Keeping Up With The Smiths: 5 Ways Pseudo-Science Shames The Poor

dr-nick

I’ve never been overly well off and I’m cool with that. Growing up in a working class family I learned a lot of tips and tricks for shopping on the high street that would help save money.

Since becoming an active member of the skeptic community I’ve come to realise that these same tips and tricks can also be a good way to avoid pseudo-science and nonsense selling tactics too.

There is a certain pressure on us all to keep up with our friends and colleagues by following certain trends and by living in certain ways. Especially when it comes to our health. Buying certain products and following certain fads seems to almost be expected of us by our peers, but sometimes this can be counter-productive and even harmful.

Below I have summarised 5 ways in which we are sold expensive lies on the high street and how to avoid being tricked out of our money.

1 – off the shelf medication

Own-brand painkillers are equally as good as their fancily branded counterparts. You can buy a pack of 16 500mg Paracetamol pills for 25p from Superdrug or Tesco. Sainsbury’s do a pack for 32p. You can hold the packs next to their branded counterparts and you will see that they have the exact same ingredients – you’re literally paying for the fancy packaging.

Also, ladies: don’t be fooled into buying those tablets marketed as relief for period pain. Check out the ingredients on the packaging and you’ll realise you can save money by buying store-brand pain relief pills for a fraction of the price. You can then spend the money you saved on chocolate. True story.

2 Organic food

When I talk about organic food I am speaking of food which is bought from the high street and not food grown at home. If you grow your own veggies I think that’s cool! However, walk into any supermarket and you’ll find organic produce marketed to you as the luxurious version of standard meat and veg.

You can end up paying more than 100% more for organic produce and there’s really no justification for doing so.

Many people cite the use of pesticides as the reason they choose organic food over non-organic food, but according to evolutionary biologist, Christie Wilcox “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.” Plus, studies have shown that there is really no nutritional benefit to eating organic meat and produce, or to drinking organic milk.

The idea of eating genetically modified food (GMOs) scares some people but, in reality, they’re perfectly safe and, actually, better for the environment than their organic counterparts. If you eat organic food you’re making the world a worse place for poor people in other countries.

Also: when buying produce don’t be so quick to grab the pre-packaged veggies and fruit. The loose versions of these can often be cheaper when you weigh them out – even in the same quantities as the pre-packaged stuff. It’s also beneficial to ask yourself if you really need a bag of a zillion mini-red onions when one loose onion might suffice. Doing this has reduced our food budget and the amount of food waste at home. Kerching!

3 Vitamins and Supplement pills                                 

I used to take a multivitamin every morning until I discovered that we don’t need them because we should be getting all of the nutrients we need from the food that we eat. But even if you have a deficiency a vitamin pill probably wouldn’t be the best way to solve that issue and you should speak to your GP.

The National Health Service website actually states that ‘many people choose to take supplements, but taking too much or taking them for too long could be harmful.’

Alternet reports that vitamins can be marketed in a way that doesn’t make the health risk obvious. They also report that in the US a ‘Trader Joe’s Women’s Once Daily Multivitamin & Mineral supplement contains 200 percent of the recommended amount of Vitamin C, 286 percent of the recommended dosage of selenium, and over 400 percent of what you need in the way of Vitamin B12’ which is not good news, folks. I think that’s actually quite scary!

Maybe think twice before buying those expensive bottles of tablets?

4 Superfoods and Clean Eating

Darling. Everyone is doing the Clean Eating thing, didn’t you know? The only problem is that dieticians and doctors think it isn’t as useful as many people make out. There are some elements of the clean eating movement that are just good old fashioned common sense- like eating more veggies -and then there are elements that are fictional as fuck, like the idea that you should cut gluten out of your diet even if you’re not allergic to it because it’s “toxic”.

There is a great piece over at theconversation.com that explores this in more detail by looking at the inaccurate claims made by people in the Clean Eating movement. Don’t be ashamed of what’s in your basket because it’s probably not as bad as you think.

“I despair of the term ‘clean eating’…it necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad.” Nigella Lawson

As for superfoods… we’ve all heard that chia seeds and coconut can work miracles for our bodies because of the magical nutrients they have in them, and it’s tempting to run out and buy the newest (and never cheap) supplements that contain these super ingredients from Holland and Barretts. But here’s a general rule of thumb that has seen me well through my life so far:

If it’s described as a miracle it’s not going to work because magic isn’t real.

