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Iris Erlingsdottir

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How To Spot a Quack

Posted: 01/16/12 10:52 AM ET

Quackery is lethal, as the families of three individuals who in 2009 attended a "personal growth seminar" given by "self-help guru" James Arthur Ray, can attest to. Last November, Ray was sentenced to two years in jail after having been found guilty on three counts of negligent homicide in the deaths of the three participants attending his "spiritual warrior" retreat in Sedona, Ariz.

The dead were among 56 participants who paid nearly $10,000 each to take part in the retreat. Participants were crammed into a four-foot tall sweat lodge, packed with superheated rocks, in a ceremony that was supposed to induce a "rebirthing" experience.

According to other participants, when the heat inside the lodge reached 125 degrees, people began getting sick, but Ray allegedly still encouraged the participants -- some of whom had fasted in the desert for 36 hours - not to leave the lodge. After two hours, 20 were taken to the hospital, some suffering kidney failure and acute dehydration. A 28-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman died later in the evening. The third death was a mother of three, 49, who died of multiple organ failure after having been in a coma for a week.

"People were puking all over the place," one of the participants told reporters. "People just lay there unconscious and dying... Ray just abandoned us."

Why do smart and well-educated people allow themselves to be conned into nonsense like Ray's "rebirthing" and get-rich-quick course? Because it is easy to be taken in by charlatans like him.

The Quackery Recipe
The recipe is always the same: to give people who are unhappy, depressed, sick, overweight, who are dealing with some sort of problem and searching for the "perfect" solution, which the quacks are happy to sell them whether in the form of "secrets" or unrealistic goals and snake oils -- seminars, sweat lodges, special diets, and the most popular quack solutions: diet pills and mixtures, to name a few.

The quack, who must possess self-confidence and charm, promises a new and better life with phrases like "revolutionary, phenomenal, life-changing..." and the "Secret" (like a popular quack publication by the same name) that you are to be sold is "simple (sometimes effortless) and perfect" -- the Answer with a capital A, but "you are not ready yet..." You will, however, and you will learn the Secret but only after you're ready to take the "steps" with the help of expensive courses or some snake oil remedy.

An important part of the quackery and magic solution business is to spin up controversies about things that in reality are not controversial at all, like vaccines, diets, theory of revolution, and to segregate people into "us" against "them" (the stupid, immoral, unenlightened etc.) -- because "they" haven't been saved yet, aren't "in" on the secret, like "us."

Spiritual Awakening For Sale
Of course it is invaluable to get Hollywood celebrities to praise and extol the magic, especially in an uncritical Oprah interview when she was on TV, but it's safe to say that her show had become a major enemy of science and common sense. (A former co-worker of James Ray said he noticed Ray become more narcissistic after an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show.)

I'm not saying that everything "new agey" or "alternative" medicine is evil, but people have to begin to really use their judgment. Ask questions and demand answers that pass the test of science, studies and common sense.

Spiritual awakening, for example (a five-day proceeding for sale at Ray's for $10,000), is a long-term process that cannot be charged to your credit card. Without a doubt Ray and his ilk have a spiritual awakening every time they look at their bank statements, but what they pretend to be selling is something that cannot be bought, a treasure we all already own -- and is accessible at any time.

Rule of thumb: If someone wants to sell you something, a product, an answer, a "solution" that sounds "too good to be true," then it usually is.

 

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