Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Raw nonsense

Despite the fact that our modern lifestyle has increased our life expectancy to longer than it's ever been in the history of humanity, romanticizing the practices of the past is still ridiculously widespread.

People who claim that "everything causes cancer" conveniently ignore two things: first, that a good many forms of cancer would decline dramatically if we'd do things doctors recommend, like cutting out tobacco and getting vaccinated against HPV; and second, that one of the reasons cancer rates have climbed is that we're no longer dying of other stuff, like diphtheria, typhoid, measles, and smallpox.

But that kind of thinking seldom makes any inroads into the minds of people committed to anti-vaxx (or completely anti-medical) propaganda.  The levels of irrationality some of this thinking reaches are truly staggering.  I had one person comment on one of my posts -- in all apparent seriousness -- "my great-grandma never got vaccinated against anything, and she survived."

Well, of course she did.  If she'd died at age three of diphtheria, she wouldn't have been your great-grandma, now would she?

How about asking great-grandma how many of her siblings and cousins died of childhood infectious diseases -- like my grandfather's two oldest sisters, Marie-Aimée and Anne-Désée, who died five days apart at the ages of 22 and 16 -- of measles.

The person who posted that comment should win some sort of award for compressing the greatest number of fallacies into the shortest possible space.  Confirmation bias, cherry-picking, anecdotal evidence, and the post hoc fallacy, all in nine words.  Kind of impressive, actually.

Despite all this, there are huge numbers of people who want to return to what our distant ancestors did, claiming that it's "healthier" or "more natural," conveniently neglecting the fact that back then, as Thomas Hobbes so trenchantly put it, "life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

The result is the kind of thing I ran into in an article in Ars Technica last week about a trend I hadn't heard of, which is to drink "raw water."  "Raw water," which you might guess from the name, is water that hasn't been filtered or treated, but is collected (or even bottled and sold) right from a spring or river or whatnot.  And predictably, what happened was that nineteen people fell ill with a diarrheal disease (specifically Campylobacter jejuni) when it turned out that their trendy "natural spring water" turned out to be just ordinary runoff from a creek drainage that had been contaminated by bacteria from bird nests.

The amount of pseudoscience you run into with this stuff is astonishing.  In researching this topic, I found people who claim that "industrially-processed water" (i.e. most tap water) has "mind-control drugs" in it, designed to turn us all into Koolaid-drinkin' sheeple, and even one that said treatment plants deliberately "alter the molecular structure of water, turning it into a toxin."

Making me wonder how, or if, these people passed high school chemistry.

I spent the summers during my twenties and thirties back-country camping in the Cascades and Olympics, and I know how careful you have to be.  The clearest bubbling mountain brook can be contaminated with nasty stuff like Giardia and Salmonella, two diseases that should be high on the list of germs you never want to have inside you.  I used iodine sterilizing tablets for all the water I drank -- and I never got sick.  But I knew people who did, and as one of them vividly described it, "Having Giardia means that for three weeks you're going to be on a first-name basis with your toilet."

Which is funny until you find out that in the process, he lost twenty pounds and spent three days in the hospital hooked up to an IV so he could stay hydrated.

Look, I know our high-tech world isn't perfect.  I know about pesticides and herbicides and industrial contamination and coverups and food additives with dubious health effects.  My wife and I try as hard as we can to eat locally-sourced organic meat and produce, not to mention growing our own vegetables.  But the admittedly true statement that technology and the pharmaceuticals industry have created some problems does not equate to "therefore we should jettison everything they provide and return to the Stone Age."

Speaking of fallacies, there's another one for you: the package-deal fallacy.  You get into this stuff, it reads like the "what not to do" section of a critical thinking textbook.

So if you're inclined to switch over to "raw water," just don't.  Drinking water is treated for a reason.  Our Stone Age ancestors didn't have such great lives, and idealizing it as some kind of idyllic Garden of Eden is complete horse shit. 

Horse shit ironically being one of the things that might well be in your "raw water."


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