Tricksters, and Hustlers, and Cons, Oh My!

Let’s get personal.  As educated people, does it bother you when you see people with bad messages, using bad research or bad science, convincing the public to follow them?  It bothers me far more today than it did twenty years ago as a few have actually impacted my life (or at least the lives of people I care about) over time.  This may seem like a major rabbit hole, but I hope you’ll stick with me.  I’ll bring this back to the importance of professors, classrooms, and education in general.  But first, a sampling of what I’m talking about – the tricksters, charlatans, and more:

Jordan Rubin – In my first Wordpress blog through my personal website, I wrote about this guy.  He claims to have an amazing story of using food and supplements to heal himself from the brink of death.  He was essentially wasting away.  So, he wrote a book to tell others how to do what he did.  With some of those profits, he started creating more books and media, but really hit it big by creating his own line of supplements, preying on people who had lost hope, and aligning his diet with religion.  When my wife was experiencing an identical condition, lasting years, we went full bore into Rubin’s stuff, only for her to get sicker and sicker.  She followed his advice to the letter and we spent thousands on supplements that likely did far more harm than good.  As it all unraveled, we reached out to him (no easy feat) and got no replies.  I spent dozens of hours trying to track him and found out about a tv interview he was going to give in another city.  So I flew there, waiting outside the studio to talk with him, only to find out he had done the interview remotely.  He never responded nor did he help us.  He was a ghost.  But today, he has thousands of followers and people buying his formulas / supplements, despite healthy skepticism from research scientists.  His latest work has moved from helping sick people, to helping people lose weight and helping others make money.  How?  By becoming resellers of his stuff of course. 

“Dr” Josh Axe – I ran across this guy in my never-ending battle with weight.  A few of you who have followed me for years know that my struggle with body image and weight management have always been part of my lens.  But during our move home from Florida to Colorado…let’s just say ample snacks and little exercise caused some trouble.  The last time I had lost serious weight (about 20 lbs) I had done so by cutting way back on sugar and by running.  But suddenly I stumbled onto Dr. Axe talking about the power of Keto diets.  Zero sugar but also including zero glucose from grains made some sense.  An added benefit to his message was that cardio didn’t really matter for weight loss, only weight lifting matters.  He claimed to be a Dr and claimed to have answers from a myriad of studies, etc.  But after weeks of ketosis with absolutely zero impact on my belt holes, I was getting frustrated.  Enter my vegetarian wife who has studied 1,000 times more about nutrition than any doctor I know.  (I’ve seen her go toe to toe with people who have nutrition degrees, often leaving them without answers and shaking their heads in shame.)  Much like most professors having never had any formal teaching education, did you know most doctors have only 1 or possibly 2 nutrition classes?  So “Dr” really doesn’t mean much when it comes to how to help your body through food.  But Axe is particularly interesting for several reasons.  My wife first noted that he actually was involved with Rubin’s (above) story.  Uh oh.  He has participated with Dr. Oz.  Uh oh.  Then, if you look carefully, despite his statements about how important the Keto diet is for weight loss, he will happily show you recipes for the Mediterranean diet, how to do Paleo better, or even how to eat Vegan.  Wait, what?  If Keto is one end of the dietary spectrum, raw food / vegan diets are on the other.  Then she found several articles where he was promoting ideas, strategies, etc., based on research studies of just a few people and never replicated.  Either he’s not educated enough to understand statistical significance or there is an ethics issue at work.  How can this doctor of chiropractic and natural medicine (yes, you read that right), write and even promote so many things that contradict one another or which have so little (legitimate) evidence?  I guess the doctor’s oath of “do no harm” only applies if finished with…”to your checking account.”

Tim Ferriss – the hard thing with Tim Ferriss is the guy is likable.  Yes, he’s cocky and arrogant as heck, but he’s charming and personable if you happen to see him interviewed or on a stage.  He’s also definitely an outside-the-box thinker.  And it’s important to note that he’s not really a fake, as much as a bit of a snake-oil salesman.  He has actually done some remarkable things.  (Like his “hack” of the Japanese Sumo Wrestling world.  That’s a good story!)  But if you have spent money on his books (and a lot of people have) or paid him to give life coaching / life advice, then you (hopefully) have seen it all clearly.  In his first major seller, “The Four Hour Work Week”, he tells you how to barely work but make money.   Sound too good to be true?  Of course it is.  Essentially, some argue it’s just building a pyramid scheme, but I’ll give Ferriss the benefit of the doubt.  It’s about passively creating income.  Find something that people will buy, focus only on the 20% that actually results in revenue, and outsource the rest to a third world nation.  Easy, right?  (Or, you could argue, just write a book telling people how to live lazy, rich lives, and you’ll be set…)  But his next book was even more over-the-top.  The “Four Hour Body” was a research statistician’s nightmare.  Why?  Because Ferriss (a natural, lifelong athlete) decided to do a hundred “experiments” to his body to see how he could lose weight, gain muscle, gain endurance, etc.  Then, after his experiment of exactly one person was over, he could tell others what they should or should not do.  What non-athletes should do.  What obese people should do.  What people not-Tim-Ferriss should do…ugh.

Elizabeth Holmes – By now, you hopefully know the story, as it weakly limps off into the sunset.  The creator of Theranos, the blood testing firm that milked millions out of Silicon Valley venture capitalists before being outed as fake, saw their super young, un-stereotypical female CEO (Holmes) become the subject of media attention and acclaim in the tech world. She was on the cover of Fortune and Forbes, you’ve likely seen her TED Talk, and she shared a stage with Bill Clinton.  After starting (but not finishing) work at Stanford, Holmes took the helm of the company at 19.  Over the next 6-7 years she would create an empire based on illusion and misdirection that magicians would envy.  She convinced a ton of very smart people to ignore the (wo)man behind the curtain as they coughed up a lot of cash.

Maybe you know some of these folks.  If not these, then I'm sure you know of others.  But here is what got me going this week.  These people, who are not necessarily experts of anything, have audiences of people wanting to hear more.  Yes, this is often because the message affirms easy fixes and unrealistic outcomes, but I think it’s more than that.  These people have figured out the principles of connectedness and exploited them.  They understand that communication can trump actual solutions.  They see how community can be built around less-than-ethical practices.  They are not afraid to personalize a story or an experience, even though it might fly in the face of their own argument. 


Meanwhile, educators have a captive audience of 20-2000 students, every week.  You are experts with important and powerful messages of learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and more.  These students need your message.  These students would benefit from your wisdom and solutions.  Yet, without the best practices surrounding connectedness, those same messages are seen as boring or undeserving of attention.  Without becoming a master teacher, your expertise does little to help these needy students.  It is in everyone’s best interest to learn how learning works in every sense of the word!  From cognitive science to learning research to seeking out expertise in other, credible professionals...learning how others learn should consume us.  

And at the same time, I’m sure you’re ahead of me on the last point.  Some of these people convinced, tricked, or faked out super smart people.  How many other tricksters are out there taking advantage of those without as much education, without as much ability to critically think, etc?  Yes, we need education for a myriad of reasons, including career advancement, financial gain, and more.  But one of those arguments for problem solving and critical thinking (unfortunately) needs to be this: there are a lot of people who will gladly take advantage of other people.  Whether for money, fame, power, or lots of other reasons, while I believe most people in the world try to do right, there is a definite portion of people who don’t care about right.  The greater good means less to them than their own individual good.  How do we avoid that?


Good luck and good learning.