Press and Pop Culture

Pseudo-science, Pseudo-academia, and Snake Oil

A roundup of articles related by the pejorative “pseudo:”
Last month Mark Thomas attacked genetic ancestry companies, claiming that “there is usually little scientific substance to most of them and they are better thought of as genetic astrology.” Martin Richards and Vincent Macaulay responded by defending genetic ancestry science: It is unfair to compare genetic ancestry testing to astrology. Once again astrology is the paradigmatic pseudoscience. And once again, what counts as science is anything but obvious and universally agreed upon—the comments introduce a third model of science built around the ideal of “lay Genetic Genealogists who do some A+ research.”

In the NY Times we read about the proliferation of “pseudo-academic journals” that charge authors to publish articles: “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too).” Open access, we are told, is the root of this pseudo-academic underworld of pay-to-publish and pay-to-present science. But page fees are common in scientific publishing and predate open access. Both reputable and disreputable open access journals charge authors to publish material. The “well-regarded, peer-reviewed” PLOS charges $1,350-$2,900 depending on the journal, with reductions for authors from less affluent countries. The journals and conferences referred to in the article may very well be pseudo-academic, but not because they charge authors to publish.

Finally, science sheds the light of truth into the murky world of snake oils and patent medicines: “What’s in Century-Old ‘Snake Oil’ Medicines? Mercury and Lead.” The chemist, Mark Benvenuto, directed the research that analyzed patent medicines from the early part of the century. They found that they contained mercury, arsenic, and lead. He is generous, however, in not condemning the makers of these medicines, perhaps a tad too generous: “Back in the day, this was a very trial-and-error kind of field,” Benvenuto said in an interview. “The stuff that we think of as dangerous now, though it was dangerous, was as cutting-edge as they had at the time.”

While Benvenuto’s work will add some detail to our knowledge of what these medicines contain, it is not particularly revelatory. In 1915 the FDA fined Dr. Tutt’s $300 for “misbranding” their pills. The judgement included an analysis of the pills:

Moisture (per cent): 04.9
Ash (per cent): 0.86
Aloes (per cent) about: 53
Wheat starch (per cent): 4.2
Total sugars as invert (per cent): 8.7
Mercurous chlorid (per cent): 26.94
Each pill contains 0.0448 gram, or 0.69 grain, mercurous chlorid (calomel).
Average weight per pill (grams): 0.166

That Dr. Tutt’s Liver Pills contained mercury is not news.