What online health gurus don’t want you to know

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.

Mark Twain, Letter to Mrs Foote

It infuriates and scares me in equal measure when people educate themselves off the internet.

A long time ago I had one of those student jobs: maintaining a website, translating content from English, writing posts of my own, managing orders from a webshop. It was flexible and good money. I had to work from the home office of my employer, a respectable, white-haired doctor. He had just upgraded his small nutritionist practice to an online shop. He had devout followers and knew where to plug his name for more reach. The webshop was picking up quickly. I was there when order Nr 1 came in – and three weeks later two more staff were hired to pack and ferry hundreds of parcels a day to the post office.

The doctor was jovial and respectable – but also stern and opinionated when he talked to the few patients who still knew him from his private practice days and called him from time to time. I was in his favour because I figured out online selling quickly. He sent me articles to translate. I added stock photos of the suggested home remedy and occasionally links to our own nutritional supplements. In just two weeks, I understood his taste so well, he let me post articles on my own, didn’t even look at it.

That should have been my first clue.

The articles were all identical and came from American health and nutrition websites. They started with a long list of symptoms (one of which you were bound to have) then offered a simple and natural ingredient to cure. Sometimes herbal remedies, sometimes nutritional supplements. More water, vitamins, lemon, honey, baking soda, olive oil were the cure for most of your problems. (It was well before the coconut oil-craze, and almonds were not yet in. Garlic and onion were falling out of favour because the audience wasn’t happy with the smell.)

When it was the supplements, the doctor told me to plug in his equivalent products. He ordered them from China, without any labels. He had his labels designed by some very skilled young designers. It looked so good, I felt like taking some of them myself. Unlike the plastic-upon-plastic look of the Chinese boxes we received, the labels were stenciled on recycled paper. They really looked like the containers held remedies your grandma picked the herbs for and her grandchildren lovingly helped her sell. Sometimes I wondered how the runners (or indeed the doctor) knew which unlabeled Chinese container holds what.

All the articles we posted ended with a list of two or three scientific papers. I studied social sciences, so I thought I knew when a reference looked flimsy.

  • A simple link to another article was frowned upon – although widely used.
  • But a surname and a year carefully plugged in in the text (Anxiety, M. 2015) and a list of papers at the end were always reassuring.

I always copied the list of references to the end of my translation, unchanged and unchecked. Someone must have checked them before posting them on American sites, right?

That was my second clue.

I also dealt with the emails. One day an email arrived from a lady who suffered from cancer. The doctor instructed me, not even looking up, to send her a certain supplement. I absentmindedly asked what exactly pancreatic cancer was. (I have heard the term before but didn’t even know where the organ was in the body.) It was an innocent question, but the doctor got inexplicably angry and went on an unexpected rant about not lecturing him on his own profession. What was I thinking where my salary came from?

Then he went on to rant about “those douchebags” who attack him because he told people to stop their medication. They knew nothing, he said, but after the lawsuit he made a point of never to suggest stopping their medications again. He just said things like “illness has a cause and you have to deal with the cause”. And that these nutritional supplements in certain combinations do things the medical profession doesn’t want you to know. And so on.

I realised, of course, that his venting had nothing to do with me or pancreatic cancer. The rant went on and on until he got so worked up, he decided he cannot trust a “traitor” like me, and sent me home. Frankly, by that time I was looking at the door to escape. It was a different man.

Next day I felt remorse. I have, of course, blamed myself. I turned up to work but no one, not even the runners answered the door. I didn’t get my month’s wages and I had no money left. I needed a new job immediately.

I forgot about the incident, this was neither the first nor the last shitty student job I took.

***

Fast forward to the present, I am reading about an investigation by customer protection against a widespread and extremely profitable scam. (To be precise, journalists are hunting the operators down and the authorities react grudgingly.) The scam operates a plethora of near-identical websites that feed on AdSense and offer overpriced and shitty supplements to cure any ailment you have googled lately. They are all operated by a company whose name I’ve heard before – and it cannot be a coincidence.

Turns out, the doctor wasn’t a doctor. Or at least he was self-licensed. Of course, you might add, but what reason did I have to check the serial number on his licence? Someone who maintains an office with a licence on the wall, someone who carries himself with the confidence of a doctor, someone who is regarded with awe by his patients.

I am sure he believed everything he said – back then. Believing in his own superpowers was the source of his authority and he sold authority, really. He read the same articles on the same spoof websites (written by American undergrads on a summer internship or bored housewives who totally found out what’s best), and he repeated their gushing revelations with his own authority thrown in.

