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Desert Diary
Culture/Snake Oil


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Some things never change—well, hardly. The old time snake oil salesmen traveled through the Southwest both to reach customers and to make their escape when their perfidy became obvious. Today's snake oil salesmen have it much easier. In the anonymity of the Internet, they can ply their trade without traveling and, usually, without having to worry about having an open escape route.

The modus operandi, though, is much the same. Spew out a long list of ills that the magic potion will cure. But don't just toss them out there. Accompany them with that universal ingredient of the snake oil salesman's tool kit: testimonials! Yes, indeed, only one bottle of the elixir of the gods, and I was cured of cancer, near-sightedness, and hangnails! And so can you, for only 29.95 and we'll throw in, absolutely free, an $80-value of magic, all-organic vitamins and minerals! Yeah, right! Unfortunately, we're suckers for testimonials—testimonials that study after study show are the least dependable of possible evidences. On the other hand, I've found Dr. Jones' serpent lubricant invaluable for . . .
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest. rule

Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.