Quackery Is Everywhere

I’ve been going on a bit of a quack-binge in my posting recently, with a few more to come I think. Yesterday I talked about how, sometimes, you shut up rather than keep arguing for science-based medicine, particularly when faced with someone who is terminally ill.

But then I come across this article in the Guardian, and my blood starts to boil again. Quackery really does infect everyone, including the Olympics.


Why are so many Olympians – mostly members of Team USA – sporting big red circular marks on their bodies? The simple answer is that they are fans of “cupping” – an alternative health technique that involves pressing hot jars on to the body. This creates suction, which is claimed to increase blood flow to those areas. The swimmers and gymnasts who use it say it helps relieve soreness in their battered bodies.

It would certainly help relieve overburdened wallets, but there is no evidence it does anything else. Eating jam out of those jars would probably have a more significant physical impact, though it might not be the most nutritionally savvy strategy.


Oh for Heaven’s sake. This is really a testament to how pervasive woo is in our society. That these athletes, who have access to top medical professionals, would also be taken in by this alt-medicine garbage, just makes me sad. Not to mention the fact that their circular burns are lending cupping a lot of legitimacy: if the Olympians are all doing it, and they have access to such excellent health care, there must be some benefits to it amirite?

The Guardian article, eventually, takes the stand that there is really little harm done. It is an innocuous procedure, and if it helps them get over the immense stress that invariably accompanies participating in the Olympics, then who are we to judge?

Personally, I don’t love this attitude, but I also don’t want to put too much responsibility on the athletes for educating the public. They are lending legitimacy to the practice, yes, but I do not think it is their job to parent the masses in the benefits of science-based medicine. Rather, I don’t like the Guardian’s attitude for two main reasons. First of all, I disagree that there is absolutely no harm or pain to cupping. Any unnecessary burns and bruises are preferably avoidable, and on some occasions the procedure can go wrong. But mainly, I think that the bilking of money from anyone, Olympians or otherwise, for a placebo is dishonest and should be called out more strongly.

I have posted before on the harm of the placebo effect. I mentioned the point of perpetuating lies from a medical doctor’s standpoint, but I want to also address this from the practitioner of the placebo’s standpoint as well. Often I’ve been told that real homeopathic “doctors”, or real and responsible chiropractors or cupping therapists, would never tell their patients to seek their alt-medicine treatment for serious conditions, i.e. conditions that won’t improve with a placebo. Essentially, that the proper alternative-medicine types kind of sort of know that their stuff is mostly working through the placebo effect. Well, isn’t that almost worse? You are charging a fortune, often far more than the cost of the real medicine version of the treatment, for a sugar pill or a hot jam jar to the back. If I decided to make little glass bottles filled with water, and got rich selling them online as a headache remedy, wouldn’t all of you call me out and tell me I’m a dishonest fraud? Or will you write articles saying “Well, if the Olympians are taking it and it helps them be less stressed, then no harm done”. Fuck that! I am cheating these athletes out of their money, that is harm done!

Then again, that’s my opinion. According to the commenters on the article itself, the piece was too dismissive and harsh.


  1. johnson catman says

    While watching Olympic men’s swimming, I saw the circular marks on Michael Phelps’ shoulder. At first, I thought he had some kind of birthmark that I had not noticed before, but then realized what it was. I do not understand why an elite athlete would subject his body to intentional damage like that. Woo-woo indeed.

  2. says

    “Cupping” is paying to get hickeys all over your body. In the city where I live in Taiwan, there are about ten such “spas” near where the two main roads intersect. They’re pretty much everywhere and people waste vast amounts of money and time on them.

    If there’s one non-negative (it’s not a positive) thing about it, at least it’s not like homeopathy or “traditional medicine”. It has about as much efficacy as prayer (i.e. none at all) and likely (?) doesn’t cause any direct harm. No, I’m not defending it.

  3. johnson catman says

    left0over1under @2:

    . . . likely (?) doesn’t cause any direct harm.

    Did you follow the “can go wrong” link above? That was some direct harm.

  4. smrnda says

    I can get why athletes get caught up in this stuff – they’re looking for any competitive edge so they’re likely more prone to try something (if it seems like it can’t cause damage) even on the rumor that it’s beneficial. This is why supplement stores are stocked full of supplements of untested and dubious value.

    Though I’m starting to wonder if maybe any analysis of alt-med and woo should needs to take into account the status factor. Once a treatment seems to be a sign of status, will people leap onto it to seem fashionable and high status? Maybe if someone sees a few people cupping it becomes a sort of “must keep up with the Joneses” thing?

  5. says

    That these athletes, who have access to top medical professionals, would also be taken in by this alt-medicine garbage, just makes me sad.

    I’m with smrnda @4 on this. They’re looking for every edge they can get. Remember, they are competing against other athletes with that same access, so, to get an edge on an opponent, it makes sense to try to find something that works that the competition is not doing. It would be good if they put a bit more concern into figuring out if it actually works, though.

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