Folks, I’ve got a confession to make. As much as I love disparaging and debunking and revealing the nonsense of woo, I’m about as non-confrontational as Ghandi on nitrous oxide. When I skim my friends’ postings on Facebook, I grit my teeth and keep scrolling whenever someone is hyping some sort of woo or sharing some really grating tenet of faith as if it were fact. If I just can’t ignore it, I’ll repost it with my thoughts and a little part of me hopes that the original poster won’t notice and respond with flames. If a discussion gets too heated on my Wall, I will ask the combatants to take it elsewhere, and have once deleted an entire thread when two of my more – how should I put this? – jerkish friends refused to back down, or at least take it outside, boys. I do err on the side of shutting up, though.
Well, most of the time. Not a few weeks ago, I did my “reposting” thing about an alternative treatment in India that had been going on for 166 years with hundreds of thousands treated. It involves swallowing a small live fish, then a “secret blend” of herbs in a paste and a strict diet for 40 days afterward. (link) and is supposed to cure asthma and other respiratory distresses. It has all the trappings of alternative medicine nonsense; the spiritual origin story, the family refusing to reveal the recipe, arguments from nature and antiquity and even hating on evil Big Pharma. It didn’t take 30 minutes before the same friend that first posted it to respond with arguments supporting just leaving this family to administer their medicine, since no one’s complained until now. We went back and forth for a bit, but that stuck with me. As far as we knew, being two women living in the US and unable to know for sure, no one has spoke up about whether this cure even worked until now. Either people honestly believed this would heal them or their children, or hey, why rock the boat?
It has been a few weeks, and that conversation really stuck with me for a variety of reasons*. Did I change her mind or encourage her to think more critically about these sorts of things? Probably not. But still, I now understand that I can’t back down anymore when it comes to the nonsense of the world. There are many examples in recent history of average folks without letters behind their name striking out there and making a difference in the name of science, critical thinking, and consumer protection. The 10:23 Campaign, Elyse from Skepchick’s push to get anti-vax ads out of the theaters around last Thanksgiving and the campaign to get Power Balance (and now the NRG Titanium Ion band) off the shelves in Australia instantly pop to my mind from just sitting here and typing these words. They rocked the boat, they spoke up when no one had before, they risked a lot of hate from believers, but they spoke up and stuff happened.
And I know, I know, there’s the fear of becoming the stereotypical cynic in skeptic’s clothing who has no friends because s/he keeps pissing on everyone’s parade. A lot of skeptics, particularly those still closeted, have this fear and we bend over backwards to keep from causing offense to our friends and family members. There have been blog posts and podcasts and talks upon talks upon talks about this and while I agree that a softer touch could be effective at times, there needs to be more touching, period.
“Well, no one’s said anything before” can’t be an excuse anymore. Time for me to stop shutting up.
*I regret that I didn’t get a chance to mention in our conversation that there is an Indian skeptical movement whose aims are combating this sort of “holy” nonsense in the guise of “medicine”, and they have nothing to do with scary Big Pharma.