Emergency Handbook: What to Do When a Friend Loves Woo
How you can help a friend or loved one with a potentially harmful pseudoscientific belief
by Brian Dunning
January 5, 2010
It's the #1 most common question I get: My wife, my friend, my mom, my boss, is investing their health or their money in some magical or fraudulent product/scheme/belief. What can I do about it?
This is a tough situation to be in. Whether it's a loved one who's ill and is being taken advantage of by a charlatan selling a magical cure with no hope of treating the illness, or a friend who's out of work and is going into deeper debt to buy into a hopeless multilevel marketing plan, it's really hard to watch. The hardest is when they have a real problem and are expending their limited resources trying to solve it with a medieval, magic-based system that you know can't possibly help. But all too often, they think it's helping. Cognitive biases, anecdotal thinking, placebo effects and cognitive dissonance combine to build a powerful illusion that our brains are hardwired to believe in. At some point, it falls to a caring friend to try and rescue them with a candle of reason.
You're up against a foe who's far more formidable than you might think. This isn't like settling a bet with a friend where you can look up the answer on Wikipedia, see who's right, then buy each other a beer. You're going after someone's religion. You're setting out to talk someone out of believing something that they know to be true, for a fact, from their personal experience. That right there makes your task nearly impossible, but it's worse. Their belief has spiritual underpinnings that make it deeply moral and virtuous. Imagine if someone came to you and flashed a magazine article that said it's best to turn your children out into the street and never talk to them again. It's not only unconvincing, it's laughable. Your effort to talk someone out of their belief in their sacred cow is likely to be just as laughable.
So what should you do, give up? You may be surprised to hear it from me, but I advise you to do just that, in many cases. Know which battles to fight. Weigh the risks. Consider the context of your friend's belief: Is he in imminent danger of harming himself or others? Probably not; and if not, this may not be the time to take what might be your only shot. So I want to make this a rule: Before you decide what to do, consider the risks and the context. How terrible are the consequences of your friend's belief? Think that through comprehensively. Make sure you have a good understanding of the risks to your friend if you do nothing, and the risks to your relationship if you attack their beliefs and (in all probability) fail to convince them. It may well be that this first strategy I'm going to present is the safest.
Strategy #1: Do Nothing
Doing nothing now doesn't mean giving up. When you choose not to confront your friend's current weird belief, there's still an effective strategy for helping him out that you can follow. By accepting and tolerating your friend's weird belief, you're actually setting yourself up to be in a position of great influence the next time something weird comes down the line. Your friend likely knows that you're a skeptical person, and eventually he'll recognize that you've been putting up with his weird belief and saying nothing. In fact he may someday ask you, "Hey, you know I believe in this weird thing, how come Mr. Cynical Skeptic has never tried to talk me out of it?"
Ask "Is it important to you?"
"You're important to me."
Think what a powerful message that sends. It may sound corny, but it's a statement that your friend will always remember. You've just communicated that your friendship is more important than your "evil debunking hobby". You've made it clear, unequivocably, that you don't want such differences to come between you.
And now look at the position you're in. You're trusted. You're an ally at the most important and fundamental level. This is exactly where you need to be if you want to be influential on someone. You can now begin to introduce critical thinking using topics that are more about exploration than confrontation, and this is a journey you should take together. Next time you're in the car together, play a few Skeptoid episodes. Play episodes like The Baigong Pipes, Is He Real or Is He Fictional, The Missing Cosmonauts, and When People Talk Backwards. Topics such as these do not attack or challenge anyone, they instill an appreciation and a passion for the value of critical thinking. Once introduced, I find that most people want more.
Gather every bit of skeptical material you can find that you know will interest your friend, and that does not attack or challenge his belief. So long as you remain a trustworthy friend and not an irrational adversary, you're in a position to introduce him to the fundamentals of critical thinking, and to the value and tangible rewards of reality. Don't underestimate the value of seeds that are well planted in a good environment. If your friend comes around on his own, his growth is far more complete than any that's forced upon him.
Always remember the story of the little boy who couldn't get his pet turtle to come out of his shell. He tried to pull on its head, he shook it, he squirted water, he did everything he could think of. But the turtle wouldn't come out. Then his grandfather took the turtle and placed it on the warm hearth, and within a minute the turtle was out of his shell. The little boy never forgot that lesson.
Strategy #2: The Intervention
Sometimes the situation is urgent and you don't have time to do things the easy way. There might be a medical crisis, an emotional crisis, or a financial crisis, and an immediate intervention is needed. Sometimes a friend's situation is dire enough that helping him is worth the loss of the personal relationship. In these cases, and probably only in these cases, would I suggest a confrontational approach. And to do this effectively, draw on the established principals of the counseling intervention.
