Help a science-minded creature navigate unscientific thinking by friends
February 20, 2014 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm a performer/dancer/creative type in a newish city (1 year). I also have a background in science. Much of my social circle contains people who are more into woo/new-agey things than I am. I find myself *enraged* by this sometimes. Each little comment (a reference to table salt being "poison" while sea salt isn't, household use of homeopathic things like arnica, e.g.) ruffles me. I can feel myself growing distant from two important people in my life - my roommate and lover. I admire and respect them greatly for their emotional intelligence, perceptiveness, and expression. We giggle and dance and clown around and we connect completely. They bring up chakras and I want to throw myself on a sharp object. Sometimes I let their comments go by, but I feel irritated inside. Other times I challenge them and I think I come off as arrogant and judgmental; close-minded. I AM judging. We all make decisions based on info from friends and websites and the like - but I really really care about information sources that are legit - from professionals, peer-reviewed research, etc. They don't.

Example: lover P needs to pass a drug test for a new job, but smoked a joint a few days ago. Oops. He hits up naturopath friend, I hit up MD friend. My MD source tells me there is nothing you can do to speed up the metabolism of THC. 3-7 days. I make the analogy of alcohol - if your liver is processing alcohol, drinking water/coffee/etc won't help, just time will. I'm no expert on this at ALL. But I want to understand the mechanism. P just wants to drink shittons of water and detox tea and blend up a special smoothie recipe from his friend and go to the sauna etc. I respect the psychological yearning to at least feel like you're taking every step possible, even if it isn't logical. But that's not how P is thinking of it. My job is to be his friend in this situation, and I manage to remain supportive and not show any irritation. But even though this is his problem, his life, his decision, I am irritated. I put a little black mark against the way that he thinks through this. I respect him a little less. I feel a separation widening. It also means I automatically don't trust the way he thinks critically in general. He brings up something about Chinese Medicine, and my eyes begin to roll. I remember reading an article way back when that made me suspect CM of being no good due to weird Chinese gov't policies and cultural appropriationn…but otherwise, I don't know anything about this (or chakras, for that matter). But I've automatically dismissed these things before learning about them. That's not exactly enlightened--or scientific--either.

I want to stay true to the way I think. But I also want to become nobler about dealing with others who don't think the way that I do. People don't remember that you were "right," people remember that you were an arrogant jerk to them. I want to be less triggered by these things. I don't like getting into the territory of everyone having to come prepared to any discussion at all with a list of references backing up their POV. We are all on edge with one another. Can I get to a place where I respect these otherwise thoroughly delightful people? This doesn't feel good. Help me, MeFites!
posted by red_rabbit to Human Relations (46 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to read up on the history of science. I find that when I remind myself of the Tuskagee study or eugenics or the whole "women have wandering wombs" or Charcot's lectures, for instance, or just the many recent instances of fraud or silly thinking that have come to light (most vitamins most of the time - completely useless! or actively harmful! many published lab results can't be replicated!) I find it easier to let the woo go. Frankly, I'd rather have folks who believe harmlessly in arnica and chakras than folks who are all ev psych about gender.

Or focus on your own incomplete knowledge of the world. There are a lot of things I sort of know about, generally, yet I waltz around acting as if I have real, solid understanding of them. (And I suspect that a lot of the 'science' that people think they know falls into this category - science is pretty large.)

I don't think you need to 'respect' some kind of foolery. But I think it's pretty useful to focus on how most of us, most of the time, are engaged in foolery, even when it's dressed up as rationalism. Harmless foolery is probably about the best most humans can do most of the time.
posted by Frowner at 10:41 AM on February 20, 2014 [26 favorites]

Can you treat their views on science/medical things like politics? I have quite a few friends whose political views are deeply maddening, but as long as I don't engage in political discussions with them we get along fine.

So far, you've given examples where the woo has been mostly harmless. Avoiding table salt, detoxing to pass a drug test -- these won't hurt anyone, even if the reasons behind them are silly. So just decide that you don't care about those things.

Even when it slips into a realm that could be harmful -- choosing homeopathy instead of chemotherapy, for example -- can you focus on the fact that as long as they are only harming themselves it doesn't matter to you?
posted by sparklemotion at 10:43 AM on February 20, 2014

It strikes me that this is not so much about your thinking vs. theirs, but about your reaction to their thinking. I disagree with friends about a lot of things, but I don't feel irritated by our differences.

So I'd try this -

1. Analyze why you think this is bothering you to the extent that it is. Does it have to do with concern about their well-being? (I notice that nearly all the examples you give refer to alternative healing.) Are you frustrated because "they seem so smart but this is so dumb AAAAAHHHH" and it makes you distrust the rest of the way they think? You know, really get at the "why" of "why do I feel this way".

2. Once you've figured that out, then get to the "why" of why they think that way, but keeping your own concerns in mind. So, like, if you've figured out that you're worried about their wellbeing, maybe ask about "I've been curious, you do a lot of alternative-healing things, what got you interested in that in particular?" and maybe you'll find out that some doctor misdiagnosed someone in their family and it was a big bad thing, and you'll understand them better. Or maybe if you've figured out that you mistrust their thought processes now, you can ask "I'm curious how you handle the conflict between everyone else saying that medicine works THIS way and the alternative stuff works THAT way. How'd you process that?" and maybe they'll explain the way they think and you can see that "okay, yeah, even though I still don't agree with them at least they didn't just blindly accept this".

You know? sometimes looking at the "why" of why you or they think something can help an awful lot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:44 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Science is only as "right" as the proof is.

So much of what science has told us in the past, has been reversed by subsequent research or new evidence. Which is fine, I'm a HUGE fan of the scientific method.

I've lived long enough to see eggs be wonder-foods, evil incarnate and back to wonder-foods again. Ditto with salt and high blood pressure. (It matters, it doesn't matter, it depends.) For most of my lifetime, Spinach was believed to be high in iron and super-good for you, then it was discovered that there was a mistake in the decimel place.

But you don't know all things. Sure, homeopothy is bullshit, but I have friends who swear by it. If they feel better, who am I to argue? The placebo effect is valid on its face.

Either your friend passes the drug test, or he doesn't. You'll both know soon enough. Who did he hurt with his little purge?

If this is a big issue for you, then yes, it can be problematic. Just as a devout Christian wouldn't be comfortable in a relationship with an Athiest, some things DO matter that much to you.

One thing you might want to do is to say, "I'm not really into all of this woo-woo stuff. I put my faith in things that have been tested by science." Then, when they bring it up, you can remind them, "Do what you like, but you know me, unless it's approved by the FDA, I'll reserve judgement."

Occasionally someone in my Facebook feed will publish anti-vaccination screed, and I'll ALWAYS contradict it. Because that shit can kill people.

