It is the winter of 2003. Fred is helping me out to a van; I am doubled over with pain, barely able to breathe. The van’s driver is Christian, the manager of the yacht club in Golfito, Costa Rica. He has kindly offered to take us to the local hospital, which is tucked away in the jungle.
We are at the southern tip of Costa Rica, the jumping-off point for tourists on their way to the Oso Peninsula and its magnificent park land. Golfito is not magnificent. Dirty, poor, sparsely populated, I worry about the level of care I will receive here.
I arrive to find all the local “Ticos” in the waiting room dressed as if they are going to a job interview or to church. Apparently going to the hospital is a big deal here. I am in stained sweatpants—getting dressed into any kind of pants was hard enough without worrying if I was fashionable before my appendix burst, or whatever tragedy was about to unfold in my body.
As it turns out, the doctors in Golfito are no worse, or better, than the Canadian doctors who brushed off my complaints of severe abdominal pain and menstrual cramps for almost a decade. The diagnosis, this time, is irritable bowel syndrome.
It is not irritable bowel syndrome. More about that later.
I’ve thought about writing this Coconut Chronicle for some time but could not seem to articulate the vague and growing unease I felt about the rise of pseudoscience and decline of critical thinking. Lately, however, lies of all varieties have taken center stage and people seem to be taking notice. When I heard that the Oxford Dictionary had chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year, I knew it was time for me, and others, to start talking.
If you think I’m about to stand on my soapbox and wag my finger, think again. What I want to do is show you how even someone who considers herself logical, skeptical and a critical thinker can be sucked in by well-meaning hucksters and pseudoscience. And, hopefully, I can also show you a path out.
Regular readers are well aware that I am an atheist and grew up with no religious background of any type. But that doesn’t mean that I was immune to myths, superstitions, and questions about god. As a young person, I believed in ghosts, astrology, ESP, past lives, UFOs (the kind the government wants to keep secret!), conspiracy theories, you name it. I may not have been technically religious but I Iingered in the “undecided” column for years, sometimes praying to a god I didn’t really believe existed just, you know, to cover bases in case I was wrong.
Science, as interesting as it was, did not and could not match these mystical fields when it came to sheer amazement and wonder. At least that’s what I believed.
Then, one day in my early twenties, a book fell into my lap that would open my eyes and let me begin to look at the world thoughtfully and critically. It showed me that science and spirituality are intertwined and full of enough wonder and mystery to last an eternity.
The book: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
The author: Carl Sagan
What I loved about Sagan’s masterpiece (yes, I will call it that), is that he never once made me feel stupid or weak for believing in things that were, in retrospect, pretty silly. He lifted a veil for me and instead of looking out on a world that had lost all its magic, I saw a world so steeped in magic that there could be no possible reason to invent false magic. More than any piece of writing I’ve come across in my 47.5 years, this book fundamentally changed me and my relationship with the world around me. I am forever in Sagan’s debt.
“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” ~ Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
I still glance at my horoscope if I see it in the newspaper. For fun. And I still keep some of my quirky superstitions (I always knock twice on the door of an airplane when I’m boarding, for good luck), but I am fully aware they are superstitions and in no way effect how events unfold in my life. Understanding that all these things I once believed were lies liberated and empowered me.
And, like any good born-again anything, I made it my mission to convert others to “the truth”. To anyone who had to listen to my Sagan sermons in my early days, I am so sorry.
Really. So, so sorry.
You see, in the years to follow, I would learn that when people hold tightly to false beliefs or pseudoscience, there’s almost always a deeper reason behind it. I was liberated by Sagan’s words because I was at a place in my life where those old beliefs no longer served me. I was ready to toss aside my security blanket and face the world alone. I’m not sure that book would have had the same impact even a few years earlier.
I also learned that critical thinking can easily be derailed in times of desperation.
In 2003, I was desperate.
When Fred and I abandoned our dream of tropical living and decided to return to Canada, part of the driving force behind that decision was my health. The chronic abdominal pain and painful cramps had worsened, as had my frequent debilitating headaches and lethargy. My Canadian doctor was less helpful than the nice man in Golfito who had diagnosed me with IBS. She told me, as had so many before her, that some women simply suffer from painful periods and I could take up to 1200mg of Advil per day if I needed to. That was it. My life was now constant pain and frustration. My marriage and my mental health were both taking a regular beating thanks to my mystery illness.
And then, a miracle! I was reading a magazine article in which a woman described how she had, after many painful years, discovered that she had endometriosis. As I read the bullet point list of symptoms, my eyes widened. I had every single symptom. This was the answer. Eureka!
I hurried to make an appointment with my doctor, overjoyed to share the news that I had solved the mystery.
Cue the sad music.
Yes, she agreed that I most likely had endometriosis, but the only treatment for that was for me to get pregnant or have a hysterectomy. Great. Two treatment options, neither of which I was going to choose.
I felt worse than ever.
And then, another miracle!
Two good and trusted friends, each of whom had battled untreatable mystery ailments of their own, had found a naturopath in Vancouver who had diagnosed their problems and given them treatments that cured them. I was desperate for any kind of help and so I made an appointment.
I was prepared to be skeptical. I believed in science! I believed in real medicine!
What I saw and experienced wiped away any misgivings. The office looked just like a real doctor’s office. The naturopathic doctor looked just like a real doctor. They didn’t chant or wave burning herbs around. They took blood and urine samples, discussed my medical history, took my temperature and blood pressure, weighed and measured me. So professional!
They were also the first medical persons who ever took my complaints seriously. Endometriosis was serious! They treated me like a real human, were compassionate, and offered me hope. I was hooked.
