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There’s a sucker born every minute – particularly in the realm of so-called alternative medicine - CAMcheck

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There’s a sucker born every minute – particularly in the realm of so-called alternative medicine

Posted 23 March 2022

An post from the blog of Prof Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd, and a previous Professor of Complementary Medicine.

“There’s a sucker born every minute”. This phrase was allegedly coined by P. T. Barnum, an American showman of the mid-19th century pictured below. It describes the tendency of the gullible of us to believe all too readily and therefore to be easily deceived.

Gullibility can be described as a failure of social intelligence in which a person is easily tricked or manipulated into a course of action for which there is no plausible evidence. To express it positively, gullible people are naively trusting and thus fall for nonsensical propositions. This renders them easy prey for exploiters.

On this blog, we see our fair share of this phenomenon, e.g.:

  • people who are easily persuaded by anecdotes,
  • who disregard evidence
  • who fall for pseudoscience,
  • who have irrational belief systems,
  • who thrive on fallacies,
  • who cherry-pick the evidence that fits their belief,
  • who are unable to change their views in the face of evidence,
  • who interpret even contradictory facts such that they confirm their belief,
  • who have no ability to think critically,
  • who would do just about anything to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Let me give you just three well-known examples from the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).

  1. Advocates of SCAM believe that natural means safe. Yet the therapies used in SCAM are neither natural nor devoid of risks.
  2. Advocates of SCAM believe that treatments that have a long tradition of usage must be fine. Yet a long history might just signify that the therapy in question is based on obsolete principles.
  3. Advocates of integrative medicine believe that, by adding unproven therapies to our medicine bag, we might improve healthcare. Yet it is clear that such a move can only make it less effective.

If I look back on 30 years of research into SCAM, I have to say that it very much looks as though a sucker is indeed born every minute.

Editorial: 

A comment from a reader: “Edzard, you quoted only the first part. It went on as: “There is a crook born every hour, to take care of sixty suckers”.”

Another comment points out that the “phrase was coined by P. T. Barnum” is open for debate

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