Over the years, I have gained a reputation for being cool in the face of utter nonsense. Attending many, many Mind Body Spirit (Wallet) festivals has taught me to keep a straight face, feign ignorance and ask questions. This approach has given me a valuable insight into the thinking of those we oppose or at least investigate. It’s hard to underestimate the amount of information peddlers of woo, will gladly tell you when you seem really interested in what they have to say. My best result was a number of years ago when I managed to have members of the Australian Homeopathic Association Inc tell me at a Parents, Babies & Childrens’ Expo to keep clear of orthodox vaccinations but instead use homeopathy. (See Homeopathy Exposed Again! ) This resulted in Australian Skeptics blowing the whistle on the Australian Homeopathic Association Inc in the press and on radio. A good outcome for our side.
So, all this time I have resisted, more or less, the temptation to argue or put the case for science as once you start down that road, the defenses go up and you are asked to move along or you are accused of being part of the conspiracy suppressing whatever nonsense is being sold. Yes, I have let myself slip from time to time, but nothing too major.
However a few weeks ago I did not follow my own advice. Maybe it was because I was suffering the flu, or maybe it was because I had been to one Mind Body Spirit festival too many, but my normal reserve and tactics seemed to leave me. The straw that broke this skeptic’s back was Urine Therapy. OK, we have heard of stranger things sure, but when one woman told me that one’s own urine could cure AIDS, something in my head went ‘snap’. I mean it really did. I could hold my tongue no more and began to ask the woman telling me this drivel how on earth she could say this. What followed soon turned into a full on argument with me being accused, surprise surprise, of being a) a Doctor and b) of believing everything told to me by infamous ‘Big Pharma’. But the main result of my lack of discipline was to have any hope of finding out more information vanish. I was told to leave her stand and that was that.
My bad mood continued when I visited a stand selling magical healing patches that one wears on the outside of clothing. However this time my friend Dr Rachael Dunlop gave me the sort of look that said ‘Don’t you dare’ as she had a turn of playing the role of the interested potential customer. I took the hint and bit my tongue. Over the next hour I settled down, found my control and started to ask more polite questions of other woo merchants.
Maybe once in a while I can allow myself the ‘pleasure’ of taking these people to task on the spot, but I know it will not achieve anything other than me getting hot under the collar. I have no illusions about converting anyone or convincing them of the error of their ways, but at times I really wish I could. Then again, part of me was glad I did let my defenses down.
So my advice, based on 10 years of experience, if you want to gain information from those selling magical therapies and such like, let them volunteer it. And to do this, play the part of the polite and interested potential customer. However this skeptic won’t blame you if you cannot help but blow your cover from time to time.
Richard Saunders is a Vice President of Australian Skeptics and producer of The Skeptic Zone Podcast