NYTimes excerpt, June 2018
Ms. De Francesco explains that the word “charlatan” comes from the Italian “ciarlatano,” itself probably related to the verb “ciarlare,” which means to babble or to go on incessantly without reflection. The original charlatans would babble on and on to mesmerize their audiences.
Medieval and Renaissance mountebanks often employed elaborate shows featuring musicians, clowns and performing animals to captivate an audience on the town square. Ms. De Francesco observes that this was the beginning of the mass communication techniques perfected by the public relations and advertising industries.
Crucially, the charlatan provides palliatives for a confused public. These nostrums can be either literal pills or phony ideas, for as Ms. De Francesco notes, “a quack is a quack — whether he sells opinions or elixirs.” Frequently they sell both. See for example Alex Jones, one of the most popular charlatans of the present age. He peddles bizarre conspiracy theories, including that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, but also his own line of snake oil in the form of dubious dietary supplements. A similar case is Mike Cernovich, who hawks “Gorilla Mindset: Timeless Strategies to Unleash the Animal Within You” as a way for the proverbial 90-pound weakling to become an alpha male.
In these periods, conspiracy theories and simplistic reductions of social ills function the same way as quack medicine: They seem to provide a cure, but since they only further inflame the underlying fears, they are just driving their own demand.
Like the clowns he shared the town square with, a good charlatan could often juggle, simultaneously keeping up pretensions to scientific rigor and mystical profundity.