Quacks, frauds and profiteers rake in the dollars for fake science

Dr. Oz leads the pack. He’s a real doctor, with a real Harvard degree, who endorses fake medicine all over the airwaves. A recent article on Slate debunked some of his more fantastic recent claims, presented on his TV shows, and promptly amplified by manufacturers of products like “garcinia extract.” The authors write:

“In Dr. Oz’s New York City studio, garcinia extract—or hydroxycitric acid found in fruits like purple mangosteen—sounded fantastic, a promising new tool for the battle against flab. Outside the Oprah-ordained doctor’s sensational world of amazing new diets, there’s no real debate about whether garcinia works: The best evidence is unequivocally against it.”

That’s just one of the Dr. Oz claims debunked by scientists. He touts products as “quick fix” or “miracle in a bottle.” Back to the Slate article:

“Sullivan, Oz’s PR representative, tried to soften the claims. He explained, ‘An adjective like ‘miracle’ is used as an editorial device to describe anecdotal results, as exemplified by the guests on our show. Our audience are not scientists, and the show needs to be more lively than a dry scientific discussion.’ Even with the multiple warnings, the little miracles flew off store shelves.”

Dr. Oz is the most photogenic, TV-dominating of the pseudo-scientists, but more insidious organizations dupe scientists themselves. The New York Times reported earlier this month on scientists who were conned into paying to present their research at a phony, but legitimate-sounding conference. The scientists thought they had been invited to the legitimate, and prestigious, Entomology 2013 conference. Instead, the Time reported, they paid for the privilege of presenting at the Entomology-2013 conference. The difference: a hyphen and legitimacy.

“The one they had signed up for featured speakers who were recruited by e-mail, not vetted by leading academics. Those who agreed to appear were later charged a hefty fee for the privilege, and pretty much anyone who paid got a spot on the podium that could be used to pad a résumé. …

“Those scientists had stumbled into a parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously titled conferences and journals that sponsor them. Many of the journals and meetings have names that are nearly identical to those of established, well-known publications and events.”

Nature, the respected international journal, devoted a recent edition to the future of scientific publishing. In one article in this issue, Sham journals scam authors, Declan Butler warned:

“Scientific publishing, meet cybercrime. Two reputable European science journals have fallen prey to identity theft by criminals who have created counterfeit journal websites. These online doppel­gängers have duped hundreds of researchers into paying author fees, with the ill-won gains being funnelled to Armenia.”

In a second article in the same issue, Butler describes one librarian’s crusade against “predatory publishing:”

“In one e-mail that Beall received and shared with Nature, a dental researcher wrote that she had submitted a paper to an open-access journal after she ‘was won over by the logos of affiliated databases on the home page and seemingly prestigious editorial board’. But the researcher, who prefers to remain anonymous, says that she became concerned about the peer-review process when the article was accepted within days and she was not sent any reviewers’ comments. She says that last week — several months after her original submission — she was sent page proofs that match the submitted manuscript, and that she still has not seen reviewers’ comments.”

When a doctor with impeccable academic credentials peddles “miracle drugs” on network television, when fake academic journals and conferences deceive even scientists themselves, what can you and I do to sort real science (and medicine) from their glitzier, profiteering counterparts?

First, of course, is the old rule: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Second, beware of anyone who is selling you a product.

Third, peer-reviewed research is still the gold standard. How do you know whether research is peer-reviewed? That takes some sleuthing, checking footnotes, and maybe actually reading source materials instead of relying on the latest patent medicine salesman’s promises.

Even then, we may be taken in by frauds. Jonah Lehrer, an author who wrote and spoke extensively on science and psychology for publications including The New Yorker, Scientific American, and NPR’s RadioLab, was exposed for making up Bob Dylan quotes in a book  last year. After the Dylan quote fiasco, critics of his science writing finally got a hearing. Daniel Bor, Ph.D., wrote in Psychology Today about his long crusade to expose errors in Lehrer’s “scientific” reporting:

“I was rather surprised to find that How We Decide received almost universal critical acclaim, when the science within it, although beautifully and stylishly explained, was error strewn and somewhat superficial. Most reviewers know little science in detail, I suppose, so don’t notice these errors that scream off the page to a jobbing research scientist. But at what point should these errors be caught?”

Real science is hard work. Real science reporting is hard work, too. Most of us can’t do it, but we can at least pay attention to those who undertake the often thankless and never very profitable task of pointing out when the emperor has no clothes.

1 Comment

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One response to “Quacks, frauds and profiteers rake in the dollars for fake science

  1. This all goes for social science (sociology, psychology, economics) too! Thanks, Mary.


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