Thursday, June 25, 2009

Carbolic smoke balls

Spammers are trying to sell me the Acai Berry. This remarkable foodstuff will, among other things, help me lose 20lb in two weeks, rid me of my fear of the measuring tape, make me look better in a bathing suit this summer and enhance my virility ‘like a rabbit’.

So much for progress and so much for Dawkins. Science can’t kill off even the crudest quackery, never mind bonedeep religions. And technology has only given us ever more effective ways to distribute horoscopes and absurd urban myths.

A couple of years ago I went into one of those little health food-type stores to buy some tea. I waited at the counter while the owner, a tubby man with cropped grey hair, exploited a vulnerable member of the public. She, it seemed, had been trying to conceive but was running out of time and options. He sold her at least four items of ‘alternative medicine’ all the while keeping up a classic quack’s patter about ‘some people have found this to be very effective’ and 'one lady came in here just like you, tried this and the next week she was pregnant'. All smothered in a screed of soft-voiced pseudoscience which I don’t have the will to recreate here.

I felt myself becoming surprisingly angry. When he sold her the silver ‘health bracelet’ I chucked my packet of tea on the nearest shelf and stormed out, vowing never to set foot in the place again. Afterwards I wished I’d said something to him or her, but what? I even thought about coming back at midnight and smashing his windows and daubing ‘Quack’ on his door, but of course I never did.


Sophie King said...

The problem, Brit, is that she wanted to believe she could be sold a solution. Nothing you said would have made any difference and she would probably have taken it as an insult anyway. There is nothing in these shops that the average healthy human really needs to buy.

One of the inescapable truths about "infertility", as a specialist once told me, is that nowadays people simply aren't having sex often enough for conception to take place. There are of course those with genuine reproductive problems, but lots of couples who imagine themselves infertile are simply not getting on with what needs to be done!

worm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
worm said...

people believe all kinds of mad rubbish - my lady friend is german - and believe me, as a nation we are MILES behind the germans in terms of gullibility.

Its common practice in germany to put on a scarf if you sit near an open window, even in mild weather - as the ' moving wind on your throat will give you a cold' - if you open a window in a stifling hot heated train carriage in winter in germany, it's often the case that someone will tut and close the window before telling you off for letting in 'dangerous' draughts.

and lets not even get started on all their stupid 'spa' treatments

Anonymous said...

Assuming the stuff he was selling was benign and not actually dangerous, isn't the extent of your anger worth a little analysis, especially as you quite correctly state this sort of thing is timeless? It seems very Dawkins-like. Of course there is some material exploitation, but it is minor and not much different than that of half the stuff we buy, like organic food. You seem to assume the old duffer knew it was all useless, but most of these guys at least started as true believers.

You have to measure the harm here against the unpleasantness, uncertainty and potential disappointment that attends "true" infertility treatments and the fact that the medical profession isn't nearly as all-knowing as it pretends. Besides, she probably went through all that before deciding to try magic potions. I've noticed that there is a new wave of anti-chiropractic emerging on a lot of materialist sites. Having met quite a few people who obtained real relief from a chiropractor and only frustration from doctors, I'm unimpressed even though I'm not interested in seeing one and wouldn't know how to defend them. If this poor, desperate woman were to buy a book that suggests she eat more bananas to get pregnant, would you want us to shut down the publisher in fury?

As long as it doesn't get out of hand, this kind of thing is harmless and, like prayer, can even be (arguably) an antidote to despair. Life ain't fair and it certainly isn't rational, so why demand we all live as if it were? You brights can be so mercilessly intolerant!

Gaw said...

I recently learnt that homeopathic remedies do not necessarily contain one single molecule of the 'active' ingredient. They're just water.

The NHS spends £14m per annum on homeopathic remedies. So I think it's actually worse than you describe Brit: we are supporting through our taxes complete bunkum.

