Can you tell the difference between an expert and a quaxpert?

three duckling isolated on white

It’s often easy to tell the difference between an expert and a quack.

  • An expert has formal education in the topic at hand, while a quack has none.
  • An expert understands both science and basic statistics and can reach an independent conclusion about the existing scientific evidence. A quack has to take the word of someone else.
  • An expert recommends what’s good for YOU. A quack recommends what’s good for HER.
  • Experts change their recommendations based on new scientific evidence. Quacks never change recommendations regardless of what the scientific evidence shows.
  • Experts take responsibility for their recommendations. Quacks wash their hands of you, or even blame YOU when THEIR recommendations cause more harm than good.

It’s much harder to tell the difference between an expert and a quaxpert.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Quaxperts have professional qualifications and use them to peddle pseudoscience.[/pullquote]

What’s a quaxpert?

It’s a person who has professional qualifications in the relevant discipline, but nonetheless peddles pseudoscience. Since both experts and quaxperts have professional educations, degrees, titles and even scientific papers, how can the average person tell the difference?

Here’s are some handy tips to help you tell experts and quaxperts apart.

1. Quaxperts have “secret” knowledge: Beware when someone implies they are sharing secret medical knowledge with you. There is no such thing as secret medical knowledge. In an age where there are literally thousands of competing medical journals, tremendous pressure on researchers to publish papers, and instantaneous dissemination of results on the Internet, nothing about medicine could possibly be secret.

2. Quaxperts claim giant conspiracies: In the entire history of modern medicine, there has NEVER been a conspiracy to hide lifesaving information among professionals. Sure, an individual company may hide information in order to get a jump on competitors, or to deny harmful effects of their products, but there can never be a large conspiracy because every aspect of the healthcare industry is filled with competitors. Vast conspiracies, encompassing doctors, scientists and public health officials exist only in the minds of quaxperts.

3. Quaxperts often employ flattery: They try to flatter potential customers (quaxperts are always selling something, be it books, supplements or courses) by implying that those customers are uncommonly smart, insightful and wary. They portray non-believers as “sheeple” who are content to accept authority figures rather than think for themselves. A real medical professional does not need to flatter you. He or she knows what is true and what isn’t and shares that information whether it makes you happy or is the last thing you want to hear.

4. Quaxperts invoke toxins: I’ve written before that toxins are the new evil humors. Toxins serve the same explanatory purpose as evil humours did in the Middle Ages. They are invisible, but all around us. They constantly threaten people, often people who unaware of their very existence. They are no longer viewed as evil in themselves, but it is axiomatic that they have been released into our environment by “evil” corporations. There’s just one problem. “Toxins” are a figment of the imagination, in the exact same way that evil humours and miasmas were figments of the imagination.

5. Quaxperts often claim to be “brilliant heretics,” comparing themselves to Galileo or Darwin: They argue that science is transformed by brilliant heretics whose fabulous theories are initially rejected, but ultimately accepted as the new orthodoxy. The conceit rests on the notion that revolutionary scientific ideas are dreamed up by mavericks, but nothing could be further from the truth. Revolutionary scientific ideas are not dreamed up; they are the inevitable result of massive data collection. Galileo did not dream up the idea of a sun-centered solar system. He collected data with his new telescope, data never before available, and the sun-centered solar system was the only theory consistent with the data he had collected. Darwin also collected new data, which formed the basis of his theories about evolution.

6. Quaxperts love to baffle followers with scientific sounding bullshit: Quantum mechanics and chaos theory are two incredibly abstruse scientific disciplines, heavy on advanced math. If you don’t have a degree in either one, you aren’t qualified to pontificate on them. The same thing applies to new, imperfectly understood areas of science like epigenetics or the microbiome. Both are genuine scientific concepts, but we are in the earliest stages of elucidating them. Quaxperts like to invoke abstruse or poorly understood areas of science to justify quack theories.

There is a saying in science that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Quaxpert claims are typically extraordinary, but quaxperts don’t offer evidence, they offer “secret” knowledge, conspiracy theories, flattery and pseudoscientific nonsense. It’s designed to trick you into buying what they are selling, and quaxperts are invariably selling something. When you see one of these techniques, you can be virtually certain that you are in the presence of a quaxpert not an expert.

Run in the opposite direction.