How do you take your snake oil?


I don’t have much in the way of serious academic qualifications – much to my regret, I couldn’t wait to get out of college fast enough and so didn’t actually finish a degree – but I have some friends that do have letters after their name, included amongst them several PhDs, professors and multiple masters degree holders in academic subject matters such as physics and computing.

Because of this I am familiar with just what is involved in gaining the coveted letters ‘D and R’ in front of your name. In particular I have one friend who gained his doctorate last year after many years of hard work. When he finished, he showed me his thesis, and the appendices of his doctoral thesis were the size of a phone book and looked like they were written in Greek they were so technical. The subject matter was research he had conducted into oesophageal cancer. I know how much work, money and personal sacrifices this guy made to further his studies and I think he deserves the title Dr.

But other than some mild admiration for the academic achievements of my friends, what’s the point of this blog entry? Well, The Guardian ran this story yesterday, about TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith. Personally, I find McKeith’s TV shows insulting – she puts on a bullying patronising persona while making fat people cry because of their lack of personal discipline. However, I understand that usually she’s attempting to make a point and the people in question usually seem to be happier for having the life scared out of them when confronted with the consequences of not changing their eating habits. After all, much of the time she really just tells them to eat more vegetables and no doctor or nutritionist is going to argue with that.

However, McKeith is now in trouble because it seems she’s not actually a doctor – instead the Guardian is alleging that she bought a doctorate from an unaccredited US institution.

There is no end of these hooky ‘colleges’ in the US and the Far East, as this area seems not to be so regulated in these areas. They will sell you a PhD for €100, but anyone who pays for one of these demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what qualifications like this mean. I suppose it’s down to chronic insecurity and the need to impress others, but by definition, the only people you would impress would be people who don’t know what the qualification means.

The value of any academic qualification stands or falls on the established mainstream reputation of the body that issued it. In and of itself it has no value – I could start awarding PhDs to my hearts content to anyone foolish enough to pay me for them, but it wouldn’t make them worth anything.

In fairness to McKeith, while the article seems to imply that her doctorate was from an unaccredited US institution – it also mentioned that she published her supposed doctoral thesis as a mass market book, so at least that presumes she actually wrote a thesis. Most of the worst diploma mills in the US don’t require even that. Mind you, I did find the following excerpt of the article hilarious:

And the scholarliness of her work is a thing to behold: she produces lengthy documents that have an air of “referenciness”, with nice little superscript numbers, which talk about trials, and studies, and research, and papers … but when you follow the numbers, and check the references, it’s shocking how often they aren’t what she claimed them to be in the main body of the text. Or they refer to funny little magazines and books, such as Delicious, Creative Living, Healthy Eating, and my favourite, Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet, rather than proper academic journals.

She even does this in the book Miracle Superfood, which, we are told, is the published form of her PhD. “In laboratory experiments with anaemic animals, red-blood cell counts have returned to normal within four or five days when chlorophyll was given,” she says. Her reference for this experimental data is a magazine called Health Store News. “In the heart,” she explains, “chlorophyll aids in the transmission of nerve impulses that control contraction.” A statement that is referenced to the second issue of a magazine called Earthletter.

Taken from,,2011095,00.html

Check out Gillian McKeith’s website at – see how many times you can count the use of the term doctor. I lost count after 15 on the front page alone. Funnily enough any of the people I know with PhDs tend not to use the term Dr at all. Why? Usually because they don’t want the general public to confuse them with medical doctors. Interesting, isn’t it?

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