Believers are still out there

Being a skeptic is incredibly hard work. I’m not referring to the fact that many people have a completely vacuous and dizzyingly inaccurate idea of what ‘skepticism’ means – that it’s simply the refusal to entertain or accept new ideas – that’s tough enough. No, even if everyone had the definition right (skepticism being the practice of questioning all assertions about reality and apportioning the strength of one’s belief to the strength of the available evidence), it would still be a slog. Not only does a skeptic have to question the opinions of others, she/he must repeatedly check her/his own assumptions and thoughts constantly.

Skepticism, like the concept of ‘enlightenment’ found in Zen teaching, is an abstract; a goal that can never be fully attained but which should be constantly pursued. Nobody can ever be a ‘true’ skeptic, as we constantly find ourselves falling back into our human failings. One of the things I keep finding myself blindsided by is the occasional realization that while, as far as I’m concerned, the supernatural aspects of religious belief are the stuff of juvenile fantasy, there are still lots of people out there that really do believe that shit:

Belief in a god, or a supreme being, and some sort of afterlife is strong in many countries around the globe, according to a new Ipsos/Reuters poll. Fifty one per cent of the 18,829 people across 23 countries who took part in the survey said they were convinced there is an afterlife and a divine entity, while 18 per cent said they don’t believe in a god and 17 per cent weren’t sure.

But only 28 per cent believe in creationism, the belief that a god created humans, compared to 41 per cent who believe in human evolution and 31 per cent who simply don’t know what to believe.

From my personal experience, even those religious people I regularly spend time with say that most of their beliefs are more allegorical than literal. They believe in ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in abstract terms representing a belief in some sort of ultimate justice. They believe in ‘god’ as a vague description of some kind of greater organizing force that permeates the universe. As such, they describe themselves as ‘religious’ in the sense that they do not accept that the universe can be entirely explained through cause/effect chains. If you really drill down to the core of modern theology, it eventually becomes various forms of this kind of ecumenical refusal to be certain about anything.

While infuriating from a rationalist point of view, this kind of belief system is not the kind of thing that inspires people to go out and murder their fellow man or oppress her rights, and often these people are able to pivot that kind of fuzzy ‘religion’ into something constructive (which, I think, points even more strongly to the fact that belief is entirely ancillary to human virtue). And while I think this kind of belief is an intellectually lazy way of having your cake and eating it too, I can at least appreciate the impulse to retain some kind of belief in the supernatural.

That’s why I am gob-smacked when I am confronted with the fact that more than half of my fellow creatures believe in the literal truth of life after death and an ultimate supernatural entity. Not as a vague abstract notion, but as a real being with conscious decision-making abilities and a penchant for judgment. I can handle the abstract concept of people who believe this kind of stuff, but from time to time my brain grabs onto it semantically, shakes my conscious mind and says “can you believe this shit?”

And of course, they do:

Mexicans were the most likely to accept the idea of an afterlife, but not heaven or hell, followed by Russians, Brazilians, Indians, Canadians and Argentines. Believers in creationism were strongest in South Africa, followed by the United States, Indonesia, South Korea and Brazil.

Of course there are two different ways of looking at these findings. Yes, depressingly 3 or 4 billion people in the world think that their entire lives are nothing more than the staging area for some post-mortem talent contest judged by the ultimate Simon Cowell. However, it’s almost perfectly balanced by people who either recognize that there’s no evidence for such an assertion or simply reserve judgment on that particular issue. Nearly half of my fellow creatures live their lives under the operating assumption that this life actually matters, not as a screening process for some kind of real life that happens after you die, but to the planet they live on and the beings that share it. Even if it turns out that there is an afterlife (although the very idea seems preposterous – what part of you goes to the afterlife? And no, ‘soul’ isn’t a meaningful answer to that question), the world we do know exists is made better through the actions of people that live as though their existence matters now.

Opinion polls are largely unimportant when it comes to determining truth about reality (saving those exceptions where we are trying to describe the reality of human belief), but they do give us a pretty significant nod in the direction that our policies and decisions will take us. It’s crucial to never underestimate the fact that while I (and many of you, I’d imagine) have abandoned the false promises given by those who claim knowledge of the afterlife, we share our space with literally billions of other who every day trade the cow of their life for the magic beans of faith.

