In the mid-1800s, a wave of Chinese laborers arrived in the United States, seeking employment in the railroad industry. Among the many unique and unusual aspects of their culture that they brought with them, was the oil of the Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis). This was used by the Chinese and introduced to the West as a topical preparation for the relief of joint pain. This claim was ridiculed by medicine salesmen of the day, and to this day the term snake oil has become synonymous with quackery, fraud, and products with unverifiable benefits.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of such questionable health products today. An endless river of them continue to make bold claims, while failing to live up to their promises. Despite this, some innovations have pushed their way forward and have become a true benefit to many people.
Consider one product developed by Colin Sullivan of Sydney, Australia, in 1981. This device was essentially a reversed vacuum cleaner motor rigged to blow air into a person’s nasal cavity, thus allowing the airway to remain open, when relaxed muscle or tissue would otherwise close it. It’s not hard to imagine those who would take issue with such an approach: It was different. It sounded radical, even dangerous. Yet today, millions are enjoying a more full life, due to the advent of the CPAP machine.
As alien as CPAP therapy may have seemed at first, it was backed up by hard science. The dangerous effects of Obstructive Sleep Apnea were well documented. Rigorous testing and monitoring of CPAP therapy showed that such an approach would ultimately save lives. To dismiss CPAP therapy as just a modern form of snake oil would indeed be a serious mistake.
So what distinguishes a legitimate and beneficial concept from one that’s mere quackery? For one thing, the science behind it. While it’s true, that not every mechanism can be explained by science, (For instance, the mechanism behind many of the benefits of aspirin is not fully understood.) yet, when an approach clearly does have science on its side, such evidence should weigh heavily against any skepticism.
It’s easy to be skeptical in today’s world. There are many useless, would-be panaceas, that exist for no other reason than to enrich their creators. This means that healthy skepticism can be a protection for us. When skepticism becomes unhealthy, is when it causes us to close our eyes and shut out the facts, like a court jury that refuses to examine the evidence.
So in the end, it’s really up to us. Keeping ourselves informed, and educated to the best of our ability, while keeping an open mind, will help us weed through the useless, and identify the useful. It could even be that something we once dismissed, will in the end, become something we highly value.
Postscript: Studies of the Chinese Water Snake found the oil of this particular reptile to be high in Omega-3 fatty acids. This being the case, it likely did exactly what it claimed to do: relieve joint pain and inflammation. So, Chinese snake oil is actually not snake oil after all. (Scientific American, November 1, 2007)