Three tests of Quackery: Too Much, Too Well, Too Costly


All three of my children were afflicted with atopic dermatitis. Two of them have got beyond most of the symptoms. One of them still has problems with it. Over the years we got an awful lot of advice on how to treat it. A few were thoroughly unhelpful… but most had at least a bit of truth in it. A lot of these were so called “alternative medicines” or cures. For the most part, it seems they were of limited help (Lagundi leaves, both as a tea and as a bath, appeared to provide limited but real help). To be fair, however, conventional medicine wasn’t very helpful either.

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All three of my children were afflicted with atopic dermatitis. Two of them have got beyond most of the symptoms. One of them still has problems with it. Over the years we got an awful lot of advice on how to treat it. A few were thoroughly unhelpful… but most had at least a bit of truth in it. A lot of these were so called “alternative medicines” or cures. For the most part, it seems they were of limited help (Lagundi leaves, both as a tea and as a bath, appeared to provide limited but real help). To be fair, however, conventional medicine wasn’t very helpful either. about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.

This got me thinking about quality care versus “quackery.” But there is no easy measure to determine what is good and what is not. For example, many of the things that are considered quackery are useful in limited ways. There are relatively few forms of care that have no value in all circumstances. It is perhaps true that iridology or astrology have no value at all— at least if it is true that the underlying premises are false (that the iris of the eye informs about the body’s health, or that the stars and planets guide one’s destiny. Most treatments are good for at least some situations, however. So what might be the characteristics that separate quality and quackery.

  1. Too Much. When a treatment promises to do too much, the assumption is that there is some quackery involved. This is a matter of breadth. One is reminded of the classic joke product “snake oil.” Or perhaps one may have seen the classic movie, “The Inspector General” with the product “Yakov’s Golden Elixir.’ Such products probably had some limited value— even if only as an emetic or laxative. But in both cases, the product was described to cure almost all physical maladies. Many alternative medicines do have value in limited forms of treatments. And that is fine. Unfortunately, some of these are used, at the encouragement of their practioners/marketers, for things that are dubious.
  2. Too well. Sometimes, a treatment is appropriate but is marketed as being far more effective than it really is. This is a matter of depth rather than breadth. Skin problems are classic for this. There are different creams, injections, pills, baths, and more. There are few if any such products that work nearly as well as they are advertised. When much is promised but only a little is given, the question of legitimacy can come up.
  3. Too costly. Even if something is legitimate in care… when it is far too costly, especially when compared to other options, the care must be considered questionable.

Can this apply to Christian ministry? I heard a person online expressing the belief that Pastoral Counseling may be quackery. My first response, since my wife and I run a pastoral counseling center is to gainsay this. However,pastoral care and counseling can easily fall into the trap of quackery. It rarely falls into the category of “too costly” (except perhaps with some ‘retreat’ seminars perhaps) but it can easily fall into the traps of “too much” and “too well.” One should know one’s limits. One should know what one’s own limitedness is. One needs to know the proper depth and breadth of care that one can reasonably provide. I certainly have seen pastoral counselors who act like their little corner of care is all one ever needs.

In pastoral counseling, one must embrace humility, and one’s own limitedness. We don’t know all things, and we certainly don’t have control of all things. When we pretend otherwise, we have fallen into quackery.

The same can be true of other ministries as well. Community development is a good thing, but one’s limitations need to be embraced from the start. It is good to instill one’s vision into the people. But one must be careful not to promise too much. Evangelism is another area. Some evangelists sound like snake oil salesmen— everything, but everything, becomes perfect if one says a few words.

When we overstep the bounds of our limitations… when we act like we can offer perfect solutions in an imperfect world… when we offer too little for too much, we are dishonest, and it is no surprise if we are not believed.

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This got me thinking about quality care versus “quackery.” But there is no easy measure to determine what is good and what is not. For example, many of the things that are considered quackery are useful in limited ways. There are relatively few forms of care that have no value in all circumstances. It is perhaps true that iridology or astrology have no value at all— at least if it is true that the underlying premises are false (that the iris of the eye informs about the body’s health, or that the stars and planets guide one’s destiny. Most treatments are good for at least some situations, however. So what might be the characteristics that separate quality and quackery.

  1. Too Much. When a treatment promises to do too much, the assumption is that there is some quackery involved. This is a matter of breadth. One is reminded of the classic joke product “snake oil.” Or perhaps one may have seen the classic movie, “The Inspector General” with the product “Yakov’s Golden Elixir.’ Such products probably had some limited value— even if only as an emetic or laxative. But in both cases, the product was described to cure almost all physical maladies. Many alternative medicines do have value in limited forms of treatments. And that is fine. Unfortunately, some of these are used, at the encouragement of their practioners/marketers, for things that are dubious.
  2. Too well. Sometimes, a treatment is appropriate but is marketed as being far more effective than it really is. This is a matter of depth rather than breadth. Skin problems are classic for this. There are different creams, injections, pills, baths, and more. There are few if any such products that work nearly as well as they are advertised. When much is promised but only a little is given, the question of legitimacy can come up.
  3. Too costly. Even if something is legitimate in care… when it is far too costly, especially when compared to other options, the care must be considered questionable.

Can this apply to Christian ministry? I heard a person online expressing the belief that Pastoral Counseling may be quackery. My first response, since my wife and I run a pastoral counseling center is to gainsay this. However,pastoral care and counseling can easily fall into the trap of quackery. It rarely falls into the category of “too costly” (except perhaps with some ‘retreat’ seminars perhaps) but it can easily fall into the traps of “too much” and “too well.” One should know one’s limits. One should know what one’s own limitedness is. One needs to know the proper depth and breadth of care that one can reasonably provide. I certainly have seen pastoral counselors who act like their little corner of care is all one ever needs.

In pastoral counseling, one must embrace humility, and one’s own limitedness. We don’t know all things, and we certainly don’t have control of all things. When we pretend otherwise, we have fallen into quackery.

The same can be true of other ministries as well. Community development is a good thing, but one’s limitations need to be embraced from the start. It is good to instill one’s vision into the people. But one must be careful not to promise too much. Evangelism is another area. Some evangelists sound like snake oil salesmen— everything, but everything, becomes perfect if one says a few words.

When we overstep the bounds of our limitations… when we act like we can offer perfect solutions in an imperfect world… when we offer too little for too much, we are dishonest, and it is no surprise if we are not believed.

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