Americans Fell for a Theranos-Style Scam 100 Years Ago. Will We Ever Learn?
The huckster understands what people want – an easy route to good health -- and figures out just how to provide it as long as no one asks too many questions.
"Americans are very much prone to this sort of thinking: Give me a pill or give me a magical bean that can make me lose weight!"
The keys to success: Hoopla, fancy technology, and gullibility. And oh yes, one more thing: a blood sample. Well, lots and lots of blood samples. Every testing fee counts.
Sound familiar? It could be the story of the preternaturally persuasive Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos who stands accused of perpetrating a massive blood-testing fraud. But this is a different story from a different time, one that dates back 100 years but sounds almost like it could unfold on the front page of The Wall Street Journal today.
The main difference: Back then, watchdogs thought they'd be able to vanquish fake medicine and scam science. Fat chance, it turned out. It seems like we're more likely to lose-weight-quick than make much of a dent into quackery and health fraud.
Why? Have we learned anything at all over the past century? As we sweep into a new decade, experts says we're not as advanced as we'd like to think. But the fight against fraud and fakery continues.
Quackery: As American As America Itself
In the 17th century, British healers of questionable reputation got a new name -- "quack," from the Dutch word "quacksalver," which originally referred to someone who treats others with home remedies but developed a new meaning along the lines of "charlatan." And these quacks got a new place to sell their wares: the American colonies.
By 1692, a Boston newspaper advertised a patent medicine that promised to cure "the Griping of the Guts, and the Wind Cholick" and – for good measure – "preventeth that woeful Distemper of the Dry Belly Ach." A couple centuries later, the most famous woman in the United States wasn't a first lady or feminist but a hawker of nostrums named Lydia Estes Pinkham whose "vegetable compound" promised to banish "female complaints." One advertisement suggested that the "sure cure" would have saved the life of a Connecticut clergyman whose wife killed him after suffering from feminine maladies for 16 years.
By the early 20th century, Americans were fascinated by electricity and radiation, and both healers and hucksters embraced the new high-tech era. Men with flagging libidos, for example, could irradiate their private parts with the radioactive Radiendocrinator or buy battery-powered electric belts equipped with dangling bits to supercharge their, um, dangling bits.
The Rise of the Radio Wave 'Cure'
Enter radionics, the (supposed) science of better health via radio waves. The idea was that "healthy people radiate healthy energy," and sickness could be reversed through diagnosis and re-tuning, write Dr. Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen in their 2017 book "Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything."
Detecting illness and fixing it required machinery -- Dynamizers, Radioclasts and Oscillocasts – that could cost hundreds of dollars each. Thousands of physicians bought them. Fortunately, they could work remotely, for a fee. The worried-and-potentially-unwell just needed to send a blood sample and, of course, a personal check.
Sting operations revealed radionics to be bogus. A skeptic sent a blood sample to one radionics practitioner in Albuquerque who reported back with news of an infected fallopian tube. In fact, the blood sample came from a male guinea pig. As an American Medical Association leader reported, the guinea pig "had shown no female characteristics up to that time, and a postmortem examination yielded no evidence of ladylike attributes."
When Quackery Refused to Yield
The rise of bogus medical technology in the early 20th century spawned a watchdog industry as organizations like the American Medical Association swept into action, said medical historian Eric Boyle, author of 2012's "Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth-Century America."
"When quackery was recognized as a major problem, the people who campaigned for its demise were confident that they could get rid of it," he said. "A lot of people believed that increased education, the truths of science, and laws designed to protect consumers would ultimately drive quackery from the marketplace. And then throughout the century, as modern medicine developed, and more effectively treated one disease after another, many observers remained confident in that prediction."
There's a bid to "flood the information highway with truth to turn the storm of fake promotional stuff into a trickle."
But fake medicine persisted as Americans continued their quest to get- healthy-quick… or get-rich-quick by promising to help others to get- healthy-quick. Even radionics refused to die. It's still around in various forms. And, as the Theranos scandal reveals, we're still hoping our blood can offer the keys to longevity and good health.
