Afternoon Inquisition

AI: When Woo Comes To Dinner

My mother in law is in town. We picked her up from the airport last night. She wears a cross almost bigger that her, she is tiny to begin with so it really stands out. She fondles it when she talks to us. She was married to a chiropractor for over 20 years. She is going to a kinesiologist so he can tell her her problems by waving carrots above her arm. She has osteoporosis but refuses to eat dairy because she “thinks” she is allergic (not lactose intolerant). She just thinks it makes her stuffy in the head and that apparently is very bad and means she is allergic. She conducted her own experiment, she stopped consuming dairy. (That’s it, that was the experiment.) She is now refusing to eat gluten because she met a nutritionist at a “Whole Foods” grocery store and now believes inflammation causes illness and gluten makes you tired. She doesn’t want to feel tired in the afternoon or puffy, ever. She calls doctors of modern medicine allopaths. She doesn’t like them because they prescribe drugs. SO she found a homeopath who is also an MD (wtf?) so she can get a prescription for hormones. (not to clear if that is for menopause or what exactly). She said she knows homeopathy works because she has a book that explains it.

My mother in law is a very kind, sweet woman. I want her to be happy and healthy. I don’t want her to waste away into nothingness because alternative medicine practitioners have convinced her that food and modern medicine is evil. I started a conversation with her last night but I think I came off a little condescending. So I ask you this wise world of the Skepchick community: How do you deal with woo from family members at the holidays? Do you keep your scientific information quiet to keep peace at the dinner table or do you try to sway the people you care about any chance you get? More importantly, should I just STFU or try to explain things to my MIL?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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89 Comments

  1. Man, I am so lucky. I can’t think of one family member that is all that into woo. My mom has gotten a little weird about religion over the last couple years after a drug overdose (not that she’s 100% clean now, god or not, but whatever), but aside from that, my family is full of really logical, pragmatic people. I mean, most probably believe in god, but I wasn’t even really aware of that except at weddings and funerals, and even then I only remember one wedding and two funerals.

  2. I try to be diplomatic. If she says she has a book, counter with a different book. There are doctors who do not push drugs for every single thing. Maybe bringing up a personal medication or doctor’s experience could help her see that there is another side to the coin…

    There are some things we can let slide, especially for the greater peace, but sometimes when lives and health hang in the balance, we have to speak up. I think that, if you approach it from an I-care-about-you-and-just-want-to-make-sure-you-have-all-of-the-information perspective, maybe she would be receptive? Especially if your husband makes it clear, too.

  3. Amy, have tried the “Oh! I just read an article about that” tack? You say that phrase and then you pull an printout from Neurologica out of your back pocket. Thats the way I would try to handle it (although I will invariably sound condescending and know-it-all-ish. Boo)
    As for my own family: not much woo but they are Catholic (practicing to various degrees), but it doesn’t bother me much. 9 years of Catholic school was like vaccine for me.

  4. @Amy: There are a few family members on my dad’s side that I don’t know very well, but even then considering my dad is super into science and stuff, I don’t think any of them are super wooey.

    My mom liked to talk a lot about how the house was haunted by a friendly girl, and that this big huge tree we had in our front yard forever was a haunted tree, but I think that was more story-telling than actual belief, because she comes from a family of story tellers.

  5. Also, Nancy Snyderman’s “Medical Myths That Can Kill You: And the 101 Truths That Will Save, Extend, and Improve Your Life” has good info for all ages. Despite her recent involvement with the questionable facilitated communication, I still think this is a good and helpful book.

  6. I can’t think of anyone in my family into woo beyond a few that go to chiropractors for back problems. If I did I’d tell them it’s bullshit and why, I have the kind of family where no one really holds back on their opinions.

    One of my uncles said something stupidly racist about hispanics at a family get together last year and he got an immediate lecture from me, his mother, and about half a dozen other people. Love my uncle but he’s a conservative jackass who listens to Rush Limbaugh to much.

  7. My mom goes to a chiropractor and is certain that garlic pills help everything. That doesn’t come up at the holidays necessarily, only when I’m sick or injured. I don’t try to talk her out of what she does but when she suggests I try it, I explain my reasons for not doing it myself. I’m hoping some of it will sink in that way.