But I'm about 98% live and let live on the rest of it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:45 AM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

I used to be a lot like you - very opinionated, very frustrated with people who didn't agree with me on things I saw as factual, quick to judge, etc. I am still very opinionated, but have tamped down on the other two a lot.

The biggest thing that helped was reframing my idea of "correct" and "incorrect." I started thinking of my opinions in the context of "I believe X" rather than "X is correct," even in cases where science was wholly on my side. I read more philosophy, introduced myself to concepts like relativism, and reminded myself that people can do or think or say whatever they like unless/until their actions harm me. I reminded myself that we once held radically different "scientific" views than we do today, and realize that in 10 or 50 or 500 years those things we take as fact today might be proven false after all.

The result? I feel less absolutely certain of my convictions now; I see them as true for me, true right now, but perhaps not necessarily true at an universal and absolute level. I am happier and feel more centered than I did before, and I get along better with others.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:46 AM on February 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

There's lots of stupid-ass, wholly incorrect things even the experts believe. My grandfather was an M.D., a respected cardiologist, who also totally believed in the efficacy of things like cupping. Didn't make him a shittier doctor, because he wasn't about to suggest cupping in lieu of Actual Medicine, but cupping is nonsense. But it if everyone is convinced they're doing something good for themselves, and it's not doing anything bad to them, what're you going to do?

Dig deep enough into anyone's belief system, and you'll find something irredeemably stupid or just plain wrong. Anyone's. Why? Because there's plenty of things we hold as a fact today that will be wrong tomorrow when the latest study comes out and no one can keep up with all of that. And what's more is that they will argue to the fucking death that they're right, period. Just as you are convinced you are. Any one thing you think is totally a fact can be tomorrow's "asbestos is a perfectly safe fire retardant" or "hydrogen peroxide is good for open wounds."

If things get to the point where your friends are actively hurting themselves by avoiding seeing a normal doctor for a normal-doctor thing, that's a breaking point. But before that? Make it clear you're not open to woo, find ways to get out of conversations about it, and be a friend by being a friend by not verbalizing the "the stupid thing you tried didn't work" before the "I'm sorry your having a hard time" if it's only going to make the situation worse to point out the stupid thing.
posted by griphus at 10:47 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Chinese medicine, chakras, etc. have enormously long and reasonably empirical histories. Chakras, for example, actually line up anatomically with organs/glands in the body. If I were you, I'd start reading up on the actual histories of these systems of thought, to understand how and why they were developed.

Of course there are quacks practicing and espousing these things. Western medicine has the same number of quacks (e.g., Dr. Oz). But dismissing entire systems of thought based on a few quacks is not exactly critical thinking, either.
posted by jaguar at 10:50 AM on February 20, 2014 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I sooooooo grok you. I am related to and am friends with many people who believe in pseudo-science, alternative medicine, and new-age stuff like astrology. These people are lovely people with many good qualities- they're just gullible.

I have found that stating, "Nah I don't believe/care about that." With minimum of fuss works very well. Not at first, but if you are a good person and do not believe in crap, your example will seep into their consciouaness over time. Very, very similar with atheism/religion- in my opinion, the best tactic to take is "being an awesome person and known atheist in their general direction" for a long time, and only verrrry rarely engaging in mild and gentle arguments, usually at their instigation.

In my experience, people need a lot of time to grow out of believing in things. When we are young, especially, we look for easy answers. People don't snap out of it during arguments with scientists, they go home and mull it over for a while, quietly, and one day maybe just stop buying crystals or reading their horoscope as much.

Being positive also helps. Not, "LOL astrology is stoopid you dumb loser" but, "I don't like to limit myself- I believe in individual free will that conquers fate."
posted by quincunx at 10:51 AM on February 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

Of course there are quacks practicing and espousing these things. Western medicine has the same number of quacks (e.g., Dr. Oz). But dismissing entire systems of thought based on a few quacks is not exactly critical thinking, either.

That is a really good point. I think there's some unconscious racism in the kind of scientific thought which dismisses all non-Western medicine out of hand. (Racism? In science? Surely not!) Perhaps it would also help to study the overlap between non-Western systems and Western? (For instance, I literally actually know someone who researches - in, like, a research lab with a flow cytometer and centrifuges and everything - a compound found in birch bark and its medicinal applications, drawing initially from some folk beliefs about the properties of birch.)
posted by Frowner at 10:53 AM on February 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

Yes, it's also important to keep in mind that when Western medicine/science finds that any particular aspect of "alternative" medicine does work, that medicine gets incorporated into Western medicine and stops being thought of as "alternative." There's a fair amount of overlap that tends to get erased (as Frowner points out, often in basically racist ways).
posted by jaguar at 10:59 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Not my jam", is the easiest way of not ruffling their feathers while maybe giving them the slightest of hints that this is not a topic that will go well with anyone when taken to a certain depth.

Even knowing the reasons as to why the people in my life like this are wrong, I find it difficult to even broach the topic when the end result is having to tell them that some company is making money hand over fist thanks to their reaction to a placebo or noise results.

No one I've talked to yet likes being told that the thing they're heavily invested, financially and emotionally, in is a scam.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:02 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

First, shut up about it unless it affects you. Something affects you if you are being asked to take a remedy or being asked to spend money. You can also refuse something offered to you for free if you don't believe in it, though I suggest you try not to lose sight of the thought behind the gesture.

If it does affect you, just say no. "I don't really believe in that, but thank you, I appreciate the thought." That sort of thing.

So if one of your friends wants to waste money on naturopath pills or whatever bullshit, just keep it to yourself. It doesn't affect you. It's their mistake to make and you won't gain anything by addressing it. Think of it like being that person who's always correcting their friends on little grammatical mistakes and irrelevant facts - you don't want to be known as a pedant. Make an exception for if they are genuinely and seriously endangering their own well-being - arnica is one thing, but if they start getting into colloidal silver, maybe warn them about argyria. Or if they start talking about wearing a magnet bracelet or something with ions or whatever, that's fine and you should let it go, but if they're convinced their magnet bracelet will cure cancer and they intend to forsake other treatments for it, yeah you should speak your piece.

You may find that it becomes easier not to resent them as time passes and you don't butt heads over things like this.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:05 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oy, I feel you tremendously, because my mom is not only a woo believer, but a woo purveyor. It was a source of conflict for us for many years until I just...stopped fighting. Just stop fighting, work to put the kibosh on your immediate rage reaction, and see what happens.

Mom believes these goofy things about energies and crystals and vibrations, strongly enough to command a high price for basically waving her hands at people while there are candles in the room. Luckily, she doesn't do the kind of thing that someone might choose in lieu of, say, chemotherapy, and she does turn people away who Are seeking miracle cancer cures and the like. She's more like someone you might go to because your doctor hand-waved away your PMS as "all in your head" or your PCOS as "try and lose some weight."

