then specialization training for 3-8 years. This makes it roughly equivalent to the US program, which is 4 years undegrad, 4 years post-grad medical school, then 3-8 years residency. Sometimes, the US has a one year internship between med school and the residency, but that’s being incorporated into more residencies.

    The UK MD degree is actually based on PhD-style research at some universities. The equivalent program in the US would be the MSTP, which is a very, very competitive program combining med school with PhD study offered at select schools:

  20. coffeehound says

    Allopathic may be a term invented by Hahnemann but it’s actually a term commonly used by U.S. Medical colleges( I remember coming across the term in various medical school catalogs collected during the application phase of my career.
    The U.S. M.D. is in fact postgraduate.
    It’s possible though rare to not get post graduate residency training. These days nearly all residents will enter some type of specialty training because it’s a requirement for most types of certifying exams.Most insurance companies want to see some type of certification to recognize your existence.It’s good to be able to pay the bills.
    I’ve served side by side with D.O.s in residency. Like M.D s there are good ones, great ones and those who can’t diagnose their way out of a paper bag…the degree is a minimum, find out where your physician trained, and whether there were any problems in any state where they were licensed. Any physician worth their salt isn’t going to be bothered or offended by your curiosity

  21. ambulocetacean says

    llopathic may be a term invented by Hahnemann but it’s actually a term commonly used by U.S. Medical colleges

    Really? Wow. You learn something every day.

    And every day it seems as though another useful distinction (or shibboleth) bites the dust…

  22. TGAP Dad says

    To all osteopaths and would-be osteopaths: If you can’t handle the more rigorous admission and graduation criteria for a real medical school, then you shouldn’t be practicing medicine. That is all.

  23. carlie says

    I remember reading that with the history of DOs, they split awhile back and half ended up basically like MDs and the other half went more wacky woo-y, and the US ended up with the MD-like version and Europe ended up with the woo version (this might explain the differences of opinion).

    I’ve always preferred DOs as general practitioners more than MDs.

  24. says

    “It’s akin to deciding you don’t believe in god, and instead of leaving your church, you work hard to make it more atheist.”

    Hey, it worked for the Church of England! The punishment for heresy appears to be being promoted to Bishop.

  25. jentokulano says

    Organic can be a scam but can also mean things like “pesticide free” or, like in cigarettes, formaldehyde-free, etc. We just need more accurate labels on our foods. Words that actually define. (I really wanted to use “foodstuffs” in the sentence. When else would I get the chance? Oh well).

  26. GodotIsWaiting4U says

    If he’s got a TOR account, the first panel become “I’m a doctor in that I pretend to be one on the Internet”.

    By getting as close to being a Jedi Knight as he will ever be, he will describe his medical “credentials” all the more accurately.