Why Do We Still Fall for Scams?
In our own era, the Theranos company rose to prominence when founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes convinced journalists and investors that she'd found a way to cheaply test drops of blood for hundreds of conditions. Then it all fell apart, famously, when the world learned that the technology didn't work. The company has folded, and Holmes faces a federal trial on fraud charges this year.
"There were a lot of prominent, very smart people who bought into the myth of Elizabeth Holmes," a former employee told "60 Minutes," even though the blood tests never actually worked as advertised.
Shouldn't "prominent, very smart people" know better? "People are gullible," said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist and leading quack-buster who runs the QuackWatch website. But there's more to the story. According to him, we're uniquely vulnerable as individuals to bogus medicine.
Scam artists specifically pinpoint their target audiences, such as "smart people," desperate people and alienated people, he said.
Smart people, for example, might be overconfident about their ability to detect fraud and fall for bogus medicine. Alienated people may distrust the establishment, whether it's the medical field or government watchdogs, and be more receptive to alternative sources of information.
Dr. Barrett also points a finger at magical thinking, which comes in different forms. It could mean a New Age-style belief that our minds can control the world around us. Or, as professional quack-buster Alex Berezow said, it could refer to "our cultural obsession with quick fixes."
"Americans are very much prone to this sort of thinking: Give me a pill or give me a magical bean that can make me lose weight! But complex problems need complex solutions," said Berezow, a microbiologist who debunks junk science in his job as a spokesman for the American Council on Science & Health.
American mistrust of expertise makes matters worse, he said. "When I tell people they need to get vaccinated, I'm called a shill for the pharmaceutical industry," he said. "If I say dietary supplements generally don't work, I'm a shill for doctors who want to keep people sick."
What can ordinary citizens do to protect themselves from fake medicine? "You have to have a healthy skepticism of everything," Berezow said. "When you come across something new, is someone trying to take advantage of you? It's a horrible way to think about the world, but there's some truth to it."
"Like any chronic disease, we will have to live with it while we do our best to fight it."
The government and experts have their own roles to play via regulation and education, respectively. For all the criticism it gets, the Food & Drug Administration does serve as a bulwark against fakery in prescription medicine. And while celebrities like Gwyneth "Goop" Paltrow hawk countless questionable medical products on the Internet, scientists and physicians are fighting back by using social media as a tool to promote the truth. There's a bid to "flood the information highway with truth to turn the storm of fake promotional stuff into a trickle," said Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein, a writer in residence at Yale School of Medicine and author of 2018's "Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything."
What's next? Like death, taxes and Cher, charlatans are likely to always be with us. Boyle quoted the late William Jarvis, a pioneering quack-buster in the late 20th century who believed health fraud would never be eradicated: "Like any chronic disease, we will have to live with it while we do our best to fight it."
In today’s podcast episode, Leaps.org Deputy Editor Lina Zeldovich speaks about the health and ecological benefits of farming crickets for human consumption with Bicky Nguyen, who joins Lina from Vietnam. Bicky and her business partner Nam Dang operate an insect farm named CricketOne. Motivated by the idea of sustainable and healthy protein production, they started their unconventional endeavor a few years ago, despite numerous naysayers who didn’t believe that humans would ever consider munching on bugs.
Yet, making creepy crawlers part of our diet offers many health and planetary advantages. Food production needs to match the rise in global population, estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050. One challenge is that some of our current practices are inefficient, polluting and wasteful. According to nonprofit EarthSave.org, it takes 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil and the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline to produce one pound of feedlot beef, although exact statistics vary between sources.
Meanwhile, insects are easy to grow, high on protein and low on fat. When roasted with salt, they make crunchy snacks. When chopped up, they transform into delicious pâtes, says Bicky, who invents her own cricket recipes and serves them at industry and public events. Maybe that’s why some research predicts that edible insects market may grow to almost $10 billion by 2030. Tune in for a delectable chat on this alternative and sustainable protein.