I think alternative therapies provide people with three things that must be psychologically comforting: a license to be introspectively self-obsessed; a recognition of specialness; and a feeling of being in control (obviously spurious). These comforts are very similar to what the more pietistic forms of religion can provide.

Brit said...

I get all the business about placebo effect, the importance of somebody caring etc.

It was the ruthless cynicism of this man that got to me: he was a nasty little pig-eyed charlatan peddling false hope to a sad person who would have been better trying to come to terms with the brute medical fact that she wasn't going to get pregnant.

Anyway, placebo works for pain but I'm pretty sure it can't put a bun in the oven.

Brit said...

Brights, Peter? Where've you been for the last 2 years FFS?

Gaw said...

Peter: why is selling snake oil acceptable? These 'remedies' are not medically proven to work. Their sale depends on the telling of lies.

I think both of us would compare their comforts to those of religion. But religion makes claims that aren't provable - and so may be true. Moreover, there are religions that are disapproved of as they appear to be mechanisms for exploiting the gullibility of their members for material gain.

The alternative therapies racket therefore achieves the remarkable double of not being defendable on grounds of faith whilst exhibiting some of the worst characteristics of organised religion.

Gaw said...

What are 'brights'?

Brit said...

Dawkinsians, Gaw:
materialist, strongly atheist (as opposed to agnostic), anti-religion.

eg. Daniel Dennet, Chris Hitchens, Polly Toynbee, Gordon McCabe.

Anonymous said...

Gaw, what do you mean by acceptable? Sensible or lawful? If you want the medical establishment to control what we can buy to treat what ails us, surely we should only be allowed to buy food the dietician establishment says is good for us. What fun! My point is that, absent actual danger or gross financial manipulation, it is senseless to get any more angry about this than at the fellow who makes a living selling crisps and lottery tickets to the poor.

Yes, Brit, I've noted your welcome progress from bright to not-so-bright. Well done.

Brit said...

I've moved less than you think, because I was never quite as bright as you needed for the battles... and I doubt I'll ever attain your level of profound dimness, Peter.

Come on, there are grey areas with things like 'health benefits' and 'energy' - and certainly pain relief, and science hasn't got very far at all with the relationship between mental and physical states. But 'this will get you pregnant (for £20)' is just outright fraud.

Anonymous said...

Fraud?. Fraud is an intentional mis-statement of fact knowing it to be false or being reckless about whether it is or not. Have you ever met a doctor into homeopathy? Or a Chinese doctor/herbalist? They make Opus Dei look equivocal.

your level of profound dimness...

You are a not-so-bright. I'm deep.

Brit said...

Yes fraud, f-r-a-u-d, FRAUD DAMMIT!

Blud-dee lawyers, sheesh.

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry, I should have realized you were using the word in its everyday sense:

Fraud (n.)--A statement that Brit thinks is really stupid made to somebody he feels sorry for.

Brit said...

You must be seriously argument-starved to be still banging away at this one. He wasn't a doctor, he was a shopkeeper and he was lying to her in order to get her money. You've got to take my word for that because it's my story and therefore my interpretation of the protagonist's motive is valid and insightful and yours is just so much blind guesswork.

Gaw said...

Peter: People can sell whatever is legal as long as they don't lie about what's in it or what it does for you. The application of some basic trading standards would be good.

You can't compare the hawking of alternative remedies that don't work with the selling of crisps or lottery tickets. A more apt comparison would be with selling over-priced crisps on the promise that they made your knob bigger or lottery tickets where there were no prizes to be won.

Selling somebody a remedy that doesn't work can obviously be dangerous ('actual' or otherwise) just as it also represents a 'financial manipulation', in your genteel description. (BTW how do you define 'gross'? How much money do you have to swindle from someone before it becomes morally objectionable?)

David said...

First, next to the vaccine whackadoos, this is as nothing.

Second, even giving Brit his due as the story-teller, and thus preferencing his interpretation, she almost certainly knew this was useless.

Third, what's the NHS policy on fertility treatments? In the states, it's more or less available on demand in a lot of the states. I think most people woefully underestimate the extent to which it's used. Basically, anyone over 40 who is pregnant became so artificially.

Anonymous said...

next to the vaccine whackadoos, this is as nothing.

Indeed. I'd change my position completely and throw him in the Tower if he had said that she should buy his products and avoid sex.

Gaw, the serious point under all this banter is the overreach and protean nature of scientific expertise, the difficulty of identifying who the authority to pronounce on it should be and the political dangers of turning over the decision-making to bureaucratic experts. And as David says, she probably knew in the sense that many faithful readers of horoscopes "know", but don't care and believe in them anyway.

Brit said...

Yes, but sometimes it is just plain old quackery, clear as day. This guy was just picking stuff off the shelves and making up a narrative, I don't even think they were things that were advertised as specifically fertility products. Cetainly the silver bracelet wasn't.

If the guy had an ounce of moral fibre he'd have told her to look up some adoption agencies, and ok if he wanted, sold her some herby placebo to help with the misery of the human condition.

Gaw said...

Peter, all of your 'problems' have already been addressed. Medicine is highly regulated and governed by experts and rightly so.

BTW why should we assume she was complicit and sort of enjoyed being ripped off, making it all ok? That's a pretty disreputable argument.

Susan's Husband said...

I think Brit's bigger error is blaming a lack of science education for this kind of thing.

Successful and perpetual e-mail cons, for instance, are hardly limited to quack medicines. I find it much easier to understand getting taken by your shopkeeper than a former Ba'athist who needs your personal help to move TWENTY SIX MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS out of Iraq.

And just to feed the Burnet, one might well blame the increasingly official and regulated worlds of commerce for much of this, by eroding people's natural skepticism and increasing their reverence for authority figures. It's the same thing as Disney making wilderness more dangerous for people, because they wouldn't let you do it if it was dangerous, right?

David said...


We're not saying, or at least I'm not saying, that "she was complicit and sort of enjoyed being ripped off."

I'm saying that her line of thinking wasn't, "In a double-blind peer reviewed study, a significantly higher number of women randomly assigned to wear silver bracelets got pregnant than a randomly assigned group of women assigned to wear chrome bracelets."

Rather, she was engaged in magical thinking that went "Wear the bracelet ... ? ... get pregnant" and understood entirely that "... ? ..." isn't western rationalist causation. This is similar to my wife the medical doctor's conviction that we always get one of the three parking places closest to where we want to be because the parking gods love me.

The 20 quid was a sacrifice at the alter of pregnancy, satisfying her own need to take action and prove how important getting pregnant is to her.

Hey Skipper said...

There is a deeper level of meaning that explains the persistence of religion, homeopathy, and various fertility amulets: Desperation and stupidity are a potent combination.

This isn't about lack of science education, or scientific overreach.

I'm with Brit on this. What the sharpkeeper did was nothing other than sheer victimization. He undoubtedly did nothing illegal, but it was no more moral than tormenting a kitten: this woman was undoubtedly desperate to fulfill an obviously overwhelming desire, and with insufficient cranial horsepower to overcome the desperation.

Gaw said...

David, I think Skipper summed up my view well. It's not the sentimentality, desperation, stupidity, superstition, etc I object to (why would I, as I don't rule out my partaking in any of these?). It's the exploitation of these states that is objectionable.

Brit said...

She was "engaged in magical thinking"; she was vulnerable and gullible. Potato, potahto. I get that, which is why I didn't say anything to her... and why we don't say anything generally.

But we're not talking about some amulet providing positive chi-flow here, we're talking pregnancy. The placebo effect doesn't apply, so she won't actually get pregnant and next week she'll have to come back to be flogged another lie.

David makes it sound like the mofo was doing a public service, whereas of course he should actually be strung up and pelted with rotten potahtoes.

Hey Skipper said...

Let me relate a personal experience.

