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Craig Nelson: The Snake Oil Problem

The Snake Oil Problem
Craig F. Nelson, MS, DC

We are all familiar with the concept of the snake oil salesman: A purveyor of fraudulent remedies or cures. This term derives from the 19th century when itinerant salesman roamed the countryside selling cure-all patent medicines, some of which purported to actually contain snake oil. But that was over 100 years ago.

We’ve moved beyond such nonsense, right? It would be nice to think so, but such is not the case. In fact it’s almost impossible to avoid snake oil. Obviously you can find it on the Internet. But you can also find snake oil in some unexpected places. These include:

• Hospitals
• Medical clinics
• Chiropractic clinics
• Health food stores
• “Natural” healing centers
• Organic markets

Which is to say, virtually anyplace where healthcare services, advice or products are dispensed. And in the realm of fitness and athletic performance you can find snake oil on display at the Olympics, in the NBA/NFL/MLB at Planet Fitness, and yes, in CrossFit gyms. Why are we still overrun with snakeoil?

The short answer is that it’s complicated. I mean it’s really complicated. The only way to gain real knowledge of such issues is by doing experiments, and human beings make poor experimental subjects. It’s not really possible to do the kind of experimental studies that would give us definitive answers to most health and fitness questions…

OK, this group over here, you smoke a pack of Camels every day. And this group, let’s make it two packs. And this group, don’t smoke at all.

But slowly, painstakingly, and at great expense and effort we have managed to carve out a body of genuine knowledge. However there are still more gaps in this knowledge than we would like. And in place of the missing exacting science and valid information we have tended to fill in the gaps with, well, snake oil.

There is one problem with all this. Snake oil doesn’t usually look like snake oil. It no longer comes in bottles with the words “snake oil” on the label. For the most it looks entirely respectable. It looks like real science.

Snake oil is also generally more satisfying than real science. It provides easier answers, more comprehensive solutions and more powerful results. Some real-world examples include:

Lose weight fast without ever being hungry!
The cancer cure doctors won’t tell you about!
Add 20 lbs. of muscle without exercise!

And our basic human instincts of fear, wishful think and sometimes, desperation, all propel us in the direction of suspending our critical faculties and grasping at miracles. (I am now officially desperate for a cure for my double-under ineptitude. I
will pay dearly for a cure.)

While Coach Hannah and I have different backgrounds we both have a keen appreciation of real science and the benefits it confers and a loathing for junk science and the mischief (and worse) it creates. And so I will be sharing with you, several times a month, my observations and insights on various heath and fitness related issues. These will include:

• Diet and health
• Fitness and longevity
• Nutritional supplements
• Obesity and weight loss
• Cancer prevention
• Disease screening
• Avoiding harmful healthcare procedures

These ideas will be explored on this website and occasionally through lectures at Solcana. Please let Hannah or myself know if there are other specific topics you would like covered as well. Hope to see you soon at the gym!


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