Which, by the way, is a highly "western" and "scientifically respected" attitude and also COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT.

I don't believe in the things she believes in. But I am increasingly reading studies that show peoples' outcomes improve dramatically when they feel listened to, heard, and empathized with. Which she provides, when their actual medical doctors often do not.

She's also not a dumb woman! She birthed and raised three stamped-and-verified Gifted Kids, after all. She was just educated in an entirely different manner, by a society that cared even less about the minds of women than our current one. Her authorities are not mine; she reflexively distrusts mine, because they rejected her first. So, we agree to disagree. I don't say peep about her woo, she doesn't try to "reiki" me when I have a cold. I use her microwave when I visit, she thinks her microwave is evil.

I do go fucking apeshit when she starts up the anti-vax shit though. That one I don't let go. This year I got whooping cough and I think she finally clicked it that vaccines are not the devil. Because hello, your kid has goddamn whooping cough thanks to paranoid nitwits trumpeting this nonsense.
posted by like_a_friend at 11:06 AM on February 20, 2014 [26 favorites]

I'm in the camp that basically if it's not hurting (homeopathy/crystals/lemon cleanse) then I just make no comment at all. It's when it does hurt (vaccines/coffee enemas for liver cancer) that I get all fighty and start pulling out PubMed.

Throughout most of my life, the woo folks have been relatively harmless and I've just ignored them. Today, as my MIL has liver failure and my FIL has Alzheimer's and my husband has HIV, and his brother is a woo guru, I've gotten a lot more fighty, because I won't have my MIL taking coffee enemas and dying because he thinks the doctors are all in with the Pharma industry.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:08 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also remind yourself it is none of your business, if they are not trying to make you do the same things they are and are only suggesting you try things where is the harm to you, how does it really effect you. If the were to dye their hair pink, get a bunch of piercings, get tattoos you would most likely not think twice because it's their body and they can do what they want to it. That's the attitude you need to develop.

If your friends feel better for what they are doing then good for them for doing something that makes them feel better. The placebo effect is real and very powerful who are you to tell them something isn't working if it makes them feel better then it's working. If they were taking homeopathy for cancer or going onto a crazy using the sun for food type weirdness then speak up and speak up loudly, otherwise it really isn't your business. Remembering that you need to pick your fights will reduce your stress levels immediately.
posted by wwax at 11:10 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I struggle with this too, and I've found that choosing my battles helps. Like, I will go to bat for vaccines EVERY TIME but if someone wants to tell me about how great agave syrup is compared to table sugar, I will quietly roll my eyes and let it pass. I don't know. I judge my friends and relatives for their worldview, sometimes. And I've learned to mostly be ok with that. It's a lot like politics, as someone mentioned above.
posted by mskyle at 11:11 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I could have written this. Totally feel you.

Yeah, I think prioritize, pick your battles; but also, remember that there are lots of logical, rational scientists in the world, who would roll their eyes along with you at the woo, but who would be complete assholes about something else, and would not be people that you wanted in your life for any number of reasons. Scientists aren't perfect, you know? I have any number of highly rational MDs in my family, for instance, who cannot sustain romantic relationships because they just can't relax and be empathic. Or who can correctly analyze almost everything except their own motivations in their personal relationships.

These loved ones you've got, they aren't a perfect match with you along every single axis; but they are wonderful in many ways, and you'd be missing more from your life if you reject them than you'd actually gain if they did suddenly become anti-woo. So maybe next time your boyfriend does woo, try to think about how glad you are to be with him because of what he does add to your life, not about this one minus. (But also feel free to check back to this thread and know that I'm right there with you…)
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:21 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

O.P., we are soul mates. When I hear a phrase like "flush out the toxins," I want to eat my own fingers.

" But even though this is his problem, his life, his decision, I am irritated. I put a little black mark against the way that he thinks through this. I respect him a little less."

This is a reasonable reaction, because he's not using his brain.

When he flunks his pee test, he'll face the reality that his woo methods didn't work. He might think it's a one-time failure...who knows. You won't have to "I told you so," smirk, or anything else. His failed pee test will be vindication enough.

I wouldn't like a boyfriend that wasn't my intellectual equal.
posted by BostonTerrier at 11:23 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I work at a science organization. A *colleague* once made a comment about vaccines causing autism. My best friend said something suggesting that fluoridated water contained poison. When I posted something work-related on my Facebook page, a friend of mine actually said "keep those grubby scientists away from me." All of these experiences have led me to conclude that everyone is bonkers.

I would work to find allies and confide in/complain at them and make sure that you have their backs when one of your allies writes on their Facebook walls about how there is minimal evidence that GMOs are bad for you, for example. I have a good friend who emails me when someone says something stupid about vaccines and I email him something like this.

Does your city have something like a science cafe? That might be a good place to find like-minded people.

And I agree that you should pick your battles. When my grandfather was dying from emphysema, my father repeatedly told him that he needed to be on oxygen. My grandfather decided that a rescue inhaler was the same as an oxygen tank. No matter how many times my father explained that the inhaler opens his lungs but he still needs oxygen, he would happily pull out his inhaler when someone asked if he was on oxygen. To some extent, people don't hear what they don't want to hear.
posted by kat518 at 11:26 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I understand your frustration. I kind of wanna roll my eyes when people start talking about 'all natural' or some other fad diet-- and are afraid of chemistry. I like to use this banana article to prove my point sometimes. I also like to point out that something that is completely all natural, is Uranium-- and I don't exactly want to be exposed to that.

But it's very hard to change the opinion of someone who defines themselves by things like this. Consider a staunch vegetarian. There probably are compelling arguments for and against being vegetarian, from a health and ecological point of view. In my experience, people with vehemently opposing ideologies will never lend weight to the facts of the other camp. If faced with them, they will use counter-arguments, and sometimes outright denial.

This tends to happen even in things that have a very obvious 'right' answer.

People tend to have massive confirmation bias in general-- they tend to take note of things that corroborate what they already believe, and dismiss things that don't line up with them. I find hardly anyone is not immune to these cognitive biases. Myself included.

The thing is, even scientists can be woo-wooey. I recall that the discoverer of Vitamin C (who won a Nobel prize and was extremely accomplished) touted it as a cure for cancer even to his death (due to the way he believed free radicals contributed to cancer). Even when there was significant evidence to the contrary. I don't have a source though, but I remember reading an article about him recommending extremely high dosages to prevent cancer.

I'd also like to say that a lot of things we didn't understand yet, seemed crazy or impossible but had scientific explanations. Time travel (not as we know it, but still) for instance, is entirely scientifically possible. So are parallel universes. But these things existed in popular culture as concepts even before we were able to do the string theory to back them up. In fact, for a long time, people dismissed them as completely ridiculous and impossible, because they couldn't understand them.

My point is, certain things are not yet quantifiable, and certain things we don't know yet. And some things we think we know, are just plain wrong. Even nothing is not really nothing.

That's what I tell myself when I hear something I personally feel is ridiculous.

As for dealing with your emotions regarding it, perhaps examine why you feel the need to be 'right' all the time, and do you feel your thoughts and conclusions have more validity than the thoughts and conclusions of others? Why? Worry about yourself. You're wasting valuable mental energy and stressing out over something you probably can't change. Why does it get to you so badly? Were you ridiculed as a kid? Therapy may help you with your extreme reactions to these things.

So how I deal with it, is that, well... I believe in science. Science says the placebo effect is totally a thing. If my friends need to believe in reiki healing to feel better, let them. I don't want to rain on their parade. Life is short, we all have our vices and quirks, and who am I to judge? As long as they're not hurting anyone, then, it's fine.

I have a friend of a friend who has muscular dystrophy. There's really nothing he can do. It's terrible. Science says he has nothing. He's been looking into alternative medicine. I recommended acupuncture, not because I believe it works, but because he needed something. It helps him for a while after his sessions, and that's all he has. Sometimes hope is better than science.

I have a couple of good luck charms and stones and things, because they help me feel better. I completely understand they are useless. But they do help my anxiety and they make me feel more connected to the world. I also like pretty stones.

So I mean, forgive your friends for being human and needing something outside themselves to believe in. Whether it be faith based, or science based, need something to believe in. You're doing it too, albeit in a different way.

If you want to correct their erroneous beliefs, I find the best way to introduce a difference of opinion is in a way that is very mild and not aggressive, and allows the other to save face. For example, when the results of your friends test comes up-- "I told you so, because this and this!" Is not a great way to approach it. Instead, say something like, "I'm surprised it didn't work too, but my friend said that something to do with [science at work] means that there's nothing really you can do. At least you know for next time."

I'm not sure if that's a great example, but, generally the stauncher the opinion, the more you have to find common ground in order to change someone's mind.
posted by Dimes at 11:32 AM on February 20, 2014 [13 favorites]

I'm similar to you, but I would advise you to breathe before you say things because you could also be wrong. For example, many herbal substances (Chinese and other) do have verifiable medicinal properties and have even been adapted into Western remedies. Scientists regularly study natural substances looking for medicinal effects. So it's not totally nonsense by any means. But the way it is practiced is questionable to many people, including myself.
posted by Dansaman at 11:37 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have much to add regarding some of the excellent points made here (especially Frowner's comments on scientific racism, and many others' comments on how the most "rational" of people all have blind spots). I do want to address something Dimes said:

As for dealing with your emotions regarding it, perhaps examine why you feel the need to be 'right' all the time, and do you feel your thoughts and conclusions have more validity than the thoughts and conclusions of others? Why? Worry about yourself. You're wasting valuable mental energy and stressing out over something you probably can't change. Why does it get to you so badly?

Worry about yourself and keep your side of the road clean, so to speak. I agree with Dimes that you might consider therapy. Why does the woo get to you so badly? Why do you have to be in the right all the time? It's got to be wearying and stressful to be so upset over a friend getting their chakras aligned, or whatever, on their own time with their own money. Therapy might help you put all this in proportion.

Frankly - if you were in my social circle I'd distance myself from you. You come across as being critical, overbearing and intolerant with your friends and SO. That is not something that is going to endear you to others. People with a live-and-let-live attitude are much nicer to be around. I know someone who has to be Always Right and is overbearing and lecture-y about the harmless choices of others that don't fit into his worldview. He...goes through friends quite rapidly and a lot of people avoid him and/or call him an asshole. He's basically a good guy, and can't understand why people avoid don't want to wind up like him.

Unless it's a matter of public health (like someone refusing to vaccinate their kids) live and let live. Life is less stressful and you are better liked this way.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:56 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

It might be helpful to remind yourself that most people enjoy doing things for purely symbolic reasons (even if they've convinced themselves, or explain it to others as if they only do them for objective, results-oriented reasons) because human beings engage in a lot of meaning transfer and symbolic thinking as a way of comforting ourselves against the terrors of existence, the inevitability of death, and just to give life meaning overall.

Yes, there are certain schools of thought (scientific skepticism and rationalism especially) that view these habits very dimly, as erroneous or fallacious, but symbolic gestures and magical thinking also seem to be a part of the basic human condition, and I think that deserves some acceptance, compassion, and maybe even respect.

Your friend who wants to "detox" from smoking weed, for example, may be getting more psychological comfort than physical effectiveness from the practice, and that's not completely irrational. It sounds like an anxiety-provoking situation, and taking active steps in such a situation, even if they are practically pointless, may help him to cope with anxiety. It just takes a little self-insight to realize you're doing that, but humans have varying levels of that kind of insight. Unless it's actively putting him at risk, then he's actually kind of doing a rational thing.

To help your thinking around this issue, you might need to conscious practice "validating," which is hard as hell. It means finding one nugget of something that your friends say that you CAN agree with, and then saying it to them, or maybe just saying it to yourself in your head. You shouldn't stop thinking critically or being wary of quackery, but there are real honest-to-goodness reasons people in engage in these things - it's not just people being ill-informed or stupid. They are probably emotional or symbolic or cultural reasons behind their behaviour or beliefs. If you can find those reasons, you will feel calmer about this, and probably treat your friends better and have more respect for people overall.
posted by Ouisch at 12:06 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I run into this at home from my partner. I am consoled by the fact that my outlook, while somewhat science-oriented, is still nevertheless prone to being corrected by changes in research, personal bias and other factors, so even my 'rational' choices are really a melange of what I choose to believe. Also, I find that by avoiding critiquing my partner, they tend to get closer to my way of living rather than the reverse because the successes are evident. I usually have some factoid to back up what I say and do where a magical thinking process is usually deficient in some aspect or another. You can't really argue people out of their beliefs, you can only show them there is a better way is my take-away.
posted by diode at 12:12 PM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah, and dimes is referring to Linus Pauling, brilliant scientist...who also totally believed in what amounted to quackery. People, even smart, well-educated, scientific people, make mistakes all the time. (In my experience, it seems pretty common for people who have a really wonderful grasp of science to align themselves with quackish beliefs about nutrition, because nutrition is special for several reasons. Pretty young science, dealing with incredibly complex systems, yet seems familiar to everyone because we all have to eat and we all have our own unconscious/cultural belief systems about how it is "right" to eat, and because we invest food with so much symbolic meaning. Nutrition also seems to be mostly a matter of chemistry, so those familiar with pure chemistry are tempted to feel like they can predict how nutrition works, but the biochemistry of living systems is much harder to predict and put into context. This seems to be what happened with Pauling.)
posted by Ouisch at 12:28 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can't control what other people think.

The world will not be a better place if everyone thinks the same way as you.

Meditate on that until you really feel it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:30 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's perfectly fine to roll your eyes at chakras, chinese medicine, detoxing and other perceived 'woo'. It's all in the delivery. If you seem mean spirited about it, you'll lose friends, but if it's a lighthearted "oh come on..." you should be ok. If the question is more about managing your own feelings, I always try to remind myself that it's a matter of scale. My ancestors used to light virgins on fire to appease the snow gods, my sister aligning her chi is not a big deal in comparison.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 12:34 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sometimes it's good to remember that Newton believed a lot of "woo".

FWIW some kinds of alternative medicine, folk remedies etc have turned out to look as if they do actually work via double blind trials and such, though of course many or most have not.

Probably this is one of those times when the most constructive answer is: Have this conversation with them, not us.

Start with something like "I'm sorry I've been such an arrogant jerk with you."
posted by philipy at 12:40 PM on February 20, 2014

Just sounds like you need less annoying friends and SOs.
posted by jpe at 12:55 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Save it for when someone needs you to help with what would have been easily avoided medical scares with their kid. (Experience, here.) And then focus on being supportive and helpful about the future.

Just generally laugh it off the way you would their affection for (TV show you cannot stand) and when you think someone is actually endangering someone - taking unvaccinated children to visit an elderly person who is ill - ask questions along the lines of "Did you talk to person about concern X?" and "Did person say Y was okay for reasons."

The drug test thing , by supportive and helpful if it doesn't work out.

If people talk about driving drunk, I act like they must be joking. If they're lurching toward the car with keys in their hand, I'm going to say something.

Most of the time, the only problem is watching per feel smug when they are wrong. Once in a great while, things are at stake.

(My personal life includes transplant recipients and people with suppressed immune systems so there are times when things get touchy.)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:01 PM on February 20, 2014

I feel your pain but there'll be times when you can't broaden your experience of the world without tolerating at least some of other people's woo. The best drawing instructor I ever had was deep into astrology. Johnny Cash claimed to have a personal relationship with an ancient Jewish prophet. You can still respect them for their talents (unless they're working on some related political agenda or ripping people off with it).
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:01 PM on February 20, 2014

Strongly seconding Ouisch about the power and draw of symbolic acts and thinking. It's a feature of human consciousness and cognition, not a bug--and furthermore interacts with science and the increasing understanding of the material world in very interesting ways. Newton was an alchemist; the puzzle about the structure of benzene was solved by an image in a dream; many more examples from history of science, and not just quantum physics, neither.

I have an advanced degree in the natural sciences and could not be more aligned philosophically and professionally with technology and western medicine. At the same time, I have a deep appreciation for astrology, tarot, mythology, archetypes, chakras, and various other flavors of woo and feel no conflict about this whatsoever.

I concur with the folks who suggest you focus more on what buttons are being pushed within yourself that provokes such a strong reaction, rather than trying to correct your friends.
posted by Sublimity at 1:02 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Broaden your definition of 'rational'. Not in a woo-believing way, in a human-nature-understanding one.

So: P wants to pass the drug test. But P cannot turn back time and un-smoke the joint. So, the only way P could achieve that goal would be if there was a way to get it out of his system fast. Is this possible? Well, P is not an expert, P doesn't know. And at this point, P has you saying "I don't really know anything about this, but I asked a doctor friend and s/he says no, nothing you do will help," plus a naturopath friend saying "I do know stuff about this and you can pass that test if you do these things."

If P follows your advice, worst-case scenario is that he fails the test, but best-case scenario is... also that he fails the test. If P follows the naturopath's advice, best-case scenario is that he passes the test - worst-case scenario is that he fails plus maybe he's out the cost of a couple of smoothies, but in the meantime he got to feel like he was taking active steps to solve the problem. Even if there's only, like, a 1 in 100 chance the naturopath's right, why wouldn't P go with their advice over yours?

Your answer is probably "because my advice comes from an actual doctor, who knows more than the naturopath!". Yes, okay, and I agree with you in that I wouldn't listen to a naturopath over a doctor either. But you're not a doctor, and your knowledge on this is limited, and maybe P feels there's enough room for doubt even re: the doctor's advice (doctor not a specialist in this area, doctors not being omniscient) that it's worth a shot.

You're presenting this to yourself as "why would P believe that theory about how the body processes THC, rather than this other, better theory?". What you're not factoring into that is the broader context of what P has to gain and lose in this specific situation. (And neither are you factoring in the totally human - but not 100% rational - impulse on your own part to be annoyed that P is listening to someone else over you, and that what you hear as "hey, I found out what the actual science is on this" might sound to someone else like "I have no experience in this at all, but I did 30 minutes of research and now I want you to treat me like an expert.")

I don't blame you for finding the woo stuff deeply, deeply irritating. For myself, though, I find that my irritation with the people following it is significantly reduced if I look at it from a "what are they gaining from this?" perspective rather than a "ffs, why don't they see this is bullshit?" one.
posted by Catseye at 1:04 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Something else that I thought about:

You mentioned that you are a dancer. There are likely far fewer people with your worldview in the dance and performing arts worlds than there would be in some other fields. If you plan to keep on dancing, this might well be something you run up against time and again. This is one reason why cultivating a live-and-let-live, "I can't tell adults what to do" mindset will be good for your health and well-being.

Can you find at least one or two friends who are more like-minded? If you feel like you don't have much choice when it comes to friendships, that may be behind some of your intolerance. Is it a matter of: you don't have much in common with these folks and their worldview is opposed to yours, but for lack of a better alternative they are your people anyway? Maybe you'd feel better and less stressed if you had a couple of people in your life who share your worldview.

Sometimes people find themselves deeply at odds with the majority of folks who share their profession, hobby, city they live in, or what have you. If you suspect that you might be such a square peg, it's important to have someone you connect with, whether it's in your field or out of it.

But good god yes, therapy. Feeling outraged and contemptuous about people's differing worldviews is no way to live.

(Disclaimer: I'm probably very much on the woo end of MeFi users. There, I've admitted it! I get reiki, I get acupuncture, I do rituals, and I read tarot cards. That is my business. I'm an adult. I'm certainly not after telling strictly skeptical folks that they have to do what I do or they're wrong. I do think that it's good to be cautious about condemning traditions from other cultures such as Chinese medicine or ayurveda as "quackery.")
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:12 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

If it's not hurting other people, I try to look at what the person is getting out of their woo. I read tarot cards sometimes because I look at it as a tool for figuring out how I feel about my future / how my life's going. Some friends track Mercury retrogrades because they value the reminder to slow down and pay attention to nuance. Let folks deal with worries/stress in ways that suit them.