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Movie Friday: Miracles for Sale

Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe that our heavenly father can suspend the laws of biology and physics to make seemingly impossible things happen right before your eyes?

Yeah, me neither. But a lot of people do, and while it might seem like the right thing to do is to let people believe whatever they like, we inevitably run into problems when shameless hucksters exploit those beliefs to rob earnest people of the little cash that they have. Enter the world of the faith healer – unscrupulous predators that use cheap trickery and hypnotic suggestion to separate desperate people from their hard-earned money.

Derren Brown, celebrity skeptic and magician, did something that is truly miraculous – he decided to enter the bible belt with a preacher who is admittedly fake, and expose the whole charade as fraud:

The interesting part of the lead-up to the final performance is the number of ethical quandaries the crew finds themselves in. While this bothers the people who are up-front and open about their masquerade, it clearly doesn’t bother the vultures that exploit the conditioning of blind faith in the audience.

A friend of mine once made a really powerful point in a debate he had with a creationist: the advantage of atheism (or at least general skepticism) is that we will never fall victim to someone who tells us that God can heal our infirmities, no matter how badly we want that to be true. Reliance on faith as a means of understanding the world makes you particularly vulnerable to exploitation and deception by slick-talking and fundamentally evil fraudsters.

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Axioms, beliefs, and ideas

I recently had dinner with a good friend, in which we discussed (among other things) conversations that I’ve had with people whose world views differ sharply from my own. We were not referring to people with different opinions on things – that is an unavoidable consequence of being around other people. What we were talking about were people whose entire view of how the world works is different. Imagine for a moment someone starting with the mindset of a creationist asked to explain some geological finding – while to the rest of us the existence of a 5 million year-old fossil would be sufficient proof that the world isn’t just a few thousand years of age, the creationist would be looking for the flaw in the dating technique – not out of an effort to overtly distort the truth that they simply wish to deny, but because their fundamental understanding of the world does not permit fossils that old.

My friend questioned the value of bothering to discuss issues with people like this. After all, he suggested, there can be no meeting of the minds or resolution of differences in opinion in this kind of conversation. Inevitably the dispute will drill down to the fundamental differences, which cannot be resolved in most cases. Someone who believes, a priori, that the universe has to be 6-10,000 years old simply cannot accept contradictory evidence. Someone who thinks that a zygote is the same as a grown human person is never going to see abortion as anything other than murder. Someone who thinks that government is the source of social problems (as opposed to a potential solution to those problems) will never agree that affirmative action policies can benefit society.

My response to my friend was that a) I enjoy the challenge of a spirited debate, and b) I used the arguments as a whetstone to sharpen my rhetorical skills, and as a probe to find flaws and holes in my own ideas and beliefs that ought to be addressed. However, in our discussion, he raised a word that I have been chewing on ever since – axioms. I have spoken before (in years past) about the need to separate one’s evaluation of a person with the evaluation of their ideas – in a nutshell while I may disagree with your ideas, that doesn’t mean anything about how I feel about you as a person. It is of crucial importance to separate these two types of evaluation, because failure to do so is the first step towards demonizing and dehumanizing those who have different beliefs – a frightening path that can lead to serious abuses.

However, when your beliefs are axiomatic – self-evidently true with no need for evidence – such separation becomes impossible. Not only that, but no amount of contradictory evidence or reasoned argument will penetrate the force field of your confidence. And then you start to make the same mistakes over again:

Ontario is one step closer to the legalization of marijuana after the Ontario Superior Court struck down two key parts of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that prohibit the possession and production of pot. The court declared the rules that govern medical marijuana access and the prohibitions laid out in Sections 4 and 7 of the act “constitutionally invalid and of no force and effect” on Monday, effectively paving the way for legalization…

Anti-drug action groups and others against the legalization of marijuana have said legalizing marijuana could lead to widespread use and increase crime rates.

If you’re axiomatically wedded to the mantra “drugs are bad”, then this might make sense. After all, if the force of law is the only thing keeping ordinary citizens from becoming drug addicts, then relaxing the legislation around drug prohibition would result in higher rates of drug use. However, since the only real barrier to accessing drugs is how much money you have and how badly you want the drugs, making them legal doesn’t really put a dent in use. The fact is that most people who want to use drugs are already using them – marijuana particularly.

However, this jives with the axiom, so it cannot be true. Despite the evidence we have from places like Portugal and Amsterdam (and my own city of Vancouver), we are still spending billions every year punishing drug users rather than finding ways to reduce the harms of drugs.

And we find other ways to spend billions on our axioms:

With the future of federal corporate tax cuts playing a role in the election campaign, a new study says the planned reductions will not stimulate the economy. A new report from the labour-oriented Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a non-profit research organization, suggests historic trends show businesses’ fixed capital spending has declined as a share of GDP and as a share of corporate cash flow since the early 1980s, despite a series of federal and provincial corporate tax cuts.

If you want to have any credibility among the conservative set as an economist, learn the following set of axioms: a) businesses create jobs, b) taxes reduce business revenues, and c) reduced revenue means reduced job creation. With those axioms firmly in hand, how could anyone conclude anything other than “tax cuts create jobs”? If you give businesses more money and space to innovate, they will find ways to be competitive, resulting in more jobs, right?

The problem is what happens when our axioms come up against evidence. Can we learn to abandon our world view when it is refuted by observation, or will we always insist on finding ways to square our circle? Nobody likes to admit that their beliefs are incorrect, let alone the entire way you see the world. How can we be sure that our studied skepticism isn’t just us clinging to another set of axioms? This is the true challenge of the skeptic – constantly searching ourselves to make sure that we are not just as rigid as those whose opinions we oppose.

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Movie Friday: Tim Wise and the illusion of “post-racial”

I am depressed.

I am depressed for two reasons. First, I am depressed that no matter how hard I work, I will likely never get as good at talking about issues of race and racism, history and the importance of advocacy as Tim Wise is:

The second reason I am depressed is that it seems like the forces of reason are losing the fight to the forces of revisionist history, post-hoc rationalization and short-sighted self-interest. I realize this post is much longer than what I usually post for Movie Friday (and has fewer jokes), but if you’ve found any of my posts on “the good old days” or the importance of recognizing black history, or really anything that I’ve said about race to be interesting (and the numbers suggest that at least some of you do), then you’ll absolutely love this clip.

Any of you who have watched any black beat poetry or other forms of spoken word, you’ll recognize that Tim uses a lot of their cadence and punctuated rhythm to get his points across. It’s not just a lecture – it’s verbal poetry. Amazing stuff, and I really really hope you watch it.

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Can we get some of that here?

Romania has the right idea for all the wrong reasons:

Romanian witches and fortune tellers are cursing a new bill that threatens fines or even prison time if their predictions don’t come true. Superstition is a serious matter in the land of Dracula, and officials have turned to witches to help the recession-hit country collect more money and crack down on tax evasion.

I would love to see a law like this passed here, but applied equally to psychics, reflexologists, homeopaths, and any other profession that is in the business of making predictions based on tools that “can’t be measured by science”. Even if they can’t be measured, certainly we can test to see whether they work or not, right? Just like doctors have to keep scrupulous records of the prognosis and outcome of every patient they treat, and are subject to litigation if they make unreasonable predictions and promises, so too should be tarot card readers and other charlatans.

But of course Romania is doing this to separate the “real” witches from the “impostors”. Here’s a hint: they’re all impostors.

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I now have a bit of a crush on Greta Christina

I hope that she won’t take that the wrong way. I do not mean to demean, but I do want to take her brain out to dinner and a walk along the seawall. Why? Because she wrote this:

But it’s disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst, to say that criticism of other religious beliefs is inherently bigoted and offensive… and then make an exception for beliefs that are opposed to your own. You don’t get to speak out about how hard-line extremists are clearly getting Christ’s message wrong (or Mohammad’s, or Moses’, or Buddha’s, or whoever) — and then squawk about religious intolerance when others say you’re the one getting it wrong. That’s just not playing fair.

And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.

