Selling Snake Oil


In yesterday’s news, Donald Trump snubbed a climate change meeting to attend a prayer meeting. Belief, which once drove the world, has turned into a poison that is destabilising our lives. From the overabundance of information that inspires incontinent thinking, to the storming of Area 51 and the bizarre rumours about the MMR jab, the world of half-truths continues unchecked because it sells. And for the superpowers, that’s all that matters.

A documentary on the Flat Earth Society revealed that it’s a for-profit organisation, the selling of a silly idea through conventions, products, books, subscriptions and clothing that could be promoting anything at all.

How does this change in belief feed into the writing of a book? Fiction writers face a choice; you either add the real world to your writing, allow it to be influenced by what you see and feel, or shut that world out entirely.

In what we may come to think of as the Complacent Years of the early new century the fantasies of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones ruled. Here in these worlds there were no themes, which means that the depiction of evil always comes down to a banal representation, a giant floaty thing of fire, a hidden face in a hood and cloak, because you cannot create an enemy if you have failed to establish a belief system. Instead you roll back to Bunyon, to Bosch, to the ideas perpetuated in Hollywood films and medieval art that pure people must spend their lives fighting off monsters.

This last trait is particularly instructive; it seems not to exist outside America. Watching posters for another Sylvester Stallone Rambo film going up in Europe, a friend asked, ‘Why does America think we want to see someone killing all his enemies with a huge gun?’ She suggested that a mutant gene from the pioneer spirit had been left with nowhere to go after fighting its way West.

Compelling narratives are destroyed by huge chunks of polemic being dropped into them (a mistake I’ve made in the past) but a theme can seep into a work of fiction. Lately I’ve been interested in how far the idea of false news could be taken. The thought of our inability to tell truth from lies is an awful one.

So, I’m trying to imagine how such a weighty theme sits in a popular novel when this happens.

My husband, eminently sensible and grounded, humourless to the point of mistaking jokes for real news stories, intellectually rigorous, a born sceptic, has an old sports injury that returns periodically. Having worn out his list of muscle therapists and chiropractors he’s recommended to a ‘professional’ by a friend.

She lives miles away and is all but inaccessible, so seeing her requires determination. When he meets her he realises it’s a terrible mistake. She flutters her hands over his chest and tells him his mother had a traumatic experience when he was in her womb. She talks about homeopathy, reiki, and other discredited bits of infantilised new-age gibberish wrapped in phrases about ‘healing your heart’ and ‘learning to love yourself’.

Then she fishes about for a bit of deep-reading, Derren Brown Lite crossed with Madame Arcati, and finds traumas at six months, three years, six years, all the time asking if that’s possible, fishing, fishing.

By this time her subject, the sworn enemy of woo-woo, is digging in against her. But when he comes away I find he has purchased expensive little bottles from her. Unsurprisingly, when I translate the ingredients labels I get snake oil. The first bottle primarily contains water, glycerol and blackcurrant. The second is basically echinacea and sugar. Or, in the memorable phrase used by Sweeney Todd of his rival’s potions, ‘piss with ink’.

So what just happened? He bought the flat earth theory, the waving-hands-over-your-aura prognosis, primitive healing rituals retooled for the 21st century consumer. Gwyneth Paltrow, possibly the ultimate dilettante here, transformed it into a financial empire for silly people, so she’s not so silly.

I am still staggered that a hard-nosed realist could have chosen to have his pocket picked by con artist. But we are in times when global populations feel disempowered and manipulated, when the POTUS can incoherently ramble on about concrete at a press conference and only one brave reporter is prepared to mention his incipient dementia.

‘When everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody,’ wrote WS Gilbert in ‘The Gondoliers’. Is it so surprising that we’ll try the snake oil, just in case?

12 comments on “Selling Snake Oil”

  1. Roger says:

    “In yesterday’s news, Donald Trump snubbed a climate change meeting to attend a prayer meeting.”
    The frightening thing about Trump and Johnson is that they so obviously don’t actually believe a word of what they purport to believe. Part of the success of the best – not quite the word, I agree – snake-oil merchants is that they are actually sincere. Your husband may have bought the stuff he did out of a sympathy for someone who is trying to help, no matter how unsuccessfully. For most of history “conventional” medicine relied on the placebo effect, when it wasn’t actually lethal, which explains the snake-oil merchants’ success. Trump and Johnson have brought things to the point where people recognise they’re being conned and don’t care.

  2. Brooke says:

    My sympathy to your poor spouse. On days when various old knee, shoulder and back injuries assert themselves, I ponder wondering to Afro-Cuban store front shops to have “roots worked” over me. And, as every woman knows, it’s the strong, sensible types who fall first. (see M.R. James)

    Re: T&J. Snake-oil salesmen aren’t “sincere”; their firm belief in their own brilliance persuades others. Added with sociopathic tendencies–superficial charm, activities aimed at manipulation. They like risks, as they’re sure they’ll be elsewhere before they’re found out. (T: ” I can’t be prosecuted until I’m out of office.”)