“Whether it’s coconut oil, chia seeds or apple cider vinegar,” Duane Mellor, an assistant professor in dietetics at the University of Nottingham told The Guardian, “there is no scientific evidence to suggest that if you top up your diet with any ‘miracle’ or special food that you’ll get any of the promised effects.”

That should be an open and shut case, but it isn’t. Look around the high street and you’ll see Superfoods everywhere but popularity doesn’t support the accuracy of the claims that surround them.

Remember: fad diets are bad diets.

5 Alternative Medicines & Treatments

I’ve been a part of many workplace teams where everyone else was from a middle-class background. At first, it was a culture shock to see just how many of my colleagues relied on alternative medicinal practices like chiropractic, homeopathy and reiki but it soon became common to find any skepticism of these techniques being sneered at because personal experience apparently outweighs clinical trials and scientific research.

Let me just do a quick run-through of all of the bogus health fads people often use that have little or no benefit. Some of which can actually be dangerous:

Homeopathic medicines: there are no active ingredients in these diluted solutions and water does not have memory. Don’t bother. Learn more here.

Chiropractic: manipulation of your spine may offer short term relief but so does massage, and massage doesn’t run the risks that come with chiropractic treatment. The evidence also suggests that Chiropractic doesn’t work and isn’t worth the money.

Reiki/Shiatsu: there is no evidence that such thing as energy healing exists. Reviews of clinical research into these methods concluded thatthe evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition… the value of Reiki remains unproven.”

Acupuncture: there are claims that the needles release endorphins which help ease pain, but it’s an expensive way of getting an endorphin rush! Plus, other studies suggest that any relief from acupuncture is just a placebo. Harriet Hall goes into more detail over on ‘Science-Based Medicine’ here.

Finally, my favourite pet-hate:

Echinacea: Every time I saw someone use this to treat their cough I wanted to scream at them because using this botanical remedy is pretty risky. Read about it here and then throw it away.

As you can see, many of the fads I have covered here all have links to the idea that natural and traditional is best but such thinking can wander into the realms of fallacious thinking. Natural remedies that have medicinal values become medicine and if alternative medical treatments worked they would be… well… medical treatments. There’d be no alternative to them.

Here is a list of websites I use for no-nonsense information about health-based claims when I want to find out if there is any evidence to support them. As someone on a low income, I can’t afford to be misled into spending money on expensive alternatives just because they’re the latest trend. I need evidence.

Hayley’s ‘Evidence or GTFO’ go-to resources:

Science Based Medicine
The National Health Service website
What’s The Harm?
Cochrane
Bandolier Knowledge

Ask For Evidence

Bill Nye on Ghosts

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The folks over at BigThink.com recently shared a video in which Bill Nye answers a question from a woman and her son about ghosts.

‘We have a question on your perspective on ghosts, and what you think happens to your life energy after you die. Is it just pushing daisies?”

It presented a great opportunity for Nye to respond to a question that many people have asked through the centuries.

The answers provided by Nye are less than inspiring though. His first mistake is to treat ghosts and psychics as one subject when this simply isn’t the case. A parapsychologist will study psychic claims but typically not ghosts and haunted houses. A paranormal researcher (like me) will research ghosts and haunted houses but not psychics.

Nye mentions that he is a member of several skeptic societies who have “looked and looked for haunted houses, ghosts in cemeteries or psychics who believe they’re in touch with people who are dead and there’s no credible evidence.”

What I think he means is that skeptical investigators routinely examine the evidence presented by people who claim it provides evidence of such things, and find it to be less than compelling and certainly not up to standard. No skeptical society that I am aware of has ever launched investigations to actively find evidence which would be a venture into the pseudo-scientific.

In the video Nye also talks about Harry Houdini and the code that Houdini promised to deliver after he died should ghosts be real. He seems to be quite confused though as he states:

“You may know that Houdini, the famous magician, said “if anybody can come back from the dead it’s me, man. I’m coming. And he never got in touch with anyone, no-one ever heard from him. yet a secret word between he and his mother that he said, you know, I’ll give you the secret word when he comes back. You know what the secret word is? NOBODY KNOWS! It was secret! He never came back!”

The code word was actually shared between Houdini and his wife, Bess. The word was also published in the authorised Houdini biography written by Harold Kellock titled Houdini, His Life Story.

Those who listen only to Nye’s version will not know the truth and perhaps will miss out on the insight that the Houdini story provides into the human relationship with ghosts.

For a while Bess believed Houdini had communicated from beyond the grave but it is likely that this was her way of coping with her grief following his death. This has been written about in detail by Massimo Polidoro for Skeptical Inquirer and you can read about it here.

