In the Science/Skeptical Thinking circles we tend to run around in (literally and on the interwebs), we love to call out woo wherever we find it, try to show logical fallators the errors of their ways, and in general attempt to show the superiority of a rational, science based worldview. When doing this, it’s easy for us to fall into an us/them, right/wrong, woo/true trap where everything is perfectly demarcated and either you’re “fer us or agin us.” Well, in this arena, as in life, things aren’t so simple. There are many instances where one must carefully separate layers of information to discern and distinguish valid information from the surrounding woo.
To give a non-scientific example, think about a commercial for Sugar Coated Type II Taffy Bomb Crisp, a new breakfast cereal containing 98% sugar, 1% Styrofoam, 1% tar, and is lightly crop-dusted with some vitamins and minerals. The ad wizards who shoot the commercial show a bowl full of diabetes floating in milk, surrounded by fruit, vegetables, an egg perhaps, a protein smoothie and a plate full of kale topped with bean sprouts. The announcer appeals to how wonderful the cereal is and states that “Sugar Coated Type II Taffy Bomb Crisp is part of this nutritious breakfast.” Do you see what they did there? By lumping in a nutrition disaster with actual good information, they conflate the issue and influence buying decisions. But, you say, I’m smart, and I know that Sugar Coated Type II Taffy Bomb Crisp isn’t healthy at all. Good for you for recognizing this, but I also hope you take the next cognitive step and not throw out the rest of the nutrition baby with the unhealthy bathwater. The two must be teased apart and evaluated separately. Pour the sucrose-laden gruel into your garbage disposal; chow down on the rest.
So it is with many things in science and medicine. Alternative medical practitioners use this smokescreen to graft their woo onto legitimate science. Using critical thinking skills, however, we can spot this trick a mile away. We here at The Prism call this “Finding the Pearl in the Turd.” When reading or watching some of the crap out there (cough cough Dr. Oz cough cough), it’s easy to dismiss everything out of hand – even the occasional good stuff. But I suggest that if you are forced to watch, listen, or read such drivel, look for the Pearl in the Turd. Information is often buried deep in the pile, but if you find the pearl, it might just be worth it.