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Ancient Navajo Cure for Hearing Loss: A Lesson in Spotting Red Flags

SkepDoc's Corner

Harriet Hall

July 27, 2017

I’ve been getting emails advertising a lost Navajo remedy that can cure deafness. Nearly 33,500 people have allegedly reversed their hearing loss in just two weeks with this 100 percent natural treatment. The emails invited me to watch a free video presentation by Ben Carter. I did. What I found was a textbook example of a dubious health claim that employed practically every known red flag for quackery. It is so bad it can serve as a teaching example.

Even before I watched the video, I noticed red flags in the emails. How likely is it that hearing loss could be cured in only two weeks? If the treatment were that effective, that would be big news; why would we be learning about it from an advertising email and an Internet video rather than from mainstream news media? And then there were the logical fallacies: the appeal to ancient Navajo wisdom and the idea that “natural” is somehow better. I had a lot of questions. I wanted to know what was in the remedy, what the before-and-after audiograms showed, whether controlled studies had established its effectiveness, whether it had been tested for safety, etc. I was hoping that the video would answer my questions. It didn’t. It only raised more questions, and soon I was enmeshed in a veritable forest of red flags.

Discovered By a Single Individual

Most scientific discoveries today are made by teams of researchers, not by a “lone genius.”

Discoverer is Not a Doctor or Scientist

Ben Carter is a semi-retired aerospace engineer. He claims that his career gave him skills in research and experimentation. But we know that expertise in one area doesn’t translate to other areas. Linus Pauling won a Nobel Prize in a basic science, chemistry, but he didn’t understand the pitfalls of clinical research in an applied science, medicine. He became a laughingstock for his promotion of vitamin C.

Improbable Story of Discovery

When Ben Carter visited his elderly mother, who was hard of hearing, she mentioned a family story he had forgotten. His grandfather was deaf following an accident; his grandmother wrote her mother, who was Navajo, asking her to visit the tribe’s medicine man and seek his advice. In response, she got a package of herbs and other ingredients and a recipe for cooking up the Navajo hearing remedy. Grandfather’s hearing was restored. Once Carter remembered the story, he searched through his mother’s stored belongings and found the recipe tucked in with others in an old Betty Crocker cookbook. It was in Navajo, but someone had already translated it into English. He found all the ingredients in local food stores, prepared the remedy as instructed, talked his wife into acting as his guinea pig, and by the third week his wife’s hearing was completely restored. Then he cured his mother. They passed the information on to family members and got incredibly positive feedback. For instance, Aunt Edna no longer had to wear her hearing aid to watch Jeopardy.

Claims of Altruism Don’t Match Actions

He says he wants to share the information with the world and claims he is not interested in making money. But his actions are not altruistic: instead of divulging the ingredients, he sells a book for $37. He claims he has to make money from the book to build a legal fund to protect himself from the legal leeches hired by hearing device manufacturers, who have already come after him and are seeking a court injunction to suppress the information.

Scientific Explanation is Sketchy

He claims hearing loss occurs when the hair cells in the cochlea are damaged. He doesn’t seem to know that hearing loss can be either sensorineural or conductive. Conductive hearing loss is caused by problems in the external and middle ear, and it has nothing to do with the hair cells of the inner ear that are damaged in sensorineural hearing loss. He says lost hair cells can regenerate in birds and non-human mammals; they have never been shown to regenerate in humans, but he believes that damaged hair cells are still present but are simply “weak and limp” and can be restored to health. He offers no rationale to explain how that might happen and no evidence that it actually does happen.

Bogus Explanations of Why This Isn’t Common Knowledge

He claims to have spoken to numerous scientists and researchers who have studied this treatment and know it works; however, they have told him privately, in confidence, the shocking reason that they could not share their knowledge. Their research was funded by the medical device companies, who own the legal rights to their findings and have managed to bury them, using “top-notch blood thirsty vampire lawyers.” Frankly, if multiple researchers really had found convincing evidence for a treatment that could cure deafness in two weeks, I don’t think even the most bloodthirsty “vampire lawyers” could succeed in keeping that information secret.

Claims of Research But No Citations

He supposedly found published research about the ingredients as well as double-blind studies and an experiment done by the Israeli army; all of these demonstrated remarkable hearing improvement. Since he doesn’t divulge the ingredients and doesn’t provide a citation for the Israeli study or any of the other studies, we have no way of verifying these claims.

Testimonials But No Studies

Any snake oil salesman or charlatan can provide testimonials. We have no way of knowing if they are from actual patients or were simply invented. Testimonials are anecdotal evidence, and the plural of anecdote is not data. Testimonials are notoriously unreliable; they serve only as a suggestion for what to research. Without a control group, we can’t know whether just as many people might have improved over time or with placebo treatment.

He is Selling Something

Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch has a rule of thumb: when looking for reliable medical information, first weed out the websites that are selling something. In this case, Carter is just selling a book, but still... Non-commercial websites like the NIH, the American Cancer Society, and the American Academy of Pediatrics are generally more trustworthy than commercial websites selling a product.

