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Oct 13 2011

Skepticism 101: Popular Pseudoscience

Women have a lot of woo aimed their way. Men aren’t exempt, not by any means, but there’s some woo targeted almost exclusively at women. Our Skepticism 101 panel explored some of the varieties on offer. Some of the woo might not even appear to be woo, on the surface.

Take makeup, for instance.

Makeup isn’t the first thing that popped into my head. Tarot’s what I thought. Love potions and spells. But when you think about it, yes, makeup’s obvious, innit? Some of the claims verge on the miraculous. Defy age! Grow your lashes with our super-sekrit technology! And, I’m sure, a zillion other claims. I pay very little attention to makeup. But I catch the ads on my teevee sometimes, on those rare occasions I’m watching something live, and they’re ridiculous.

Let’s just take one product in particular: Revlon’s special new foundation:

NEW Revlon Age Defying with DNA Advantage Cream Makeup combines makeup + powerful anti-aging skincare to help protect skin’s DNA to fight the signs of aging. 96% of women saw flawless, younger-looking skin in two weeks. Lines and wrinkles are visibly diminished while skin is refreshed, hydrated, revitalized. SPF 20

My, that sounds space-age, doesn’t it just? Protect your DNA! Get flawless skin! Whatevs. It’s fucking tinted moisturizer with sunscreen, people. That’s all it is. It’s not a magic DNA repair tool that will give you the skin of a 20-something supermodel (they’re airbrushed on those magazine covers, anyway).

And women are bombarded with these things. We’re told we have to achieve an impossible standard of beauty and then sold things with complicated names that are supposed to give us that beauty. It doesn’t stop at makeup. Think of all the dietary supplements aimed mostly at women, those things that promise to melt the pounds away with zero effort. The shoes that will shape our bums… I could go on, but you’ve got the point by now.

We haven’t even got started on the stuff that’s supposed to “naturally” keep your family healthy. There’s all sorts of woo out there surrounding conception, pregnancy and childbirth. Sometimes, it’s even marketed as a feminist thing. There’s the anti-vax moment, aimed at parents in general but certainly preying heavily on maternal fears. As our panelists pointed out, sticking needles in your kids is a terrifying thing. Easy to believe you’re hurting your kids when you’re actually saving them from horrible diseases.

What about women’s intuition? How many times have you heard people say that women just intuitively know things? How many women have swallowed that idiocy? We’re told pretty much from birth that men are the analytical ones and that we’re the ones who run on instinct. I’m sorry, but that’s so much bullshit. Women are just as capable of methodical reasoning as men, intuition is a shitty way to figure out the world, and you’re not empowering women by telling them they have a special ladysense. You’re just making them vulnerable to dangerous ideas.

Everyone needs their skeptical toolkit. We’re all targets. Snake-oil salesmen don’t care if it’s a male, female, or other gendered person handing them the cash. But women, who so often haven’t been trained they should think critically, who are held to impossible standards of beauty, who are so often the primary caregivers, need to be especially on guard.

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  1. 1
    Enkidum

    Agreed with most of what you say, except that I don’t think intuition is a shitty way to figure out the world. Or, at least, so long as one doesn’t let it be the only way we figure out the world.

    Intuition is, at least in part, the heuristics we’ve automatized so that we no longer have to think about them. Many, probably even most, of these heuristics are valid, most of the time. So there’s nothing wrong with going with your “female intuition”, or my “male intuition” – chances are it’s going to be right in most cases. In fact there are many circumstances in which it is demonstrably better NOT to consciously and rationally consider a problem, and just to run with your gut feeling.

    But all that being said, it’s true that skepticism is important, and that makeup marketing is horseshit.

  2. 2
    Kylie Sturgess

    Hello! I agree that there’s a lot of topics that certainly overlap, I have a number of podcast episodes on these over at the Token Skeptic Podcast: Episode #8 – On Skepticism And Cosmetic Claims – Lecture by Rosemary Nixon; much of it crosses over into media literacy and consumer rights awareness. There’s been quite a lot of discussion regarding how much of skepticism is consumer awareness as well as solving mysteries, as I’m sure you’ve discovered.
    Episode #15 – On Women’s Intuition And Myths In Psychology – Interview with Dr Scott Lilienfeld – there is actually some evidence for a more intuitive approach by women; as Barbara Drescher writes on the JREF Blog with Women’s Intuition and Other Facts of Life.

    You might also like the variation on a Skepticism 101 that she’s done over at ICBS Everywhere blog. Great to hear your conference went well! :)

  3. 3
    J.B.

    So much of the fitness industry is a mixture of shoddy reasoning, psudo-science and a laser focus on the insecurities created by unrealistic images of femininity. It’s maddening. It bilks frightening amount of money out of women while damaging their metabolisms, and chasing them away from the type of training that would actually help them.
    Sometimes I’m embarrassed for my industry.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Every trip I take to the grocery store makes me think that nobody hates women quite as much as the people who market to them. Women’s magazines are the absolute lowest common denominator of trash, and the covers alone are enough to trigger an eating disorder (“lose weight” “who’s too skinny?” “try these cupcakes!” “celeb fat nightmares!”).

