Are you an easy mark for a quack?

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Ever wonder how people fall for get rich quick scams?

I’m talking about the scams like emails that announce you have won a contest that you never entered, ads that claim you can earn $50,000 a month working from home, or expensive seminars that promise to make you a real estate magnate.

Who falls for those things?

It is understood that greedy people fall for these scams, but not most people who are greedy are also wary. The people who fall for these scams aren’t merely greedy; they want something for nothing. The rest of us understand that short of inheriting massive wealth, the only way to make large sums of money is to work for it. We are sadly aware that there is no such thing as “something for nothing.”

The perpetrators of get rich quick scams know that greedy people who want something for nothing are easy marks and tailor their approaches to appeal to people with that specific vulnerability.

Those who fall for science quackery are very similar. They too are greedy and want something for nothing. In their case, though, they aren’t looking for money. Victims of quackery are looking to boost fragile self esteem by claiming expert knowledge without doing the hard work of taking the courses, putting in the training time, and getting the degree. Professional quacks know that those who want to claim expert knowledge without education or training are easy marks and tailor their approaches to appeal to people with that specific vulnerability.

Those who would fight quackery would do well to understand this basic fact. A recent, apparently paradoxical study on anti-vaccination suggests that they don’t understand. The study, Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial, was published in the journal Pediatrics. The authors of the study started with the assumption that it is ignorance that leads to opposition to vaccines. Based on that assumption, they designed educational interventions:

A Web-based nationally representative 2-wave survey experiment was conducted with 1759 parents age 18 years and older residing in the United States who have children in their household age 17 years or younger (conducted June–July 2011). Parents were randomly assigned to receive 1 of 4 interventions: (1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (2) textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement; (3) images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; (4) a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet; or to a control group.

Much to the surprise of the authors, the attempts at education were completely ineffective at changing parental attitudes.

… Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes. In addition, images of sick children increased expressed belief in a vaccine/autism link and a dramatic narrative about an infant in danger increased self-reported belief in serious vaccine side effects.

The authors were surprised because they assumed that being uninformed is what rendered parents vulnerable to anti-vax quackery. But most people lack the requisite education in immunology, virology and public health and they vaccinate their children anyway. Those most vulnerable to anti-vax quackery are a subset of the uneducated who are greedy to assert expert knowledge without education.

In other words, those most vulnerable to quackery aren’t the uneducated; they are the uneducated who wish to view themselves as educated without doing the work required.

That’s why educational messages are startlingly ineffective in combating vaccine quackery. Anti-vax is not about children and not about vaccines; it is about parents and how they wish to veiw themselves.

So how can you tell if you are an easy mark for a quack?

  • If you are anxious to view yourself as more educated than others without actually getting the requisite education, you are vulnerable.
  • Do you believe that you can “educate” yourself about medical topics without going to medical school, you are vulnerable.
  • If you believe that “researching” a topic means using Google, you are vulnerable.
  • If you believe that lay people can know more about medical topics than medical experts, you are vulnerable.

But the flip side is that if you understand you are vulnerable, you can take precautions to avoid being scammed. The first step is recognizing that flattery as an inappropriate component of medical information.

Doctors, scientists and public health officials do not sit around flattering each other about their knowledge. When someone tries to flatter you, you know you are in the presence of a quack, not a legitimate medical professional. Run in the opposite direction.