The Rise of the Charlatans

At the birth of every conspiracy theory is the question, “Who profits?”

In the dark reaches of anonymous Internet forums, the answer is always Big Government, Big Pharma, Big Farm-a and occasionally Satan, aliens, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, or the Pentavirate—some omnipotent all-powerful force that enviously pulls off vast nefarious synchronization perfectly.

And this assumption of divine coordination—an attempt to make sense of a chaotic indifferent world—is very bipartisan. It’s not just one party taking to the Internet or broadcast television to wrap themselves in cozy half-baked hyperbole—denying science and doubling down on baloney—it’s at the far reaches of both sides of the spectrum.

Republicans will tend to see the threat as anti-Christian or Big Government tyranny (Sharia law and “gubmint coming fir yer guns”). Democrats tend to see the threat as anti-alternative medicine and anti-nature (i.e., animal protein causes cancer and there are chemicals in everything!).

Distrust, disinformation and a wide range of discussion boards have primed the American public for leaders who can give them reassurance. Figureheads who can tell them what they need to know, what no one else will tell them, what some don’t want them to know. You know, the “truth.”

So in this land of the emboldened science illiterate, I pose the question, “Who profits?”

The answer? Charlatans. Pseudoscience salesmen. Quacks and swindlers ready to feed off human misery with overly simplistic (and probably expensive) solutions.

The herbal supplements market, for example, is a $100 billion business globally. A study released this week from the New York State attorney general’s office found major retailers like Target, Walmart, GNC and Walgreens are selling what for all intents and purposes is snake oil. Herbal supplements with fillers in lieu of herbs. An entire aisle of the placebo effect estimated in the billions.

But if you think Big Pharma is trying to scam you, it’s priceless.

The History Channel, a joint venture between Hearst and Disney, has fed into this fevered fetish with their programming: “Ancient Aliens,” “UFO Hunters,” “Decoded,” “The Bible Code,” “Cities of the Underworld,” “Mystery Quest,” “Nostradamus Effect,” “Armageddon.” We effectively have an ahistorical History Channel.

This is something no one else will tell you … unless you turn on Disney-owned cable television.

Speaking of television charlatans—“Dr.” Oz. Not only has he let psychics come on his show to chat with the dead, he’s a proponent of the widely debunked “detox” craze and was recently called out by Congress for hawking fake weight loss pills on his show. Quacks like a duck, must be a quack.

But like “Dr.” Oz, “Dr.” Rand Paul also gains from his fans’ beliefs rooted in junk science and disproved claims. Paul caused a stir this week by parroting the universally (and frequently) debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. He’s also involved with a phony science organization called the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. “Its periodical, Journal of the American Physicians and Surgeons, has published reports suggesting a link between abortions and higher rates of breast cancer,” reports The New York Times. “A tie rejected by an expert panel of the National Cancer Institute. Another report contended that illegal immigrants brought disease into this country and benefited if their babies were born with disabilities.”

This is a doctors’ association? First do no harm…unless they’re illegals.

Then private-jet-baller, Governor Chris Christie, hoping to split the anti-vax vote opted to feed into people’s fears too. “Parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide,” he said to a reporter this week. Christie is suddenly and shockingly pro-choice when it comes to public health. Unlike when he was pro-mandatory quarantine…like in October.

Charlatans are indicative of simple economics: supply and demand. As long as we demand manure, someone will step up to shovel it. And business appears to be good.

Image from U.S. FDA