More info on Bicky Nguyen
The environmental footprint of beef production
Insect farming as a source of sustainable protein
Cricket flour is taking the world by storm
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
The glass-encased cabinet looks like a display meant to hold reasonably priced watches, or drugstore beauty creams shipped from France. But instead of this stagnant merchandise, each of its five shelves is overgrown with leaves — moss-soft pea sprouts, spikes of Lolla rosa lettuces, pale bok choy, dark kale, purple basil or red-veined sorrel or green wisps of dill. The glass structure isn’t a cabinet, but rather a “micro farm.”
The gadget is on display at the Richmond, Virginia headquarters of Babylon Micro-Farms, a company that aims to make indoor farming in the U.S. more accessible and sustainable. Babylon’s soilless hydroponic growing system, which feeds plants via nutrient-enriched water, allows chefs on cruise ships, cafeterias and elsewhere to provide home-grown produce to patrons, just seconds after it’s harvested. Currently, there are over 200 functioning systems, either sold or leased to customers, and more of them are on the way.
The chef-farmers choose from among 45 types of herb and leafy-greens seeds, plop them into grow trays, and a few weeks later they pick and serve. While success is predicated on at least a small amount of these humans’ care, the systems are autonomously surveilled round-the-clock from Babylon’s base of operations. And artificial intelligence is helping to run the show.
Babylon piloted the use of specialized cameras that take pictures in different spectrums to gather some less-obvious visual data about plants’ wellbeing and alert people if something seems off.
Imagine consistently perfect greens and tomatoes and strawberries, grown hyper-locally, using less water, without chemicals or environmental contaminants. This is the hefty promise of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) — basically, indoor farms that can be hydroponic, aeroponic (plant roots are suspended and fed through misting), or aquaponic (where fish play a role in fertilizing vegetables). But whether they grow 4,160 leafy-green servings per year, like one Babylon farm, or millions of servings, like some of the large, centralized facilities starting to supply supermarkets across the U.S., they seek to minimize failure as much as possible.
Babylon’s soilless hydroponic growing system
Courtesy Babylon Micro-Farms
Here, AI is starting to play a pivotal role. CEA growers use it to help “make sense of what’s happening” to the plants in their care, says Scott Lowman, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Virginia, a state that’s investing heavily in CEA companies. And although these companies say they’re not aiming for a future with zero human employees, AI is certainly poised to take a lot of human farming intervention out of the equation — for better and worse.
Most of these companies are compiling their own data sets to identify anything that might block the success of their systems. Babylon had already integrated sensor data into its farms to measure heat and humidity, the nutrient content of water, and the amount of light plants receive. Last year, they got a National Science Foundation grant that allowed them to pilot the use of specialized cameras that take pictures in different spectrums to gather some less-obvious visual data about plants’ wellbeing and alert people if something seems off. “Will this plant be healthy tomorrow? Are there things…that the human eye can't see that the plant starts expressing?” says Amandeep Ratte, the company’s head of data science. “If our system can say, Hey, this plant is unhealthy, we can reach out to [users] preemptively about what they’re doing wrong, or is there a disease at the farm?” Ratte says. The earlier the better, to avoid crop failures.
Natural light accounts for 70 percent of Greenswell Growers’ energy use on a sunny day.
Courtesy Greenswell Growers
IALR’s Lowman says that other CEA companies are developing their AI systems to account for the different crops they grow — lettuces come in all shapes and sizes, after all, and each has different growing needs than, for example, tomatoes. The ways they run their operations differs also. Babylon is unusual in its decentralized structure. But centralized growing systems with one main location have variabilities, too. AeroFarms, which recently declared bankruptcy but will continue to run its 140,000-square foot vertical operation in Danville, Virginia, is entirely enclosed and reliant on the intense violet glow of grow lights to produce microgreens.