He thought he knew as much as a doctor, right? If you are genuinely and completely undereducated, if you really don’t know anything about your subject, you will be confident. Gaining the trust of someone who just arrived to the field is child’s play. Besides, everything he said sounded so logical. Of the three things he mentioned, “A”, “B” and “C”, the logical conclusion was indeed “D”. Never mind that “A” and “B” were false claims and “C” had nothing to do with the matter. “D” always was that he is right.

He could rant for hours about how pharmaceutical industry is a business and tests are faulty and cheated – which may be true – even though he couldn’t tell a p-value from a freight train. And miraculously, by the time he finished blasting them, you came to the conclusion that he knows. Not Big Pharma – he knows. He is the only one who could save you from the horrors he just let you know existed. You needed a new certainty, so he didn’t check his claims. Pharma has to prove. The “doctor” doesn’t.

He promised a shortcut – but where does it lead to? If plenty of tests and science cannot provide certainty – doesn’t mean that his solution is true. He didn’t wonder around in nature for millennia, meeting all kinds of ailments and trying all the plants on them. Don’t give me that inherited wisdom BS. All I can see now is the power he holds over you by posing as The Source Of Wisdom. That power is real. You pay for it. The rest is just claims.

Contrary to what you have come to believe watching too much TV, there is absolutely no one pre-testing each and every chemical and supplement that hits the shelves and gets into your home. They may act if someone is pushing that her cancer was caused by it, and they act slowly. And these quacks and Chinese import liquids get even less attention. No one even checks whether the claimed supplement is in the container in the first place, nor whether it is good for you – and let’s be frank, Chinese had even figured out how to fake an egg. Shells and everything. Without a hen. Cheaper, too.

So if you’re lucky, you get something neutral like magnesium solution from these self-licensed witch doctors. If you aren’t lucky, the Chinese found magnesium too pricey and packed whatever was lying around in the factory.

I’ve been there when I was a freshman, I had never given much thought to health before, so I was easy to impress. I read the basics he supplied (they were assembled in a way that made them easy to read), and I felt everything falling into place. Until I read further and realised just how deep the rabbit hole really was.

I think the “doctor” was just as dazzled by the names and years put in brackets (Anxiety, M. 2015) as I was. I never bothered to look them up and neither did he. Those names can be false, the articles fake – or actual articles by actual scientists but they never claimed that olives are the cure for AIDS. After all, some of their claims could never be proved by research without an illegal human experiment.

The confidence and the wild claims of the articles are a good indicator that something is fishy. No self-respecting and responsible expert would ever give out a simplistic and one-size-fit all advice, such as Vitamin-C cures cancer but they don’t want you to know. “Go see your doctor” is also just a fig leaf you never take seriously. But you should. It means they are covered.

Back then that quack was really just a rookie. He had an offline practice where he received people with ailments medicine could not solve conclusively. He told them it was because “they don’t want you to be healthy”. Big Pharma, the medical profession, corporations – they all conspire to hide simple, cheap (or not so cheap), natural (or mineral) solutions. He empathized, he felt with his clients – whom he began to consider his patients. And himself a doctor. He never had to tell. We all assumed. So would you.

Since then, he upgraded into an impersonal, web-based scam machine. Seeing patients took time, and he could use that time more efficiently.

***

I am writing this because I feel guilty. On behalf of all the crooks and quacks out there who operate websites with click-optimised articles that explain the same inane, superficial explanations to problems you have. And offer the same solutions over and over again. Because they copy each other. There is no actual source at the end of the thread. They circulate the same inane solutions, like doing stuff on empty stomach – and they can count on your laziness and desire to have conclusive, easy solutions.

The more ubiquitous the message, the bigger the sales. In clicks or in actual products. Reading the articles must make you feel enlightened, smart, and confident in your opinions. And you will be more confident if you know nothing.

Please catch yourself when you feel compelled to suggest someone a solution. Wherever did you read it, anyway? Did you see the person who wrote that 600-word post? How does she make her living? Does she even know where the pancreas were in the body? Apple cider vinegar and coconut oil may be nice but won’t cure your cancer. You haven’t been googling last year when avocado slices strapped behind your ear were hyped and advertised as cure-all.

Memes like these die hard. The demand for this kind of simplistic certainty is so overwhelming, it would be odd if someone wouldn’t supply it. But just because they offer solutions doesn’t mean they actually have it. Especially when they are confident.

 

Image: Brittany Wright

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