Bringing Skepticism Home

Flicking around the web, I came across the Skeptoid site that sells their “Just Say No” t-shirts.

With each shirt featuring a large “NO.” and then a followup inscription in smaller letters, mostly, the shirts ring true. I loved these: “No, Science is not a bad word.” “No, the Earth is not 6,000 years old.” No, psychic powers aren’t real.”

But glancing through the entire list, I felt occasional pings from my “I’m Not Sure I Entirely Agree” meter. I’m an atheist and a skeptic, which usually applies to religious and mystical matters, but I keep a little of my skepticism in reserve even for the people I normally agree with.

NO. Fracking is not the evil you think.

I haven’t paid attention to the subject as much as I’d like, but … I still worry that the quest for natural gas via fracking can easily have a negative impact on the purity of groundwater. I’m a little less glib than the shirt on the subject. Plus, once you contaminate groundwater, there really isn’t any way to clean it up, is there?

I was briefly involved in groundwater issues as an activist some years back, and the strange thing about groundwater is that it’s mostly unregulated. I can pump poison into the ground on my property, and if it sullies your drinking water, you first have to prove that it was me, and not some mysterious underground process, that polluted your water. And good luck with that. Oh, and even if I pay you for the damage, your water is still polluted.

Example (related more to water supply than water pollution, but the principle is the same): There was a golf course installed on a piece of rather marshy property a bit uphill of this ranch I worked at. To make the golf course less marshy, they dug drain channels and diverted the slow subsurface flow completely away from the future course. Downstream of that subsurface flow as we were, our groundwater supply vanished. The lush grazing meadow we kept for the horses, and long lines of willow hedge that bordered the ranch, all died the following summer. But there was no way to prove that the golf course builders were responsible. The grazing meadow – and the entire ranch – became a literal dustbowl, and the neat hedge turned into a row of unsightly dead sticks in less than a year. End result: Golf course owner happy, ranch owner screwed. Forever.

NO. Aspartame won’t hurt you.

I’ve used an underarm anti-perspirant for most of my adult life. A few years back, I noticed the skin of my pits was somewhat discolored, and the texture of the skin was … different. I had this sudden image of white mice used in cancer tests, with nicotine or some other chemical painted on them every day for years. It seemed to me that I was doing that same experiment on myself (just as cigarette smokers are repeating the cancer test on their own lungs). I stopped using the antiperspirant (I still use deodorant), and the skin discoloration gradually cleared up.

For the same reason, I steer clear of all artificial sweeteners. We’ve been dealing with sugars since forever, and have evolved to deal with them. The new stuff, not so much. (Besides which, some of the artificial sweeteners either have weird aftertastes or somehow FEEL weird in my mouth.)

I think a lot of this stuff, consumed by the general public, amounts to an extended corporate-funded experiment on unwitting participants. One in which I don’t have a great desire to take part.

Also, I have to ask: Why use fake sweeteners when we’ve already got sugar and honey? (To me it’s like buying someone a gift card – which can be used in only one place and costs more than the amount of the “gift.” Real money, on the other hand, can be spent anywhere, and comes with no surcharge. You just give it to them, and they spend it wherever they want.)

NO. Vitamins don’t help healthy people.

Yeah, but the phrase “healthy people” is a bit of a waffle. How many of us eat really good, nutritious food all the time? I’ve taken vitamins most of my life just as a form of insurance against my known diet of not-so-great stuff.

NO. Fast food will not kill you.

But it also won’t help you all that much, either, especially if you eat it all the time. I see fast food generally as fatty and vitamin-depleted.

I was diagnosed with an acid stomach problem a few years back and told by my doctor that I’d be taking Pepcid every day for the rest of my life. Without going into the details, I HAD TO take this medicine or suffer painful, even crippling, consequences.

When I stopped the fast food, caffeine and sugary stuff, and started eating a lot more vegetables and fruits, that acid problem went away in less than a week, and never came back. I totally stopped taking the acid blocker (which is another long-term science experiment I kinda didn’t want to do on myself).