Broken Promises

He says in this video he will tell viewers exactly how to use the Navajo hearing remedy, but he doesn’t. He only tells them how to buy his book. He says he will present the medical research that shows how it works. He doesn’t.

Appeals to Emotion

He uses inflammatory language (“bloodthirsty vampire lawyers”). He vividly describes the difficulties of living with hearing loss and how it often leads to isolation and depression. Doctors don’t need to resort to those kinds of emotional appeals to persuade patients to take effective medications.

Unverified Claims to Have Already Helped Many People

He says 33,477 people around the world have used the remedy and now all of them have crystal-clear hearing. Why should we believe that bald statement without any evidence to back it up? I’m guessing it only means he has sold 33,477 books.

Cheaper Than Conventional Treatments

Cochlear implants or a lifetime of hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars. You can buy the book for only $37. The ingredients in the remedy are mostly natural products available at the supermarket or health foods store. But lower price is no advantage if it doesn’t work.

Questionable Reviews

Some of the rave reviews at the top of the search list contain links to buy the book. They appear to be fake reviews that the seller managed to get placed and to get high search rankings.

Related Scam Has Been Identified

Amazon.com offers an app for free download that sounds like the same book, with the title The Navajo Medicine Man Remedy by the same author, Ben Carter. The subtitle promises to reverse hearing loss. The product description says:

“This program will instruct people how to clean out and unblock built up toxins [detoxification is a worrisome alternative medicine buzzword] from their ears and ear canals quickly and easily. The Navajo Hearing System program also covers a lot of recipes and remedies for ringing in the ears (tinnitus), ear blockage, ear infections, earaches and other ear problems. People will have the “Nature’s Cures – Complete Handbook” manual that covers natural and safe remedies for improving their skin health, and recipes to rejuvenate their skin on their face.”

It also addresses natural cures for gout.

Customer reviews reveal this is nothing but an advertisement trying to get you to buy the $37 book. A whopping 88 percent of the customer reviews were 1-star, and one customer said it was an annoying ad not even worth a star. Many customers said they were unable to download it and called it a hoax.

Appeal to Ancient Wisdom

He claims that Navajo medicine men have used this remedy for centuries to help their people maintain sharp hearing. There is no evidence that this is true; in fact, one commenter said he was Navajo and had never heard of it. This reminds me of the advertisements for “Hopi ear candling,” something the Hopi protested that they had never used!

The Ingredients are Kept Secret

They are not divulged online. You are required to buy the book. I was going to sacrifice the $37 so I could check out the ingredients, but because of what I learned online from purchasers, I decided not to bother. Guess what? People who bought the book say the ingredients are not divulged there either! It reportedly contains only general health advice like eating well, doing yoga, exercising, etc.

It’s Natural!

This is the “natural fallacy,” the idea that natural remedies are somehow better. What matters is not whether a treatment is natural or artificial. What matters is whether it works.

Money-Back Guarantee?

Legitimate medical treatments don’t offer money-back guarantees. In this case, they are offering a book by electronic download, so it costs them practically nothing. And customers who tried to get their money refunded have reported that they were unable to do so.

Conspiracy Theories

“The medical device companies are coming after me. They are in the process of getting a court injunction to remove this website and stop offering the Navajo remedy.” I find this hard to believe. Even if the hearing aid companies were afraid of the competition (which I doubt), there are no grounds for an injunction. Freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution. They are not “offering the remedy,” only information. And there is a disclaimer on their website.

Act Now!

“If you wait, this website may be gone.” Aggressive salesmen always push you to make a quick decision; they don’t want to give you time to think about it and investigate their claims or to check with the Better Business Bureau or look for customer complaints.

How to Spot a Scam

If this Navajo hearing remedy is not a scam, it certainly walks and talks like one. You can evaluate any new questionable claim you encounter by using the red-highlighted items above as a checklist. As a general rule, the more red flags you identify, the lower the probability that the treatment is legitimate. But red flags don’t prove that a remedy doesn’t work. It still might work, but there is no way to know without proper scientific testing with a control group. The only reasonable approach is to assume a red-flag–laden advertisement is a scam until proven otherwise by the presentation of credible scientific evidence. There is no reason to believe this Navajo hearing remedy works. Only desperate people with poor critical thinking skills are likely to fall for it. This particular scam is relatively benign. Bogus cancer cures can kill people by persuading them to reject or delay effective and lifesaving mainstream treatments. The worst this one can do is persuade people to put off getting a hearing aid. Customers will only be out $37, which I suppose isn’t a bad price to pay for a valuable lesson about false advertising.

Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall's photo

Harriet Hall, MD, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon, writes and educates about pseudoscientific and so-called alternative medicine. She is a contributing editor and frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer and contributes to the blog Science-Based Medicine. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and coauthor of the 2012 textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.