After I explain skepticism and why I believe in it, people usually say: But doesn’t everyone know that energy healing isn’t real? Who actually believes in UFOs, except for the mentally ill? What’s the purpose of fighting the battle of ignorance against a small minority of lunatics?
Then I usually babble on about how pseudoscience and paranormal beliefs cripple our mental faculties, and often obscure the standards of real, definitive evidence. They zone out. I don’t have any examples for them anymore–the human interest factor evaporates, and one more person thinks I’m just an ornery old skeptic.
Thing is, these beliefs aren’t fringe beliefs. You can spot them almost every day. Over the past week I’ve take notice of how pervasive these things are. What follows is an Internet-based photo montage, with little real journalistic integrity. (I didn’t take the photos myself. No camera!)
1. In the line at Walgreen’s, two days ago:
Why would toxins extrude from the soles of your feet? What toxins are we talking about, anyway? Why do tourmaline and vinegar–two of the main listed ingredients–pull heavy metals through your thick skin? Isn’t tourmaline just a bunch of metals? What are “holistic” ingredients, and how are they any different from regular ingredients, which are combined to create a whole product anyway?
If I get mercury poisoning, isn’t this much cheaper than standard heavy metal detoxification? Why should I even bother with doctors and “real” medical science?
2. Walking down the street to a coffee shop:
The place, notably, did not just advertise reflexology, but also Swedish massage. Plenty of pictures of relaxed, half-naked men and women. And then a diagram like above, which doesn’t make any sense. Why does the colon get such a large portion of the foot? Why are my brain lobes located on my big toes? Why do all the other toes lead to the paranasal cavities? Does rubbing the heel of the foot cure hemorrhoids, or cause them? They’re not even a body part!
And no, I don’t particularly love or hate feet. The similarity between these pseudosciences was incidental.
3. On my walk to and from work every day:
Psychic, or palm reader? Or cold reader? Or all of the above?
My roommate downstairs likes to pretend to read girls’ palms. After a few attempts to make statements about my own palm, I began suppressing a smirk. He was being awfully general. He must have caught wind, because he said, “Or maybe I’m going on the wrong track here. I think I am…”
What is this line supposed to mean?, I asked him. Couldn’t you interpret it another way? How could you tell that I was “quiet” from my palm? Didn’t you just say I was quiet the first time you met me?
He flustered. I told my other roommates that he was just using some lousy cold reading–using general statements that could apply to anyone, with some intuition about how the person presents herself. “Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly how he does it!” one of the guys exclaimed. “Man, that’s wack.”
4. EDIT: Inserted this new item. I went to get some eye drops–yes, another pharmacy. I saw this marvelous thing sitting on the shelves:
The back of every one of their products says it is formulated “according to homeopathic principles.” In other words, the solution is so dilute that it will do nothing. They even tout that there are “no known side effects.” The product pictured above actually warns you not to use it “if you are experiencing a thick, white yellow or green discharge that forms a crust on the eye lid.” That is, if you actually have pink eye.
Chiropractics are all over the place. The website of this particular area man mainly caters to those looking for physical therapy and injury rehabilitation. Nothing too crazy. And then he says “enhanced organ function” and “increased energy and vitality.” I’m not really sure how bending your spine can make your liver work more efficiently, and I don’t think he’s really sure, either. But last time I walked by, business was going well for him.
As Steven Novella has recently noted, alternative medicine is one of the most insidious and clever pseudosciences we are facing today. We’re not dealing with UFOs and aliens, which were mostly debunked with simple skeptical techniques. Nor are we dealing with lame palm readers who actually just want to hold your hand. Alternative medicine has taken hold because it is more clever than both of these things, and takes advantage of widespread fear and confusion about science.
This makes it fertile ground for budding skeptics to work with. There is plenty of work for us to do–and now we are not just dealing with the mentally ill, or with some marginalized belief. We can plant the seeds of doubt whenever we spot pseudoscience on the street.
My boyfriend, for example, recently attended a fair, which involved the standard fare: animals, local art, food, and the occasional quack. This one had a booth full of salt crystal lamps that purported to do good things for your body.
“Hi there. My mother has fibromyalgia,” he lied to the vendor. “Can this cure her condition?”
“No,” the vendor paused. “But this can…” He proceeded to pull out some sort of mineral or stone, and showed it to him.
The skeptic then proceeded to tell the lamp vendor that he may have just committed a felony by claiming to treat or cure a disease.
A woman browsing the salt crystal lamps at the same booth overheard him, and stomped off in disgust.
“I meant to say it cures the symptoms!” the vendor pleaded. “The symptoms!”
Moral of the story: skeptics are not useless, and do not only cater to fringe beliefs. There are still plenty of misconceptions to correct, and plenty of doubt to be seeded.
EDIT: Replaced direct with indirect quote. Now it’s accurate.