Most of my life I was little affected by “woo”. I think I had always been curious about some things like alternative medicine, but never really investigated it. Where would you go in the days before the internet? I didn’t care about it enough to go to the library. If I had I might have got a book by Deepak Chopra instead of Carl Sagan and perhaps that would have moved my life in entirely the wrong direction.
I can remember my dad saying to me in my early teens that if all other things had failed for a terminally ill patient then what harm was there in trying acupuncture? I think that was the only SCAM (I borrow Mark Crislip’s definition of SCAM here) I was aware of. When I was about 18 my mum trained in reflexology. She went to college and got a proper qualification and letters after her name. When she explained it to me, I paid attention and thought about it, but didn’t form a hard opinion. I was happy to let people believe what they wanted.
About 5 years ago (it’s currently 2012) my Dad bought me a fuel economy device(magnet) for my car that would also work on ANY vehicle. Now I was curious about this. I searched the internet and looked at the manufacturer’s website which tried to explain that the magnet aligned the fuel so it burnt more efficiently. I knew there is no ferrous material in hydro-carbons. I also now have progressed from an un-thinking 18 year old to having an engineering degree and about 15 years of reading about science and was hooked on this issue. Surely, my logic went, if a simple magnet could improve fuel efficiency then the car manufacturers would be buying all the magnets in the world. If it really worked it would be a standard component in all engines.
The magic-magnet manufacturer’s website had a money-back offer and lots of testimonials. How could so many people be wrong? I must have also stumbled upon a “skeptical” website with some information and a podcast. I was already listening to some BBC podcasts and so I subscribed to the skeptical podcast. I can’t remember which one it was, but probably “The Skeptic Zone” from Australia. From there it was a short journey into “Skeptoid”, “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” and “Skeptics with a K”.
I now don’t want to let people believe what they want. I want them to know what works and what doesn’t. Human civilisation has developed the most sophisticated tool for understanding the world and how it works – SCIENCE. Now although science occasionally has its flaws it is a self-correcting system. The evidence wins-out eventually. There is no evidence for SCAMs, they just keep inventing more ludicrous mechanisms to explain their failure.
I’ve read around the subject, including Bad Medicine by Ben Goldacre and a couple of Robert Park books and, of course, Cosmos by Carl Sagan. There’re still a few books to read and magazines to subscribe to, but I consider myself educated in this realm. I understand evidence, trials and logical fallacies. The world needs to be educated about SCAMs.
If you are not sure what the harm is, then have a look at this site.