AliensAlternative MedicinePsychicsScienceSkepticism

Everyday pseudoscience

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:

Infilitrating your neighborhood pharmacy store.

Infilitrating your neighborhood pharmacy store.

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:

I dont get it.

I don't get it.

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:

From Flickrs podolux.

From Flickr's podolux.

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:

I didnt know people in the U.S. knew what homeopathy was.

I didn't know people in the U.S. knew what homeopathy was.

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.

5. Lastly:

Im not sure what to think of them.

I'm not sure what to think of them.

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.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. falty411
    July 22, 2008 at 3:45 pm —

    Nice post, and emphatically agree that the nonsense…….it’s everywhere and it burns!

    I think there is a mistake here:

    “Did you know you just committed a felony by making a structure-function claim about your product?”

    The shyster actually wasn’t making a structure-function claim, as that would be legal(1). He was claiming that it could treat fibromyalgia, which means that he would be, as was pointed out, surpassing the claims that he could legally make.

    Structure function claims are not illegal, and is the loophole, supplied by the The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA)(2), with which woo is able to make claims that sound beneficial, but have no evidence to back them. It would be illegal to make a claim that it diagnoses, treats, or prevents any disease.



  2. vreify
    July 22, 2008 at 3:55 pm —

    Yes, you’re right. Maybe he said “false structure/function claim” (which I know still wouldn’t be correct), or phrased it much differently from how I wrote it down.

    I had a hard time remembering exactly what he said. I’ll double-check and post back later!

  3. July 22, 2008 at 4:01 pm —

    Yeah it just seemed like an honest mistake. It definitely didn’t take away from the enjoyment of reading how your boyfriend baited the woob.


  4. Joy Wang
    July 22, 2008 at 4:02 pm —

    Hahaha. I’m going to have to say that your boyfriend’s encounter with the salt crystal lamp vendor would be mildly amusing if it hapened in a fictitious world. Unfortunately, it’s true that these quacks can continue to prey on uninformed and unsuspecting consumers, and that these frauds are by no means rare.

    Every Sunday at break from orchestra practice there’s usually a mass migration to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts, which takes you right by one of the foot-chart-thingamajiggers. The thing is, that foot chart was significantly different from the one above. I can’t imagine why.

    A few blocks down from said foot-chart is a psychic whatever. Those wonderful woo machines seem to be everywhere. And every damn ‘prediction’ they make is so deliberately vague that you can interpret it to fit the situation, thus accounting for all of the psychics being able to make an accurate prediction, when in reality their success rate is abominably low.

    And altmed isn’t the only woo out there either (creationism…hack…cough…*chokes*), thus ensuring that we skeptics will have our work cut out for us for some time to come.


  5. GammaGoblin
    July 22, 2008 at 6:32 pm —

    I’m the boyfriend and yes, she did misquote me. I sure couldn’t provide you an exact quote, but I know I mentioned the phrase “treat or cure.” Substitute it mentally at your own will.

    After he stumbled over his words, I think he thought I was a well-wishing believer just watching his back. He told me quickly about how he had to change his banner from “treats asthma” to “treats the symptoms of asthma.” He definitely did not come off as a true believer–he came off like an guy trying to make a few bucks.

  6. vreify
    July 22, 2008 at 9:44 pm —

    Fixed. Thanks for pointing it out, falty.

    Joy – Yeah, creationism is a big deal nowadays too. Steve mentioned it in that same episode, but judged skeptics to be a little more successful on that front: science has won the important court battles so far, and Expelled! was a giant flop. I don’t think there are similar successes for science with alternative medicine.

    Also, the foot charts are different because everyone’s reflexologist has unique powers (duh). You know–they can remold your body to line up with different parts of your feet. Now that’s just plain obvious. 🙂

  7. w_nightshade
    July 23, 2008 at 9:25 am —

    Excellent post! I am going to have to try the “salt lamp sting” technique next time it becomes possible.

  8. Zambiglione
    July 23, 2008 at 3:02 pm —

    Oh those foot thingies crack me up. They have infomercials that are so ridiulous it’s funny, and then you realie that some people find statements like “It’s amazing, you can actually see the toxins it has pulled out of your body” convincing, and then you are sad.

    Also, on chiropractors, they are sometimes reasonable and sometimes terrifying. I had a friend in college who had been going to a chiropractor since she was (are you ready for this?) 5! At 5 your bones are mostly cartilage. This quack probably did lifelong damage to her growing skeleton, and in fact she did have terrible neck and back pain (which she sought relief from by trying to find a chiropractor in town). Admittedly this is only anecdotal evidence, but since there is no real oversight or universal standards for chiropractors, I think they are best avoided.

    Oh, and while reflexology is full of woo, at least you are still getting a nice foot massage, so it strikes me as better than salt crystal lamps (which are dim), and palm readers (who give you nothing of remote value).

  9. July 23, 2008 at 11:52 pm —

    Oh boy, I read about it from the blog Respectful Insolence, and it is one of the stupidest woos out there.

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