Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"That's a pretty big coincidence, don't you think?"

First off, though: it's National Coming Out Day. I am gay. Are you? Take a minute to send some love or support to the gay youth you know who may be struggling with some serious stuff.

So, the other day I was having a conversation with a friend about skepticism and naturopathy and things. My friend isn't as steeped in the skeptical movement's groupthink as I am (he qualifies more as an "apathetic agnostic", whose philosophy is best summarized as: "Eh, I don't care. What's on TV?") but he had taken some time to call out a mutual acquaintance on some pretty fishy-sounding ideas about Intuitive Medicine (where you give a "Medical Intuitive" your name and she - somehow - tells you exactly what's wrong with you) and I wanted to thank him, since whenever I try to express skepticism, I end up sounding like a douche. I've gotta learn to embrace my douchiness, because it isn't like superstition is going anywhere soon.

Anyway, after I thanked him, he confessed that he doesn't think naturopathy and the like is necessarily all bad, and brought up that he has a condition that "modern science" didn't really help him with, but the pills a naturopath gave him really did the trick.

Doing my best not to be a dick about it, I agreed that "natural" remedies weren't necessarily ineffective, but that the problem was that by and large they are not monitored by any agency and you don't really know how effective they are or even what you are actually getting inside those pills. I suggested that he consider the following: his condition (which he's described to me before) is one that comes and goes and varies in frequency and severity. What if it was naturally going away at the same time as his naturopath gave him the pills? How does he know that the pills actually do anything?

"You mean to say that I would have been cured whether or not I took the pills? The naturopath just happened to have really good timing? That's a pretty big coincidence, don't you think?"

His patience was being tested, so we called a truce and went back to whatever it was we were doing, but here's what I would have said if I weren't more interested in preserving the friendship:

It is a coincidence. Or, at the very least, there is absolutely no way, with the information we have, to show that it isn't other than saying "I just know." Thing is, we're SWAMPED with coincidences. The whole world is filled with coincidences, everywhere. Million upon millions of things all happen at the same time, and without evidence, without using some sort of rational tool (consciously or not) there is nothing to say that A caused B but didn't cause C but may eventually make D fuck up E if F is happening at the same time.

That your condition cleared up shortly after you started those pills doesn't surprise me as odd. What would be odd is if you didn't have any coincidences at all. Maybe the pills work. Maybe the condition went away on its own. Or maybe you changed peanut butter that week, or toilet paper. Maybe your neighbour had his apartment sprayed for cockroaches. Maybe there was a solar flare. Without any sort of way to eliminate these and the billions of other stuff that was happening at the same time, there's no way to say.

The conversation ended with him saying "Well, they're my pills and I like them, so there."

And I can live with that, I guess. There's all kinds of stuff that I do that isn't healthy or smart or rational, even when I know better. But people should at least be aware of this sort of thing.

Anyway, you may have heard of this "Occupy Wall Street" thing. Well, this coming weekend is the Toronto version in support/solidairty. Unless something horrible happens, I plan to attend, and then maybe blog about it. Stay tuned!

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