Quack-ology: One Man’s Duck is Another Man’s Visionary

Quite some time ago I heard a podcast about an off-label use for a medication that was having some results helping patients with autoimmune disorders. (I have since forgotten the name of the medication but the podcast was Phoenix Helix.)  Since my mom has problems with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, I did a little googling and passed the information on to her, letting her know that one article I found was by Dr. Joseph Mercola.  My mother texted me back: “Mercola is a quack” and that was the end of that conversation.

I have to chuckle a little remembering my mom’s blanket statement regarding Dr. Mercola, considering she was an ardent fan of a particular tv doctor who first debuted on Oprah, was enthusiastically endorsed by Ms. Winfrey and now has his own show and magazine. I’ve seen his show a few times and was not impressed, but I gave him a shot and made my own determination.

Honestly, at the time I passed his article on to my mom, I didn’t have a clue who Joseph Mercola was or what his reputation was like.  I was merely giving my mother some information I thought could help her out, and I figured she would do her own research.  Since then, I’ve read a little bit more about Dr. Mercola and am currently reading his latest book Fat for Fuel.  I’ve also recently read Dr. Josh Axe’s book Eat Dirt.  I mention both of these authors (out of several I’ve read recently) because when I google their names I usually get a website (or two) about “quacks.”  Who decides someone is a quack?  The general public?  Is there a government agency or consumer organization that make that determination? Would this be the same government/ consumer agencies that say sugar is not addictive and that eating 11 servings of grains daily is good for you?  Or the same general medical association that says fat causes heart disease (which was  based incidentally on a few flawed studies referenced by Dr. Ancel Keyes, the same doctor on the sugar industry payroll who stated ‘sugar is good for you’)?

I remember when Dr. Robert Atkins began promoting his low carb diet: the medical community and the diet industry quickly slapped him with the Quack label as well, but over the last few decades, that label has changed from Quack to Pioneer.  Now most diets promote a low/ lower carb approach to nutrition and weight loss.  My question to the nutrition community is “so when did he stop ‘quacking’?”  All humor and mud-slinging aside, this is usually the way it goes when someone makes a revolutionary leap in science and medicine: they are labeled as quacks, charlatans and incompetents.  There must be something flawed with their research or science.  Sometimes that is really the case, but if we don’t really examine their conclusions, we’ll never know.

The history of science is littered with those who had to endure all kinds of ridicule- and worse- before time and other brave souls proved them right.  Galileo was arrested, excommunicated and imprisoned for saying the Earth revolved around the sun.  How dare he go against 1000 years of ‘religious science’!  Ignaz Semmelweis and later Joseph Lister were also mocked for their whole ‘antiseptic’ approach to surgery, as if washing your hands before you perform surgery is a good idea! What a bunch of quacks! Looking back at some of the ideas that were previously held as Accepted Scientific Fact, we laugh at how silly ‘those people’ were: ideas that the Earth was flat and you could fall off the end; that rain fell through holes in the celestial sphere that held back the waters of heaven, and that the sun, moon and stars all rotated around our flat Earth on those spheres.  People even claimed that if it were quiet enough, you could hear the spheres moving: the ‘music of the spheres!’ And it wasn’t just the ancients that had these wild ideas: not too long ago, it was generally accepted as fact that if a person were subjected to speeds greater than 35 miles an hour, he would not survive; bathing every day would make him sick and that ‘night airs’ would give him fever and chills (aka malaria). But to ‘those people,’ the thought of ‘invisible bugs’ causing disease was equally laughable.  You might as well believe in unicorns!

The point I am trying to make is that science, medicine and nutrition are ever-evolving disciplines. We’ve heard all the quotes: “the first step towards knowledge is admitting ignorance”; “to assume we know everything is the height of arrogance,” etc.  All learning starts with a question, usually why or how, which means we are ignorant about something.  I remember hearing a story about Johannes Kepler (he was a Renaissance astronomer).  Watching the planets move through the sky, he was able to predict to position of all those he could see, except Mars.  Mars was always out of position and he struggled to understand what he was missing and then he realized: Mars moves in a ellipse, not a circle. It’s this admission that we don’t know and the struggle to find out why that grows our knowledge.  When we deny our own ignorance, we stop learning.

This is where the quacks come into play.  We’ve all heard the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes: the con men who sold the emperor clothes made of cloth so fine and magical that stupid people could not see or feel it.  Of course, the emperor was too proud to say he couldn’t see it so he paraded through the town naked, while the whole town ooh’d and ahhh’d over the ‘magic clothes’ that they could not see either. At least until a precocious child said the obvious: the emperor’s got no clothes! Someone has to be brave enough to stand up and say, if not the obvious, then at least a new idea.  Not all the ideas are good ones but until we look at the ideas and the science behind them, we don’t know if they are legitimate steps forward or not.  If Galileo had kept his mouth shut when the Church threatened him with excommunication, then our universe would be a much different, much smaller place.  If all the scientists, doctors and inventors kept their mouths shut and their ideas to themselves rather than risk ridicule, we would never have made the advances that we have regarding the natural world, anatomy, science or physics.  Medical fundamentals such as the circulatory system, the function of the heart, germ and virus theory, genetics, and even basic hygiene all developed because some ‘quack’ came forward with a new idea.  If we have been able to see further than others, it’s because we have stood on the shoulders of giants, some of whom were labeled quacks (apologies to Isaac Newton).

We need to give new ideas the benefit of the doubt rather than either dismissing it completely as ‘quackery’ or accepting it whole-heartedly as legitimate.  Both are equally dangerous because even a genius can be wrong.  One of the newest ideas with an equal number of adherents and detractors is the fecal transplant for those with intestinal bacteria imbalance.  Yes, this is exactly what it sounds like: a poop transplant.  A donor whose intestinal bacteria is in balance donates some fecal matter (aka POOP) which is put into a capsule and YOU SWALLOW THEIR POOP! It’s supposed to implant the good bacteria in your intestines. Does it work? I don’t know.  Would I have this done to me? Oh, hell no!! Not unless I were knocking on Death’s door!! …and maybe not even then- ugh! But the fact remains that just because it’s a ‘crazy quacking idea’ doesn’t mean it’s not real science with real results.  It just means I’d have to be really really hurting before I would even try it.

Do Joseph Mercola and Josh Axe belong in the ranks with William Harvey and Ignaz Semmelweis? I don’t know, but who are we to say that they don’t? When we dismiss someone outright as being a quack without examining their hypothesis, we may be dismissing legitimate science, and just because someone is a ‘bonafide scientist’ does not mean they are always correct: Aristotle was one of the mainstream intelligentsia that believed Democritus (atomic theory) was a quack. Even Einstein was wrong about his ‘cosmological constant’ and Linus Pauling (two time solo recipient of the Nobel prize) was wrong about his ‘triple helix’ model. There are definitely quacks out there, just as there are definite pioneers. We need to keep an open mind before we slam the door on them.



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