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The Kil Report
The Kil Report: Alternative Medicine,Scientific Method, Evil Skeptic, Scams, Fraud, Hoaxes, Critical Thinking, Enforma
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The Curse of Being a Skeptic with a Cold

By David Glück
Posted on: 10/28/2010

A dilemma like the one 's'not any fun.


Last Sunday I went to a play with my ex-girlfriend. We are still friends and still do things together now and then. We like each other. I now have a cold! (The only part of the above that has anything to do with the cold I have now is that I probably breathed in the accursed cold virus by sitting next to Michelle in the enclosed cab of my truck while she inhaled and exhaled, which is her way.) She hadn’t come down with the cold that would soon assert itself in her head and chest yet, complete with a fever and all that goes with that particularly achy symptom, but it wouldn’t be long before she succumbed to the illness that she had already spread to me and who knows how many others. I would soon be doing the same thing to a few of the poor unfortunates that I came in contact with (my roommate is now sick!). The deed was done without my ever having been aware of the disease-spreading machine that I had become (Michelle is also innocent of knowingly spreading malicious germs, I think).

Anyhow, I have a cold. And it’s a tenacious bastard. But that fact is only tangential to my story. I mean, what can I tell you about a bad cold that you don’t already know? The way I feel right now is probably something you have felt too, and probably more than once in your life, and your empathic response because of that shared human experience is both accepted and appreciated. Yes, I also hope that I feel better soon!

There is something of a curse to being a skeptic with a cold. It’s the curse of suddenly having to deal with all of those who want nothing but the best for you and are simultaneously full of baloney. I’m speaking of friends and family and even casual acquaintances who are happy to share their vast medical knowledge with you, gained by years of experience though self-treatment or by something they have read or heard about that may have recently worked for them or someone that they know. It could be the wisdom from masters of the ancient healing arts that they are happy to impart unto you, just in case you haven’t been keeping up, or it could be a common bit of advice that no amount of hemming and hawing and pointing out to them about how or why it’s baloney or a myth will dissuade them from believing it. After all, a mega-dose of vitamin C, a tincture made from sage, a homeopathic dose of belladonna, Yin Qiao San or maybe some good old acupressure has cured them (or a friend) of a cold and they would be remiss if they kept the cure to themselves. Especially when it’s because they care about you and really do want you to feel better.

I know they mean well. And I want to be honest with them. There they are trying to be helpful and here I am thanking them for their concern and advice by telling them that they’re full of crap. I mean really! I must now work at being a diplomat while I’m feeling awful and would much rather blurt out what I am thinking without reserve, because what I’m thinking is so much closer to the surface when I am feeling the grump that often accompanies the rest of the symptoms that have taken hold of me. I must be diplomatic when I don’t feel like being diplomatic about much of anything.

Since I came down with this cold, It has been suggested that I put garlic in my ears, eat raw garlic with lots of cayenne peppers, make sure to breath through my nose (never mind that my nose is stuffed and I think any kind of breathing is better than not breathing), take zinc, drink whiskey, slather Vics Vapo Rub under my nose (in my mustache?), eat chicken soup, lemon-grass soup, hot and sour soup, go to Pismo Beach and sleep in a trailer for two days and so on. Some of the recommendations work for me because even if they won’t cure a cold, I just happen to like them. I have been eating lots of soup. And spicy stuff does seem to clear my nose for a little while.

But I may have fallen a bit short at being diplomatic on Wednesday, the day I was becoming sicker and sicker until there was no doubt that whatever the bug is that’s dogging my friend (and everyone she knows) had produced replicas of itself that were now at home inside of me and wreaking havoc.

It was mid-afternoon when I realized, after missing a week of work due to scheduling problems, and in need of making up time, that I just couldn’t go on anymore. My arms had become as limp as spaghetti and my head was filling up with way more viscous liquid than it could comfortably hold even as some of the liquid found at least one exit that leads directly to the outside of me, working its way down my mustache as fast as I could wipe it away. I just couldn’t concentrate on the job that I was supposed to be doing anymore. I was going to trudge off to tell the woman I am currently working for that I was done for the day, and that coming back in the morning is far from certain. But she happened along while I was making up my mind about how to break that uncomfortable news to her, and asked me how I was doing.

“The cabinets are fine but I’m not. I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with something. A cold. It feels like a cold.”

“You’re getting sick?” she asked. “Do you drink enough water?”

“Huh?”

“Are you hydrating yourself?”

“I get plenty of liquid. I’ve been sipping diet ginger ale all day.”

She frowned. “Water. You must drink water to stay hydrated. Soda is full of stuff, you know. Chemicals. Stuff that keeps you from absorbing the water that you need. All animals must have water.”

“Well, yeah. All animals need to be hydrated, but not all animals drink water.”

I explained to her that soda is mostly water and that our bodies absorb it just fine.

She frowned. “No. You should be drinking eight glasses of water a day.”

As nicely as I could, I told her that the eight glass rule was more of a guideline than a rule, that it varies depending on a lot of things, and that no one is really sure of where that rule even came from. I told her it isn’t a bad rule, but that sipping my soda would also keep me hydrated. She pointed out that animals don’t drink soda.

