I’ve been perusing quackwatch.org this morning, and in case any of you are not familiar with this site, I thought I’d direct you to it, and also highlight some interesting points. The site is like an enormously detailed PSA and consumer watchdog, focusing on quackery in all its forms (mostly the kind of quackery that is epitomized by the likes of Kevin Trudeau, people who are cynically exploiting vulnerable consumers and getting very rich in the process). Here is their detailed definition of the term “quackery.”

There are a couple of things I wanted to pull from this site, that I thought would be of interest.

First of all, while we argue here that Alcoholics Anonymous and the various incarnations of 12-Stepism are religious entities, Quackwatch categorizes them as metaphysical in their Expanded Dictionary of Metaphysical Healthcare, Alternative Medicine, Paranormal Healing and Related Methods. And they qualify for inclusion in this dictionary by meeting these standards:

Each of the 1,200 methods described in this book: (a) has a mystical or supernaturalistic application, theory, significance, or pedigree; (b) has a name wherewith proponents or writers have called to mind a method, a group of methods, a system, or a general “approach”; (c) has been portrayed as a means of improving and/or delineating the health of individuals; and (d) has been a subject of uncritical public discourse in English since the late 1950s.   

Twelve-Step recovery is included here in their comprehensive catalog, in both its secular (Alternative 12-Step) and theistic versions, among things like aromatherapy and ear candles.

Since this site is focused on a very broad spectrum of quackery, they do not focus specificially on AA or 12-step programs – they have no agenda as far as addictions recovery goes. Their only agenda is to expose fraud and offer consumers the information they need to protect themselves. And so what’s very interesting to me is how seamlessly AA falls into their quackery category.

Their “Twenty Five Ways To Spot Quacks and Vitamin Pushers” has a very strong emphasis on warning signs of the “vitamin pusher,” but many of these soundly apply to AA – just remove the vitamin stuff and add the recovery stuff. For instance:

“When Talking about [their program], They Tell Only Part of the Story”; Suggesting that a questionnaire can be used to indicated whether you need what they have to offer (Is AA for You?); “They use disclaimers couched in pseudoscientific jargon” (terms like “real alcoholic” and “true sobriety,” for instance); “They use anecdotes and testimonials to support their claims”; “They display credentials not recognized by responsible scientists or educators” (Go here and add your very own 12-Step Counselor training certificate to your shopping cart!); “They Claim They Are Being Persecuted by Orthodox Medicine and That Their Work Is Being Suppressed Because It’s Controversial”; “They Warn You Not to Trust Your Doctor”; “They Encourage Patients to Lend Political Support to Their Treatment Methods” (think 12th-stepping at the courthouse.)

Even more dead-on is their list of “More Ploys That Can Fool You ,” which offers a list of 25 more warning signs that you’re getting played. They say that quacks, “have an arsenal of ploys for defending themselves against criticism. To gain your allegiance it is not necessary to persuade you that all of the statements below are true. Just one may be enough to hook you.” I hope that I am within fair use by reprinting this list here in its entirety (follow the link to this page for the explanations of each entry), because I think it’s very relevant:

“We really care about you!”

“We treat the whole patient.”

“No side effects”

“We attack the cause of disease.”

“We treat medicine’s failures.”

“Think positive!”

“Jump on the bandwagon.”

“Time-tested” or “Used for centuries!”

“Backed by scientific studies”

“Studies are underway.”

“Take charge of your health!”

“Think for yourself.” [When you read the explanation, you’ll see that this is actually code for don’t think at all.]

“What have you got to lose?”

“If only you had come earlier.”

“Science doesn’t have all the answers.”

“Don’t be afraid to experiment.”

“Let’s work together.”

“Keep an open mind.”

“Why don’t you clean your own house!”

“Prove me wrong!”

“We have no money for research.”

“I’m too busy getting sick people well.”

“They persecuted Galileo!”

“Health freedom”

“We offer alternatives.”

And they offer another very interesting list called “Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science,” some of which covers ground they touch on in the above, but one item in particular I thought was worth mentioning: “The discoverer has worked in isolation: The image of a lone genius who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends up making a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood’s science-fiction films, but it is hard to find examples in real life. Scientific breakthroughs nowadays are almost always syntheses of the work of many scientists.”

Obviously, there is a wealth of information here, and I hope that if you haven’t been to quackwatch, that you’ll go look around. I’d be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts.