Editorial: Snakes, Rods, and Sugar Pills

Hello everyone, welcome back! The birds are singing in the trees. The snow has receded (except for the days when it shows up in force). The Earth approaches its spring equinox.

I’d like to give a big shout out to Rafiq, Tony, and Stone for coming in to keep me company during layout this weekend. I hope you all enjoyed learning the nuances of InDesign; I can now rest peacefully knowing that there are dedicated layout editors to take care of the paper when I leave. A second thanks to Stone, who, in addition to writing two excellent articles, also participated in the Iron Inquisition! Finally, a big thanks to Raeesa for some tremendous coverage of the recent tragedy that occurred at our school, including interviewing the Waterloo Walkout for Mental Health’s primary organizer.

That brings us, unfortunately, to the news that has been dominating this entire school. It’s never easy to understand why someone takes their own life. The result of this most recent case has been a massive response through the entire university community. The reactions have been pervasive: in articles like the ones you see in both this paper and Imprint, on the school subreddit, and physically manifested during the Thursday morning walkout. They have run the gambit from confusion to anger to support to pragmatism. While I don’t pretend to have any idea how to solve the mental health problems that plague our society, I am comforted by the thought that the overwhelming desire for improvement that I see in everyone—if properly harnessed—can make a meaningful difference.

Snake Oil Salesmen

I thought, this issue, that I would take a gander through one of my favourite topics: skeptical thinking in general, and snake-oil salesmen in particular. The term “snake-oil salesman” today means a shady character that sells some sort of cure-all. Much to my surprise, I found as I researched this article, the original snake-oil salesmen were quite legitimate. The original snake-oil was brought to America by Chinese immigrants in the mid-to-late 1800s. This oil, made from omega-3-rich Chinese water snakes, was effective at reducing inflammation. As the cure entered the public consciousness, unscrupulous individuals began selling snake oil as a cure-all. Furthermore, since there were no Chinese water snakes around, the medicine was worth its weight in lamp oil, lacking any inflammation-reducing properties.

Today, both to my frustration and fascination, the charlatans have expanded beyond just one product skew to a whole marketplace of ineffective, exaggerated, or outright harmful products and services. It’s hardly worth trying to study, test, and disprove any one product, since two more will pop up in its place. It’s both lucrative and easy to hop on the next big fad, and neither to comprehensively dispel it.

Now, I suppose, is a good time for some intellectual de-elitising. Skeptical thinkers have a long and esteemed tradition of getting way up their own butts, absentmindedly and arrogantly dismissing a product or idea. Many people have weighed in on the burden of skepticism and the amount of open-mindedness a good skeptic should be required to show to ideas (particularly absurd ones). Christopher Hitchens’ assertion, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” (initially presented in the context of the validity of religions) is a good and popular heuristic, but is hardly the final word on the matter.

My interest, however, is not with what level of open-mindedness to show internally, but rather externally. For me, skepticism is about protecting myself and others from the dangers of charlatans, tricksters, and—this last one being the most important to remember—misguided but earnest sellers of woo. I should further clarify that my interest in this article is not to discuss open skeptical topics, like the concept of conciousness or the efficacy of some groundbreaking cancer treatment, but rather to empower you to spot clear and obvious examples of subterfuge like magnetic power bracelets, ouija boards, ghosts, or mediums.

Your Body is Not Your Friend

Do you know what every part of your body is doing at all times? Where are your hands? Are they level and steady? Of course they are. And of course you’d know!

That righteous indignation behind that answer is the cause of a number of magical or spiritual devices in the world. My favourite is the ouija board. This is a board with all the letters of the alphabet on it and the words “yes.” “no,” and “goodbye.” Place your hands on a three-legged pointer “planchette” which is then moved around the board by spirits to answer your questions.

The planchette’s movement, you may be unsurprised to learn, is not caused by spirits at all, but rather by unconscious movements of the person holding it. The planchette moves around, guided by these unconscious movements, which are called the “ideomotor effect.” Furthermore, the movements are unconscious, but not uninformed; therefore, they will frequently end up spelling out real, sensical words as your brain unknowingly adjusts the board to move the planchette in the way you expect it to move.

The ideomotor effect also applies to a second try-it-at-home type of woo: dowsing rods. Dowsing rods are two L-shaped rods you hold in your hands, walking around. The rods will, magically and without you willing it, randomly cross as you walk. Depending on the rods you’re using, the place where the rods cross is a source of water, oil, or other material of your choice.

An important and consistent theme you may have noticed so far is that there is not trickery going on here; even the ubiquitous snake oil has a kernel of truth. That’s one of the reasons these tools are so compelling: while it’s easy to laugh at a magnetic bracelet salesman saying things as vague and general as the Oracle at Delphi, it’s equally easy to be captivated by dowsing rods that are really crossing automatically while you hold them in your hands.

Commit All Crimes in the Desert

As previously discussed, the focus of this article is on clear and well-documented fake products, not discussing the much more difficult and complicated nature of skepticism regarding plausible or unlikely claims. As a result, the only alternative medicine I feel comfortable touching on is homeopathy. Rest assured, however, that this one type of sugar pill is more than enough to satisfy you.

Homeopathic medicine is based around the ideas that “like cures like” (so poison ivy cures itches) and that diluting a substance (often so that the dilution is far below one molecule per pill) makes it more potent due to a non-specific “water memory.” This raises some interesting questions, like why ocean water, having touched practically everything in the past couple billion years, is not a panacea. Like all the other crazy ideas we’ve talked about, this one has a tiny basis in truth. Specifically, if you grew up in the 19th century, when medicine consisted of highly invasive surgery and biologically-significant doses of whatever the doctor had lying around, sometimes no medicine at all may be the best choice for you.

What’s the Harm?

Sometimes it feels like skeptics just don’t want to have fun, or that they have fun by being smarter and more right than everyone else. It’s certainly an easy accusation to level when a self-righteous skeptic charges in and close-mindedly declares something that is beyond current scientific understanding is completely impossible. However, I have found that, frequently, fake and unscientific products and services have a tremendous ability for harm. The medical danger of someone using homeopathy in lieu of evidence-backed medicine is a clear danger that could end in death. Tricks like dowsing rods and ouija boards may seem less harmful, only cheating the gullible out of some money. They are not; it’s too easy for these simple tricks to turn into major destructive products. For instance, a product that has been described as an “electric dowsing rod”—essentially a single dowsing rod attached to a black box with randomly-flashing LEDs—was marketed in the 90s as a drug, bomb, and weapon-detection device. While traditional dowsing rods are not an identical product, I can’t help but think that a electromagic material-detection box seems a lot more plausible if you already think that manual material-selection rods already exist.

I hope that this has been an informative read for those of you who have not run across these magic products before. I certainly hope that it inspires caution in you the next time a pretty piece of woo catches your eye. For those of you who think you’ve found something science can’t explain, I encourage you to dig in deeper; sometimes skeptics have answers that haven’t made it to popular attention, and sometimes you discover a true mystery that people from all perspectives are trying to solve. Finally, to any skeptically-inclined readers: keep you head in the sun, don’t fool yourself into thinking you know everything, and try diving into some more ambiguous topics, where the skeptical answer may not be complete, comprehensive, or accurate.

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