    My MIL thinks people sneeze because they are cold. 75% of my holidays are spent having this conversation: SNEEZE… “do you need a blanket?”… “No, I sneeze because I have allergies not because I’m cold”…SNEEZE… “Should we turn the fireplace on?”… “No, I sneeze because I have allergies not because I’m cold”…

  8. @chistat: The sneezing bit is pretty funny. It’s like the Italian and/or Jewish grandma/food thing. “Are you hungry?” “No thanks, I just ate.” “Well, how about just a little bit.” No thanks… I just ate.” “Well, here just take this little plate, it’s just a little plate.” “Grandma, I… {sigh}…*Brightly*… Thanks Grandma!”

  9. I have various extended family members who are into woo, as well as some in-laws that are as well.

    My family is accustomed to me not keeping my mouth shut, so when they send me various woo emails or spout off to me about some inane belief, I don’t hesitate to let them know where I stand. I should say, I do this in instances where I’m brought into the conversation, through a mass email for example or when I am part of the conversation when it turns to matters of woo.

    I generally keep my opinions to myself if I’m not part of the conversation.

    All of this is still a personal value judgment. I understand if someone doesn’t want to engage an argument, especially when it comes to a question of possibly hurting a loved one. My wife is rather non-confrontational and will go out of her way to avoid an argument.

    And although the issue of “it’s the holiday” doesn’t really make a difference to me, I will swallow my opinion in situations where the person who buys into the woo is particularly vulnerable, like a funeral. I’m not saying this like I deserve a batman utility belt or something for not being a douche, just as an observation that each instance is judged on those particular circumstances and through a personal value judgment.
    Though, my personal value judgment is correct!
    ;)

  10. It may be difficult, since your MIL seems to be into all sorts of woo, but you might want to bring up something that she doesn’t believe in (acupuncture, maybe?). Then ask her how she knows it isn’t true, and show her they all use the same tactics: books, bad studies, anecdotal evidence, an enemy in “big pharma”…

    Nah, on second thought, it would probably just convince her that acupuncture is real.

  11. @chistat: That is so funny! Its like a reversal of what will happen at my Thanksgiving dinner…

    Me to MIL: Can I get you some fresh bread?
    MIL: No can’t have that.
    Me to MIL: Can I get you some egg nog?
    MIL: Can’t have it, allergic.
    Me to MIL: Can I get you some Caesar Salad?
    MIL: Can’t have it, allergic.
    Me to MIL: Would you like some stuffing?
    MIL: Oh no can’t have it.
    Me: Awww for fucks sake…
    MIL: Bless you.

  12. My mother is not into woo at all, and one day we were talking about health issues and I joked that if she every went to a homeopath of acupuncturist she should keep it to herself because any decision so crushingly stupid would be met by a torrent of ridicule and mockery from me. My mother laughed because she knew I’d never really do that. She then said, “well I hope you’d tell me if you thought I was doing something useless or dangerous, I am your mother. “, that was nice to hear.

    My sister in law went to a Laetrile clinic in Mexico when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I sent them some carefully worded but clear e-mails about the dangers, risks and ineffectiveness of this treatment. They fell of deaf ears. My SIL and BIL are both fundy Christians and it was clear their religious beliefs made it easer for them to believe other forms of made up stuff. I thing beliefs run in packs so challenging some medical woo can be similar to challenging religious beliefs for some people.

  13. @Amy: If you want, just invite me over to play “bad cop”.

    The last time I got together with my family for my mom’s 70th, my second oldest sister kept going on about horoscopes and similar woo. What got me most was her insisting that her twins were such “Cancer-arians!”

    I told her, aside from astrology being bunk, using such a dumb, made-up word was ridiculous in itself.

    “It’s a perfectly correct word!” she exclaimed, ” My friends use it all the time!”

    “If that was true,” I argued, “that would make everyone born a Libra, a Librarian.”

    And that, kiddies, is why I don’t go to more family get-togethers…

  14. @James Fox: I think that is similar to the main problem in my particular situation. She rejects science because of extreme religious fervor. This firm belief in the the supernatural allows her to easily accept any idea related to “a life or energy force” because in her mind it somehow equates to her concept of God.

  15. Neither my family nor my wife’s family get together at the holidays leaving us free to pick who we want to associate with. I highly recommend it.

    This started about five years ago when we narrowly avoided two accidents and spent two days marooned in western Kansas. I told my family that traveling during the winter was insane and I wasn’t going to do it any more. I got surprisingly little push back. Now I get to see them one or two at a time in much better weather.

    This being said my whole family is pretty rational. Woo rarely raises its head. We even decided this year for the first time that no gifts of any sort will be exchanged. Not on birthdays nor on Christmas. Cards are welcome. Stories, poems, songs are also encouraged if you want to demonstrate your feelings. Presents, however, are just a consumerist fable we have all bought into that have nothing to do with closeness and more often demonstrate a lack of closeness. I love my family.

  16. Because this is a family member you care about and can’t really ignore try saying privately:

    “I choose to believe in science and intelligent studies, and you might be endangering yourself or at the very least denying yourself harmless pleasure. When you’re ready to come out of the crazy closet call me and we can research together the actual reasons for your physical problems. And I promise not to say I told you so.”

    Only you could phrase it better. Personally I have no tact and would be way snarkier.

  17. There are so many different flavors of woo floating around one side of my family that large gatherings are off limits for discussion of such things, but every other day of the year is wide open. Some fights have resulted in people missing from events for years at a time.

  18. @Amy: My BIL and SIL were very taken with all the Christian trappings and prayer, singing and stuff at the Laetrile clinic in Tijuana. It sooo sounded like a well oiled con, but to have said so would have weakened my arguments with them. The really odd thing is that my BIL is smart and owns a successful scientific engineering product company that manufactures instruments for large construction, tunnel and mining projects. He even installed and his company monitors the instruments under the leaning tower of Pizza. So when I talked about cancer treatments that were based in science like his companies products versus treatment based in belief and anecdote, his reply was that he had done his research and their oncologist in the UK even recommended the Laetrile clinic. What else can you say at that point?

  19. @davew:
    I am very jealous. One year our drive to St. Louis was doubled by a snow storm. We passed dozens of cars that had run off the road. We have threatened to not make the drive again if there is snow predicted but we always cave in.

    My MIL would view the missing of a holiday as the absolute end of the world. And she would try to use that to convince us to replace our sub-compact economy car with something with 4-wheel drive.

  20. The bigger problems tend to come from politics and political conspiracies (Birther nonsense and other conservative conspiracy theories). However we’ve largely come to an agreement that we won’t talk about politics around other family members so that has become much less of a problem. If they ever bring up an pseudo-scientific nonsense I’ll call em on it but in a way that isn’t insulting. Just bring up some studies or such that calls w/e into question. I’ve found doing this has resulted in some small wins like getting em to stop using those ear candles. Plus no ruined dinners to political shouting matches.

  21. Confrontation has not worked well so far. Like you say, it’s usually perceived as condescending.

    Sometimes, one way to do it is just to ask well chosen questions so that they realize what they believe has some flaw. I mean, you start as if you knew nothing about the subject yourself and build on that, so they’re not on the defensive. If you’re sincere in this attitude, you may have some success making people think without being rude.

    This certainly won’t work with everybody, and it’s just a bit of my perception. But usually, when I do that, the conversation ends up much more enriching for both of us.

  22. This sort of thing definitely happens to me, especially w/the inlaws. Because it comes in so many flavors and is so pervasive, I try to choose my battles. I don’t really now how I choose them. I think it’s partly that I try only to comment on items where I feel like I have alot of info. In the end it never goes over well, although we all get over it pretty immediately. But I *cannot* just sit and listen to all that drivel and not say *something*. If I have to listen to their crap, they’re going to have to listen to some of mine.

  23. I’ve had to fend off woo from extended family due to my chronic illness. My sister in law is also a wonderfully sweet woman who only wants the best for me, but at one point she swore that if I slept on a lambswool mattress cover, it would really help my illness. I tend to do the “smile and nod” bit with these types of suggestions.

    However, if she had told me that she was using homeopathy instead of going to physical therapy for her recent neck surgery (which thankfully is not true), I would definitely be compelled to say something for her own health.

    But Amy, your MIL sounds like someone who is so entrenched, it might take the equivalent of a skeptical forklift to get her out of that muck. I guess you have to decide whether it’s worth expending that kind of energy.

  24. @chistat: My MIL would view the missing of a holiday as the absolute end of the world. And she would try to use that to convince us to replace our sub-compact economy car with something with 4-wheel drive.

    I am also lucky to have a family that understands logical arguments.

    Also, 4WD doesn’t help very much when the problem is accidents and running off the road. 4WD is excellent for getting moving in slick conditions, but the extra mass makes stopping and avoiding accidents harder. I doubt there is a MIL ever born, however, who would accept this.

  25. My ex-wife is a devout Christian, a student of homeopathy, and an antivaxxer. She raises my kids this way. My parents work in a natural foods store, are bordering on fundamentalist Christianity status, and believe all the antivax crap they get fed.

    With my parents, I skirt most of the issues. They know I’m an atheist but keep praying that Jesus will show me the error of my ways. The only time I engage with them is on subjects like the H1N1 vaccine, which they assured me was overblown nonsense and then came down with swine flu, my father describing it as the third worst he’s ever felt.

    With my ex and kids, I avoid all theology and I only mildly push back on the rest of the woo. It’s deeply frustrating, but I prefer to not strain that relationship. My kids are way too important to me to let my frustration out with the ex. It’s a very powerless feeling, but it is what it is.

  26. Thankfully, despite all kinds of dysfunction, my family is pretty devoid of woo. Not that they’re not nuts on a platter, but they think Western medicine is the bee’s knees as it has kept all of us alive (asthma/high blood pressure/car accidents) and seeing (macular degeneration/cataracts) for a lot longer that we otherwise would.

    Medicine…it’s the best medicine.

  27. Macular Degeneration… My mom went to a legit opthamologist and was told she had that. She began practically overdosing on her Manatech and now the same opthamologist cannot find evidence of macular degeneration. I for one am certain that there is no way her neutraceuticals (or whatever they call woo there) could have done this, but she is absolutely certain that this is the case. It’s experiences like that that cement these beliefs. I will NEVER be able to convince her that this was not the case. Sigh.

  28. @biguglyjim: I completely relate to the powerless feeling. I hope when your kids are older you will have a chance to explain the “crazy” in full detail. :)

    On the topic of H1N1, I took a car ride with some gals lat weekend who told me that H1N1 is a government conspiracy and doesn’t even exist. It was created by Obama to divert attention away from the recession. Now I’m not one to wish illness on anyone… but maybe a little proof is just what the doctor ordered.

  29. Yikes. Well, I can relate to a degree because my grandmother is deathly allergic to nuts (and fuzzy fruit because the two seem to go hand in hand), but she goes overboard out of fear and just a general excuse to never experiment with exotic foods.

    I can understand being scared, but there are ways to figure out if you have true allergies she will not go get tested though — so this remains an excuse for her to get her way all of the time. Because she’s allergic.

    So far, this is what she can’t eat — aside from the real allergies there are:

    apples
    green beans
    raisens
    brussel sprouts
    asparagus
    plums
    strawberries
    cherries

    I’m convinced it’s all healthy stuff.

    there are many more but that’s what I can think of right now.

    She’s an insulin dependant diabetic and this is what she eats:

    four donuts
    kit kat bars
    chocolate icecream
    red meat
    french fries
    milky ways
    chocolate pudding, etc.

    and she eats those rather regularly. Her reasoning based on her own experimentations:

    when she’s backed up — chocolate icecream or kit kats help. Red meat because she needs the iron (she’s “SO tired and seems anemic”– maybe because she never leaves the house and plays Party Poker on her computer all day)

    None of this confirmed by a doctor. The only confirmation is that she is diabetic, and she needs to cut out the sugar — oh and stop smoking.

    I wish I had award winning advice but the best I can say is to just listen to her as patiently as you can and try to offer up alternatives in the nicest way possible. She might need calcium, but if she is hell bent on not consuming dairy, try to tell her to eat a lot of leafy greens (turnip greens being the best, but mustard and kale being OH SO FRICKIN DELICIOUS) and beans. I remember reading an article on http://www.ajcn.org regarding veganism vs. omnivore nutrition and the vegans only showed a deficiency in B12. Not that your mother in law is vegan, but I don’t think one needs to freak out over the dairy issue if she is too stubborn, just encourage alternatives and hopefully she takes a supplement?

    As far as the gluten is concerned, I’ve noticed ever since people found out that you can be allergic to wheat everybody is crawling out of the woodwork with supposed allergies.

    I’ve tried arguing with my grandmother before, even trying to subtle persuade her but to no avail so I am sorry I can’t give you a wonderful answer. If you are really concerned for her health, I’d just say suggest as many nutritionally sound alternatives as you can :-/

  30. @amy: The decision I made when first we had kids and the schism of faith was growing between us was that I didn’t want them to be stuck between our opposing viewpoints. I do not interfere with their faith, and my ex is good in terms of understanding that I have my limits. For example, she was wanting to send them to a Christian school for reasons I could completely get behind, and in her research she made sure that there would be no 6000 year old earth garbage etc.

    However, the kids and I will at some point be having a conversation about this.

    A friend of mine told me H1N1 was created by scientists. He also believes that whole “lizard aliens put us here” thing, so I just smiled and nodded. A guy I work with is also certain that eating right boosts your immune system and makes you bulletproof. He’s been at work coughing and complaining of a sore throat for days. Of course, it’s not disease. There’s some other, much more woo-ful explanation… That way he doesn’t feel obliged to stay home and not pass on the illness. The jerk.

  31. @Skept-artist: OMFSM! I deal with that all of the freakin’ TIME! My family are all a bunch of Italians from New York and every time I go to my grandparents house:

    GP: “Would you like a pickle?”
    Me: “No Papa I just ate.”
    GP: “How about some grapes? They are so juicy today!”
    Me: “No Papa I’m really not hungry.”
    GM: “We have chocolate puuuudddddiiiinnng!”
    Me: “Grandma no, please I am not hungry.”

    Five minutes later.

    GP: “Oh! We have cantaloupe!”
    Me: “No Papa, thank you can keep naming things but I am not going to eat anything.”

    *the two of them laugh*

    GM: “A cup of coffee?”
    Me: “Sure.”
    GP: “We have Teddy Grahams to go with your coffee if you’d like.”

    *head desk*

  32. @Surly Nymph: I have a friend who REALLY wants to be thin. She has decided she has a yeast overgrowth (which if you’re not familiar is a crazy woo topic we can talk about another time). Because of this overgrowth she has a HUGE list of things she can’t eat which have literally nothing to do with yeast. Basically, she has found a way to justify an eating disorder to help herself stay rail thin. Creepy and sad.

  33. I’m way too confrontational. I have made many a girl cry because I’ve found a tarot book on their shelf. Don’t take my approach, be nice instead of taking the piss. A gentle suggestion that starts a voyage of self discovery is usually the best way to deal with someone you care about.

  34. @Amy: Ooooh, are we talking about the infamous CANDIDA?!

    Honestly, I think that’s the excuse behind the gluten allergy. I think people heard you can be allergic to it than mix that with the Atkins diet fad and you have a bunch of people who want to lose weight and see not eating bread because of an allergy as a good excuse to diet without “dieting.”

    Of course, I have no proof, just a sneaking suspicion.

    My grandmother appears to be the exact opposite. :-P

  35. @Tracy King: That is EXACTLY how I try to handle it. The in-laws believe in a lot of wierd shit and don’t handle being challenged about it all that well so I need to be more tactful with them. Our family on the other hand just calls each other morons and then gets down to explaining why. Of course my family is overwhelmingly made up of people in the sciences and so reason, rational thought and argument (not fighting, arguing. There’s a difference) are a way of life for us. That isn’t to say that some of my family hasn’t engaged is some sort of bizzare woo in the past or even isn’t engaging in it now, but usually it’s because they don’t have all the facts, not because they are true believers. Since we view argument as sport, this give us a prime opportunity to educate and argue (and usually ridicule) all at the same time.

    Actually, this has given me an idea for dealing with the in-laws. I’m going to have my mother come over and shill for me! I’ll get HER to express belief in something silly, publicly call her out, educate her and then “convert” her in the end. Since my in-laws adore my mother, if she is “converted” they (hopefully) will reflect on their own woo-ish belief and come away from the dark side.

    Look, if the other side can employ shills to sell this crap, we ought to be able to employ them to debunk it.

  36. @Amy: Because of this overgrowth she has a HUGE list of things she can’t eat which have literally nothing to do with yeast.

    I wonder if this more a neurosis looking for an outlet rather than a serious concern about diet. This allows her to lead a heavily regimented life, place outlandish demands on everyone around her, and above all gain a sense of control. One thing I notice about people with actual dietary problems is that they don’t talk about them too much. People with hallucinatory dietary restrictions will talk about them endlessly.

  37. @Amy: It’s not only that I can’t keep my mouth shut. It’s that every time I think about how people like that have no problem spout their beliefs as fact and it’s up to us to shut up and take it to keep the peace. The imbalance in this relationship is more than I can bear. I feel like I have trained myself to keep my opinions to myself because they are not popular opinions and I think that’s crap. So I try to say something periodically and practice level-headed tact as much as possible. It’s just so frustrating to have to just take it and there’s no reason I should necessarily have to.

  38. Hmmm… I must be lucky. My family is loud and argumentative by nature, so I have no problems when I point out that some woo-based thing really doesn’t work. They may not listen, but the conversation is at least entertaining.

    Well, that’s with the family members I like, anyway. I have to be diplomatic with the mean ones since if I really said what I felt about them, that would cause problems. Funny how it works like that…

  39. Oh no, you just reminded me. I’m going to have to deal with that and more tomorrow.

    My father routinely does those ‘experiments’ on himself but he’s not who I’m worried about. A majorly woo-woo family friend is visiting for thanksgiving and I’m positive he’s going to mention vitamins. He believes they will cure EVERYTHING! FOREVER! That and Homeopathy…..

    Will I keep my mouth shut….maybe. If I do talk I’ll try to limit myself to the Socratic method.

  40. Just do what I do – throw some food across the room and yell, as loud as you can, “It’s fucking water you stupid dickholes! WTF is wrong with you?!”

    It worked for getting my husband’s family to stop talking to me. Now I don’t have to compromise whose family to see on which holidays! It could work for you, too!

  41. Medical stuff is like religion, very personal. So I started taking a different approach. I say I am skeptical about that (whatever it was) and I have been ripped off by salesmen on the phone in the past and have learned from the experience. They can all relate to not trusting phone sales, so they begin to listen. I say something about elderly people being scammed, ponze schemes, etc. and how terrible it is. I slowly creep back to alt med and just say I would like to see some proof- just to make sure. After a while, I have a few straightening out.

  42. hmmm… my baptist relatives have all died, my beautiful spouses Presbyterian relatives have all died… oh damn the outlaws/inlaws still exsist…
    dag nabbit we are gonna have about 20 ppl here tomorrow… that I don’t wanna have..

    frigg it.. happy thanksgiving!
    dammit!

  43. What’s worked with me is establishing common ground for what would convince me that they’re right, and what would convince them that they’re wrong.

    If I can’t do that (usually can’t), then I have to agree to disagree. All I can do is present evidence. If the other person isn’t willing to perceive that evidence, I’m powerless.

    If I can come up with common ground that would prove either of us correct, I usually jump online and try to find some genuine research on the topic. Skeptical websites are wonderful for this. the BAUT forums are particularly good when I’m confronting someone who thinks the moon-landing was a hoax.

    If I can find that research, I present it. Only once have I ever gotten someone to agree that they’d been wrong – and she hit the fan. However, in all cases it sows the seeds of doubt.

    Of course, a few times I have to eat my humble pie and accept that I was wrong about something. Stranger things have happened. ^_^

  44. Considering that my siblings are:

    Brother, PhD in Chemistry
    Sister #1, Nurse
    Sister #2, Medical Technician
    there is no woo at at all.
    The fact that both my parents are deceased not that they were into any woo other than being moderate Christians doesn’t play into it at all

  45. I spent Canadian Thanksgiving (we have it in October before the xmas insanity starts) having dinner with my roomies and their family. On of the guests was a naturopath who was busy wooing the others with…well…woo, I bit my tounge while quietly steaming. Then the conspiracy talk started by another guest, and I started twitching (9/11 loose change crap). Finally yet another guest began spewing creationist rhetoric. I was surrounded and knew it, there wasn’t any likelihood of them listening to the lone rational skeptic in the room. In the end there was no Tim Minchin style rebuttal, just me silently letting my mind drift to better times such as raising a toast with Surly Amy and Johnny in the Del Mar lounge at TAM.

  46. I mostly deal with my immediate family at the holidays. For Christmas we go down and visit the extended side of my mother’s family.
    Aside from being strongly Catholic, there is surprisingly little woo in my family. If one of my relatives says or does something irrational I try to point out the error as politely as possible, a courtesy I hope they would afford me, should I do something stupid.

    I have no idea what goes on my father’s side of the family. The last time I saw one of them was 7 years ago. Flying to Switzerland is expensive and with both my father’s parents dead for over 20 years that side of the family is harder to gather anyways.

  47. Amy, I would like to suggest a couple of things. First, your MIL held these or similar thoughts for around 35-40 years before meeting you. You came relatively lately to the conversation. This is an entrenched mindset. It is hard for any old fart or fartess to accept advice from someone who is younger than their carefully held ideas.

