When reading about how people got harmed or killed by quackery, some people feel smug and superior. They insist that the victims of quackery somehow have themselves to blame and that they for whatever reason deserve it.
In reality, quackery denies informed consent and often involves deceiving highly vulnerable people who are desperate. Thus, it cannot be said to be a choice. We never punish victims of arson or robbery for those crimes, so it makes no sense to punish victims of quackery. Finally, consumer protection is a vital part of scientific skepticism.
Rationalizations used by people who blame victims of quackery involve crude misunderstandings of evolution, population growth and bioethics.
Quackery denies informed consent
It is commonly and wrongly believed that victims of quackery “make their own choice” and now have to suffer the consequences of it. However, for something to be a choice in any meaningful way, it has to be voluntary and informed. In reality, quackery is based distorting factual information so it looks like the evidence supports it. Quacks push fake “treatments” to real medical conditions. These alleged “treatments” have typically never been tested. If they have been tested, the results typically either show that the “treatment” is ineffective or even harmful.
Thus, quackery is a scam that preys on vulnerable people who are often desperate. Thus, it cannot be said that being deceived into using quackery is a choice. Instead, it is a scam. It is not informed. Quite the contrary, quacks actively keep their targets from being informed. After all, who would ever take corrosive black salve on their skin if they were fully informed that it does nothing to help treat cancer and could literally destroy large sections of tissue?
We do not punish the victims of a crime for that crime
In general, democratic countries do not punish the victims of a crime for that crime. People who got robbed are not sent to prison for robbery. People who had their house burnt down by someone else are not punished for arson. People who are the victims of sophisticated Internet banking frauds are not punished for phishing.
To most people, it would be extremely absurd if those victims were punished for a crime that was committed against them. Clearly, there is a major difference between a perpetrator and a victim. It is the perpetrator, not the victim, who should be punished by the crime.
Yet, when it comes to quackery, a lot of people seem to have no problem laying the blame and punishment for the crime at the feet of the victim. They wrongly think that the perpetrators are just trying to get by financially and that this somehow justifies the crime. The victims are then scolded for “falling for such an obvious scam” and that they need to be more aware.
If victims of arson where punished as arsonists, hardly anyone would argue that the arsonist is just trying to get by and that the victim should have built their homes out of hard metals coated with fire-resistant material. If someone did that, most people would probably recognize it as an extreme form of victim blaming and defending the perpetrator.
Thus, insisting that the person who fell for quackery is to blame or should be punished is comparably ignorant as claiming that victims of violent crime is to blame or should be punished. Blame the perpetrators, not the victims.
Victims are often very vulnerable
Many people who hear about cases where e. g. someone got scammed for tens of thousands of dollars by an alleged psychic, they often put themselves in the shoes of the victim. They then insist that they would never have fallen for it, and scolds the victim in a smug and superior way for being so easily fooled.
In reality, people who fall for scams or other forms of quackery are typically people who are on average more vulnerable (for instance, being sick) or in a particular place in life that makes them especially vulnerable (i.e. a loved one is dying or has died). Thus, it is not a valid method to put oneself into their shoes without taking deep consideration of the especially vulnerable state that they are in. These states are difficult to imagine for someone who have not gone through them.
Consumer protection is a core part of scientific skepticism
Some companies scam their customers by selling products that do not do what they are claimed to and some of them are even dangerous. There are many examples of scam products, including weightless belts, ineffective training tools, homeopathic pills and many others. Because scientific skepticism is about finding the facts behind the sensationalist claims, consumer protection is a core part of scientific skepticism.
What is not a core part of scientific skepticism is the protection of deceptive corporations that sell flawed products that do not work and/or are not safe. Thus, it makes no sense whatsoever to dismiss victims of quackery with “they had it coming” and make bizarre excuses for the perpetrators.
It is an abdication of reason
Refusing to defend victims of quackery and correctly condemn the perpetrators is an abdication of reason. It gives quacks and other scammers a free pass, while putting severe requirements on victims. It is strange inverse of reasoning. Scientific skepticism that gives perpetrators a free pass to exploit people for money is no scientific skepticism at all. Perpetrators of quackery should be brought to justice.
Debunking flawed rationalizations
Anytime it is pointed out that victims of quackery do not deserve getting harmed or die some irrational and mean people will come out of the woodworks and spew their hateful rationalizations. They cannot win the discussion on the facts, so they deploy various false claims, including misconceptions about evolution, bioethics and overpopulation.
“But natural selection!”
That is not how natural selection works. Victims of quackery dying is not natural selection doing its job. This is because the requirements for natural selection is not sufficiently fulfilled. These requirements are: heritable genetic variation and differential reproduction.
It is not at all clear that falling for quackery is tied to specific heritable genetic variation for that trait (if it can even be said to be a trait). It may be that there are heritable genetic variation (for something else) that increases the risk of falling for quackery, but there are no specific studies that have been made on this. In reality, falling for quackery is largely due to circumstances (e. g. being exploited in especially vulnerable situations), rather than some specific genetic cause.
It is also not at all clear that falling for quackery is something that will be selected against in the larger biological and social context. Any genetic risk factor for falling for quackery may be involved in dozens of other traits and behaviors that may very well be beneficial and may dominate, so the sum of the impact is that the genetic variation turns out to be beneficial. For instance, being easily persuaded may increase the risk of falling for quackery, but it may also reduce the risk of being ostracized socially. Thus, the benefit of increasing pro-social behavior may offset any cost of being more likely to fall for quackery.
There may also be social correlates that refute the idea of “natural selection doing its job”. People who use alternative medicine may be more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors, including not smoking or eating more fruits and vegetables.
Trying to bring up natural selection as a way to justify blaming victims of quackery is also some form of appeal to nature. Even if it was somehow natural or part of a natural process does not make it morally just. There are plenty of things that happen in nature that would be seen as morally abhorrent if they happened in human families or communities.
“But it is their choice!”
Quackery denies informed consent. Being deceived by quackery is not a choice.
“But personal responsibility!”
What about the personal responsibility of the perpetrators? After all, we do not punish victims of robbery, arson or other crime for those crimes. We only punish the perpetrators. Thus, it makes no sense to insist that it is the fault of the victims of quackery.
The best way to combat overpopulation is to improve the lives of those who are the poorest. Having access to health care, education and contraceptives means that fewer children die (so you do not need to get so many children to ensure some of them survive) and that it is easier to plan how many children one gets. Fewer children means reduced risk of overpopulation. See more in the excellent GapMinder video Will saving poor children lead to overpopulation? with Hans Rosling. This is, in fact, something we see right now as shown in the educational video How Did Babies per Woman Change in Different Regions?.
“But resource scarcity!”
Quackery wastes time, money, human health and life. Thus, it is quackery that contribute to resource scarcity, not scientific skepticism or consumer protection.
“But patient autonomy!”
First, since quackery denies informed consent, it is actually the perpetrators and their actions that are incompatible with patient autonomy. Second, patient autonomy is not the only principle of bioethics that needs to be respected. Three other core bioethics principles are: non-maleficence, beneficence and justice. How is it “do no harm” to push quackery on vulnerable people? How is it beneficial for people to be deceived into taking ineffective and potentially dangerous fake treatments for real medical conditions? How is it just?
The answer, of course, is that quackery is incompatible with all four of the central principles of bioethics. Finally, rejecting the claim that victims of quackery somehow deserve to die is not the same as forcing them to do something.
Blame the perpetrators of quackery, not its victims.