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.

Quaxperts have professional qualifications and use them to peddle pseudoscience.

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.

  • mabelcruet

    Another difference between experts and quaxperts is how they approach scientific data and interpretation. We know quaxperts cherry pick the data, and I’ve noticed that many of them will reference geriatric papers from the 60s and 70s-they seem to think that once its been published then that’s it-it immutable and remains completely valid forever more. They don’t appreciate that medical advances are generally a series of little steps, building on work that has been done previously. Sometimes this means that earlier studies or papers are rendered obsolete. But these papers aren’t retracted, they remain in the public arena. For most of us, we know that older papers are superseded but keeping them available shows how ‘science’ evolves. Quaxperts just don’t get this-they pull out these ancient papers and say ‘tah-dah! This is scientific proof!’ and ignore all the more recent work.

  • Seeing Clearly

    The autism acceptance movement, the disability pride LGBTQ pride and the DSM are all quackery and lunacy and hypocritical nonsense all full out severe abomination.

    • Why are you still here? Why are you so hateful?

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      I do wonder if you protest too much, kiddo. Do you have a learning disability? Might you be gay? Might you be prideful? Don’t you have some algebra homework to do?

      • Gæst

        I draw the line at algebra acceptance.

        • Empress of the Iguana People

          I suppose I shouldn’t tell you that I use algebra in my quilting ;p

        • MaineJen

          Algebra, I can accept. Geometry, on the other hand, is the work of the devil.

          • Gæst

            Ha, I loved geometry.

          • MaineJen

            Everyone loves one and hates the other!

          • LaMont

            Hey that’s some bi erasure right there, some ppl do swing both ways 😉

          • Roadstergal

            Hey, I never thought of that. I love algebra and geometry, and I’m bisexual. Juuuust COINCIDENCE? I think not! 😀

          • Gæst

            So are geometry lovers gay or straight, then?

          • Roadstergal

            There was a lot of straightness in geometry, as I recall… and a lot of curves in algebra.

          • Gæst

            But I’m pretty sure more people like algebra than geometry, so that’s odd. I mean, I’m straight as they come (if a bit asexual), so it’s no skin off my nose, but I don’t remember a lot of other people with my mathematical orientation.

          • Roadstergal

            Well, according to Kinsey, most people aren’t as binary in their love of the mathematical disciplines as they think they are.

          • Gæst

            True, but then we should all have a fondness for both maths.

            And then there’s calculus.

          • LaMont

            kinky

          • Charybdis

            What about analytical geometry? I thought that was fun.

          • Gæst

            Yes, and trigonometry! I loved them all. Shapes, curves, and lines are my thing (I liked the conics section of algebra II, but not the rest).

          • Charybdis

            I remember all the odd details, like a sine wave is iMimi and a cosine wave is MimiM or miMim on a graph (M= maximum, m= minimum and i= intercept), rise/run is the slope, imaginary numbers were fun and zero can be both a real and an imaginary number. Rotating and translating hyperbolae, ellipses and circles. I hated parabolas, though.

          • Gæst

            It seems to be the case (I could barely pass algebra in high school but won an award in geometry) but I could not find any scientific evidence about it. I’ve met people who think it’s just because we teach math “all wrong,” but who knows.

          • MaineJen

            I’ve always wondered if it’s not personality/thought process. I’m more comfortable with abstract thought than with memorization of formulas, so I did better in algebra.

          • Gæst

            Algebra is the one that seemed like memorization of formulas to me. But definitely abstract – which I love in other contexts.

          • Eater of Worlds

            Math is a language!

          • Gæst

            In that case I was definitely taught it all wrong.

          • Roadstergal

            All the maths are welcome in my heart. 🙂

        • Charybdis

          Well, then! To each his/her own. I draw the line at fruit and meat together (grapes in chicken salad, pineapple on ham, grilled chicken salads with strawberries and blueberries in them, etc.) and bubble tea. You should not have to chew a beverage.

    • Spamamander, pro fun ruiner

      The asshole acceptance movement has apparently gained traction, however.

      • Daleth

        Particularly since this last election…

    • Russell Jones

      Now where did I put that “ENGLISH, MOTHERFUCKER, DO YOU SPEAK IT?” gif?

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        I pity his teachers everytime he shows up at school. He’s convinced that his teachers are poor quality, but just ’cause they cannot get through -his- thick head…

        • momofone

          I’m guessing his teachers are probably purveyors of the same BS he’s trying to sell.

          • Azuran

            Nah, he’d like them if they were. He probably hates them because they wouldn’t let him lynch a gay classmate or something.

        • Roadstergal

          I woulda guessed home-schooled?

      • Who?

        I was looking for the ‘human being… be one’ gif.

        Yours is probably better.

    • Dr Kitty

      Oh good, the teenager who thinks the bible is literally true.

      That fatal chromosomal abnormalities haven’t been cured yet because scientists and doctors are godless heathens who would rather suggest terminating affected pregnancies and are thus not motivated to find a way to rewrite someone’s entire genetic code and that it is possible to cure autism.