The conversation was becoming tiring fast. All I wanted to do was clean up and leave, and there I was debating proper methods for staying hydrated, and therefore, apparently, never sick. I mentioned in passing that I often have water with a bit of lemon in it at dinnertime. That information pleased her.

“Oh, you can do that. Lemon in water is fine.”

“I can?” I shot back, “I have never seen any animal other than a human squeeze lemon juice into a glass of water. So how come a lemon is okay? What else is okay in my water? Maybe if all the other animals had brains as big as ours and opposable thumbs, they would be drinking diet ginger ale too…”

Ooops! But gets worse, if only momentarily so.

She ignored my snarky reply and I wondered if she had even heard me. She asked me if I take echinacea with goldenseal. She told me she takes it with a little water every day and she never ever gets sick. She asked me if I would like some?

“I’d rather die.”

That response was, of course, an extreme exaggeration. And I hadn’t completely given in to how I felt and really wouldn’t have minded something to lessen my misery. “I’d rather die” was not what I would usually consider an appropriate response to an offer from someone who felt that I was in need of her medical knowledge, and help, no matter how tempting that kind of response might be. She meant no harm. Plus, she was signing my checks.

She stared back at me. I think she was truly dumbfounded by so complete a rejection of her proposed remedy. I had left her no room to maneuver. Unlike our water discussion, there was nothing to debate. She just stared back at me for a few moments and then walked away.

Well now. That could have gone better.

I pondered what I had just done for a few seconds and then walked in to the house and apologized to her. I apologized for being rude.

When she again offered me some of the remedy, I told her that what I had said was rude, but it came from a deep-seated skepticism that was based on many years of looking at the alternative medicine industry and my concern about the many unfounded claims of efficacy that are touted for this or that curative, and the lack of regulation that allows for many over-the-counter quack remedies. Her response to that was to once again offer me some echinacea with goldenseal in a bit of water. “What could it hurt?”

Okay. I’m there to build cabinets. While most of the time I’m only too happy to argue for skepticism and critical thinking, circumstances being what they were, this wasn’t one of those times. Not when the person I’m arguing with is signing my checks, is thoroughly convinced that she’s correct, and I’m already grumpy. Right? I didn’t feel well and I just couldn’t keep going around and around like this. Plus I didn’t want to lose my temper again. Think what you will of me, but I drank the offering like a good little Alice. Heaven knows I’ve tasted many elixirs at New Age Expos and lived to tell the tale. She gave me the bottle and told me to take some before going to sleep.

I took the bottle home, booted up my computer and checked the stuff out to make sure I hadn’t been poisoned. Okay, safe if I’m not pregnant but efficacy against the common cold has not been established. Shocking news indeed.

So where is this going, you might be wondering? Sure, after a few unsuccessful attempts at diplomacy I was a dick for a few moments. But there were mitigating circumstances and it’s not as though I gave skepticism in general a black eye. I mean, she might have been momentarily fazed but it didn’t last for very long.

But here’s the thing. While it’s true that there is kindness in the hearts of believers who are offering you advice to relieve whatever it is that’s ailing you, if you try, as I did, to explain your skepticism and the reasons for it, whatever kindness there is in offering the advice will fly out the window in favor of proving you wrong if the advice is declined. All too often, that has been my experience with those who have a way of thinking that is completely at odds with my own, no matter the situation. Evidence shmevidence! “I know it works because it worked for me” is pretty much all the evidence that some people will ever need to make them feel expert enough to confidently dole out advice on what is best for you.

It became not about my illness but about her and her unwillingness to understand who I am. Or it became about her need to reform what I am. Or both. I didn’t tell my employer to not drink eight glasses of pure water a day (with or without lemon) or to stop taking echinacea with goldenseal because I thought it was at best a placebo. I gave her a skeptic’s perspective on alternative medicine and she discounted what I told her in favor of proving me wrong. She didn’t have to do that. She could have left it alone. She could have left me alone. But apparently I had challenged a cherished belief of hers and she was having none of that.

If I took all of the cures offered to me while fighting off this cold, this cold will still run its course. Would I attribute my getting better, once I do, to one of the cures offered to me? Probably not. But if you are someone inclined to believe that what you have taken will cure you of a cold, then cure you it will, no matter how much it did absolutely nothing at all. You would have gotten better anyway. That’s exactly the stuff of testimonials. “I stuffed garlic up my nose and bathed my feet in a vat of hot water with a few drops of a homeopathic aromatic tincture of horse-poopy and I got better!”

So there it is. This has been my little cautionary tale to skeptics with a cold. Listen up skeptics! They are waiting to pounce at the first sign of illness! Unless you live as a hermit, someone will try to help you no matter how much you don’t feel like accepting his or her help. If you must let on that you are sick, learn to nod and say, “Thanks for the advice.” Because when you are sick, critical thinker that you are, promoter of skepticism that you are, champion of reason and logic and science that you are, with all of your finely-honed skill at debating all of the issues of concern to skeptics, your internal censors just might be on the fritz, as mine were. Plus, when you’re sick, who needs it?

Sometimes it’s better to save it for another day.



Thanks to Michelle Shires for making me sick and also for her editing ideas, and to Dave W. for the final edit.



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