A Serious Need for Critical Thinking

I have considered myself a skeptic for probably longer than I truly understood what the word actually means.

Of course, the most common career one can pursue, if one wishes to put their skepticism to use, is a career in the sciences. And I’m not a scientist. So my skepticism is more of a hobby or a pastime. I apply it when necessary and am more than willing to acknowledge that there are times when I choose not to act skeptically. (I have two stories about my ancestry where I readily concede that I don’t know the exact truth, but the stories are just too interesting to want to pursue the possibility that they’re not. So I’d prefer to talk about how they’re possible, than lose the narrative if it turns out that they’re not the exact truth.)

Of course, we should all recall HL Mencken’s statement about how no one has ever made any money overestimating people’s intelligence. So there’s always room for being skeptical when the opportunity arises. It’s why I’ve been blocked from posting on the Food Babe’s facebook page.

What’s really surprising is that in recent weeks, I’ve had two very visible places, where a healthy dose of skepticism are warranted.

First is what’s becoming a political matter in the town where I live. About a year ago, two wells in my township were closed due to elevated levels of some contaminant, partially due to changing standards maintained by the EPA.

In the past two weeks, I have received no fewer than five slickly-designed mailers trying to turn that fact into a political issue. Selective quoting of news items and declaring that a polysyllabic chemical name has been “linked” to cancer. No statistics, no nothing.

I’m not trying to say that I’m not concerned about the safety of the local water supply, but you’ve got to give me something more than “linked” to cancer before I think that — in the words of one of the robocalls I’ve gotten — a bunch of concerned local residents of all political persuasions know more than the experts in the field.

Election Day is coming up. And I recognize that there are legitimate reasons to vote either for the incumbents or their challengers. The conditions of the water, however, are neither.

The other place where a little bit of skepticism is warranted, is that I’ve been seeing a deluge of posts on my facebook feed, trying to sell some kind of wrap that is ostensibly designed to help a person lose weight and wear off age lines.

These posts all follow the same pattern: they show before-and-after pictures (some of which are minimally different) with an exclamation of how well it works and then to send a private message to the poster for more details.

The people selling this product are apparently running a business loosely modeled after what Amway does. One post that I saw was very telling in that someone attempted to criticize the product and rather than address the criticism, they chose to ask that people not complain because they’re trying to run a business.

Let’s ignore for a moment that if you’re running a business of any sort, you need to expect complaints, and alienating real or potential customers is not the way to do it.

I did a google search of the product in question and there has been no rigorous scientific study on the efficacy of these wraps or related products. That just leaves user testimonials as the entire basis of the information we know about the product. Which puts this product — if we’re being our most polite — a form of “alternative medicine”.

And remember what Tim Minchin said about that: you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been shown to work? “Medicine”.

Personally, I love the user review that said that the product is effectively a wet paper towel for $100 / month.

Of course, from what I’ve read of this, it’s the perfect Amway metaphor. The product apparently works as long as you continue using it and spending the money on it, so that would give a nice stream of income to the people selling it to you. So you’re really just better off not starting.

I really think that everyone would be well-served to pay attention to the song “Skeptic” by George Hrab. It would benefit anyone who might consider paying attention to the people who want to sell us some snake oil or upset local politics based upon nonexistent problems.

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