Science and quackery

By John Nadeau | Dec 16, 2010

Kickapoo Oil.

What a marvelous name for a quack remedy.

Kickapoo Oil was sold in medicine shows all over 19th century America.

For more than 30 years, pitchmen claimed Native Americans scouted the woods to gather natural ingredients for this cure-all. Actually, it contained ingredients like molasses and rum.

Finally, the Food and Drug Administration charged Kickapoo Oil didn’t cure anything and fined the company $25.

How far have we come?

Consider vitamins. Are they the new patent medicines?

Today, vitamins are a multi-billion dollar industry.

Enthusiasts believe a genuine need for vitamins varies from person to person. But many authorities insist most people need only small amounts, obtainable through a balanced diet, and supplements represent money wasted.

Science versus fake science. Authentic versus fraud. The debate has been going on for centuries.

Of course, some bogus sciences have long been discredited, astrology for example.

But horoscopes still appear in newspapers.

Today, we laugh at phrenology, the study of bumps on the skull that were supposed to reveal intelligence and character.

But significant work continued along those lines, especially on localization of sensory and motor functions, that led to advances in neurosurgery.

About 400 years ago, science dismissed alchemy, which among other objectives sought to turn base metals into gold. Still, we shouldn’t dismiss the work of alchemists too lightly. (Isaac Newton never did.)

They accumulated knowledge that formed the basis for much of today’s chemistry, including the transmutation of elements.

A closer look at the contemporary scene:

Acupuncture, once regarded as Oriental fakery, is now regarded -- albeit grudgingly by many – as something quite real. Yet, its use of needles inserted in the body to assist in healing or to relieve pain defies scientific explanation.

Another medical approach is homeopathy, which relies on minute quantities of mineral, plant, and animal materials for treatment. As a challenge to orthodox practice, which relies on substantial doses of medicine, homeopathy has faced fierce opposition from the medical establishment.

However, many people say it works for them.

Cryogenics focuses on the production and use of extremely low temperatures. A well known application is the use of liquid oxygen to fuel rockets.

Most scientists, though, question its use for long-term storage of corpses until medical technology can cure the condition from which they die.

My goodness. When is it science, and when is it pseudoscience? What are the norms, methods, and logic that true science must observe?

That will be the topic for James Munro, who will teach a course offered by the Creative Retirement Institute,  the lifelong learning program at Edmonds Community College.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and a master’s from the University of Chicago, Munro taught the philosophy of science and logic at Edinboro University and attained considerable field experience.

His course, Science and Pseudoscience, will meet Tuesdays, Jan. 18 through Feb 18, from 1 to 3 p.m.

This is an important subject in our science-dominated society.

For more information, phone 425-640-1830 or visit

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