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Beware of Snake Oil


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Halloween is a time for tricks as well as treats, so it is a good time to remember that perennial trickster, the snake oil salesman.

Snake oil is anything that promises to magically solve your problems but is in fact empty and useless. It is promoted by skilled swindlers who prey on innocent, gullible or desperate people. Their goal is to convince you that their snake oil (unlike everyone else’s) is the answer to your most difficult problems.

As human beings we tend to yearn for answers to things we don’t understand, and this is good, because it leads us to search for the truth. But it is a mistake to short-circuit that search by settling for easy answers. What is the point of our God-given ability to reason if we end up accepting any old thing, just because it promises to meet our emotional needs?

Snake oil salesman come in many forms, and vary widely in their degree of sophistication. Satan was of course the original snake oil salesmen, always promising something you think you want, always delivering nothing but trouble, and charging a tremendously inflated price for it: your eternal soul. But his heirs are legion.

Some snake oil salesmen sell “services” such as forecasting your future using cards, tea leaves, your palm, or one of your possessions. Others claim that they can contact the spirits of departed loved ones. My favorite is when they claim that they can get rid of so-called “evil anomalies” in your house.

What about all those TV commercials for knives that never go dull, bras that make any pair of breasts look perfect, pills to make you lose weight, or lotion that will make your skin white. (This obsession with becoming “white” is disturbing, but that’s a topic that deserves a column all to itself.)

As for the snake oil service providers, the ones that really irk me are the ones who claim they can actually heal peoples’ illnesses by performing a ceremony, complete with chants and various props to make it seem more convincing. I suppose some may benefit via a sort of placebo effect, but what price are they paying for such a feeble benefit, buying into (both financially and spiritually) a bunch of meaningless mumbo jumbo and cacamania. (Yes, I made that word up. That’s how angry I am.)

They have even penetrated respectable professions such as medicine. Led by the expectation of profit, there are a few who will recommend unnecessary and even ill-advised procedures to their unsuspecting victims, I mean patients. And who’s going to argue with a man with a white coat, a stethoscope and a smooth bedside manner?

A snake oil salesman is anyone whose agenda is to make a profit by exploiting those who are miserable, vulnerable or gullible. P.T. Barnum said, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” He may have underestimated. But the fact that someone is a sucker (and at some points in our lives, we all meet the definition) is no excuse for taking advantage of them. Happy Halloween, and let’s be careful out there!

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