Fakes. Cheats. Snake oil salesmen. Quacks. From time immemorial, people have been trying to sell poorly researched or just plain made-up remedies and medicines. Luckily, organizations like Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (VtdK), translated as The Society Against Quackery, possibly the world’s oldest skeptic society, have been exposing hucksters and helping to defend their marks since 1881.
“Quackery is the practicing of treatments and/or diagnostic methods of which the value has not been scientifically proven,” says Dr. Cees Rencken, current chairman of the VtdK. “This is usually accompanied by loudly praising its results.” While the rise of modern medicine standards and protections has eliminated some of the more blatant flim-flam that was once passed off as medical science, Rencken says that quackery is still as much of a problem as it’s ever been, and is in some ways worse. “[Today’s] quacks hide behind appeasing terms such as alternative medicine, additive medicine, holistic medicine, complementary medicine, naturopathy, integrative medicine,” he says.
The VtdK formed around the same time that modern medicine began to be professionalized in the late 1800s. According to a history on the Society’s website, the Dutch Society for the Advancement of Medicine, which was founded in 1849, was having trouble policing the unlicensed and unqualified medical practitioners of the day. In an effort to raise awareness of the growing number of quacks operating in the Netherlands, they published a pamphlet in 1878 detailing how to identify a quack, and what to do about them. From this initial bit of literature, the Society Against Quackery was born.
In the beginning, the group was mainly focused on rooting out fraudulent doctors and suspicious medicines (nostrums). Members of the association, mostly doctors and other educated men, would chemically test suspect cures and remedies, and if they were found to be placebos or otherwise ineffective, the Society would publish their findings in their journal, Nederlands Tijdschrift tegen de Kwakzalverij (Dutch Magazine Against Quackery). They developed a reputation for fearlessly calling out spurious practitioners just as vehemently as their bogus cures, using hard science to disprove and discredit their claims. According to Renckens, the first president of the VtdK, G.W. Bruinsma, once said, “It is useless to curse the cards and not mention the names of the cheat players.”
The Society continued to publish their magazine into the 20th century, but as laws around medicine became stricter and more robust, their focus shifted toward the world of the paranormal around the 1960s. “In the 1960s about 1 percent of the adult citizens in the Netherlands consulted a quack (mainly paranormal healers, manual therapists and phytotherapists), among which there were hardly any doctors,”…