Also be open to the idea that science just hasn't figured out how/why/when some herbal remedies work - I know a microbiologist who's looking at the microbial community on echinacea as a possible explanation for why some batches seem to be effective and some don't. Plants and fungi are a huge source of new drugs and scientific discovery. Most "Western" drugs aren't rationally designed, and we often figured out how/why they worked after the fact (if we ever did).

As suggested, finding some more like-minded friends will also help you be more even-keeled around the woo folks.
posted by momus_window at 1:39 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

But even though this is his problem, his life, his decision, I am irritated. I put a little black mark against the way that he thinks through this. I respect him a little less. I feel a separation widening. It also means I automatically don't trust the way he thinks critically in general.

You are entirely justified in cutting people out of your life that you do not respect and that you do not trust. It really is okay to reject people for having incompatible beliefs. I am fascinated by people's takes on religion and enjoy talking about different beliefs, but would genuinely have trouble being friends with a right wing Republican. Whatever decisions you make about your friendships are perfectly fine and don't have to be justified. At the same time, I must say that I question whether your disdain for their beliefs is as rational and science-based as you claim. Would you be equally contemptuous of a friend who gets regular PSA testing (a dangerous practice)? Would you question the critical thinking skills of someone who gets imaging for low back pain? If those scenarios do not raise your ire, I might suggest that the divide between you is a cultural one, and not a battle between science and ignorance.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:09 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

It might be helpful to consider that we are each, as individuals, somewhere along a spectrum of rationality. There are folks who can out-reason and out-science you; if you were to sit down with them and allow them to introspect your own belief system and behaviors, they'd flush out allllllllllll sorts of non-science-based, highly irrational thoughts and actions on your part.

I bet if you spent some time analyzing your day-to-day life, you could come up with a list of goofy shit that you do that isn't based on rational, optimal-outcome thinking. (I know I sure have a long list, and I'm the least-woo person in my circle.)

Look inward, ferret out your own follies, and laugh along with the rest of us at the absurdity of kidding ourselves that we have it alllll figured out.
posted by nacho fries at 2:34 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a very scientifically-minded person who somehow manages to be with a partner who operates in a very different reality from mine and has come to gain some understanding and respect for non-traditional worldviews.

One thing that has helped me with things like tarot, chakras, spirituality, etc, is to appreciate that many of them offer metaphors and tools for understanding and interacting with the interior human mind. Many of them further offer metaphors and tools for contextualizing the human experience and anchoring it within a specific cultural worldview in a way that is substantively beneficial to the people in that culture. While many of these beliefs and practices may not actually stand up to the culturally-internal claims of truth or ability to alter the real world, they can alter the mental world of those who believe them in a way that is useful. Most of these beliefs weren't just made up by some random clown; they developed empirically over many centuries within a specific cultural context. Empirically, as in, people realized that certain metaphorical constructions helped them understand and gain mastery over their internal landscape; these constructions were passed down and refined as more people experimented with them.

To take the example of chakras, it is not physically or medically useful to talk about mystical knots of energy within the body. However, if you have ever done any emotional work and faced some of your issues (e.g. by going through therapy), you might discover that certain emotions like fear and anxiety tend be 'blocking', especially those that arise due to trauma; these emotions manifest physically in the body, as tightness, pain, heaviness; after properly facing the trauma, healing from the pain, and integrating the wounded self into the present adult, not only to the blocking emotions lift, along with their physical manifestations, but in fact ALL emotions seem to "flow" more freely; one is spontaneously more able to feel happy, sad, alive, etc. Emotions are very very complex, and frankly western medicine has very little to offer you medically if you present with symptoms of emotional trauma, save some medications which can blunt certain feelings physiologically. The metaphor of chakras, while perhaps not anchored in a falsifiable rational-scientific context, is actually descriptive and offers guidance and tools, empirically refined through centuries of practice, which can help people navigate this terrain. A chakra is blocked by fear; you release the fear, and the energy flows within your body.

Some of these beliefs and practices are less about internal emotional regulation and are more about providing a cultural context and worldview. All cultures develop explanations for the origin and purpose of humanity; living without some understanding of what it is and means to be human is mentally very distressing. If there are beliefs which you find irritating, it might be helpful to explore the cultures from which these beliefs emerged and try to understand why that belief exists and the role it fills for the people who are embedded in that culture. For example, belief in magic healing helps people feel safe in the face of an uncertain world. And feeling safe reduces stress and enables rest, which actually does help healing.

But first and foremost, the interesting part for me is why you feel so angry and irritated by such beliefs. I think the answer is that you perceive these beliefs as threatening to your own worldview, which is strongly anchored in Western rational-scientific beliefs that the world can be studied, understood, and manipulated through science. It's not unfair to believe this, since for a lot of the world we live in, it's demonstrably true. But beyond that, in fact it is deeply comforting to believe that there exists a class of people with the power to cure illness (doctors, for example), in the same way it is comforting to believe that a sorcerer can cure illness. Having ones worldview challenged is very distressing; having it shattered can cause a culture to collapse, which you can see throughout history, e.g. when aboriginal North American cultures were greatly reduced by disease and warfare and still struggle with alcoholism and suicide. What I would like to suggest to you is that there are in fact limits to what western science can study, understand, and control, including doctors, but especially when it comes to understanding emotions and producing a balanced definition of wellness that includes the internal. There is a very rich inner world that many cultures have explored. It does not have to be threatening if you understand that you don't have to give up the idea that science has all the answers; you just need to appropriate bound science and bound the non-scientific, and understand that they are different sets of tools focused on different problems altogether.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:54 PM on February 20, 2014 [16 favorites]

Lots of the above advice is excellent, but I also wanted to point out something that I don't THINK has been mentioned, which is that one of these people is someone you are romantically involved with. In my life, I feel like there are many differences of opinion/life approach/life philosophy/worldview/what have you that I not only tolerate but embrace with friends -- because hey, life would be boring if we were all exactly the same! But, I would be much less tolerant with a significant other who I could potentially see having a kid with (or, hey, couldn't see having a kid with but nonetheless might because birth control isn't 100%). It's a different story when it's not "I want to heal my X with homepathy" and instead "Our kid should not get vaccines!" So, I would try to separate out what of this is annoyance at woo woo views (which I think you can get over with friends -- maybe just try to avoid those discussions as I do with friends with wildly different politics!), versus a fundamental mismatch that perhaps means you and this person should not be dating/seeing a future together.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:00 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I see this partly as people having poor information filters - whether by temperament or education they are ill-equipped to sort out which information should have more weight and why. They are easy marks for things that substitute emotion for weight.
One of the common results I see is living life clouded by an entire extra layer of uncertainty and fear - it's a world where legitimate respectable news sources are reporting that all the fish will give you cancer from Fukushima (omg!), yet fish are still on sale (wtf!?!), so the government is lying to us again (!!!) and corporations are poisoning us (!!!), and instead of yelling from the rooftops no-one seems to care (wtf!wtf!wtf!). Perhaps that's another reason why many are drawn to things like astrology - a hint of direction when stuck in a cloud of murk and motion?

My approaches are twofold:
- Find better people. Watching friends make needlessly bad decisions sucks. Watching them suffer the consequences (that you knew would result) sucks even more. Everyone makes bad choices, but not everyone does it continually, systematically. Don't bring unnecessary dysfunction into your life. Bring in people who can soar.
- Be the calm in the storm, that hint of direction in the murky cloud. Be those things by example, by living, not by butting in. When questioned or challenged (maybe you're eating fish), instead of rubbishing magical thinking, explain why you've drawn your conclusions and why you put extra weight on this aspect or that, while putting less weight on that or that. Show a very grounded, down-to-earth reassuring process. Demonstrate good information-filtering in action, and the calm shelter from the storm you enjoy and the good results that follow.
posted by anonymisc at 3:19 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

A lot of pharmaceutical medications were originally created using isolated constituents from herbal or food-based sources.

Naturopathic doctors (likely considered quacks by your standards) are still medical doctors who go to medical school for the same duration as a 'normal' doctor.

Is there a lot of data on the efficacy of supplements? No - Natural health remedies are really at the edge of a precipice. In order to be considered 'legit' in the FDA's eyes, they must provide studies that show proof of the claims they make. This is prohibitively expensive for many. Right now, the lack of FDA regulation is what holds up a lot of supplement industry - if companies had to prove their claims like the pharmaceutical giants, no small business (in the supplement industry) would survive. Unfortunately, things seem to be heading in that direction (FDA regulation), which is why pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, are buying up small supplement companies, such as Emergen-C or Airborne. They have the resources and money to bankroll studies to prove the efficacy of those supplements and thus keep them on store shelves after FDA regulation.

That said... do I think every supplement or natural health remedy works? NO. Lots are just straight up BS (I'm looking at you Homeopathy). Lots of them 1) will lose integrity passing through the digestive system and become less or in-effective and 2) cannot cross the blood-brain barrier at all. But there are some that do show proof of efficacy (ie: GABA, fish oil, melatonin, ect.) and as big pharmaceutical drug companies continue to buy up vitamin/supplement makers, I think you'll start to see more studies come out in favor of them.

But even if things don't come out in favor of supplements, there's something to be said of the placebo effect. I've worked in a vitamin retail environment and despite my own beliefs (of things not working), customers would come in swearing up and down that Apple Cider Vinegar vanquished their heart burn and indigestion of 10 years, or that daily fish oil capsules in an efficacious dose practically eliminated inflammation in their joints. It's hard to argue with any of that - if someone says they feel better for their regimen, why get upset or argue?
posted by stubbehtail at 3:22 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe it would help to pretend you're an anthropologist? If you were visiting an entirely different culture, you would politely listen to the things they had to say; you wouldn't agree with them necessarily, but you wouldn't feel the need to correct them because they are functional within their worldviews.
posted by metasarah at 3:40 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Having friends with ignorant beliefs is fine -- you aren't hitching your life to them, not having children or requiring them to care for you some point in the future. It's easy to compartmentalize them into one part of your life where their beliefs do not harm you so it's much easier to let it go.

But not a mate. You shouldn't (I'd hypothesize, can't) have a deep relationship with someone who doesn't occupy the same reality you live in, and chooses to ignore facts for feeling. Lots of people have relationships with people they don't respect, but I don't recommend it.

Naturopathic doctors (likely considered quacks by your standards) are still medical doctors who go to medical school for the same duration as a 'normal' doctor.

That is false. Naturopaths do not go to actual medical schools, or for the same length, and have far lower acceptance criteria.
posted by flimflam at 3:46 PM on February 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

Nthing to pick your battles.

Stick with what is absolute horseshit and can be simply and demonstratably identified as horseshit (Homeopathy, Vax causing Autism) and stay away from things that are harmless but might actually do something (Herbal Medicine, Toxin cleanse, Lots of Water to pass a drug test).

In reality the drug test is a good example of what you should just let go. It is true that THC is matabolised at a certain rate, and that rate is unlikely to be sped up (I am sure you could speed it up or slow it down just relative to the induction of various cytochromes from drinking or taking in other mildly toxic substances), but you don't care about whether the THC is present or not you care about the detection limit of the test. So drinking loads of tea and taking something to replace the normal compounds found in your urine could push you below the detection limit of the test. Say for example the limit is 4 miligrams per liter and you normally expel 12 mg in a day via your urine. If you make one liter of urine a day then you're at 12mg per liter and well above the detection limit. If instead you make 4 liters of urine a day then your urine is now at 3 mg per liter and under the detection limit and you pass the test.

Likewise with the various actual herbal remedies. The difference between opium and morphine is only the refinement of the major active alkaloid. That is it. A major very useful medicine that is essentially plant sap. SO I wouldn't worry about the random chinese medicine (except for the possible presence of adulterants and harmful effects of the herbs) or if someone takes slippery elm bark tea for a cough (because it does actually work try it sometime).

Conversly I would (and have with people like this) come down HARD on homeopathy because it is absolute horseshit. You can show that there is absolutely no chance of even a single molecule of the active ingredient being present in the homeopathic formulation and all they're getting is very expensive water. I even offered to refill the peoples homeopathic bottles for free (just sugar water and e55 creams for the creams) but after a calm and reasoned explanation of what homeopathy is people usually can see the horseshit and don't bother again.
posted by koolkat at 3:38 AM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I struggle with this too, but here's how I've started to think about it, as I told a friend a while back:

The beginning of all arguments about the world should probably start with a disclaimer: Either (1) I’m working under the assumption that external reality is objectively knowable and testable, that it follows an internal and consistent logic, whether or not we understand all of its rules yet, or (2) I’m working under the assumption that external reality is not (or not entirely) knowable or testable, that things happen sometimes that cannot (ever) be measured or explained, and that cause and effect aren’t necessarily connected.

Those are very different belief systems. People can subscribe to one or the other to different degrees; many scientists are spiritual or religious, of course, and most mystically-inclined folks still subscribe to, say, modern medicine, and some of science’s results if not its universal applicability. But when we discuss or debate truths about the world, I think people frequently talk right past each other because they’re working under different assumptions — under (1) or (2) — and never make that clear; or they’re trying to co-opt parts of (1) into (2) or vice-versa. Of course people get HUGELY frustrated, because their ideas of how to judge truth is fundamentally different. We should all — it should go without saying — be respectful of people whose ideas of the world fall into a different category than our own and should let them do and think whatever they want to if it isn't a public health risk, but I think part of achieving that respect is recognizing the difference. People who try to make category (1) arguments from point-of-view (2) are not going to be taken seriously, and vice versa. Our whole method of argument in realm (1) doesn’t hold in realm (2). This is where a huge amount of the frustration comes from.

