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Listener Feedback: Fads

Brian responds to some listener feedback concerning the topic of fads.   

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Fads, Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #468
May 26, 2015
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Fads come and go; they always have, they always will. And whenever one is popular, its most fervent adherents frequently embrace it and defend it with an almost religious fervor. Consequently, whenever I do an episode that undermines the value of some fad product or activity, I get feedback that reflects that fervor. Today we're going to the mailbag and respond to some listener emails about the episodes I've done on certain fads.

We'll get started with the Facebook and Twitter fad of slacktivism, the idea that clicking a "Like" button does some good in the world. JB in Chicago made a quasi-valid point on my episode criticizing slacktivism for being not just ineffective, but worse than ineffective:

You cite a few facts related to Kony 2012 and the 2014 vivisectionist photo. These are anecdotal examples. I expect you, of all people, to understand the difference between anecdotes and relevant statistics. Where are the actual statistics that back up your assertions about the ineffectiveness and destructiveness of slacktivism? Where are the facts that support the claim that raising awareness is useless or destructive? You provide literally none.

Don't forget that at the bottom of every Skeptoid episode transcript is a list of references and further reading recommendations. JB is correct that I did not bring up specific research proving my point in the episode, which I really should have. But I did include it in the further reading suggestions. There isn't a whole lot of research specifically about the effects of slacktivism, but what there is is pretty clear. Before "Like" buttons and online petitions, if you learned about a cause and wanted to support it, your only option was to actually get out a checkbook and send money. But now that slacktivism has given people a way to feel useful without really doing anything, it turns out that that's exactly what they do.

Research at the University of British Columbia that was published in 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Research found that simple acts of slacktivism can actually have a negative impact on the case. When people make a public show of support via social media, it turns out that it often satisfies their desire to support the cause without taking any further action, and they end up being less likely to actually do anything useful like volunteer or send money. When researchers presented subjects with signing a private petition instead, that didn't trumpet their support to their social network, it turned out those people were more likely to volunteer or send money. From the university's summary of the research:

They found that the more public the token show of endorsement, the less likely participants are to provide meaningful support later. If participants were provided with the chance to express token support more privately, such as confidentially signing a petition, they were more likely to give later. The researchers suggest this occurs because giving public endorsement satisfies the desire to look good to others, reducing the urgency to give later. Providing token support in private leads people to perceive their values are aligned with the cause without the payoff of having people witness it.

Thus, slacktivism can very easily result in less giving.

We also talked about a more recent fad, oil pulling. This is where you swish some type of vegetable oil around in your mouth for several minutes, which, if you do it long enough, probably confers antibacterial benefits similar to one quick swish of a common mouthwash. Joanne from Chicago was one of many listeners who credited it for any of a vast range of unrelated medical benefits:

I am certinly someone who can eb categorized as a skeptic; the technique sounded ridiculous to me when I read about it. Embarassingly enough, however, I actually gave ti a try when i wa having a persistent knee ailment several years ago. It sounds goofy, I know, but the pain went away IMMEDIATELY! You'll probably say, oh power of suggestion, but how come power of suggestion didn't work on anything ELSE I tried & believed would work? So give it a try with any of your aches and pains--you will believe!

It's hard to say this often enough. Aches and pains usually eventually go away; that's the natural effect of our bodies healing themselves. When they do, our brains tend to credit whatever it was we were doing at the time. In Joanne's case, it was oil pulling. This is why scientists know that anecdotal experiences, even their own, are terrible ways to learn anything. Our personal experiences are subject to every sort of cognitive error. We have preconceived expectations. We make mistakes and misinterpret things. We have biases. If there was sufficient evidence that swishing oil in the mouth treated orthopedic injuries, then we would design blinded, randomized, controlled trials to eliminate all those variables, using a statistically significant number of subjects. I'm glad Joanne's knee is better, but I think it's very important not to take her advice and simply "believe" based on her personal interpretation of her experience.

Cleansing juice regimens are a major fad that transfers a lot of money from trendy people's pockets into corporate coffers. Ivan from Mexico, possibly a customer of such a juice regimen, disputed my conclusion that they're basically worthless:

There are real benefits to a proper cleanse that includes fasting. Fasting is not about reducing calorie intake, it's about letting your body AND mind rest from *everything*. I wonder if this is how valuable ancient knowledge gets "lost".

Actually, reducing caloric intake is the definition of fasting. Resting your body and your mind is always a great thing; neither requires the purchase of overpriced magic fruit juices. And if I understand you correctly, you're characterizing resting as "lost ancient knowledge." I'm afraid I can't agree with you there. I can't recall ever meeting anyone who doesn't enjoy relaxation now and again, and certainly never met a doctor who advised against it.

There were a lot of comments on my episode about halotherapy — sitting in a salt-lined room in the vain hope of treating a variety of medical conditions — that said it can and does treat asthma as evidenced by the fact that doctors sometimes prescribe saline solution nebulizers or inhalers to help loosen up and remove mucus from the lungs. (It should be noted that asthma is the inflammation and constriction of lung passages; it is not the collection of mucus in the lungs.) Here is a snip of one such comment, from David in Melbourne:

I am overturning the medical consenus here in Australia as our results are spreading to more and more Doctors. We even have Doctors who use the therapy for their own conditions. Brian, explain to me why a saline Nebulizer is used by the medical profession to help clear the lungs of an asthmatic or any other respiratory condition for that matter?