In her piece entitled No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion, she hits the ball out of the park in identifying the complete lack of merit in the position of “everyone’s entitled to their opinion“, the topic of one of my very first thought pieces. She really tickles all of my skeptical pleasure-centres when she writes stuff like this:

In my debates and discussions with religious believers, there’s a question I’ve asked many times: “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?” And I’m shocked at how many times I’ve gotten the answer, “No, not really.” It leaves me baffled, practically speechless. (Hey, I said “practically.”) I mean, even leaving out the pragmatic fails and the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of prioritizing pleasantry over reality… isn’t it grossly disrespectful to the God you supposedly believe in? If you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to understand him as best you can? When faced with different ideas about God, wouldn’t you want to ask some questions, and look at the supporting evidence for the different views, and try to figure out which one is probably true? Doesn’t it seem incredibly insulting to God to treat that question as if it didn’t really matter?

There are profound differences between different religions. They are not trivial. And the different religions cannot all be right. (Although, as atheists like to point out, they can all be wrong.) Jesus cannot both be and not be the son of God. God cannot be both an intentional, sentient being and a diffuse supernatural force animating all life. God cannot be both a personal intervening force in our daily lives and a vague metaphorical abstraction of the concepts of love and existence. Dead people cannot both go to heaven and be reincarnated. Etc. Etc. Etc.

When faced with these different ideas, are you really going to shrug your shoulders, and say “My, how fascinating, look at all these different ideas, isn’t it amazing how many ways people have of seeing God, what a magnificent tapestry of faith humanity has created”?

Do you really not care which of these ideas is, you know, true?

Read the whole article, but be prepared for the need to sneak off to enjoy some “personal time” afterwards.


Alternative therapies aren’t ALWAYS full of shit… but this one is

It seems that once again I am donning my ‘scientist’ cap and wading knee-deep into the shit…


A hospital physician from a major B.C. facility says several patients died in the last year from C. difficile — unnecessarily — after the health authority stopped her and her colleagues from giving an experimental, simple and highly effective treatment… The treatment, called a fecal transplant, involves introducing stool from a healthy donor — usually a relative — into an infected patient’s bowel, usually through an enema.

Yes, you read that correctly. Dr. Jeanne Keegan-Henry is proposing transplanting somebody’s poo into the bowels of someone with a Clostridium difficile infection in order to cure them.



Poo Transplant.

It sounds like the name of a doomed-to-obscurity high school punk rock band. And yet, Dr. Keegan-Henry, who is by all accounts an able and qualified physician, is recommending it. Skeptical smackdown time, right?

Here’s the crazy thing about skepticism. Detractors would characterize it as being resolutely opposed to anything that doesn’t sound like Big Pharma drugs, or is too experimental or outside the realm of conventional medicine. While it is often worthwhile to listen to the criticisms that come from one’s enemies, it is important to resist the temptation to allow them to define your position. More often than not, they are all too happy to succumb to the temptation of straw-manning you into oblivion rather than give a dispassionate description of what it is you actually think (cue the peanut gallery coming out of the woodwork to point out the many times I’ve done it to them).

Skepticism is about evaluating claims, all claims, according to their plausibility and the evidence supporting their truth. When I first caught wind of poo transplants (reader’s note: this article will be stuffed full of poop jokes – you have been warned) my skeptic hackles immediately went up. It’s really the prototypical case – we have a brave maverick doctor who is standing up to the medical establishment and recommending a completely natural remedy to a condition that is usually treated with drugs. For bonus points, it involves enemas. Seems like this ripe stinker was dumped right on our plate as another crazy whackaloon looking for attention (and possibly a book deal).

So, what does a skeptic do? She goes to the evidence! A quick search on PubMed (the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health centralized research database) for “fecal transplant clostridium difficile” reveals 30 hits – not exactly a stellar start; usually it’s in the neighbourhood of a few hundred to a few thousand results. The majority of these hits were commentaries and letters rather than full-blown research articles – also not a good start; what we’re looking for is systematic reviews of clinical trials, or at least trials themselves. We don’t have that – what we have is a handful of case series reports, each representing a tiny number of patients.

