Baiting the snake oil sharks

Spinoza considered belief to be an emotional state, not liable to any rational persuasion, and another study this week shows homoeopathy to be useless, but its supporters still refuse to accept the evidence.

I suppose it’s understandable; if your job depended on selling snake oil, you’d disagree as well.

I was on a radio programme last week with an alternative practitioner, and we were asked about treatments for the common cold.

My colleague went into raptures about the benefit of Echinacea, about how fantastic it was and how it stimulated the immune system in a natural way, how his neighbour’s dog had been cured, when all else had failed, by having herbs stuffed up its arse.

Somewhere along the line he also managed to slip in a rave review of fish oil, describing it as ‘brilliant’, a strong indication that fish oil is currently top of the voodoo hit parade.

When my turn came I rubbished his opinion, described it as nonsense and drivel, alluding to a recent review of evidence which had shown that Echinacea was of no benefit whatsoever (except to the corporations that flog it), and accusing him of exploiting the gullible and the vulnerable and of ill-treatment of animals that borders on bestiality.

We’d been quite chummy beforehand in the hospitality suite; he thought I was treating him as an equal and didn’t realise he was just being patronised as well as being milked for what he was going to say live on air so that I’d have an answer ready. So this note of rancour came as a big surprise to him.

‘Of course,’ he said, taken aback, and pouting a little, ‘you can prove anything with facts.’

‘Well indeed,’ I replied, ‘isn’t that a bitch, prejudice and superstition and avarice are much more reliable, aren’t they?’

‘I haven’t come here to be insulted,’ he protested, his upper lip moist and all a-tremble.

‘Really?’ I replied, ‘where do you usually go?’

I don’t think I’ll be invited back, but I don’t really care. Sometimes we just have to draw a line in the sand in defence of scientific truth; sometimes we have to stand up for our principles.

Apropos of nothing, the money wasn’t that good anyway. If it had been, I might have taken a different view, that’s what being a media whore is all about, that’s our code; sometimes we have to stand up for our principles.

I understand that this represents a rather ambivalent stance, but as Mae West said: ‘It pays to be good, but it don’t pay much.’

- Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh.

Email him at

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