Different companies have different data needs. What data is essential to AeroFarms isn’t quite the same as for Greenswell Growers located in Goochland County, Virginia. Raising four kinds of lettuce in a 77,000-square-foot automated hydroponic greenhouse, the vagaries of naturally available light, which accounts for 70 percent of Greenswell’s energy use on a sunny day, affect operations. Their tech needs to account for “outside weather impacts,” says president Carl Gupton. “What adjustments do we have to make inside of the greenhouse to offset what's going on outside environmentally, to give that plant optimal conditions? When it's 85 percent humidity outside, the system needs to do X, Y and Z to get the conditions that we want inside.”
AI will help identify diseases, as well as when a plant is thirsty or overly hydrated, when it needs more or less calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen.
Nevertheless, every CEA system has the same core needs — consistent yield of high quality crops to keep up year-round supply to customers. Additionally, “Everybody’s got the same set of problems,” Gupton says. Pests may come into a facility with seeds. A disease called pythium, one of the most common in CEA, can damage plant roots. “Then you have root disease pressures that can also come internally — a change in [growing] substrate can change the way the plant performs,” Gupton says.
AI will help identify diseases, as well as when a plant is thirsty or overly hydrated, when it needs more or less calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen. So, while companies amass their own hyper-specific data sets, Lowman foresees a time within the next decade “when there will be some type of [open-source] database that has the most common types of plant stress identified” that growers will be able to tap into. Such databases will “create a community and move the science forward,” says Lowman.
In fact, IALR is working on assembling images for just such a database now. On so-called “smart tables” inside an Institute lab, a team is growing greens and subjects them to various stressors. Then, they’re administering treatments while taking images of every plant every 15 minutes, says Lowman. Some experiments generate 80,000 images; the challenge lies in analyzing and annotating the vast trove of them, marking each one to reflect outcome—for example increasing the phosphate delivery and the plant’s response to it. Eventually, they’ll be fed into AI systems to help them learn.
For all the enthusiasm surrounding this technology, it’s not without downsides. Training just one AI system can emit over 250,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to MIT Technology Review. AI could also be used “to enhance environmental benefit for CEA and optimize [its] energy consumption,” says Rozita Dara, a computer science professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, specializing in AI and data governance, “but we first need to collect data to measure [it].”
The chef-farmers can choose from 45 types of herb and leafy-greens seeds.
Courtesy Babylon Micro-Farms
Any system connected to the Internet of Things is also vulnerable to hacking; if CEA grows to the point where “there are many of these similar farms, and you're depending on feeding a population based on those, it would be quite scary,” Dara says. And there are privacy concerns, too, in systems where imaging is happening constantly. It’s partly for this reason, says Babylon’s Ratte, that the company’s in-farm cameras all “face down into the trays, so the only thing [visible] is pictures of plants.”
Tweaks to improve AI for CEA are happening all the time. Greenswell made its first harvest in 2022 and now has annual data points they can use to start making more intelligent choices about how to feed, water, and supply light to plants, says Gupton. Ratte says he’s confident Babylon’s system can already “get our customers reliable harvests. But in terms of how far we have to go, it's a different problem,” he says. For example, if AI could detect whether the farm is mostly empty—meaning the farm’s user hasn’t planted a new crop of greens—it can alert Babylon to check “what's going on with engagement with this user?” Ratte says. “Do they need more training? Did the main person responsible for the farm quit?”
Lowman says more automation is coming, offering greater ability for systems to identify problems and mitigate them on the spot. “We still have to develop datasets that are specific, so you can have a very clear control plan, [because] artificial intelligence is only as smart as what we tell it, and in plant science, there's so much variation,” he says. He believes AI’s next level will be “looking at those first early days of plant growth: when the seed germinates, how fast it germinates, what it looks like when it germinates.” Imaging all that and pairing it with AI, “can be a really powerful tool, for sure.”