Random Asides

Original Cynicism

I’ll probably get kicked off the blog for saying this, especially after Rebecca’s post about airborne, but…

Hello, my name is Stacey, and I take Vitamin C.

I live in a warm climate and every year, in the dead of winter, I vacation up north. More than once I’ve gotten the flu on day 2 and spent my entire vacation feeling like crap instead of enjoying my family or my time off. A couple of years ago I decided to see if there was anything I could do to prevent that, so I went to the local GNC and was educated about the “vitamin C flush”. They basically claim that if you take 10,000 mg of vitamin C granules per day, for three days, you’ll be cold and flu proof. The taste of the granules is so strong that the only liquid with a prayer of disguising it is cranberry juice. It’s a very tart three days. So this year I found myself a week away from my vacation and seeking solace at the GNC again. There among the miracle weight loss teas and antidepressant herb capsules, I felt like a big skepchick fraud. I’m well aware that there’s absolutely no conclusive evidence that vitamin C prevents or cures anything except scurvy. I just felt like I should do SOMETHING to try to prevent the flu from ruining my vacation.

And I started thinking about how religion can be the same type of placebo. Psychologically, we humans have a lot to deal with here on earth. Why am I here? Does my life even have a purpose? Does anything I do matter? Do people that get away with bad things ever get punished? If not, is there any point in being good? What will happen to me after I die? Will I just not exist anymore? Religion provides answers to all of these tough questions in a nice neat little package. Religion is the SOMETHING that people do, so that everything makes sense, which makes life so much easier to face.

Moreover, psuedoscience in general is what we do when something is important to us, and we have no control over it. Worried that a loved one won’t make it through an operation? Say a prayer. Want to be happy, healthy, and thin? Take some herbal supplements. Unfinished business with a deceased family member? Have a psychic channel him or her. Worried about the flu ruining your vacation? Take vitamin C. The question then becomes – is it ever acceptable for a skeptic to hope something will work, even though it’s unproven?

Obviously there is harm in getting carried away with one’s pseudoscience and/or going on a mission to proclaim something works when there’s no solid evidence to back it up. When the keeper-of-the-woo is fighting to [insert thinly veiled reference to Creationism/ID litigation], that is a problem. But are there some skeptical sins that could be considered harmless placebos? If not, how far do you take it? No lucky underwear? No birthday wish? Switch from “bless you” to “gesundheit”?

When it comes to skepticism, is it all or nothing? Or is there a continuum?

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11 Comments

  1. I think religion is a failure at giving people meaning. They THINK they get their meaning in life out of religion, just like they THINK they get their morality from, say, the Bible. But they don't, really. People find meaning in family, work, friendship, creativity, and in many other areas. The only ones who find their meaning from religion are, perhaps, monks or nuns, who really give up everything else to dedicate their lives to god. The rest are self deceived.

    Well, that's just me thinking out loud and I'm not even sure I agree with what I just said but I'm going to post it anyway.

    BTW, I knock on wood and perform some other completely superstitious actions from time to time sort of as a joke on myself and the universe, not because I have any belief that these things change the course of history.

  2. I admit that I take regular vitamin C supplements, too.

    In 1999 I had a kidney transplant, and as a result I'm on a whole bunch of medicines that basically reduce my immune system to a low level so the transplant has a fighting chance of surviving. The result is that I'm now susceptible to just about anything that's going about. However, with taking 500mg of vitamin C every day since then, I have had about 5 (if I recall correctly) colds in all in those almost-8 years. (Compare that to my record of about two per annum in the years leading up to 1999.)

    Does it work, or — as my skeptical side insists — is it because I now take more trouble to avoid people who are showing cold-like symptoms, so it's not really an effect of the vitamin C but just a change in my behaviour?

  3. [For some reasons sraiche’s blog entries always sound in my head like they’re being read by carrie from sex and the city…]

    There’s been some research done recently on superstitions, with indications that some types of superstitions are bad for you, but some are good for your psychological well being. The bad ones are the “Don’t do this!” type, they increase anxiety when, for instace, you meet a black cat, or walk under a ladder, or talk to Sylvia Browne.

    But other supersitions – like crossing fingers (even just saying it to people), touching wood, and other anxiety reducing superstitions can have a positive effect on people’s wellbeing.

    Also, I don’t see any problem with hoping something will work even though it’s unproven. We do it all the time, I think the dangers arise when unproven methods/techniques/products get sold as if they were proven to work.

