June 02, 2007

When Woo Works

First off, if you don't know what "woo" is, here's a solid definition.

Up to speed now? Then let's continue.

There are two stories I want to cover with this, one physical, one metaphysical. Both are examples of how interprtation of events can lead to belief, and a bit about the difference between truth and reality.

Here's the first, from this month's Scientific American:

For anyone who has had goldfish - and you know who you are - the temptation to reach your hand into the water is overwhelming. Everyone has felt the abraiding nibbles at their fingers, and insane old women coo happily away that their fish are giving them kisses out of sheer love (assuming they haven't broken out in cats, of course). As far as the fish are concerned, the sudden appearance of dead primate skin makes for a lovely addition to their standard diet.

So once upon a time (1917), there was a shepherd living in Kangal, Turkey. As he was tending to his flock, he fell and injured his leg. When he washed it in a nearby pond, *presto* it was cured! Well, obvoiusly when someone washes an injured area it looks better than when there's blood covering it, so that must have - Oh, what am I saying? It was a miracle! Well, not a miracle, of course: that would be unscientific. But a miracle cure!

Now, bear in mind that the western world was still in their Healthy Everything kick that infested thought and literature at the turn of the century, and spas and health retreats were everywhere even with the war going on: local people flooded to the area, and word of mouth spread its fame. And when people arrived, they weren't just tourists: they were customers. And they were going to expect a consistent product, much like what people expect when they travel today, helping make the world what it is.

Clearly, the only thing to do was to wall the pond off from its feeder creek, trapping the fish and other life in the single pond. Not such a great deal for the fish, as the pond was (and is) over 35 degrees centegrade (that's 95 for the imperial folks). Not much algae can survive at that temperature, so the fish trapped in that pool are in a state of constant starvation, but at least people always knew they were there to be called into action when needed. Kind of like how film studios in the 20s treated their talent.

So the fish living there are now, fifty years after they've been isolated from an external water source, weigh a quarter what others of their species weigh. But they do get a regualr supply of human meat! Well, human skin, anyways: about 3,000 people a year go to Kangal specifically for treatment of their psoriasis (not really a hot dating resort, then...). Typical woo, then?

Actually, no.

The treatment does work: the fish eat dead skin cells, favouring thicker, older skin. This stimulates new skin growth, doesn't hurt the patient, and is a relaxing vacation at the same time, cutting down on the stress which frequently triggers a bout of psoriasis. Naturally, there are imitators springing up on various points of the globe (you just had to know China would be in on it). So it is a cure, then?

Well, no.

It does relieve the symptoms of psoriasis, but does nothing about the cause of it. However, as you'll notice, the word "cure" pops up four times on the spa's opening page. I have no issue with people afflicted with this rather nasty disease getting relief; but please, drop the "cure".

The second story is from a few years back (2004) in the Utne Reader:

The writer and his wife, being non-religious, had a running joke in their marriage: they would invoke Mr. Loh in times of need. They built a shrine to him, made little offerings (always including alcohol), and would call on him in ways that have gone "from ironic to partly heartfelt".

And wouldn't you know it? The invocation works!

When they need a parking space, they'd note how Mr. Loh was beyond the need for parking, and behold! A parking space would appear (eventually)! When they were buying a house, they placed the appropriate offerings on their shrine (Monopoly houses, a bird's nest, etc.), and they got a house!

These are offered as examples of a vague spirituality that is in full evidence with every bout of new age nonsense out there - from quantum silliness to homeopathy to the odious books "The Celestine Prophecy" and the newer, blander "The Secret".

What was happening to the author, though he didn't realize it, was that he was remembering specific events because of the invocation he's added to them. It's not a special occasion to find a parking space; it becomes one if you add a specific prayer to it. They won $72 in a lottery - no big deal, but then they attributed it to Mr. Loh. The went shopping for a house and bought one. Again, no real shock there: I've done the same, and I imagine a good number of people have done likewise. But they decided to credit Mr. Loh, and suddenly it was a mystical event.

Sound familiar?

In both of these stories, the people who interpret what they see - their truth as compared to the reality of what's happening - created what they thought was miraculous effects. The "truth" was that the Doctor Fish of Kangal cured people; the reality is that they feed on dead skin, which aleviates the worst symptoms of psoriasis. The "truth" is that invoking Mr. Loh helps a writer and his wife in their day-to-day life. The reality is that Mr. Loh gives them somewhere to place their anxieties and responsibilities for a little while.

Neither of these is a bad thing. The beliefs here are even benificial, in a limited way. But not being able to discern reality from "the truth" is a dangerous prospect at best, and a nightmare at worst. Seeing a variety of perspectives, or at least exposing yourself to them, is the only way to avoid the pitfall of "truth".


posted by Thursday at 12:20 pm


Blogger geetha said...

my first visit to ur blog. chanced to visit through ur skeptic carnival post.
good stuff. the fish 'cure' for psoriasis was hilarious - how could some people never ask 'how'? ;)
i am from india. here there is a strange 'cure' for asthma - eating a specific variety of live fish !!
of course there is no documentation regarding hits and misses of such woo woo treatment.
keep up the good work
will visit ur blog regularly

1:36 am  
Blogger Thursday said...

Hmm... Never seen THAT cure! My I suggest a Skeptics' Circle post of your own?

Thanks for the comment.

7:47 pm  

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