Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The First Post in what will be a Series on Women and Skepticism

For those of you who have skipped reading between the lines, I'm something of a skeptic.  I've also been known to dabble in the odd bit of feminism and other social justice ideas here and there.
(See what I did right there? It was humor based on understatement.  Hilarious, I am that.)
For me, my feminism, antiracism, and other various social justice passions (fellow LGBTQQIers, we need a better catchphrase, also, the acronym is getting long, just saying) are intimately interrelated with my skepticism.  There are few branches of pseudoscience that do not intersect with social justice.  There has recently been a kerfuffle on the interwebs about the visibility of women in (ugh so tired of this language) "new atheism" and in the skeptical movement in general.

Seriously, we're out there.

So I thought that I'd spill a few words about it, before launching into why feminism and skepticism, antiracism and skepticism, social justice in general and skepticism, just naturally go together I thought I'd indulge in my own coming to jesus er skepticism story.

What brought me to skepticism was tragedy.  My family doctor is fantastic, looks like John Lennon, prescribes hugs and sunshine and saves me samples of my (still waiting for the generic) antidepressant.  He also works with "complementary medicine," particularly homeopathy.  What is nice about that is that I was really only prescribed antibiotics when they would have actually done something for me. (Hint for parents, few ear infections need antibiotics, no viruses do, and for the most part, it's just a cold) I am one of the (apparently) few members of my generation with no allergies to any form of antibiotic.  Of course, I did take more than my share of sugar pills sublingually.
This, of course, is not the tragedy.
Between undergrad and grad school I worked for an "alternative" doctor's office.  It paid decently, was a four day week (my heavens do I love not working on Fridays, seriously, having a work-week day off is tremendous for productivity), and, shit, I'm a philosophy major, I can bullshit.
It was, ultimately, one of the more stressful jobs ever.  Seriously.  Terrible management, potentially questionable practices, 10-12 hour days spent answering telephone calls from people who think they have the Hanta virus (they saw something on the Discovery Channel), got the Health Dept. involved because they thought their kid had rubella (a. he was vaccinated (DAMN YOU JENNY MCCARTHY DAMN YOU TO HELL) b. the symptoms were a slight fever and a sore throat.) and other various over-privileged rich white folk who sublimate their white liberal guilt into various symptoms and beliefs in toxins, or whatever, and did I mention the bad management?
While this is very sad, it is also not the tragedy.
See, alternative medicine is not all a delightful trip to the colonic room for a robust deep irrigation followed up by a visit to the heated-jade massage bed (for the love of all that is good in the world, I miss that fucking bed) to finish flushing the toxins stored up in the body that make you really really resent how your spouse folds socks or whatever.  Alternative medicine is also the last-chance stop for people who cannot be healed.  People who are going to die.  And generally not pleasantly.  There are some people who. facing their own mortality, a mortality closer and more real than the general memento mori we commonly face, are able to accept the diagnosis, to come to terms, if not in some after-school-special heroic way, at least resign themselves.  There are some who cannot.  There are some families who cannot.  The tragedy is found in the love of one of those families.
There is a difference in knowing something is bullshit and recognizing the deep, cynical harm something does.  Most of us probably guess that so-called complementary/alternative medicine is bullshit.  A cursory glance at what iridology, for example, claims or the idea of "toxin flushes" both can with a minimal amount of effort be seen as patently ridiculous.  It is in the recognition of the harm, the deep, awful, predatory harm that under-girds CAM that leads me to skepticism.  This patient threw the switch between bullshit and harm.
He was old.  Had the inoperable tumor.  He was going to die.  His family (wife, kids, siblings, 12 people at times) would travel with him, 60 miles, to come fill up our waiting room, to go into the appointment with him, to do whatever it took to heal their family member.  They had no money.  We gave a discount on the office visit, but nothing could discount the herbal supplements, the colonics, the acupuncture that was tried to heal a man past the point of healing.  We tried everything.
Everything was expensive.  And for the most part bullshit.  But I just scheduled.  I didn't have to engage too much.
And then the doctor asked me too look up the "Zapper" and forward the information, with his recommendation on to the family.  Promoted by Hulda "The Cure for All Diseases" Clark (who died of cancer this fall, I guess "The Cure for All Advanced Cancer" wasn't what it claimed to be), the Zapper (tm) purports to emit electro-magnetic radiation at a variety of frequencies, and, once the correct one has been identified, that E-M radiation will kill the liver fluke that is the source of all disease from AIDS to the common cold.  Seriously.  Fucker runs about $250.00, for the good one.  If you run the Google on <Hulda Clark Zapper> the second link is "The Bizarre Claims of Hulda Clark." The second link.  There is not one fucking thing about this fucking "Zapper" that makes a single iota of sense.  You don't even need to click on the Quackwatch link to see that Hulda Clark is, under the best interpretation, batshit crazy.  You don't need to know that she advocates for people to pull out all of their teeth that have fillings to know that buying a Zapper is pissing away every penny.  To say nothing of the false hope that someone who is irresponsible enough to claim to save everyone from everything offers.
You will die.  It's likely it will be cancer.  Or heart disease.  But it could be a flaming toilet seat from space.  You will die.  Someday.
I cried that day.  Turned the phone ringer off, left the brightly colored website up on the computer screen, put my head in my hands and cried for ten minutes.
You see, I had debated calling that poor family.  Debated, even briefly, just doing my job.  Offering false hope at too steep a price.
You will die.  Let it be honestly.
That was the moment I became a skeptic.  I've always had it out for creationists/cdesignproponentsists, always valued science and reason.  But the idea that this was a concerted cynical effort designed to fleece people at their most vulnerable hadn't really occurred to me.  It is.  I am a skeptic because I care about people, about the value of human life and human dignity.
I'm now 100% obnoxious when it comes to anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, chiropracters and the like.  Because, ultimately, CAM offers up only false hope.  Ultimately, CAM preys on women, who have traditionally been dismissed in medicine and science, and on minorities, who have been overtly harmed by medicine and science in the past, and on those for whom any chance at hope is worth any amount of money.
This is unacceptable.

next in this series: Seriously, White Dude Atheists, Your Skepticism Does Not Give You a Get-Out-of-Racism-Sexism-Free Card

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