    Second, it appears that you have broached the subject before. It has not convinced her. Perhaps the approach now should be to ignore her woo-iness and just accept that there will be areas where the fight isn’t worth the battle. That’s what we did with my mother. To the day she died she held ideas that were in serious conflict with those held by my wife and me. We found that things didn’t get any better, but it sure got quieter at the table.

  48. @Amy: I understand exactly how you feel. I think you will find that you are up against an insurmountable obstacle. She knows what she believes. She doesn’t want to hear anything to contradict or undermine her beliefs. She has heard it before. She doesn’t want to hear it from.

    If all goes well, you will have many more years to enjoy her company. Pick your battles.

  49. I try to keep quiet if the woo isn’t particularly dangerous. (I know it can all be dangerous to some degree, but you have to pick your battles.) If I know it is dangerous to their health, I speak to them out of genuine concern, which is usually successful.

    For example, a couple of months ago, my little brother had an ear infection. He and my mother lost the prescription slip for antibiotics, so they decided to pick up homeopathic eardrops from the drugstore because they were “better than nothing.” I said immediately, in a horrified tone, something along the lines of “actually, it isn’t better than nothing. It’s just water!” …in a less condescending way, but I was very passionate about the fact that they’d wasted their money on it. I explained to them what the ingredients list actually meant (diluted into nothingness), and I proved it by showing them the explanation on the product web site. I threw in a couple of jokes about other suspicious wording on the labeling like “no side effects”

    To my surprise and delight, my mother was horrified that she bought it. She felt duped because she had no idea what it was. She told me about friends of hers who rave about homeopathic medicine. I wanted to know specifically which friends. After she thought about it, they weren’t doctors or anyone with real qualification, but they were people she generally considered to be a bit crazy. The next day, first thing in the morning, she went out and got my brother the antibiotics.

    Meanwhile, my mother is a very religious Orthodox Jew, and I am an atheist. This is something I try not to argue with her about anymore.

    In your mother-in-law’s case, I don’t know if I’d be able to handle it. I guess I’m lucky that none of my close friends or relatives are so ingrained in so many types of woo like that. (just occasional misunderstandings and silly, more harmless things like astrology/ ghosts/ conspiracies) The first thing I’d do is make sure that she is eating a nutritious diet, regardless of what’s being cut out for whatever inane reasons.

  50. ah woo. I have had some mild encounters with it and have never felt the need to interject, purely because they were harmless(eg belief in crystal healing for mild illness). However I was aghast when I was visiting family in the US and all around me I was hearing anti-vaccine propoganda. Worse still, my aunt is a nurse which I found deeply distressing. Imagine if she has been advising people in her clinics about vaccines in line with her (flawed) personal beliefs?
    Needless to say, I cowered and said nothing. Something that Im not proud of in hindsight.

  51. I’ve been lucky with my bf’s family, they’re of a scientific mindset, my only problem thus far has been when a relative of theirs visited for the holidays, and they invited me over for dinner without mentioning that he was a devout catholic. I shudder when I think back to the meal, and the number of times I took a swipe at religion, without realising that the table wasn’t stocked with atheists as I’d (stupidly) assumed. They know what I’m like so I can’t imagine why no-one though to mention it in advance…

    My family live on the other side of the planet, so I haven’t needed to come up against holiday family gatherings recently. My Mum is the main risk, because in addition to holding some woo based beliefs, she’s incredibly sensitive, and is likely to view a debate style friendly challenge or discussion as me telling her she is not allowed to hold opinions (it’s not me being too harsh, she’s like that with everyone). I keep my opinions to myself most of the time, and just stick to rolling my eye’s when we’re on the phone as she attributes an aspect of someone’s personality to their star sign. The one exception I’ve made recently is when she told me she’s just paid $300 for magnetic sheets to help with her arthritis. No amount of gentle discussion, information, studies on magnetic sheets or the placebo effect could persuade her to take them back. But at least I tried.

    On the bright side, my brother visited recently, and I began filling his mind with skepticism, I even took him to TAM London with me. So I’m hoping he’ll be able to monitor them for me, and defuse any crazy bombs that I wouldn’t know about until I heard the explosion.

  52. How do you deal with woo from family members at the holidays? I try to keep my mouth shut if I’m not part of the conversation in the first place, and I try to argue softly if I argue at all. Not, “That’s nonsense because…”, but “Scientific examination of that method indicates it’s no better than a placebo…”

    Do you keep your scientific information quiet to keep peace at the dinner table or do you try to sway the people you care about any chance you get? It is, fortunately for my mental health, a rare issue. If it comes up in general conversation I’ll calmly (I hope) present the bare bones of my view, but I won’t enter into a prolonged argument to defend rational skeptisism against “there’s more between heaven and earth”.