Let’s use ghosts as an example. If someone told me that they believe in ghosts because it makes spiritual or lyrical sense to them, because they believe, in short — okay. That’s a category (2) statement and point of view, and I can and should respect that. But if someone told me they believe in ghosts because of objective evidence, the way they do on ghost hunter TV shows with their gizmos and “science,” that’s an objective measurable truth about the world — a category (1) fact — and I’m going to disagree with that assertion and (politely) call it wrong, under the terms of how category (1) statements are judged. If someone wants me to accept that there are ghosts out there in the measurable logical cause-and-effect world, okay fine, show me evidence. But they’re going to have a fairly difficult time convincing me, because there’s a hell of a lot of evidence against and very little convincing evidence for, and in the scientific world that’s how we judge a statement: based on the strength of evidence. Once we’re playing in category (1)’s ballpark, we shouldn’t surprised that we’re expected to follow their rules. In category (1), all ideas are only considered equal until there’s evidence one way or another; then some ideas can be shown to be right, and some ideas can be shown to be wrong, and we no longer have to treat them as equally valid ideas, at least not until new evidence comes to light. (Of course the scientific world doesn’t work perfectly, and it’s as biased and racist and fallible as everyone else, but at least we’ve all agreed that the world is objectively verifiable and that we should at least try, try really hard, especially when we have a stake in the results, to judge truth based on the weight of evidence.)
Once upon a time I had a roommate whose worldview was very, very Category (2), and she had all sorts of books on astrology etc. Fine. They all operated under assumption (2), that the world is a magical, fundamentally unknowable place controlled by powers we can’t understand. But she also had a book on how water crystallizes differently based on whether you thought about loving or hateful things in its vicinity while it was freezing, and that book pissed me off because it quite overtly and flagrantly used the language of science in entirely spurious ways, including lines like “studies show” with no citations; they were trying to use the language and weight of science to make a claim about the objective world that was entirely false. There’s a huge danger to society in duping people into believing that a statement has gone through the checks and balances of the scientific process when it really hasn’t; that’s how you end up with the anti-vaccine crowd. That sort of wildly unacceptable behavior (the book, I mean — my roommate was cool) is where a lot of the misdirected rage at nonscientific worldviews comes from, I think. Creationists who claim their work is science are a perfect example. You don’t get to use the weight and respectability that science has built up over generations of being useful without following its rules; if you do, your ideas won’t and shouldn’t be respected by people who believe (1) about the world.

That, of course, is separate from the question of basic human respect; we should be polite and considerate in disagreeing, even with ideas we think are wrong. But under category (1), people can be wrong, and it’s not inherently mean or disrespectful to say so. I think some of the tension in these discussions comes from the fact that in category (2), your ideas can’t be separated from your beliefs so people expect them to be accorded the same respect, whereas in category (1) it’s perfectly fine and respectful to say “Nope, wrong.” That’s not less respectful; it’s just a different fundamental idea of where the truth lives, whether it lives in our heads or souls or out in the world. We argue in a different way, and that leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings. When someone tries to make a category (2) statement and someone says “WRONG UNDER CATEGORY (1),” that can be really insulting — it can look like that person doesn’t respect your freedom to believe in a category (2) universe. But that’s (I think quite often) not actually the case; they’re mistaking a category (2) statement for a category (1) statement, and assuming that the speaker just doesn’t know their science, as opposed to not believing in science. Again — it’s a huge communication gap.

And personally? It is such a fundamentally different way of looking at the world and judging truth that yes, it would probably push me away from a boyfriend or close friend, but that's true of any deep philosophical or religious differences. When it comes to people whose health you have a stake in, I think it becomes immediately personal. But the other folks, the acquaintances? Let it go, and recognize that there's a big difference between people who believe false category (1) facts based on poor information and people who just don't believe in a category (1) world at all.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:39 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it's something that's not harmful, I try to be accepting of people's differences. People try to find meaning and understanding in many ways, and people who don't have the background that leads one to look for scientific explanations will find other explanations.

You don't mention religion in your question, but if you are more successful at navigating these differences around types of religious views you could apply that attitude here.

One aspect of science is that there are things that were not known until recently. X-rays, plate tectonics, radiation. Some of these things had other explanations for them that were accepted by science in the past. Some people are uneasy with this sort of thing, even many scientists. People who find inconsistency troubling or indicative of falsehood tend to distrust science.

Sometimes people use words differently from the way you use them -- they might not be thinking the same thing by "poison" that you are.

Some things that are "woo" can just be seen as valid ways of looking at things and often are used that way by people if not taken to extremes. Feng shui? There's a lot of practical advice about how to avoid problems with how your house is arranged, and you can ignore the explanations of why. Tarot cards? It's a way to randomly stimulate yourself to think about different things and view situations in new ways.

It also means I automatically don't trust the way he thinks critically in general.

Well, yes. Some people are not critical thinkers. Do you want to trust the way he thinks critically in general? Why?? It is not logical to trust the way someone thinks critically in general if they are not good at that.

However, even someone who is skilled at critical thinking can make a mistake, start from the wrong information, or overlook something important.

homeopathic things like arnica

Arnica is an herb. According to wikipedia "A few clinical trials suggest benefits of topical arnica for osteoarthritis; and for affecting significant reduction of bruising compared to placebo or low concentration vitamin K ointments."

If homeopaths want to dilute it a bunch and label their little vials "arnica" -- well, it is really logical to base your idea of whether or not a plant has any scientifically backed uses on what homeopaths do with it?

Orthogonal to homeopathy, there are also some other aspects of clinical trials to keep in mind -- substances studied the most are likely to be those that can be sold by drug companies, drug companies put a lot of effort in to designing things like questions about side effects to tweak the responses they get, and that companies doing clinical trials often don't release the results or even what studies were done. Also, with the statistical standards applied to trials, about 5% of trials showing something has an effect will be in cases where there was not in actuality a statistically significant effect. Researchers often are helped more in their careers by doing new research rather than seeking to reproduce the results of other studies.

Keep in mind that you are not a perfect logical and scientific thinker, and might have holes in your own critical thinking, not have seen words used in certain ways before, etc.

My MD source tells me there is nothing you can do to speed up the metabolism of THC. 3-7 days.

While true, what your friend really wanted to know was how to pass a drug test, even if he was asking about what he guessed would be a particular method of doing that. Drinking water isn't exactly the wrong way to do that, but the timing is important. He may well pass his drug test. Also, MD's are not infallible, and different MD's often have different opinions.
posted by yohko at 9:51 AM on February 23, 2014

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