Schadenfreude and the Harsh Light of Day
If modern medicine has tought us anything, it is that careful study must precede claims that particular treatments are indicated and effective in given situations. Another well-established medical truth is that there is no panacea. Diseases, disorders, and injuries originate in diverse ways, and it’s prima facie nonsense to claim that any single product can meaningfully address every malady.
Mark Twain certainly understood this when he received a letter from a patent medicine vendor who claimed to have the Elixir of Life, as answer to all sickness (including diphtheria and meningitis, diseases responsible for the deaths of two of Twain’s children.) Twain’s withering response:
Nov. 20. 1905
J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.
Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.
Adieu, adieu, adieu!
Though not as sharp, witty, or articulate, an equally damning reaction to snake oil came on the TV show Dragons’ Den. I have never seen the show before, but apparently would-be entrepeneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors. Here, a guy tells some savvy businessfolk that his unique water cures everything from cancer to prostrate (sic). Bad idea: