How to field stupid science questions from people who should know better. (Alternatively titled: 10 Ways to Spot What NOT to Share on Facebook)

what not to shareFor years now, in person and via email, I’ve been fielding stupid questions about medicine/science from people who should know better.

Just last week I went to an orthopedist (who shares office space with a plastic surgeon) for some pain in my thumb.  The ‘medical assistant’ asked me what I did for a living (presumably ‘professional thumb wrestler’ might have hinted at the cause of my pain).  When I said ‘scientist’ she asked what I did more specifically.  I told her I was a researcher and studied cancer at a biotech company.  At that point she started telling me about some of the patients they see for breast reconstruction and how she was convinced that the government and drug companies had the cure for cancer but were keeping it a secret.  I replied, “How much money would you pay for the cure if you were dying of cancer? You don’t think they’d make more money if they sold the cure?” At which point she took her conspiracy theory to a whole new level I didn’t know existed.  She said, “They are hiding it so INSURANCE companies can make money.”

At that point I realized what I was up against.  She was a ‘medical assistant’ with ‘medical training’ and therefore had an informed opinion on this topic. Surely I was no match for her, what with my measly 15 years of cancer research and all.  So, I just looked at her like the idiot she was, rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah.  Right.  OK.”

Who the heck does that!?  You work in a doctor’s office you dolt!  I just told you I’m a cancer researcher and you suggest I’m complicit in a high-reaching, broad-ranging, multi-national, corporate-government conspiracy to make money by hiding the truth?  Really?

I wanted to walk out right then, but my thumb hurt and I had waited several weeks for the appointment.


With the ‘medical assistant’ (if that’s the kind of assistance she provides, I think I’m better off without it!), I didn’t have a relationship I wanted to salvage so I was fine with being blatant in my response to her lunacy.  However, with friends and family members, I do (presumably) have a relationship I want to remain intact.  So, when my cousin and uncle, at separate times, asked if it was true that companies were hiding the cure for cancer, I said something like,

Glad you’re asking.  You’re right to question that conspiracy theory. It’s not true.  If there were such a cure, it would be priceless.  People would pay anything to cure themselves or their loved ones.  How would hiding the cure make money?  Regardless, there is no conspiracy.  Cancer is incredibly complicated, there are thousands and thousands of researchers all over the world who have been working for decades and decades trying to figure out the causes and mechanisms, and we’re still a long way off.  There is no cure.  If there were, do you think I would let my aunts suffer and die from cancer?  Do you think I would let my uncle suffer through another surgery?  Do you think I would let my mother have lumpectomies and biopsies and live in fear that she too will get breast cancer?  Do you think my colleagues would stand up to accept awards and tell the stories of people they love who died and inspired their work?  Do you think we would watch children die?  No, we wouldn’t.  There is no cure, there is no conspiracy, cancer is just that hard to figure out.

I try not to be offended that by even asking, they imply I would do those things, that money could make me turn a blind eye to the suffering of the millions who die each year.  I’m pretty sure the problem is that they aren’t thinking at all, that’s why they even entertain the conspiracy.


Now that Facebook exists and most poeple I know are on it, it’s cut down on ridiculous emails and face to face conversations.  Instead people post crazy stuff and I have to decide whether to point out the fallacies or just ignore them.  For instance:

A FB friend (who worked at daycare and was training to become a teacher and should know First Aid) posted this gem:

egg burns

The caption with it was some BS story about a person putting egg whites on a burn and EMTs saying the person had saved the victim’s skin.  Um.  Has any Red Cross First Aid class EVER suggested this?!  No.  Because it’s not true!!!  You run a burn under cool running water (or submerse it in cool water) for 10 to 15min.  If it’s severe you call 911. While I sometimes let this kind of garbage slide, this woman should know better.  I commented and left the links below on the photo.  Plenty of her non-critical-thinking friends posted comments with their favorite home remedy- butter, etc. So, I gave up.  (For a reliable source of first aid instructions, see the Mayo Clinic here or the American Red Cross here.)

