thanksgiving: awkward family debates edition

The holidays are a time for family, which often means arguments with woo-loving relatives…

digging into turkey

Thanksgiving is that time of year when Americans bake, smoke, or fry food stuffed into other food, then eat as much of it as possible without getting sick while often making awkward small talk with some members of the family they don’t usually see very often; uncles, aunts, and cousins who hold, shall we say, very particular and not entirely reasonable or logical views. While the minds at Foreign Policy Magazine can’t shield you from the culinary travesty that is turducken (a chicken stuffed into a duck which is in turn stuffed into a turkey), they can help you with the wannabe Tea Party activists, climate change denialists, and chickenhawks at the table with their feature story, which focuses on countering political clichés with detailed facts and evidence. And while I read it, I thought about the other kinds of uncomfortable discussions that happen at family events, especially for skeptics who’ll have to hear praises to homeopathy, New Age woo, and anti-vaccination hysteria when they just want to eat something in peace, without getting a long-winded lecture from a fervent disciple of woo…

During the holidays, most of us have to deal with someone who has a passionate belief in every conspiracy theory he’s ever heard, or an adamant anti-vaccinationist who insists on repeating long disproven canards about vaccines and how they work, or a follower of New Age quantum woo and the pseudo-intellectualism of Deepak Chopra and other Huffington Post woo-meisters, or an aggressive alt med promoter who tries to give out medical advice that could kill a genuinely sick person naive enough to follow it. And they’ll all be so deeply offended when you ask questions because they see any doubt of their words as a personal insult. In most families, the advice on dealing with these characters tends to be: “ignore them, and just nod and smile when they’re talking to you.” But have you ever noticed how in families that adopt the nod-and-smile approach, the disciples of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories seem to get worse and worse every year? Care to try and guess why? Because they see the smiling and nodding not as a sign of a polite cold shoulder, but as an agreement, as an encouragement for them to spread their alternative wisdom to all those around.

So what do you do about them? I recommend confronting them with genuine, scientific information. Sure they won’t listen, and sure they’ll try to debate you with snide remarks about “those close-minded skeptics,” but at the very least, you’ll show that they can’t just rattle off the latest conspiracy-mongering book, or some possibly lethal alt med advice unopposed. And while you’ll suffer that year, the next year, you’ll hear less and less woo with your Thanksgiving dinner because what all pseudoscientists want is to preach their gospel without any questions, or skepticism, or interruptions. That’s what they’re used to doing, and that’s the only environment they consider to be “open-minded” and “friendly” since they assume that the only civil conversation they could have involves everyone eagerly welcoming their latest missives. Don’t give them that satisfaction, and soon, a woo-less holiday season may well be on your horizon. You just have to be willing to do a little work for it…

# science // alt med / conspiracy theorists / holidays / pseudoscience


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