Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling is a journalist specializing in narrative features and investigative reporting. He has been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, won a George Polk Award, and been voted Journalist of the Year by the Maine Press Association, among numerous other honors. He is the author of one previous book, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, and his writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, USA Today, Popular Science, Atavist Magazine, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Associated Press, and elsewhere.
Below, Matthew shares five key insights from his new book, If It Sounds Like A Quack…: A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine. Listen to the audio version—read by Matthew himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The One True Cure.
Some people have ideas about human health that are very different from what you’ll find in medical textbooks. Each of these people thinks that they’ve discovered (or rediscovered) an amazing cure-all that could upend the hospital paradigm and revolutionize medicine.
I learned about a retired dentist from South Dakota who said cancer could be treated by directing laser beams of a universal healing light into the affected area. And an Alabaman gold miner who thought cancer should be treated by drinking a liquid he called the Miracle Mineral Supplement, which is essentially a diluted form of bleach, to kill tiny cancer-causing parasites that, it’s important to note, have not been documented by science.
These two theories of health—lasers and bleach—are inconsistent with one another. The laser guy doesn’t think parasites cause cancer, and the bleach guy doesn’t think light does anything to parasites. And yet, these two practitioners, and many more like them, are united by the appealing idea of what I call One True Cureism. Unlike scientists, who believe that different ailments have discrete causes and cures, these fringe practitioners all believe that there is one root cause of all disease that could be successfully treated with One True Cure.
2. The channeling.
I reached out to people who had no connection to one another, whose modes of healing were contradictory, and who had dramatically different life stories—a Midwestern civic hero who was raised in a sod house, an immigrant who taught high school language skills before escaping the authoritarian government of her native Poland, a Utah missionary-turned-tennis-pro-turned-diet- book-author.
“Most have demonstrably hurt the health of their followers and served time in jail.”
Despite their immense diversity, I found that America’s political and cultural forces had all channeled them through the same basic life experience. Each one struck upon a miracle cure; they were all then seduced by political messaging that reinforced their unscientific beliefs and tacitly encouraged them to treat more patients; as a result, they all ran into trouble with the authorities; and ultimately, each of them encountered strife and tragedy. Most have demonstrably hurt the health of their followers and served time in jail. These experiences radicalized them and turned them into anti-establishment medical freedom warriors determined to bring the system down.
3. Three flaws of mainstream health.
When writing about these fringe healers with wacky beliefs that hurt people, I was tempted to make fun of them. And I did. I made a lot of fun of them. But even as I did this, I realized that there was a shared responsibility for the damage these folks had done. They hadn’t operated in a vacuum. I spread the blame around to the medical establishment and the enforcement agencies that have, through their ineptitude and callousness, dramatically exacerbated the problem of One True Cureism.
The medical establishment has one important thing going for it. When it comes to health, it’s the best show in town. That being said, our medical system is pretty frigged up. And this frigged-upness drives people to seek other, less effective methods. That brings us to the three flaws.
First, rather than pure science, the medical establishment is a mix of science and politics. Lobbying by Big Pharma and other interest groups corrupts the system in a way that influences decisions made by doctors.
Second, health care access is not remotely equitable. Doctors are concentrated in urban areas, leaving patches of rural America ripe for swindling. And there are cultural barriers that prevent various socioeconomic groups from getting the science-based care that they deserve.
“Rather than pure science, the medical establishment is a mix of science and politics.”
Third is its elitist culture. Doctors have become so deified as the top profession in the country that their jargon-laden, impersonal culture can be repulsive to patients deciding whether to go with conventional treatment.
The medical establishment has to learn that being right isn’t enough. It needs to be welcoming and available to all Americans.
4. We’re all affected.
You might be thinking that as long as you have the common sense to listen to your medical doctor, fringe medicine doesn’t affect you. But you’d be wrong. The One True Curists at the heart of the medical freedom movement have an outsized impact on the American experiment.
As became strikingly apparent during the Covid pandemic, the health decisions of people you don’t know can impact your chance of catching a communicable disease. Health freedom activists have sowed medical misinformation in a way that stymies public health experts’ ability to provide the best defense against Covid or, as vaccination rates decline, measles.
Those who promote treatments for which there is no scientific basis have also succeeded in undermining the quality of evidence-based medical care. Well-funded lobbyists have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to undermine the science of medical universities, governmental health agencies, and top-tier hospitals. This waters down the training of doctors.
And finally, there’s another way the One True Cure crowd affects you. They are increasing the chances that you might get shot by the gun of a militia member who thinks you’re a zombie.
Twenty years ago, when fringe alternative healers joined with libertarian activists to create the health freedom movement, many simply wanted to make money from their treatments without government interference. But it set off a chain of consequences that ended with zombies.
Because fringe alternative healers couldn’t find a home in accepted forums for real science, they went and built their own competing infrastructure, one where scientific proof is often asserted, but never scrutinized. This created a culture in which people could confidently assert the most bizarre claims, which their peers supported because their peers were also making bizarre claims.
“Research shows that, when people hear a nonsensical claim, rather than try to puzzle through the logic, they instead look to see whether others believe it.”
Among the many strange claims were that zombies were caused by genetically engineered viruses, or that zombies were the result of demonic forces taking control over the body of a morally compromised individual, or that zombies were people who had been vaccinated and taken over by the government via nanotechnology in their bloodstreams. Research shows that, when people hear a nonsensical claim, rather than try to puzzle through the logic, they instead look to see whether others believe it. The online buzz around zombies was just convincing enough to create the impression that there was a zombie-believing community out there, which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Worryingly, claims about zombies began to be heard in the fringes of the gun rights movement. This led to the formation of several zombie-themed militias, in which the stated purpose was to engage in survival exercises that would prepare the heavily armed members for a zombie apocalypse.
Other people who believed in zombies eventually acted on those beliefs. As I record this, a woman named Lori Vallow-Daybell and her husband, Chad Daybell, are on trial for killing Lori’s two children, who they believed were zombies. And there were even zombie militia members at the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
The fringe of alternative health is filled with bizarre misinformation, colorful characters, bleach, leeches, lasers, and zombies.
To listen to the audio version read by author Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, download the Next Big Idea App today: