Updated 13 December 2010

Quacks and other science fraudsters

There's a saying: "A fool and his money are soon parted". Beware: there are quacks and charlatans just waiting to pounce on you with their fraud dressed up to look like science.


Minutes after Hannes Potgieter put his feet in the detox foot spa he was speechless. The clear salty water turned dark, then reddish brown and eventually almost black. The sales agent demonstrating the spa told him that the colour change was the result of toxins escaping through his skin.

The salesman assured him that the machine had been tested by doctors and that research showed its effectiveness in ridding the body of all kinds of poisons and heavy metals.

"The guy used impressive-sounding scientific terms and spoke about how your body supposedly activates the negative ions so they resonate through the body to stimulate the cells to restore energy levels and release toxins," Hannes told Hannelie Booyens, the You Magazine journalist who did an exposé on detox footspas early in 2009.

After he'd used the machine a few times Hannes wasn't feeling any better and decided to perform an experiment: he switched on the machine but didn't put his feet in the water. To his surprise the water still went dark and eventually turned black. That's when Hannes realised that he may have been conned out of R8,000.

Unfortunately, stories such as Hannes' are all too common: an uninformed public being scammed or conned by something fake, dressed up to look like science.

Science vs. pseudoscience

The general public tends to view science as experiments conducted in laboratories by people in white coats, usually involving liquids in test tubes which they combine to come up with cures.

That's not completely wrong, but it is not completely right either. The Oxford Dictionary explains that science is "a branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles involving the systematised observation of an experiment with phenomena, especially concerned with the material and functions of the physical universe".

Real science, therefore, is knowledge obtained through experiments which adheres to universal scientific methods. Each step of the experiment is recorded and included in a report so the exact method can be replicated by other scientists in other laboratories. The methods and results are published in a scientific journal, where it is scrutinised by scientific peers. If other scientists can find no fault with the methods used and the way the results were interpreted, only then is this new research considered scientific knowledge.

The reason for all the checks and balances is simple: scientific knowledge is applied in medicine, healthcare, social policy and more, and even the slightest mistake, for instance reporting that 10,000mg instead of 1,000mg of aspirin helps with headache, could have a profound impact when carried through to real life.

Pseudoscience, on the other hand, is knowledge presented as if it has undergone rigorous scientific testing, but in actual fact has not.

The placebo effect

A placebo is a medical treatment without any active agents in it: for instance, a "headache tablet" containing no aspirin or paracetamol. It is, therefore, just a tablet, or "sugar pill".

However, a curious phenomenon, called the placebo effect, can occur when someone takes this tablet without active ingredients, and is cured by it or experiences positive effects.

In actual fact, the person is not cured by the tablet, but by their belief that the tablet would cure them.

Most medical research is done by testing at least two groups of people - those receiving treatment with an active ingredient, and others receiving a placebo. The reason for that is to rule out the possibility that people are responding to the treatment purely because of their belief in it. For a new treatment to be considered successful, the group taking the active medication have to respond substantially better than the group taking the placebo. Because research has show over and over again that a group taking a placebo always responds better than another group taking nothing at all.

The placebo effect is, unfortunately, convenient for people promoting fraudulent or untested treatments, such as the detox foot spa mentioned earlier. This is because the mere belief that soaking your feet in a foot spa will rid your body of toxins and make you feel better, will probably make you feel somewhat better thanks to the placebo effect.

Purveyors of quack remedies thus exploit this phenomenon, using it to persuade people to buy their product and even testify to its wonderful effects. But testimony, however sincere or convincing, is not evidence enough to give something the scientific thumbs-up.

The signs of pseudoscience

Charlatans often go to great lengths to make something look like it is scientifically viable. Using Hannes' example, the salesperson used big scientific words to explain the workings of the detox foot spa, and assured him that it had been endorsed by doctors.

So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you recognise a fake convincingly disguised to look real? Here are some simple guidelines of what to look for to determine whether something is science or pseudoscience.

Too good to be true

In his book, Bad Science, Ben Goldacre quips that "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is". Any device, gimmick or so-called medicine making outrageous claims is usually suspect.

In this category you often find astonishing medical claims – a tonic that cures cancer, a tablet that "melts" away fat, foot spas that draw toxins through the feet, or even vitamins that cure HIV – as was the case with the infamous vitamin salesman Matthias Rath, who told South African Aids patients to stop taking antiretroviral medication and rather use his vitamin concoction to treat their condition.

No scientific review

Robert Park tells the story of cold fusion in his book Voodoo Science. In 1989 chemists from the University of Utah in the US, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, announced to the world, via a press conference, that they had discovered a limitless, non-polluting source of energy: cold fusion.

The press conference was the first the world had heard of this discovery – which would have been the biggest of the century, had it been true. Their research was never published in a scientific journal and had therefore not been reviewed by any of their peers. The methods and processes of their experiment were kept secret, thus no other scientist could attempt to replicate the experiment to see if it held true – a fundamental principle of scientific knowledge.

The scientific community was in upheaval over Fleischmann and Pons' secrecy. As more details about their experiment became available, more scientists tried to duplicate it, but failed in their attempts. Soon after it was discovered that there were errors in the experiment, and Fleischmann and Pons' limitless source of energy turned out not to be limitless after all.

Had they published their research in a scientific journal, the errors would have been pointed out at an earlier stage and a lot of the embarrassment and drama around cold fusion would have been averted.

"Voodoo science [pseudoscience] is usually pitched directly to the media, circumventing the normal process of scientific review and debate," writes Park. A way to see whether something presented as science actually is science is to ask whether the research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. And if the answer is "yes", ask to read the original article to ensure that it doesn't in fact debunk the claims.

In a country such as South Africa, most people are taught from birth to believe in things without seeing any evidence, to believe because our elders say so. Coupled with the country's low level of education, and in particularly education in the sciences, one realises just how vulnerable the community is to snake-oil salesmen looking to make a quick buck out of your ignorance. So ask questions, demand proof and always remember Goldacre's jibe: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…" - (Wilma Stassen/Health24, updated 2012)


Booyens, H. 2009. Investigation: 'Detox' claims – such a con! You. 26 February 2009. Pp. 28-32.

Concise Oxford Dictionary. 1996. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. Oxford University Press: London.

Goldacre, B. 2008. Bad Science. Fourth Estate: London.

Park, R. 2000. Voodoo Science – The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. Oxford University Press: New York.

Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House: New York.


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