So I took a look at the largest case series, that of a 12-patient sample. And the results? Well… would you forgive me if I say “holy shit”?

Click to enlarge

Of 12 patients with infections ranging from 79 to 1532 days (mean length = 352 days), 100% of the patients in this sample experienced a clinical response, defined as “cessation of diarrhea, cramps, and fever within 3 to 5 days”. The authors describe their inclusion and exclusion criteria clearly, as well as the treatment protocol. Patient followup ranged from 3 weeks to many years after the intervention (which is a necessary evil of a case series – it’s not a prospective trial where follow-up can be standardized).

So, cut and dry answer right? Obviously it worked for these patients! No need for further study – let’s approve the shit!

Not so fast…

The reason for putting on the brakes (and possibly leaving skid marks) is that this is one sample of patients. These results are certainly dramatic, but there were no enterobacteriology cultures done – the gut was not examined to see if it was truly the poop that did the trick. The patients from whom the samples were taken had taken doses of antibiotics before donating their sample – was it the poo or the drugs that done it? Even the authors of the paper admit that they don’t have a certain mechanism by which fecal transplantation works. There are certainly some plausible attempts at explanation, but they still don’t know.There was also no control group for comparison (although in a time-series design it is permissible to use the patients as their own controls, comparing them to their pre-trial state – I am channeling that degree in epidemiology!), meaning that we cannot rule out the placebo effect or some other event as explanatory.

Is Dr. Keegan-Henry right? Should we be allowing fecal transplanation? Maybe – the preliminary results are certainly compelling (to go from years of suffering to resolved in 3-5 days is really remarkable). We should be enrolling people in small-scale clinical trials to test for efficacy. Given that there are no observed adverse effects of the transplantation, there’s certainly no reason to block the investigation:

Dr. George Sing, a gastroenterologist at Burnaby Hospital, also wants to provide the treatment to patients. “We did table [a proposal], but it fell into the cracks,” said Sing. “We have been through all the channels … but when it goes through committees it gets bogged down.”

Heh… he said “fell into the cracks”.

This is the hallmark of skepticism – even if something looks totally batshit insane, we test claims against evidence, not against what we think should work. I’ll be interested to see if this story develops.

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Movie Friday: Show me a God

There’s never been a conscientious believer who has gone through life completely free of doubt. There is an interesting passage in Mark 9 in which Jesus is asked to heal a child with epilepsy, and the father is told that all he has to do is believe hard enough, and his son will be cured (Jesus was an early Deepak Chopra, apparently). The distraught father says “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” and his son is immediately cured.

The story is complete bullshit, to be sure, but that line “I believe, help me overcome my unbelief” has been uttered, in various permutations, by the lips of the faithful for as long as people have been told to believe in ridiculous stories and impossible propositions with no evidence.

Tech N9ne turned it into a song:

There is an entire branch of theology called “theodicy” that is devoted to trying to square the circle of things in the world that are evil with the idea of a benevolent creator. Guys like Ken Ham, Ray Comfort and Hugh Ross make the claim that suffering is intentionally introduced into the universe to test mankind’s resolve to turn away from sin. If mankind is able to bear up under the crushing weight of temptation and overcome evil, then he is rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven (citation needed). Of course this is a facile explanation that falls apart under even casual scrutiny. Why would a loving god make such a test? Why not make it easier to be good? Why not create mankind with an inner drive to be good? Why punish those who are innocent of any misdeeds, while rewarding those who sin? Why bother testing us at all if it knows who will pass and who will fail a priori?

The other explanations are that YahwAlladdha is not good at all, but a petty heartless trickster who delights in human suffering, or that it is completely indifferent to the suffering of its creation.

Or, more parsimoniously, that it doesn’t exist at all and you’re wasting your time asking stupid questions.

While there are a lot of reasons to hold onto religion in the black community (community organization has traditionally centred on church groups, the belief in ultimate justice helps you ignore many of the day-to-day injustice you see around you), I am glad to see/hear influential voices within the hip-hop community begin to broach the taboo around criticizing religion. Maybe none are so poignant as this track from The Roots:

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P.S. Sorry about the embedding. VEVO is… I have mixed feelings.