    “…trying to imagine how such a weighty theme sits in a popular novel..” 1984 rewrite? The underlying issue you’re pondering is trust–how it’s created/destroyed and why, power interests benefit by manipulating trusting populations. Read or better yet talk to Geoffrey Hosking ( Maybe too academic but his study of the ultimate fake news empire–the Soviet Union–is fascinating. Parallels to our respective countries are obvious.

  3. Bruce Rockwood says:

    People can be discouraged. The discussion in The Greatest Show on Earth by Dawkins about the Latin teacher facing complaints that Rome didn’t exist (as I recall it) when trying to teach is an example. My facing climate science skeptics when I meet people is another. Folks staring into their phones don’t read long form. We need to keep trying. I think your work is a positive contribution.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I can agree with you on a lot of the above, Chris, and Roger is definitely correct about Trump and Johnson not believing their own stuff. If Trump is so against immigrants what is the explanation of his marriages?
    There is always the “what if” factor. When you run out of all the scientific solutions you begin to entertain the not so scientific solutions. We’re talking life and death here. Do I vaccinate my child against disease and have him develop learning problems? Well, what if? Buy a couple of bottles and see what happens. It doesn’t sound as if there’s anything harmful there unless you’re diabetic, perhaps. We all take out insurance of some kind.

  5. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘ Do I vaccinate my child against disease and have him develop learning problems? ’

    I don’t put that in the same category as the useless but harmless stuff.

    Unvaccinated children run the risk of disability or death, not to mention the risk they pose to other children who are too young to be immunised, or whose immunity is compromised by illness or treatment for cancer etc etc.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Cornelia, that example was of which is the least harmful possibility? In the mind of the parent. I am not an anti-vaccer. Our reaction to that possibility shows how seriously we consider those choices. They’re chew your fingers off to the elbow matters.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    In the right circumstances, medical snake oil may have a placebo effect. That’s why pharmaceuticals are subject to double blind tests. Unfortunately for us, there is no placebo effect with politicians, just evil.

  8. snowy says:

    I think he was lucky to get away without having his balls cupped*.

    I mean – presented with a person complaining of a Muscular/Skeletal problem and they ‘prescribe’ a bottle of Cough Mixture and a Herbal Cold Remedy!


    [* Cupping for those that have never heard of it is another piece of flim-flam that is believed by those that who were not playing enough attention in Science, to draw out ‘impurities’ through the skin. Look it up if you really must, but don’t blame me if you come over all ‘shouty’.]

  9. Helen Martin says:

    We had cupping explained to the school staff in case we were taking a gym class and saw the results on a kid’s back. It doesn’t seem to hurt or do harm but it certainly is weird to see.

  10. Roger says:

    There’s an alarming account of cupping in a Paris hospital in the 1920s or 30s in one of Orwell’s essays. It did have a placebo effect on the other patients – they enjoyed the cuppee’s (is that the word?) suffering so much they forgot their own.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    If you want to see ‘cupping’ in action, may I suggest watching the 1967 movie, ‘Dance Of The Vampires’/’The Fearless Vampire Killers’. In it, the hapless Alfred (played by the movie’s director, Roman Polanski), applies cups to his master, Professor Abronsius’ back. It seems the very height of quackery, as I cannot see what benefit it serves, other than leave circular bruises on the skin.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    With Trump it’s more to do with the politics of division and self interest, by linking religion and climate change denial he’s making a link that isn’t there but people will fall for it. Business, especially some he is linked with don’t see short term profit only short term loss in tackling climate change. (BOJO is beginning to be linked to hedge funds, and he has been using the rhetoric of us and them, although in the last few days he seems to want to mend some fences as he can see at the Tory conference the divisions and the lack of support compared to previous years.). As for the religion the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have come out against climate change and said it’s a moral obligation to oppose it.

    Don’t let his divisiveness win. By the way by trying to withhold things from Ukraine he is also helping his friend Putin, who as part of the old USSR KGB would have enforced the atheist. From that atheist view we can see how tolerant Russia is now.

    Have you noticed how they are blaming everyone for the mess we are in and creating divisions, when we should be having a full enquiry out in the open on the banking crisis that brought austerity and the added things like PPI and money laundering. No we are happier slinging mud at each other than punishing those that were responsible.

    As for alternative medicine, never underestimate the power of placebo.

    I must confess I did once convince an American friend that in England we don’t say mugging, but tea cupping. I did eventually come clean and he did call me something rude. Which reminds me tea bagger here are quite different from Trump’s tea bagger friends in the US, as my little sister pointed out to one.


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