Skepticism itself is not enough
There are two things you should know about me (I mean there are probably more, but for the purposes of this post: only two). One is that I am a tumblr-addict. Two is that I have eczema. Sometimes bad, sometimes mild, but that’s the fun of eczema– it’s often dependent on things like climate and stress levels and sometimes nothing in particular at all, so it can be difficult to control. It is also painful and itchy and sometimes unsightly, and is thus the sort of condition that people are particularly quick to turn to alternative medicine to treat. Which is sometimes frustrating for a skeptic such as myself.
At some point earlier this year, in the middle of a particularly bad flare, I ended up searching the eczema tag on tumblr. It was mostly people venting– in the way I was at the time — but there was also a trend of people referring to ‘red skin syndrome’. I didn’t really think an awful lot of it at first, I’d never heard of it, and I wasn’t really sure what it was.
The more I looked into it, the more I was confused. Its existence wasn’t acknowledged on any medical sources I could find, and the only information I could find on it came from the very dubious “ITSAN” website, where it was used to encourage people to stop use of topical steroids to treat, no cure, eczema, and cited Fox News and an abundance of personal testimonies to back this up, and encourages visitors to sign a petition to get the condition recognised by various dermatological societies. Because it isn’t already, and no research has been published on it. /skeptical face.
The main (and only, really) form of treatment for atopic dermatitis is topical steroids. They come in varying strengths, and, like most medicines do have a range of side-effects. These side-effects can be minimised or eliminated if they’re used correctly, and the topical steriods themselves will be more effective is used correctly, but there is still a huge amount of fear and demonisation surrounding the use of them. The reason why this sort of a scheme concerns me, isn’t so much that it will do so much damage in the long run as other similar ideas (e.g. Anti-Vaccination), more that it is insulting and downright ableist to suggest that stopping a medication that can turn a “I can’t even get out of bed I’m in so much pain right now, let alone get through my normal daily business” into a “okay I’m not particularly comfortable right now but at least I can do things” sort of a day, will “cure” an incurable, chronic condition. The thinking behind it is important too, because the sort of attitudes that people hold are the same attitudes that people hold toward anti-vaccination, and I do believe quite strongly in teaching critical thinking skills that can be applied widely, but in this case it wasn’t so urgent and dangerous as anti-vaccination is.
Anywho, at some point I got incredibly frustrated with seeing numerous posts by people promoting this, and in a moment of heated anger jotted off a quick post about why it was bullshit without expecting much to come of it. So started several months of having my inbox invaded with a whole lot of anonymous ridiculousness (a lot of which got deleted, but the rest of which can be found here, if you’re interested in reading more about why exactly this makes me pull skeptical faces).
In any case, I got sick of coming at it from a purely skeptical point of view pretty quickly. It was boring and frustrating and it made me feel like a massive asshole for taking down something that was giving people hope (false hope, which is what made me angry, but from their perspective– just hope). It was also really obvious to me that people weren’t just annoyed at the way their skin condition was making them itchy and uncomfortable, people were also pretty quick to call themselves and their skin ugly and disgusting. In a world filled with media obsessed with beauty and appearance, and where even the body positive messages we get focus almost exclusively on weight I could see there was a gap.
Thus, Skin Positive, my own attempt at addressing the gap in traditional body-positive messages that exclude skin and skin conditions from discussion, was born. It’s new, and I’m still learning (and I hope to continue to learn), but the response has been positive– especially toward the more science-y things I post. It is a nice change of pace, and I think it is an important lesson in the fact that issues that skeptics often focus on can be tackled by 1. pointing out the facts, but also 2. working to combat the reasons people are susceptible to bunkum in the first place.