Quick refutations to common homeopath complaints

At the time of writing, the CBC Marketplace piece on homeopathy (in which yours truly makes an appearance) has not yet aired. However, there are already in excess of 100 comments on the 30-second trailer. Part of this is an intentional campaign by homeopaths to troll the comments section and make it look as though CBC’s reporting is reviled by a representative cross-section of Canadians – I’d be inclined to think that most Canadians haven’t even heard of homeopathy let alone tried it. There are, most probably, at least some people who are commenting because they honestly believe in homeopathy, but I’d suspect they’re in the minority.

Of course homeopaths are indeed going bat-shit insane and decrying the Marketplace piece as “one sided and unfair” (again, remember that it hasn’t aired yet) and accusing the lot of us of being sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies (which is such a tiresome lie that I almost don’t want to bother pointing out how untrue it is). For the record – I have received zero pharmaceutical money. My salary is paid by a number of grants, some of which are pharmaceutical. However, my personal income does not change, and would not change from any kind of skeptical involvement. The people who pay my salary (the provincial regulatory body for health services) have no idea what I do outside of work, and my salary is based on a fixed schedule that is common for everyone who has my job title and experience within the organization. I have worked on exactly one pharmaceutically-related project to date, and have had zero direct contact with the funders, who (incidentally) don’t know what my findings are yet; findings that have been presented at public conferences over which the companies exerted zero control.

Rather than going to the trouble of responding to the flood of comments, I will avoid fighting the tide of stupid and respond to the claims generally:

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No refund policy? No, refund policy!

This is the second part of this morning’s story of my homeopathic overdose.

After the “overdose” failed to accomplish anything, I went back to Finlandia and told the person behind the till that I was dissatisfied with the insomnia homeopathic preparation I had purchased, because it didn’t do anything. I told her that it had not changed my sleeping pattern whatsoever, and that as far as I could tell it didn’t work. She went and got the manager, who informed me that there was no refund policy on homeopathy. Peeved, I started to walk out. She stopped me and said that she might be able to do an exchange, although that was against policy too.

The reason for the policy, she told me, was that homeopathy doesn’t work right away. If I was looking for a “quick fix” I should try something else, but that homeopathy supposedly “regulates” my sleeping cycle. I pointed out that it hadn’t done anything like that, even after taking an entire bottle. She suggested that I needed to give it more time and keep going. I said that I was warned about that, and that I wasn’t interested in buying more of a product that didn’t work the first time.

As she ushered me over to the counter of sleeping stuff, she introduced me to the devil herself – the Heel Homeopathy rep. I described my issue to her and she gave me a bunch of the same nonsense about how it was working to ‘balance my energy’ and that I would need to wait for at least a week to see any effect. There was a guy behind the counter who said “it takes time, and homeopathy doesn’t work for everyone” (that old gem). I pointed out that when I came in, I told them I was having a sleeping problem, they gave me something they told me would help – at no point did anyone say “this will help in a week’s time” or “this might not work for you”. I was just told to follow the instructions. There is a difference here between things like antidepressants that actually do take a while to take effect – this information is disclosed to you when they are prescribed. These scam artists had told me no such thing at the point of purchase, and were then trying to evade having to pay me back when their snake oil didn’t work.

The assistant manager quickly swept me away from my debunking, and back to the sleeping pill counter. She then tried to up-sell me a bunch of stuff. The one she pushed the hardest was $44 a bottle! I put on my best skeptical face and said “look, I’m a scientist. I know a thing or two about how the body works, and none of what you’ve said so far addresses my problem.” Sensing defeat, she then buckled and refunded my money in full. Of course, on my way out she tried to sell me a bunch of other stuff, and told me to “do my own research”. Silly manager, I’ve done LOTS of research – you’re full of crap.

I do kind of feel bad about taking the refund under false pretenses, after buying the product under OTHER false pretenses. However, since it was PRESCRIBED under false pretenses, and the people who provide this stuff really ought to know better than to make false health claims, I will sleep just fine tonight (*rimshot*). I will donate the $18 to the James Randi Educational Foundation.

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