      The stupid is bottomless.

      • Who?

        I wonder if he also believes the bad weather the US has been having is due to those terminations?

      • LaMont

        But also… disabilities are abominations? I didn’t realize anyone was *that* deep

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          As I said in the other thread, anyone whose moral code says disabled persons are “abominations” needs to find a different moral code.

        • Spamamander, pro fun ruiner

          I found out from a quote on “Fundies Say the Darnedest Things” that the reason my daughter has Down syndrome is because she sinned in the womb. If she found god she’d be cured.

    • Bryan Elliott

      You might be ‘seeing clearly,’ lol. But you’re not speaking clearly.

    • maidmarian555

      Hey Bible fan.

      Matthew 7:1-3

      7 Judge not, that ye be not judged.

      For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

      And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

      The Bible says we shouldn’t judge other people. It’s pretty explicit about that. I’m guessing that for some reason *this* isn’t a verse that you take quite so literally as you appear to take others……

      • MaineJen

        I have a feeling this one only likes the mean parts of the bible.

        • Linden

          I have a feeling they’ve never read the bible, only “suggested readings” from their fundie church.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      Pride, in the case of minority groups, means “I am not ashamed to be black/queer/autistic even if you tell me I should be.” You are very good at telling people we should be ashamed of things we cannot change.
      God knows I am not going to waste my life looking for miracle cures.

    • StephanieJR

      Oh goody, you’re back! I’ve been itching to sink my teeth back in you, you vile little insect.

      I’m in the mood to be generous, so I’ll give you a chance. Run, little troll, run back to the hole you crawled out of, before I crank up the Insult Machine and go to town.

      You thought I was bad before? Oh honey, just you wait; I have barely begun to indulge my viscous streak.

    • namaste863

      I see. Have you ever had a single day of instruction on the DSM? No? I didn’t think so. You know shit about it. And before you ask, I have several semesters of undergraduate and graduate work under my belt with the DSM, so don’t play the “Have you?” card.

    • Charybdis

      I was under the impression that an abomination was a werewolf (or other shape shifter) who gets transformed into a vampire.
      So how do you explain your abominable-ness?

    • Eater of Worlds

      For all abominations everywhere, how about bodily autonomy as what links us together as a united group?

      https://www.thenation.com/article/my-body-my-choice-why-the-principle-of-bodily-autonomy-can-unite-the-left/

  • Mel

    Quaxperts have a strangely quixotic view of the research – or lack thereof – in their new-found subject area.

    People immersed in a field of study or research learn the difference between foundational beliefs, ideas gaining wide support and new ideas that are controversial. Quaxperts seem to have lost the basic idea that other fields have those same categories as well.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    An expert has formal education in the topic at hand, while a quack has none

    An expert will be the first to recognize that there are things that are outside of their expertise.

    The quaxpert thinks their MD or PhD makes them an expert and everything, and, in fact, think they know more about the topic than those who spend their lives studying it (see also: “Secret Knowledge” and “Conspiracy.”)

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      A woman came into the local yarn shop, found out my husband’s blind, and proceeded to tell me how her ophthalmologist husband was using epigenetics or the microbiome or something to cure people with blindness, diabetes, and autism. *eyeroll*

      • Heidi

        What?! Was he rubbing stomach bacteria into people’s eyeballs? He’s an opthamologist during the day and at night he tinkers around in his self-funded lab garage doing well-controlled experiments. Yeah…I’m sure.

      • Eater of Worlds

        Sounds more like an optometrist playing with essential oils.

        • Empress of the Iguana People

          i would not be surprised

  • attitude devant

    Anyone watching ‘Siesta Key’? That ludicrous house is the home of a local chiropractor. ‘Nuff said.

  • Andrew Broselow, MD

    And no matter what their degree, quaxperts refer to themselves as “physicians”

    • Russell Jones

      Absolutely. I admire the hell out of anyone with the drive, determination and ability to get a Ph.D. Some doctoral degrees are laughably fraudulent — quack Gary Null comes to mind — but many are entirely legit, and big ups to the people who earned the legit ones. However, a Ph.D. in geology does not a “physician” make.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        And getting a PhD in neurobiology of the hypothalamus and eating dosordets does not make one an expert in breastfeeding or child development.

        • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

          Ah Mayim Bialik…

  • TsuDhoNimh

    And Quaxperts with websites have a link to their shop where they sell the stuff their quaxpertise tells you that you need.

    • Russell Jones

      Joe Mercola’s cancer-preventing tanning beds come to mind. The FTC slapped ol’ Joe good and hard over that mess, if memory serves.

      Seriously, though, that aspect of quaxpertry is especially maddening. “Don’t vaccinate your children, steer clear of that chemotherapy, and load up on baleen whale placenta smoothies, available right here in our online store at a substantial discount!!” That kinda crap make you want to slap someone.

      Everybody’s got to make that paper somehow, but if there’s an afterlife, I hope there’s a singularly horrific corner of it reserved for quaxperts who prey on the desperate and gullible.