a substance with no real medicinal value sold as a remedy for all diseases.
a product, policy claim or idea of little real worth or value that is promoted as the solution to a problem
Snake oil salesman operate across a broad and varied spectrum of our lives but there seem to be rather a lot plying their trade in health and fitness. They sell diets, fitness equipment, supplements, treatments, therapies and exercise programmes and you'll find a lot of them at your average fitness convention. As far as I'm concerned they tarnish the industry and one of the reasons I started this blog was to expose as many as possible.
But how can you differentiate the fitness charlatan from someone who has something genuinely useful or beneficial to offer? Well there are a number of tell tail signs that you should look out for:
In no particular order
1: Big scientific sounding words/jargon.
Snake oil salesman by definition sell products or promote ideas that don't work or have minimal efficacy. They know this but of course can't admit it. So what does the snake oil salesman do? They hide the lack of substance to their claims or products by dressing them up in scientific sounding words or jargon. Don't be fooled!
2: Claims that are defended against reason and contrary evidence.
Science adapts and updates it's ideas based on the available evidence. If a claim is refuted by the evidence then a hypothesis or theory will have to be modified or even abandoned as a result. The snake oil salesman will just dismiss or ignore evidence that is contrary to their claims or efficacy of their products. They have something to sell and don't give a jot whether what they're selling is proven or otherwise.
3: Bias in the examination of evidence.
When claims or products are tested and the results are equivocal, the snake oil salesman will only focus on that which support their position and ignore the evidence that doesn't. This is known as 'confirmation bias'. In science a position cannot be supported unless the evidence is sufficient to at least a certain degree of statistical significance and ideally supported in the long term with multiple studies that come to the same conclusion.
4: Use of anecdotal evidence.
What counts as good evidence for a claim is a foundation of the scientific method. Data has to be collected and examined in an appropriate way and only then can conclusions be drawn. The snake oil salesman will bypass this process, instead using difficult or impossible to verify anecdotes and personal testimony to sell their product or back up their claim.
5: Switching the burden of proof.
If someone asserts that something is true or says that something works, it is that person whose obligation it is to show that this is the case. If someone was to say to you "prove to me it's not true" or "prove to me it doesn't work" they are committing the logical fallacy known as the 'argument from ignorance' where a position is held to be true because it hasn't been shown not to be. When challenged the snake oil salesman often resorts to this.
6: Absence of adequate peer review.
Peer review is the evaluation of scientific or academic work by other experts working in the same field. In science peer review is used to determine whether a study is of suitable quality for publication. While it doesn't always guarantee the quality the work, peer review offers a very good starting point to examine the evidence of a claim. The snake oil salesmen has no interest in whether what the are selling has been studied or reviewed so will often be unable to provide reference to peer reviewed material. If they do it is often biased (see point 3) or published in non respected or niche journals.
7: The use of sensational 'headlines' in sales material.
If you see headlines such as "This miracle diet will help you lose weight fast" or "Guaranteed six pack abs with our unique training method" or "double your metabolism by doing these exercises" your skeptical radar should start to go into over drive. These days adverts for products are often disguised as editorial in magazines or their online counterparts. Be wary of this and look forsensational headlines to give you a clue.
8: Extraordinary claims with no extraordinary evidence.
As Carl Sagan famously said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". So if someone's telling you that taking a supplement will melt away your body fat, they better have some bloody good evidence to support the claim. Of course the snake oil salesmen never does.
If you can teach yourself and remember any or all of these points you'll be well on your way to developing a good skeptical radar and recognising the snake oil salesman wherever he or she may appear.