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lucy truman

On Facebook, a friend of my sister’s promoted a “demonstration of holy healing oils” that his church is holding. I hate health quackery more than anything. So I wrote him a polite response saying that it was quackery, with links from Wikipedia and The Skeptic’s Dictionary, and told him I thought the healing-oil person was bearing false witness. I also wrote his wife, an RN, and my sister, a PhD in bioarcheology, asking them to do something. Did I do the right thing?

J.C. / Nashville

There was no point to what you did. In the social sciences, there is overwhelming evidence that shows people’s minds are not changed by exposure to empirical facts and that, in many cases, such exposure will cause them to redouble their commitment to their wrongheaded beliefs.

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There, you’ve asked an expert and gotten your answer. Are you going to modify your behavior forever after in accordance with what I said?

No? I think we see the problem here.

Of course you have much better reasons for not taking my advice than Mr. Snakeoil has for not taking yours. Your brain is telling you that right now, isn’t it? Coming up with all the reasons why the two cases are different? Have you started to wonder about my motives yet? To come up with all the reasons I could be misunderstanding the situation, despite how terribly clever I think I am? You will.

Because that’s how it works. People’s beliefs, correct or incorrect, aren’t discrete silos of opinion. Your entirely correct, rational approach to medicine is intimately entwined with your upbringing, your self-image, your other opinions about science and ethics, and your social network. Mr. Snakeoil’s wrongheaded approach to medicine is similarly embedded. Correcting that belief isn’t like replacing one dead bulb on a string of fairy lights, it’s more like pulling a block out of a Jenga tower. You say Mr. Snakeoil’s quackery is sponsored by his church, too — well, as they say in the movies, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” A couple of Snopes links posted on Facebook is not going to undo a belief that is an intimate part of a person’s religion and social support system. All you’ve done is given Mr. Snakeoil a thumbnail image of what an unenlightened heathen looks like. It’s possible you’ve strengthened his resolve.

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Does this mean we must accept all manner of arrant nonsense with polite smiles? No. You can promote evidence-based medicine in all kinds of ways. Vote for pro-science policies. Volunteer at a neighborhood school’s science fair. Use social media to promote articles about the dangers of quack medicine. Don’t aim a spotlight of logic directly at Mr. Snakeoil. Instead, turn up the stage lights on a whole cast of humanist, pro-science, anti-superstition stories and ideas and see who is drawn to them.

In some circumstances, of course, you might have to do a direct intervention in order to live with yourself. If a close friend or relative is endangering herself or someone else — treating cancer with kale poultices, say — have a serious, in-person talk. The kind of talk that you’d have with a chronic drug abuser or philanderer, the kind that you know going in might end the relationship. The kind that’s so important it’s worth that risk, and you tell the other person that. The kind of talk where someone might cry. But a relationship as distant as “my sister’s friend who I know on Facebook” isn’t the sort to sustain that kind of talk. Don’t even try.

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Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.


HAVE YOU RUN INTO TROUBLE WHILE DEBATING FRIENDS? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com.