    More importantly, should I just STFU or try to explain things to my MIL? I’d try to sprinkle some sense into the conversation from time to time, but avoid a full on battle against a windmill.

  53. My SIL is into all manner of woo. Aside from thinking refined flour gives you cancer, she practices and teaches reiki. She met her new husband on a reiki course and he does it too, as well as supposedly healing people with the ‘Bowen Technique’ (less well known, but still nonsense). If she was my sister I think I would be able to talk to her about it, but my wife (who also thinks it’s all nonsense) would be very uncomfortable if I confronted them about it, so I just smile and nod and try not to roll my eyes too noticeably.

  54. Family or not you have to pick your battles. There are some minds you can educate and some you can’t.

    In my usual fence sitting way I often take a middle ground approach and simply state my beliefs in the same credulous manner they state theirs, no data (beyond anecdote), logic or research. That puts them in the position of challenging what I think, and I feel that’s always better for that sort of argument.

  55. “How do you deal with woo from family members at the holidays?”

    With alcohol and a sense of humor.

    My late grandmother could be the twin of your MIL. Except that she was also a major drama queen and she was the wife, sister, sister-in-law and mother to physicians. She never, ever picked up any common sense about health issues. (I could relate the stories, but it would double the length of this page.)

    Our favorite example was from about 15 years ago. One of my great aunts – my grandmother’s SIL – became legitimately lactose intolerant in her later years. After a lifetime of cocktail period with heavy doses of cheese on crackers and cream with some coffee in it, it was a very visible adjustment for her. My grandmother – who could not not be the center of attention – decided that she was then lactose intolerant as well, and told everyone she could. (Usually around a mouthful of cheese…)

    So we went out to dinner at a nice restaurant over the Christmas holidays. Where my grandmother tormented the waiter by making him go through the entire menu and asking of each item she was interested in “does this contain dairy? I’m lactose intolerant”. (My Mom eventually told the waiter when he came around the table that she wasn’t and don’t worry about it.) Much wine was poured to help us all NOT snap at her.

    When our meals came, my mother had something on a bed of polenta. It was a rather sizable portion, so she offered some to my brother-in-law to taste. To which he quite seriously replied:

    “Sorry, Mom, I can’t…I’m polenta intolerant.”

    Those of us in that portion of the table almost did spit-takes we were laughing so hard. It helped diffuse the situation, no doubt…

  56. Oh – I should point out: my father had already told my grandmother (his mother) that she was not, in fact, lactose intolerant. Repeatedly, with increasing volume and frustration. Didn’t work. She ditched the pose after about 6 months.

    And yeah, we mega-tipped the waiter :D

  57. In my extended family you name the woo and I can probably find some who are into it. But when we get together, I strive to be more social and less controlling and manipulative. When they bring their woo to me and I have access to factual information, then I respond with reliable information and encourage them to think about it. So I respond to the spam messages by looking in snopes and other sources, and responding appropriately.

  58. I have an Italian mother in law. In Italy. An Italian mil in the Italian countryside. Are you with me? I caught her repeatedly in the middle of summer (in Italy – things get steamy in summer) covering her grandchildren in woollen blankets. It gets worse.

    My Italian mother in law in rural Italy is the local village witch. She treats skin rashes, achy limbs and unwilling muscles with snake oil, blessed beans, signs of the cross, and ashes that are supposed to be Padre Pio’s (which is particularly odd, since the body has recently been disinterred, supposedly intact). She has lots of happy patients.

    Meanwhile, she’s a hypochondriac. When there’s a heatwave, she’ll go to First Aid because she’s hot. In winter, she’ll go see the doctor because she’s cold. When she has a cough she’ll stay in all winter at the fireside. At the first signs of a common cold she’ll take antibiotics.

    Frankly, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

  59. Hey, this sounds like my partner’s mom and, with a spin, her father too.

    It is always important to clarify misconceptions, but I find tackling one item at a time as they come up has been the best tactic. The gluten and dairy ideas may be tough to deal with, but little cases that come up. Buy her a book that shows that explain why homeopathy does not work without attacking what she already “knows”. If she is e-mail friendly, if a newsarticle crops up, try to pass it along and ask if she had anything about this development. It may not work, but it may get her to think.

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