    I never thought of those things in terms of woo before, but it’s a valid comparison. It’s giving me an idea for a discussion forum to do with CFI.

  5. 5
    freemage

    I see a LOT of skin-care products over the course of a year, because of my job. And I actually end up pricing most of them, meaning I go online and find out what they cost and usually end up being exposed to their claims.

    And yes, there are few troughs of bullshit so deep that don’t involve the word “God”. (Ooh… The Holy Grail of Woo would be Jesus Face Cream! “Ressurects dead skin in 3 days!”)

  6. 6
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    What, you mean skepticism can do something other than debunking faith healers and bigfoot? Something that relates to female humans? And you can do it in a way that does not scold people for wanting to use makeup, but instead focuses on the claims made in the ads?

    Next thing you know, we might be talking about menstrual products or “ribbed for her pleasure” condoms or triple bladed razors or…

    Way to go!

  7. 7
    alanuk

    Love potions and spells.
    Is that not just what the makeup merchants are selling?

  8. 8
    unbound

    #1 – The problem with intuition is that how well it works is heavily dependent on how well you learned things thru reasoning when you were younger. My wife (love her with all my heart) has absolutely horrid intuition. She wasn’t raised in an environment when reasoning was well-regarded, and, as a result, it remains a struggle for her to use reasoning in addition to her intuition being heavily biased by fears and insecurities.

    Intuition may be useful if you need to respond to something quickly, but it is a very poor substitute for reasoning. No matter what my accuracy rate is for intuition, I’ve always found it valuable to think the entire process through and be able to have reasons to confirm my thoughts, or have something to turn around in my mind as to why my initial thoughts were wrong.

    Over the years, I’ve actually turned around a good number of thoughts that intuition told me was right, but turned out to be faulty information I was provided (or thought up) when I was younger.

  9. 9
    geocatherder

    I, too, agree that intuition shouldn’t be written off –if, and only if, it’s well-informed intuition. I used to be an engineer who worked on large systems, and after awhile I just “knew” how they should work. It was intuition of internalized knowledge. Impressed the hell out of the Big Bosses because I was able a couple of times to rescue Big Customer Demonstration with just a little work on my part; I “just knew” where the problem was, when put under the gun.

    But that kind of intuition only works if you’ve applied a LOT of reason first, and internalized the results. And you have to be exceedingly careful not to apply it outside your area of expertise.

  10. 10
    renetaprescott

    I do agree totally. But I wouldn’t dismiss instinct so readily either. I think all people, male and female, can use education coupled with those gut intuitions to find a competitive edge. I use my intuition frequently, but it has nothing to do with being a woman. It’s a skill I have honed and trained, and it comes from with education, experience, and tested knowledge. Women have a built in advantage for being sensitive enough to listen, watch, and observe their environment for biological reasons which has much to do with nurture based expectations.

    Men don’t lack this, but the gender role programming we all receive tells them not to. There are fundamentally ingrained differences between men and women, we know this through science, but that these differences don’t account for what we see in adults. Meaning much of those differences between men and women are cultural programing on top of innate differences; therefore the roles aren’t set in stone. If the old wives tale was true then their wouldn’t be woman scientists and mathematicians or male childcare givers. That is where we need to learn to be above the woo.

    I use make up of my own prerogatives aware of the bull-hockey about it’s “anti-aging” abilities. However, sunscreen and skin covering is one way to avoid the damaging affects of the sun, which is one part of the appearance of aging. However, like STD prevention, abstinence from solar exposure is better than any make up or cream you can find. Moderate solar exposure is healthy, too much or too little can cost you dearly. So to me it doesn’t matter what they say as long as we can help people decide for themselves, give them real information about the pros and cons, not the retail bottom line version. Makeup can damage your skin if you don’t exfoliate regularly or if you wear it contiguously.

    Our best chance is to spread the word, and let people make up their own minds. Good post.:3 The miraculous claims are aren’t entirely false sometimes, its as important to discern the truth in falsehood as it is the falsehood in truth. However, I’d argue there are cheaper ways to put on sunscreen and makeup, just as I know these “snake oils” don’t heal or fix skin just make superficial temporal cosmetic change. Knowing doesn’t always mean we change our habits, woo can still be entertaining even knowing it’s woo. Thanks for spreading the word.

  11. 11
    Dana Hunter

    Deleted an off-topic comment whose only purpose was to complain about grammar in the blog’s title. Note to future commenters: don’t do that.

  12. 12
    The Nerd

    Yes yes yes! It’s astounding how many things I do every day have to do with skepticism, but don’t get the recognition as such. For example, I used to wash my white clothes in hot water. Then I read that the extra energy spent on heating the water isn’t justified by the meager improvement over warm or even cold water wash (and hasn’t been for a few decades as detergent technology improves). Is it “just domestic boring lady stuff”? Or is it something that affects all of us, and which we need to think critically about? We need to start shifting our way of thinking to reflect the reality that skepticism isn’t all homeopathy and alien visitations.

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