This is something we see happening even today. Ghosts are a coping mechanism for many people and research has shown that some people benefit from the belief that a deceased love one is visiting them in ghost form. This is why I found myself growing annoyed with Nye when, at the end of the video, he tells the woman who asked the question that she can outwit her friends who believe in ghosts.

“Your friends who believe in ghosts – you can outwit them. You’re ahead of them because you’ll not waste energy look around looking for ghosts.”

Oh, hun. No. Not believing in ghosts doesn’t make you a superior person. Just watch skeptics talk about politics and you’ll see that non-belief =/= intelligence.

People who believe in ghosts aren’t stupid. They’re often people searching for closure or trying to figure out what they’ve experienced. I should know because I am the result of that line of reasoning. People asking these questions are not wasting their time in doing so.

Although Nye is technically right that research has provided no evidence for the survival of the human “soul”, this isn’t the whole sum of ghosts or even paranormal research.

Some people who believe in ghosts do not believe ghosts to be the human soul. Some people do not believe that haunted houses are haunted by ghosts, some people believe in ghosts but not haunted houses.

Paranormal research is a complex and weird field of study regardless of which direction you approach it from. Even those who’ve been researching this area for decades learn new things all of the time, which is why the research is ongoing. The confidence with which Nye dismissed these ideas suggests that he’s an expert, but his incorrect statements prove otherwise.

It’s behaviour like this that make me think I was right when I recently wrote of how Science Snobs Make Us All Stupid. And you can take my word for it because I’m a member of several skeptical societies – and even on the board for one.

I would have loved for Nye to say “evidence suggests ghosts aren’t real but…”, because we have so much to learn and teach about human perception from the experiences that people report. Explaining the Ideomotor response or Pareidolia effect can blow minds. As skeptics we could do well to remember that just because we have knowledge, not everybody does and it’s this can be used to engage people. Not ill-informed dismissals.

Knowledge is only powerful if you share it.

Weekly Summary: Rationalia, Netflix and Superheroes

mars

In 2002 a bird bent a piece of wiring to use as a tool and people lost their minds, but NewScientist report that this may not have been a one-off, unique case of complex problem solving as the behaviour has been observed elsewhere too.

It seems that the best way to deal with the stress life throws at you is to literally say “f*ck it”

fuck it
The kind of inspirational quote I can support

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has presented further argument on the his case for Rationalia but Kelsey Atherton shows why his arguments are flawed over on PopSci. It’s almost as though Tyson has forgotten that humans are, well… human.

NASA have just shared 1,000 new photos of Mars. SpaceX are about to start testing the engines that will take them to Mars, and Deep Space Industries claim they’ll launch the first private space mission in 2020.

Elsewhere a Swedish church plans to drone-drop a tonne of bibles into ISIS occupied territory. They insist it isn’t aggressive, demonstrating possibly the worlds biggest case of a lack of self awareness. Utter, utter fail.

It turns out that Netflix and similar services are literally changing the way we watch shows, and Cillian Murphy contemplates where the eff all of these superhero movies keep coming from. Can we have some original sci-fi up in here please?

Lastly, if you have a spare hour and are a bit of a nerd (hi) check out this neat collection of interesting maps of Europe.

Feature image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

Science Snobs Make Us All Stupid

tyson

There has been a lot of discussion lately of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his ideas that the solution to all the problems of society could lie in the formation of a land ruled only by evidence based policy and law. Rationalia, he calls it.

A world ruled by evidence based policy sounds good on the surface but Popsci has a great breakdown of Tyson’s arguments and explains why it’s actually a bad idea. They do this using evidence, ironically. Awkward…

It isn’t the first time Tyson has come under criticism for the ideas he shares on social media. Earlier this year he tweeted ‘If there were ever a species for whom sex hurt, it surely went extinct years ago.’

Yeah, no. That’s not true.

It reminds me of James Randi and his ill-informed comments about climate change, but at least Randi had the decency to admit that he had made incorrect comments. (But let’s not get started on social darwinism…)

Most shockingly (for me at least) are the ill-informed, anti-philosophical stances held by people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Lawrence Krauss.  Something which Massimo Pigliucci has addressed time and time again.

How can Tyson speak of a nation governed by science being better for people when he fails to recognise that humans are complex creatures that can’t be programmed like robots?

Morality is concerned with what we ought, or ought not, to do. The empirical sciences, on the other hand, appear capable, in isolation, only of establishing what is the case. – Stephen Law, Scientisim, the limits of science, and religion

Know your audience. But more importantly know yourself and the limits of your knowledge. It’s awkward to see people who should champion curiosity about the universe lack it so much.

