Why skepticism, and how I became "that guy"


The Flamborough Santa Claus parade was a little over week ago. Gail and Nicky were on the Scouting float, and Ryan and I went to watch the parade with some friends. One of them bought some cotton candy for her kids but rather than buying the one bag each they asked for, she bought one that they all could share. This was partially because it was $5 per bag (which probably contained 35¢ worth of sugar and 2¢ worth of food colouring) and partially, she said, because she didn’t want her kids bouncing off the walls all night. I almost spoke up to tell her that sugar doesn’t affect behaviour and that there’s no such thing as a “sugar rush”, but I didn’t. I said nothing at all. Why? Because I remembered the avocados.

A little while ago, Gail bought a couple of avocados, something we don’t eat very often, and made some guacamole. Once we finished it (mmmmmm), she bought some more avocados, and when we finished those she bought some more again. I mentioned that she seemed to be enjoying the avocados lately and she said yes, but part of the reason she had bought them was because she’d heard that they’re a “superfood”. Before I could say a word, however, she added “but I don’t want to argue with you over whether they really are a superfood”. I wasn’t planning on arguing about it or even talking about it, but I had to wonder why she felt she had to head me off.

(Aside: Please don’t take this as a criticism of my wife. If the “superfood” thing had any bearing on her decision to buy the avocados, I know that it was a distant second to “They’re yummy”. She’s not as into the skepticism thing as I am but she doesn’t get caught up in this kind of hype.)

I realized that since I started getting sort of caught up in the skeptical movement about a year and a half ago, my skepticism has become a defining part of me. I am not embarrassed or ashamed of this at all; I’m proud to be a skeptic. Each of my last few blog articles has been skeptical in one way or another, it inspired the first piece of fiction I’ve written in decades, and I listen to no less than four different skeptical podcasts every week. But I did not realize that this might have a negative effect on my friends and family. Perhaps I have become “that guy” – the one that nobody wants to talk to because he argues with everything. I certainly don’t try to argue with everything, and I wouldn’t in general call myself an argumentative person.

But when someone talks about how they had acupuncture the other day and how it made them feel better, I want to point out that it was almost entirely due to the placebo effect, i.e. the belief that what the acupuncturist is doing will help. This is a well-known and well-documented, if not entirely well-understood, effect. In addition, here was a caring and helpful person who was making an effort to help you relieve your pain – that interaction with the acupuncturist likely played a role in the pain relief as well.

But as you can imagine, explaining this to the acupuncture patient isn’t likely to get the desired response of “Oh really? I’ll have to do some research into that before I spend money on it again. Thanks for the information!”

Yes, going to the acupuncturist probably did relieve some of your pain. But the truth is that it’s only partial relief, it’s only temporary, and it doesn’t relieve the actual cause of the pain in the first place. The truth is that the needles themselves serve no purpose. Alternative medicine is a pet peeve of mine, leading to one of my favourite quotes:

There’s a name for alternative medicine techniques that have been proven effective. They’re called “medicine.”

Acupuncture is just one type: the truth is that your homeopathic remedy relies entirely on the placebo effect. The truth is that your plastic power bracelet does nothing. The truth is that most products prescribed by doctors work even if they’re not all-natural and contain (gasp) chemicals.

This applies to a lot of other things too: the truth is that sugar doesn’t make kids hyper. The truth is that being outside on a cold day with wet hair will not make you sick. The truth is that taking vitamin C (in large or small doses) will not prevent you from getting a cold. There are plenty of other things that everyone “just knows” that are patently false.

But people don’t always want to hear the truth, and the guy that is always pointing out the truth is “that guy” – the annoying guy who doesn’t believe in anything.

Why is the search for truth annoying? I’m not trying to be a know-it-all. I’m not trying to argue for the sake of arguing. I want to know how the world actually works, not how people think it should work, or how people used to think it worked. My assumption is that others want to know how it works as well. If my wife is buying avocados because she likes them, great. But if she’s buying them because of some magic property that they don’t have, she’s wasting her – our – money. If you’re getting acupuncture and it’s making you feel better, great. But I strongly believe that you deserve to know that the needles themselves are not doing anything. If you know that and still decide to go, that’s fine. You’re making an informed decision.

This is not a rant about “why doesn’t everyone believe what I believe?” There are many things that are unproven (and unprovable). On these issues, some people believe one way and others believe another. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind on anything.

But when numerous clinical studies show that some herbal remedy does not work, and reliable, unbiased studies showing that it does work are few and far between, you have to start believing that maybe it doesn’t actually work, even if you think your own experience has shown the opposite. Human memories are far from perfect, and without controls, there are too many variables. Good scientific studies eliminate the variables, and are not subject to imperfect memories or things like confirmation bias. Science is the search for truth. Trust the science.

I’m not trying to be “that guy”. I’m not trying to be irritating. I just want the truth. I tell others because I assume they want the truth as well.

We can handle the truth.

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