When I was 17, my then 15-yr old brother and I were driving across the US from California. In Kingman, AZ, we stopped to get gas. The gas station owner promptly sized us up, and came out to look under our car.

Said we needed traction bars, because we were bottoming the suspension, and would ruin the differential. He would be happy to install the for us right away.

As it happened, I was neither quite desperate nor dim enough to take him up on his generous offer.

There is no difference between that gas station owner and the "Health" food store jerk.

I think a reasonable legal case could have been made against the gas station for attempted fraud. If so, why wouldn't the same apply here?

David said...

Just the other day, I was driving from Northampton, home of Smith College, to Amherst, home of Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College. About halfway between the two towns, I noticed a place of business offering psychic and spiritual readings, a line of business apparently rampant in this otherwise highly rational area.

Now, we can all agree, I assume, that this is blatant fraud. (It's also an interesting case study of service businesses.) People (presumably) pay good money for no tangible objective value in return. And yet, there they are, advertising on the public roadway. I bet that they even have repeat customers -- and who are we to say that those people are misspending their money. (Actually, that's a real problem; in the States saying that these services are fraud would be a quasi-constitutional violation of the First Amendment.)

David said...

Oh wait, I had a point. What was it?

That's right: people are not, by and large, rational empiricists.

Brit said...

Yeah, I don't think any of us are denying there's a market for quackery, David.

Hey Skipper said...

... and who are we to say that those people are misspending their money.

You, for one, just at the top of the same para.

Perhaps your point would be more secure if you were to say "... and who are we to stop them spending their own money however they please."

It is interesting that the law could be brought to bear on a fraudulent service station, but not a palm reader of "health" food pusher.

Why is that?

Susan's Husband said...

I must disagree with Mr. Cohen's estimate of the value of psychics and palm readers. Successful ones tend to be very good at "cold reading" and perform primarily as lay psycho-analysists, dressing it up in quackery but not necessarily providing no value. It's likely to be cheaper than talking about problems on a psycho-analysists couch and not obviously delivering less value.

I also think of them as I do those phone in self-help shows (e.g., "Dr. Laura") who basically just tell people obvious things. What is the value in that? Yet these shows are very popular. I suspect the "psychics" are doing the same thing and delivering the same value.

Eric Guinn said...


Excellent point -- I had never thought of it that way.

Anonymous said...

There was a good Rumpole story where he was defending a palmist/fortune-teller on a fraud charge. The woman was uncanny in what she knew about her customers and the law smelt a rat. It turns out the law was right--she had a helper going through their purses and wallets while she was mesmerizing her cusomers, and he fed her the info through an earpiece. So she was convicted, but it was also strongly implied that the law wouldn't have been able to do anything if she had believed and just doggedly insisted she had magical powers, because the law can't be an arbiter and pronouncer on scientific truth. Think of seances, copper bracelets, etc.

We know how women get pregant but we also know it's no guarantee and that why it doesn't happen can be a mystery. There are thousands of people out there pumping "aids" such as diet, meditation, exercise, vitamins, herbs and even prayer and amulets and we all know that medical science is reluctant to deny that these can have some unknown psychological or even physiological effects for believers. Brit's and Skipper's wrath here is based entirely on the assumptions that: a) that this junk is completely useless is such a notorious, proven truth that the law can just assume it, and; b) he knew it too, just like Skipper's garage owner.

But, of course, it's Brit story and he assures us that he could tell from the fellow's unpleasant mien and oily, ugly features that it was all a true scam. I guess we'll have to accept that because, hey, how can we argue against scientific rationalism?

Brit said...

Yeah the reason this debate isn't working, Peter, is that you seem to be assuming that I'm using this case as a reductio ad absurdum position from which to argue that all alternative medicine should be banned. Which I'm not. It was the human element which annoyed me more than the (anti-) scientific one.

Nice try though.

Anonymous said...

Brit, we are the post-Judd Alliance. We've never met a dead horse we didn't feel constrained to beat. We have no human element.