Americans harbor schizoid views about science. When science enhances – or saves – our lives, we applaud it. When the same science yields discoveries that contradict our religious or political convictions, we deride it.

When it offers big profits, some of us exploit it.

Amazing, shiny new science has long been used to hawk nonsensical claims in the marketplace of dollars, not ideas. We’re always looking for a free lunch. Something to melt off pounds without dieting, or add muscle without exercising!

History is full of “science-based” scams. When an “amazing new” discovery appears in tabloids or on cable, a clueless populace responds by creating a fad. Those who don’t understand science are most at risk. 

In the 1930’s Wilhelm Reich claimed he could “concentrate” a so-called “positive energy” that surrounds us and permeates the universe. He appealed to ancient quasi-spiritual concepts like Chinese “Chi” and Indian “Prana,” but called his force “orgone.” “Constrictions” in bodily orgone, he said, caused all sorts of diseases, but his orgone concentrator could fix you.  

After scientific reviews, the FDA finally got a federal injunction barring interstate distribution of orgone-related materials, citing “false and misleading claims.” Orgone is now widely recognized as pseudoscientific silliness. There is no empirical support for the concept of orgone in medicine or the physical sciences.

Nonetheless, people still sell this stuff online. Orgone energy is “accumulated in a natural way from the environment” by bells-and-whistles contraptions, which are sold by enterprising grifters via the internet. People think of in-home oxygen concentrators, figure orgone machines are comparable.

When electricity was first explored and applied, it seemed magical. Of course this led to all sorts of sham devices that surround the buyer with an “electric field” or make him tingle. If it tingles, it’s working!

Another impressive science-y force is magnetism. Can’t see it or feel it, but it will rip out your stainless-steel sutures in an MRI machine. Magical. 

Powerful magnetism has been used clinically for TCMS – transcranial magnetic stimulation – to treat depression. Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But the hucksters are all over this like scandal on a Trump. Little magnets in your mattress or your underwear – you just know they’re working! The fields typically produced by these toys are absurdly weak, and their strength decreases geometrically with distance. Glitzy hype, still nonsense.

Real chemistry sparked an ongoing fad. Some bodily processes generate waste products (“free radicals”) causing “oxidative” damage to our tissues, perhaps leading to chronic disease. In a test tube, certain other chemicals can “neutralize” free radicals; we call them “antioxidants.” If we could eliminate these radicals, we’d be healthier.

Indeed, people with diets rich in antioxidants do seem less prone to various maladies. The key is dietary sourcing; in order to ingest a useful amount of dietary antioxidants, one must consume foods that contain multitudes of interacting nutrients that also enhance health.

Alas, obtaining anti-oxidants via “supplements” or “neutraceuticals” doesn’t yield the same benefit, perhaps because they’re isolated from their nutrient entourage. 

We can still buy sodas, granola bars, cereals, and snacks with insignificant amounts of purported antioxidants included solely to enhance marketing.

Vitamins too. Small amounts are vital for life processes, so people take large amounts expecting more energy, fewer infections, vanishing wrinkles. Product manufacturers add vitamins we don’t need, can’t use, and simply pee away. “Vitamin-enhanced water” is just water for dummies.

Science has actually researched the therapeutic potential of primordial human “stem cells,” but scammers run “off-label” stem cell clinics, or tout wrinkle creams containing irrelevant (italics) plant (italics) stem cells, without any proof of safety or effectiveness.  

Next time - the science and marketing of our latest fad, CBD.

 

Jon Hauxwell, M.D., is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.