He's talking about a broncho saline inhaler. It's quite simple; getting high humidity into the lungs helps to break up mucus and loosen anything trapped in it like dust or pollen or the other things we breathe in. It's the same reason people with clogged lungs often use humidifiers. The salt has nothing to do with it, except to bring the water vapor closer to the body's normal acidity level and make it more comfortable to inhale. It also has a mild antimicrobial effect. But if used by itself, for example if you were to inhale aerosolized salt in one of these "salt therapy" rooms, the salt by itself is a dessicant. When used in this way, it accomplishes exactly the opposite of why doctors prescribe nebulizers to loosen stuff in your lungs that you hope to cough up. So if David has indeed overturned the medical consensus, as he says, he has not convinced me so far.

Mongo from Austin offered the following comment on my episode about gluten free diets, perhaps one of the most prominent food fads of the last decade:

Son is autistic - gluten-free for years- is in amazing shape even thought he works out very little. Prior to going gluten-free, his stools (yea, poop) was never normal...never.. and his mood swings are so much better.. what it comes to is...what works for you...wheat (gluten) does not for him....period....

This is typical of food fads. People credit them for curing anything and everything. Absolutely zero legitimate published research indicates that diet can treat autism; in fact there is no known cure at all. That removing gluten (or any other protein) from the diet would treat it is nonsensical. The main symptom of celiac disease is malnutrition; gluten inflames the walls of the bowels and prevents other nutrients from being absorbed by the body. Malnutrition has never been shown to be a plausible cause of autism, which is largely believed to be genetic. Unless your autistic child is really skinny and unable to put on weight, there's not even a sound reason to have him tested for celiac to see if removing gluten from his diet might help him. If your son is autistic and cutting out gluten helped him put on weight and improved his stools, then perhaps he is one of the estimated 33,000 Americans who is both autistic and has celiac disease.

Jimmy in the UK talked about another popular food fad, raw milk.

Mr Dunning's biggest stake against Raw Milk is "it contains harmful bacteria, so we pastuerise it and so there is less bacteria", he even cited how many children (CHILDREN) nowadays fall ill due to Raw Milk. But hey, some of our progenitors were fine right? Obviously this is all weakly understood science, much like how you eat all your meat raw and never cook your eggs. Damnit man, read a book, you're actively endangering kids with this kind of mind-set (source: 3rd point in the article, link and quote)

I caution you against getting medical information from books, particularly mass market books. Just about every type of health nonsense anyone can think of has been found in the New York Times' Best Sellers list at some point. If you're looking for specific health information, avoid mass market books; since there's no way for a layperson to know its credibility. Instead turn to peer reviewed research in legitimate medical journals, which are increasingly available online. Try Google Scholar as a place to start.

To your point about our progenitors being just fine drinking unpasteurized cow's milk, the answer is no, they weren't. Until a few thousand years ago, all adult humans were lactose intolerant. Although human babies could always tolerate lactose, people lost the ability as they grew older. So what we call lactase persistence comes from a mutation that first developed in Europe probably some five to eight thousand years ago, with probably a separate independent mutation arising at some point in Africa. And it spread pretty slowly; it wasn't until about one thousand years ago that most people could drink milk. Before that, we had to make do with cheese or even yogurt, since those processes break down most of the lactose — and, as an added benefit, the bacteria cultures that create the cheese and yogurt also inhibit the growth of the dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

So listeners, keep that feedback coming. Skeptoid exists only because of you and your financial support, and we'll continue doing our best to answer your feedback. Every episode has a comments page at Skeptoid.com where you can post your comments.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: Fads." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 26 May 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4468>

 

References & Further Reading

Hollox, E. "Evolutionary Genetics: Genetics of lactase persistence - fresh lessons in the history of milk drinking." European Journal of Human Genetics. 15 Dec. 2004, Number 13: 267–269.

Koo, I. "Eat it with a Grain of Salt." Infectious Diseases. About.com, 19 May 2014. Web. 17 Aug. 2014. <http://infectiousdiseases.about.com/od/prevention/a/salt.htm>

Kristofferson, K., White, K., Peloza, J. "The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action." Journal of Consumer Research. 10 Apr. 2014, Volume 40, Number 6: 1149-1166.

Langer, A., Ayers, T., Grass, J., Lynch, M., Angulo, F., Mahon, B. "Nonpasteurized Dairy Products, Disease Outbreaks, and State Laws - United States, 1993–2006." Emerging Infectious Diseases. 21 Feb. 2012, Volume 18, Number 3: 385-391.

Moores, S. "Experts Warn of Detox Diet Dangers." NBC News. NBCNews.com, 18 May 2007. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18595886/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/t/experts-warn-detox-diet-dangers/>

Novella, S. "Oil Pulling Your Leg." Science-Based Medicine. New England Skeptical Society, 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014. <http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/oil-pulling-your-leg/>

 

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