Oh sure, a few of the tests were…unusual, but real medicine hadn’t helped me so why not give this a shot? One of the “specialists” brought in a kit to test my allergies and sensitivities. The kit was a big wooden box filled with vials. The vials, she explained, contained various ingredients. All I had to do was hold the unopened vial in my hand and lift my arm up at about a 45 degree angle. The specialist would then push down on the top of my hand. If she had difficulty moving my arm, that meant I was fine. If my arm moved somewhat easily that meant I was sensitive to the ingredient in the vial. If my arm was very easily pushed that meant I was allergic to the ingredient in the vial.
“Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves.” ~ Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
The test showed that I was allergic to wheat, corn and cow dairy and sensitive to MSG. It never dawned on me to question why she only tested a few of the vials in the box or how she could be sure that it was my arm giving way easily and not just her pushing harder.
After a few visits and more tests, I was given a “prescription” for several pills and potions and put on a very strict diet to “reset” my system. I was thrilled! At last, a cure!
My husband tried his best to be happy for me but these visits and my prescriptions were expensive, at a time when we were on shaky financial ground. Oh, and none of this was covered by our medical insurance.
I followed the diet. I took the pills and potions. I did feel better. I lost some weight without even trying. My headaches gradually went away. My energy increased. My stomach pain lessened…somewhat. My painful menstrual cycle was still painful but I had been assured that it would take time to fix my broken body.
What I couldn’t see then, what I didn’t want to see, was that mostly what I was experiencing was that age old trickster: the placebo effect.
Yes, I felt better because I had stopped consuming so much damned sugar. A fact that any half-decent nutritionist could have pointed out. I was drinking more water and eating loads more vegetables than I ever had, too. But I was convinced it was the naturopathic miracle. The tension in my marriage didn’t go away, it simply switched from being related to my health to being all about the money we had to spend on my miracle cure.
Then, a setback. The cramps returned with a vengeance. We were now living in Ucluelet, which was as remote as Golfito in many ways, and the pain was debilitating. I broke down and went to another “real doctor”. I explained that I had endometriosis and was using naturopathy to treat it (bless his heart for not laughing) but that for whatever reason it had flared up again.
“Have you ever had an endoscopy?” he asked.
“A what?” I replied.
In a matter of weeks, I was in surgery. They scoped me, found the endometriosis and burned it out. This time I was cured for real.
I stuck to the naturopathic diet but gave up the pills and potions—we simply could not afford them. Despite what should have been obvious, I still clung to the belief that I was allergic to wheat, corn and cow dairy. It took moving to another far, far away place, Aitutaki, for me to finally, slowly let go of that last piece of my security blanket. On this tiny island, food supplies were limited. I had no choice. I broke down, ate wheat, corn and dairy products and…I was fine. Nothing happened. In fact, I soon found myself in the very best shape and health of my life.
I like to imagine Carl Sagan smiling at that.
“One of the reasons for its success is that science has a built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.” ~ Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
My return to critical thinking in matters of health, medicine and diet has been slow. It’s difficult to let go of beliefs that comfort us and for a long time my beliefs—my very non-science based beliefs—sustained me and gave me hope. I could feel ashamed about having been so fooled but, like I said, I was desperate. I could be angry at the naturopaths who fooled me and took me for money I could not afford to give, but I honestly think they believed in what they do and wanted to help me. I could rant and rave and call out every bit of similar pseudoscience I come across but people have to give up their security blankets willingly—no amount of preaching can make that happen.
No one likes to be fooled. No one likes to admit (even to themselves) that they can be fooled. Looking critically at our beliefs is scary. It is hard to imagine how we will go on if we learn that our deeply held beliefs (so deep we consider them true facts) are a lie.
So here’s what I will say to you: Life will go on and it will be better.
You don’t have to dive into the deep end. Try critically examining one belief. Maybe it’s one you’re not even that invested in. Read opposing viewpoints, talk to people who don’t share your belief. Ask them why they don’t share that belief. Consider your sources: Who advocates for this belief? Do they have something to gain from their position? Ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Step outside of your echo chamber for a little while.
If you do all that and you still come away believing what you believed to begin with, fair enough. Maybe your facts are true or maybe you’re not yet ready to give up your security blanket. Either way, it’s good to practice not simply taking everything on faith. Critical thinking is a learned skill. The scientific method is also a learned skill. It’s never too late to learn!
And to you practitioners of real science, of real medicine, don’t forget that human beings require more than facts. If just one of my medical doctors had ever shown real concern for my pain and expressed a genuine interest in helping find some long term relief, then perhaps I wouldn’t have been so ripe for the picking when the hocus-pocus pseudo-doctors came along.
Now, if you’re saying, “What’s the harm in _____?” (Fill in non-scientific belief or superstition of your choice), consider the Alberta toddler who died of meningitis because his parents chose to give him a homeopathic remedy instead of taking him to the hospital. Consider the grieving parents of the Sandy Hook school shooting who are harassed and even receive death threats by conspiracy theorists who claim the tragedy was a hoax. Consider the seniors who are targeted by psychics and other scam artists and bilked out of their life savings. There are tens of thousands of stories that show just how much harm can come from pseudoscience, false news, conspiracy theories and fakery.
Now that the highest office in the United States of America is filled by a person from whom lies flow like a river, now that harm could spread globally. Now it falls on the shoulders of each of us to be extra vigilant, to dust off our critical thinking caps, to verify news before we spread it and contribute to the problem.
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” ~ Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
I’ve read lately suggestions that we should read dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984 to understand the age in which we now live. I disagree. I have learned to be careful about who I turn to in times of desperation.
I suggest we all pick up a copy of Demon Haunted World and devour the words of a passionate scientist who offers not only a warning but also that most necessary and precious commodity: hope.
Let’s not get fooled again.