I’m no scientist or science advocate but if I were, I’d hold myself to as high a standard as possible knowing that the difference between a fact and an opinion is crucial when informing the public on a matter.

I don’t believe in ghosts, psychics, god or a number of other supernatural things (that isn’t to say I don’t have irrational beliefs) but I have come to respect the complexity of belief. Through engaging with those who hold those beliefs I’ve come to see that it isn’t just an idea one holds to be true; belief can be a way of life, a foundation upon which you base decisions about what is good and evil, right or wrong.

You can disagree with the ideas with which someone forms their moral codes but it doesn’t mean that them doing so doesn’t count.

The clinical nature of Scientism makes my skin crawl. Partly because many who adopt such a line of thinking fail to think for themselves. Yet mainly because people who take such a position insist that others should learn how to think critically while failing to practice what they preach.

When you apply critical thinking skills to an idea you should also apply that same skepticism to what you’re doing and thinking. That doesn’t seem to happen very much.

So is it any wonder that people don’t want to engage in scientific discourse when the people who should be leading the way in this engagement and so patronising and boring? If all you do is voice your disgust at the stupidity of other humans you shouldn’t be surprised if they reject you.

Science should be exciting! It’s a way to solve mysteries and learn things! But it often seems that the very people who should be making people care about science just spend their time dispelling misconceptions that people just don’t have.

Inaccuracies in sci-fi films don’t matter, Neil! Get over it!

We are guilty of this, I think. To a point at least. Many who dismiss people who believe in ghosts tend to simplify what it is the people they dismiss believe in. However, a lot of people who believe in ghosts don’t think they’re dead people returned. Do you know how many people who believe in PSI abilities are more interested in consciousness and the brain? They don’t just believe in Uri sodding Geller.

If you’re not careful, if you don’t turn skepticism inwards as much- no, more -than you cast it outwards into the world you run the huge risk of isolating your cause or argument. Science snobs might feel clever but they’re just making us all stupid.

Weekly Summary: Meteors, Mushrooms and Mars.

mojave

Ever feel as though you’re coasting through life because you’re lucky and not because you’re deserving or talented? Oh boy, is this video from The School of Life for you:

The latest installment of the VICE does America series sees the team stop off at the Creation Evidence Museum in Texas which is dedicated to the idea that the Bible is a scientific document. If you’ve a spare 25 minutes check it out. Or maybe read about the time I visited a Creationist Zoo!

What are you doing with your brain once you’ve died? Perhaps you could donate it to science? Learn about the Bristol brain bank here and how donated brains from 30 years ago are still helping with research projects.

Take Part reports that the UK could soon have more charging stations that petrol stations which is pretty impressive if you think about it.

According to the U.K. government–funded website Go Ultra Low, 115 electric cars were registered every day in the first quarter of 2016. At that pace, electricity could become the dominant form of propulsion for all new cars sold in the U.K. by 2027. –  Taylor Hill, Takepart

Elsewhere, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have announced that the next Mars rover will be equipped with microphone cameras that’ll record descent, landing, and surface operations. This will help them identify possible issues with the hardware but it may also provide us with the chance to hear Mars! 

NASA have also reminded us that the Persid Meteor Shower is coming. Make a note in your diaries folks, and get those eyes on the skies.

Architecural Digest reports that the Mojave Desert is about to play host to martian habitat prototypes after a Kickstarter project wanting to explore survival on the red planet met its target. Wait – sorry, let me rephrase that. The Mojave Desert is about to play host to 3D PRINTED MARTIAN HABITAT PROTOTYPES…

Did you know that creating one pair of leather shoes might result in 33 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions? Good job there’s an environmentally friendly process of creating leather – using mushrooms. Whut? yes. Grist report that your next leather handbag could be grown, not raised.

ITV has shared this heartwarming video of a man and his father singing together and if this doesn’t make you feel happy and touched then you’re not human, frankly. <3

Mac McDermott raises funds for the Alzheimer’s Society by entertaining everyone with these videos of the pair singing their favourite songs and sharing them on Twitter and Facebook.

Finally, I will leave you with what I believe to be a truly wonderful tribute to Disney films from over the years. It’s… a big of magic.

What’s your favourite Disney film, readers? For me it has to be Lilo & Stitch, Hercules or Tangled. Why not let me know in the comments section, on Twitter or on Facebook? have a good week!