First you want to gather a group of friends or family, and you need to meet with them separately. Try to get a group, but even if there are only two of you, it's worlds better than just you by yourself. Your next task is to present your evidence to the group that the magical system your friend is relying on is pseudoscientific and cannot help him. Do not expect them to accept what you say at face value, and do expect that some of them might buy into the magical system as well. Be prepared. Show your work. Print out pages from the web. Use the Science Based Medicine blog, use Skeptoid, use Quackwatch, use Swift. Search the best sources and have all your ducks in a row. The most important thing you need to do at this stage is to be certain that everyone in the group is united in their understanding of the useless, pseudoscientific nature of the magical sacred cow.
Tell the group why you're concerned about your friend and why the help is urgently needed. Be prepared to explain why you feel an intervention is warranted. And this is important: Don't merely be prepared to show that the magical sacred cow is useless, you must also have an alternative path — one that is proven to provide the kind of help needed — to suggest to your friend. Make sure everyone's in agreement that an intervention is warranted, and that a better alternative path is needed. If they're not, only invite those who are to proceed.
The main criticism of counseling interventions is that they are ambushes. Not only is it just plain wrong to ambush someone, it creates the practical problem of putting your friend on the defensive. So I don't propose making it an ambush. My recommendation, which you may or may not choose to follow, is to call your friend up and say "Hey, Jim-Bob and Bubba and Sally-Sue and I want to come over and talk to you about your cancer," or your new business, or your psychic friend, or whatever the problem is.
Now, of course, conducting the intervention is up to you. I feel that trusted friends who can speak knowledgeably about the subject carry more weight than showing the printed-out articles from the web, but leave them for your friend to read. Anyway, it's going to be a really crappy hour, it's not going to be fun for anyone, but with some luck you may just make a big difference in your friend's life. He may not love you for it, but the idea's to help him, not to win brownie points for yourself.
Strategy #3: Be There
In some cases, doing nothing may seem too slow, and an intervention may be too harsh and unwarranted. In these situations I often recommend that you just "be there" for your friend. Your skeptical cat is probably already out of the bag to some degree, so your friend's radar is probably already up just waiting for you to launch into him about his sacred cow.
What you may have is an awkward imbalance of a close personal relationship and an ideological divide. This situation gets thrown on me all the time, when I meet someone, or someone introduces me and has told them what I do, I'll sometimes get "Oh, you're that cynical person I've heard about." This is, of course, both wrong and insulting. I've gotten this so many times that I've learned to just swallow it. But nevertheless, the awkward divide exists, and the best way to handle an awkward situation is to openly acknowledge it.
The wording here is to difficult to get right, but at an opportune moment, you might want to say something like "Hey, I know you're really into your thing, you know I'm really into consumer protection, so we have a disagreement. If you ever want to talk about it, I'm happy to; but I don't want it to be a problem, and I'm fine with just acknowledging we have a disagreement and leaving it at that." The wording that's hard is declaring your own position. Consumer protection, critical thinking, things that are proven; you want to make your point but you don't want to choose weasel words that sound insulting.
From that point, you can follow the Do Nothing strategy and introduce articles that you know you'll both appreciate. This method just fast-tracks it somewhat, in that the door is wide open to discuss your friend's particular sacred cow at any time. But unless there's an imminent risk of harm, I tend to always let the friend bring it up, and I never try to drive the wedge or create a conflict myself.
It's perhaps ironic that those of us who want to provide actual help, instead of magical or imaginary help, are usually considered the bad guys, and we're the ones who have to tread lightly. But that's the reality of the situation, and we should take extra care to insure that our influence is a positive one.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Emergency Handbook: What to Do When a Friend Loves Woo." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
5 Jan 2010. Web.
17 Dec 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4187>
References & Further Reading
Ainsworth, P. Understanding Depression. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. 117-120.
Bowen, D., Strickler, S. A Good Friend For Bad Times. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004. 34-67.
Driscoll, W., Kempf, D., Broda-Bahm, K. Argument and Audience: Presenting Debates in Public Settings. Westborough: IDEA, 2004. 185-186.
Golanty, E., Edlin, G. Health and Wellness. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2007. 71-73.
Hammer, E., Dunn, D., Weiten, W. Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century. Florence: Cengage Learning, 2008. 250-251.
Johnson Institute. Training Families To Do a Successful Intervention. Minneapolis: Johnson Institute-QVS, Inc., 1996. 14-42.
Ketcham, K. Teens Under the Influence: The Truth About Kids, Alcohol, and Other Drugs. New York: Random House, Inc., 2008. 17-19.
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