  4. I think it’s been pretty much confirmed that vitamin C doesn’t prevent colds. But apparently there is a possibility that vitamin C reduces the duration of a cold (once you have one), although this hasn’t been confirmed yet, IIRC.

    Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with vitamin and mineral supplements, but only if your diet is seriously lacking in particular substances. In which case it’s probably better/healthier AND cheaper to simply change your diet rather than wasting money on supplements to make up for that.

  5. There’s probably one other reason to take vitamin supplements. One factor in a hangover is the alcohol leeching out vitamins along with all the water it sucks out, so I use vitamin supplements as a preventative measure after nights of heavy drinking. Of course, the water I take with the vitamins doesn’t exactly hurt matters, either. ;)

  6. My mom always believed that vitamin C helped colds, and while she never bought supplements, we were encouraged to eat a lot of oranges, tangerines, etc when we had colds. I still do this out of habit, and because I figure that even if the vitamin C doesn't help, eating fresh fruit when I have a cold can only help matters.

  7. I suppose I’m SOMEWHAT guilty of this as well. I’ve always tried to drink more orange juice during cold and flu season just as a means of trying to get even SOME vitamin C. I don’t honestly think that merely drinking juice is going to save me, regardless of what Jack LaLanne wants me to believe, but I do know that its certainly a tastier path to improving a neglected part of my diet than supplements would be.

    QuackCast talked a bit about this sort of stuff last week, actually, and I think I agree with what he said: the evidence is against ‘immune system boosts’ because there’s simply no such thing. It’s mainly that improving your diet
    (all around, not JUST adding vitamin C to it) is just one of many things (like sleeping better, not smoking, etc) that help the immune system to recover a very small amount from having its efficacy reduced (by things like poor diet, not sleeping, smoking, etc). It’s not as if supplements give one SUPERIMMUNITY…though, come to think of it, that would be pretty nifty. Ideally, though, you only end up back at ‘normal’ in the end, which means you’re only as likely to fight off a cold as any other generally healthy person. Oh well :(

  8. Testing of the the effects of Vitamin C have been done for general populations, as far as I can tell, with no regard towards determining if there are any sub-groups that exhibit positive consequences from its use. In the case of Vitamin C, I would say that there is at least strong anecdotal evidence that some individuals benefit greatly from regular use. Additional observations in the anecdotal vein also seem to indicate that some individuals gain no benefits from increased use.

    In my case, I don't remember what prompted me to begin taking fairly large dosages of C. I had been doing a lot of cycling and other taxing exercise and I was concerned that being an old guy (50's), I needed to supplement my diet with at least a multi-vitamin. However, for any supplement I take, I decided there must be some measurable benefit – so if I use something for at least several months, and there is no benefit, I discontinue use. I am now down to the multi-vitamin (with minerals) and 2 grams of Vitamin C.

    It's now been almost five years since I had a cold or any sinus related problems. Prior to taking C supplements, I had head colds at the same rate as the rest of my family (wife and two young kids) as well as seasonal allergy problems. I am normally very skeptical about the benefits of medication, but my experience parallels that of Dr Pauling who also benefited from its use.

    Others with whom I have discussed this issue report that they have not had this positive effect. I don't doubt their word on the subject. However, based on what I have experienced, if you are one of the lucky ones, it is worth taking.

  9. The biggest difficulty (regarding any anecdotal evidence, but particularly health claims), is that it's pretty hard to exclude any other factors.

    Or in other words, while there may be a particular subgroup of the population who may benefit from vitamin C use (or any other kind of supplement) is that, first of all, we don't actually know what the separating factor for that subgroup really is. Perhaps it's that everyone in that subgroup is into cycling, perhaps it's the fact you live in a certain area, etc…

    Secondly, if you were somehow able to narrow it down to a subgroup with a common factor, you can't be 100% sure that the vitamin C is the only thing you have incommon. Perhaps it's something else everyone in the group shares that's somehow helping you stay healthier, like the fact you're cycling, or living in a certain area.

    While at first glance, the previous paragraph and the one before that may appear to be saying the same thing, they're not. The first basically says we don't know which people might benefit from taking what particular supplement. The second is saying that we don't even know for sure if the supplement is really what's making the difference in your health.

    This reminds me very much of the research in Africa regarding circumsicion as a way of reducing the risk of contracting aids. At first glance, it appeared to be a crazy idea. In the end it turns out there really is a connection. But there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure you've got every angle covered and that whatever you're measuring really is what you think you're measuring.

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