I get probably more than my share of come-ons for various wonder-healing potions. For some reason, people see that I talk about drug discovery and think that I'm sure to be interested in homeopathic wonder water, magnetic healotronic belt buckles, or what have you. I am not. Well, at least not in the usual way that they're presented, as Great New Discoveries that I can order right now, first month's supply is free, and so on.
I also get to hear about many of these things at second hand, from people who write to me about them wondering if there's anything to them. And while I delete the press releases and advertisements, I respond to genuinely curious individuals, and I try to do so civilly. I tell them that no, according to what I know about chemistry, medicine, biology, and such, this things that they're describing won't (or shouldn't) work. I ask what kind of data might be available to back things up, and point out that in my own line of work we have to generate huge amounts of it before we believe we're on to something, and so on. I also try to get across how hard drug discovery really is, and how unlikely it is that there's going to be a Big Honking Breakthrough! every year or so, no matter what the ads on the radio say.
There are repeated themes in these things, and I'm by no means the first to notice them. Anything that promises to "boost your immune system", for example, is automatically suspect. Given what the immune system's capable of when cranked up a bit, I'd rather keep mine at its current setting, thanks. Of course, "detoxifying" is an instant red flag. As crank-watchers know, the conviction that we'd all be in perfect health if it weren't for insidious toxins is a widely held one, and a widely played-upon one. A corollary belief is that these toxins are piled up somewhere in your body, waiting for the right hand on the flush valve to clear them out and restore you to health.
Anything involving the word "energy" when applied to general medical concerns is worth a suspicious look. It's not an invariable sign of hand-waving, but it's common enough. This sort of language runs from the vague "gives you more energy" promises at one end to the mystical-life-forces stuff at the other. And related to that last part, appeals to Ancient Wisdom That We Have Forsaken are almost instant grounds for disqualification. Displacing the burden of proof in time (centuries ago!) or in space (the Mystic East) does not inspire confidence.
Naturally, as in any field, intimations of conspiracy are instant red flags. My friends, the Powers That Be don't want you to learn these wonderful things (but for $39.95, as it happens, you can hear about them until you're dizzy). Appeals to things that most people know of but don't understand well are worth scrutiny (most anything involving magnets, e.g.), as are attempts to make everything seem incredibly simple (Vinegar! The wonder-working key to health!)
In fact, what seems to be missing from most crank medical come-ons is, oddly enough, humility. There are no package inserts detailing side effects or symptoms to watch out for. There are no thoughts that any new data might sweep the latest discovery aside, and rarely any nods to others who have come before. No, this latest therapy is presented like a religious revelation - here it is, what you've been waiting for, and you'll never need anything else. Those of us who are trying to be on the other side should remember this, and try as much as we can not to sound like the people we can't stand. . .