NO. Mercury fillings won’t hurt you.

I had 7 or 8 mercury fillings that I had replaced with composite about 5 years ago. I can’t say I noticed any changes in my health or mental acuity. I had them taken out for one main reason. Mercury amalgam is supposedly safe when it’s in your mouth, but when it’s taken out, it’s suddenly classified as toxic waste. Yes, there’s a longer argument in that statement. But … toxic waste? Mercury? In my mouth? No, thanks.

Some large part of my view of the world, and especially corporate interests, is based on my work with draft horses. Even with the even temper and placid good will that draft horses are known for, they weigh a ton or more and are just damned strong. One giant hoof coming down on your foot and you’re crippled. One errant kick at a fly when you’re bent over fastening harness, and the brain inside your fragile little human skull is history.

Likewise, even with the best of good will, big corporations/organizations can hurt you without meaning to. As to government regulation? Anybody who’s ever worked in a place that has OSHA inspections knows what a joke they are. If people get injured on a jobsite, there might be some remediation, but if you’re the one injured, you’re still injured.

If some product injures you or your kids – and I suspect it’s happening all the time, but we’re mostly unable to even know it – money is never a replacement for health and life.

Besides which, mercury has an interest group, the American Dental Association. With the tobacco industry example in mind, I know that even if mercury was to become KNOWN to harm people, it would still be years before they stopped putting it in people’s mouths. And meanwhile, they would defend it viciously against claims of harm.

I could easily be wrong about this, and hopefully some of you are more knowledgeable about it than me. But until I have time to really look into it, my motto is “When in doubt, better safe than sorry.”

NO. Peak oil isn’t the end of the world.

Ahem. Yeah. Like there’s some other fuel source out there just ready to take over, and like still rocketing population isn’t going to fuck us even if we switch over.

Yes, we’ve got to get off oil. (We won’t do it, though. Not until we’re desperate, and beyond desperate. Hell, here in the U.S., we’ve got PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES saying there’s no such thing as global warming.)

But, first, oil isn’t just a fuel source. For just one example, think about the streets near your house, and the potholes that show up every winter. Paved roads begin to degrade almost immediately, and without constant maintenance will become impassible within, say, 10 years or so. What do they pave and patch them with? A petroleum product. What’s going to replace it when it becomes too expensive or too scarce to use? Darned if I know.

Second, I lived in a tiny town in the mountains, a town with a single access road from the main highway. Several times in the years I was there, that road got snowed under 6 to 10 feet of snow, for 3 or more days. One eye-opening side effect of the thing showed up at the big supermarket in town. On Day 3, these four departments were emptied out: Dairy, Bread, Meat, Produce. There was no meat, no bread, not so much as a stick of butter, not so much as a single potato. None.

The eye-opener was this: A store isn’t a place where food is. It’s more a sort of food river, a place where food flows through. Only fierce stocking efforts, involving late-working stock boys but also very much involving another river, a river of trucks, keeps it looking like a store.

And when the river stops flowing from the upstream side, it empties out on the downstream side … in exactly 3 days. My conclusion is a sort of grim epigram:

If the trucks can’t get through, the revolution starts on Day  4.

Yeah. And trucking will be hit big with higher fuel costs, but also, just as severely in the long term, with bad roads. Even if we find some new way to fuel autos and trucks, we’re still faced with this ticking bomb of how to repair the roads.

I’m hoping a bunch of bright boys somewhere out there have this all figured out. But if that conversation is taking place, I have yet to hear it.

Speaking of which:

NO. Ethanol is not a good fuel source.

Heh. Actually, this one I agreed with so much I wanted to shout it to the world. Bravo, Skeptoid!

Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 4 of 8
Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 3 of 8
  • Anon

    I don’t really understand most of this stuff enough to comment on it, but there’s just one thing. Yes, there is real sugar, and there is honey. However, I lack a working pancreas, and I know damn well I don’t have the self-control to deny myself even the fake treats all the time.

    • eNeMeE


  • Brian Dunning

    Ha. Thanks for posting this, and thanks for your skeptical thoughts on a few of the shirts. As you see from the episode transcripts from which each shirt’s slogan is drawn, there’s far more to each of these questions than a 2-line shirt slogan can encompass. But a strong “in your face” assertion is a great conversation starter, and that’s why I decided to make these shirts: to start conversation.

    Also note that below the slogan is a list of bibliographic references supporting the slogan. These are the same references that appear on each episode’s transcript page on the website.

    Again, thanks for your post. :-)

  • Tenebras

    To echo anon above, people use artificial sweeteners because they are diabetic or pre-diabetic or afraid of becoming diabetic… But just can’t go through life without sweetened iced tea or coffee. :P

  • Art

    Most dentists seem to have have switch to polymer fillings. Probably helps limit mercury exposure for both dentists and patients. I’m not sure if I entirely approve. The amalgam fillings were tough and insensitive to most everything after some initial sensitivity to heat/cold. The recent polymer fillings, I had several old fillings redone, seem more sensitive to pressure.

  • funkydebunker

    Years ago I made my living working in the Alberta oilfields. It was not at all uncommon for me to have to face reproving looks and rightous attitudes from people when they found out where I worked. “How could I knowingly work for the corporations that were despoiling the planet” they would ask. I got tired of the kind of thinking which said that my helping produce oil was somehow immoral, but using it was okay. My response was to ask the “green people” if they travelled by airplane when on vacation or if they walked there. Did they subscribe to the 100 mile diet or did they buy fresh fruit in the winter? Had they ever used pharmaceuticals when sick? Did they eat produce grown with fertilizers? Did they live in a home or a cave? The point is that oil is used for quite a lot besides energy or transportation. If we ran out of oil the problem is not how to get products from one place to another, but how to produce the products in the first place. Oil provides the raw material for so much that we take for granted: it is the lifeblood of the planet. Would it be the end of all things if we ran out of the stuff? Maybe not, but it would be the end of the world as we know it.

  • Leslie

    I didn’t want to think today! Arghhhh!!!

  • Jim Baerg

    Re: Peak Oil (& global warming)

    I work in the Alberta Oil Patch, & think what humanity should do (& should have been doing for the last few decades) is build lots of nuclear power plants and expand & electrify the rail systems so we can save the fossil fuels for uses where we don’t (yet) have adequate alternatives.

  • Anat

    Peak oil isn’t the end of the world, but if we manage to cause catastrophic climate change we are headed towards a new Dark Age. This won’t be fun if it happens. So we had better shift to non-fossil fuel energy sources even before oil scarcity becomes a serious problem.

    Vitamins – unless you are on a very restrictive or very weird diet or suffer from a specific problem with absorption (such as B12 deficiency because of the autoimmune disease pernicious anemia) chances are you won’t benefit from supplements. There are specific situations where supplementation is recommended for people in over-all good health – eg follic acid for women who are trying to conceive or are pregnant, calcium/vitamin D for women from middle-age on.

    Fast food – how much of it? Regular consumption of fast food isn’t good for anyone. Most people probably won’t be harmed by having it occasionally. (How to define ‘occasionally’ and ‘regularly’? That’s a different question.)

    • Se Habla Espol

      B12 deficiency because of the autoimmune disease pernicious anemia

      Pernicious anemia isn’t always an autoimmune condition. I know a person whose PA resulted from a long series of ulcers, which damaged the Intrinsic Factor production in her stomach, compounded by cancer surgery which removed her terminal ileum (the locus of cobalamin absorption). Even though the ulcers were cured when H. pylori was recognized as the cause, the damage had been done.

  • rrpostal

    I’ll agree that some of these things need more definitions, but I worry about sacred cows creeping in to our skepticism. For any of these you disagree with, I’d suggest listening to his podcast on the matter. Brian is right that you really can’t sum up a position in a single line starting with “no”. I’ve found myself agreeing far more than disagreeing and he’s definitely on the frontline in the battle to be a clear thinking populace. My favorite episodes are the “listener feedback” ones.

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