Not long after this, she posted about aspartame being “Sweet Poison” and causing Multiple Sclerosis- and she tagged me asking if it were true (because that’s easier than just thinking about it and/or checking Snopes herself?).  I linked to Snopes and called it a day (as I drank my aspartame riddled Fresca).

I’ve also seen this BS in my feed several times, including from a librarian who, you would think, would easily be able to find a source to verify the info included:

Really?!  What does ‘active internal organs’ even mean?  Does my pancreas have an off switch I don’t know about?!  How in heaven’s name are all these people dying of stroke and heart attack when all they have to do is drink water?!  Note the web address of the source.  Reminds me of the saying, “You know what they call natural cures that work?  Medicine.”

This is another that is all over FB and I have to stop myself from commenting and being the know-it-all b!tch:

The "FALSE" is my embellishment, Source:

The “FALSE” is my embellishment, Source:

Cinnamon and Honey can do all that?!  Why the hell am going to work everyday with all these scientists researching all these diseases?!  Honey and cinnamon for everyone and we can all go home!  And seriously, they cure the common cold?!  I thought that was just some Shangri-La myth of Star Trek that we’d actually cure the common cold in some distant century.  And again, let us take note of the source.  I don’t trust medical info from people who can’t spell the word ‘benefits.’

Then, just last night, there was this one about Apple Cider Vinegar:

Source:  a chick on Facebook who calls herself "The Nut" which is fitting.

Source: a chick on Facebook who calls herself “The Nut” which is fitting.\

I commented on the photo when my friend shared it, “The only way cider vinegar prevents flu and stomach illness is if you use it to disinfect surfaces.”  You can’t kill cancer cells in your body by drinking vinegar.  It might make your hair shiny and kill fungus when you soak your finger nails in it, but you’re not going to dissolve your kidney stone so long as it’s still in your body.

So, I’m not sure.  Do people just share randomly?  Are they being ironic?  Do they believe this stuff to be true?  Should I make a note of who posts these things and send them a Ponzi Scheme chair letter in the mail?  How do you deal with this lack of critical thinking without alienating the people you know?


How do I deal with it?  Well, if they are asking me if something is true I say something like, “You’re right to be skeptical.”  Even if it’s clear they believe it and are kind of throwing it up there like, “Oh yeah!  Well explain this one know-it-all!  Let’s see how you handle this one!”  I try to let them save face by pretending they ARE thinking critically and questioning the content they are sharing.

One friend recently posted a link to an article entitled, “Merck vaccine developer admits vaccines routinely contain hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys” on my Wall with the comment, “Umm. Why?”

Clearly her asking ‘why’ implied she believed that it was true (which it is not), like, “Why are vaccine developers doing this?”  Rather than point out how gullible she was for believing something on Underground Health, I started my response with, “You are right to be questioning this, and I’m glad you’ve asked. It’s bogus.”  I then summarized that they are talking about polio vaccine in the 50s and 60s (not current vaccines), it was a virus that was in the monkey cells used to make the vaccine, once the virus was discovered/identified steps were taken to get rid of it, the virus doesn’t cause cancer in humans and nobody who got the contaminated vaccine developed cancer as a result, and I referred her to this great take down of that misleading BS.

She never commented on my response.  I’m sure it’s embarrassing to personally put your own gullibility on display, even if the person who responds is gracious.


So, in closing, I’d like to leave you with a few links that can help you distinguish the bunk from the facts.

Be Careful Who You Ask” in which I discuss sources of parenting information.

Real Science vs. Fake Science: How can you tell them apart?” where Emily Willingham gives pointers on how to tell the difference.

Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience” where Rory Coker, PhD discusses the difference between the two. This might be particularly helpful when it comes to those FB images, since many of them start with a tiny grain of truth (ie vinegar can kill cancer cells in a petri dish), and then take it to the realm of pseudoscience (ie drinking vinegar will cure cancer).


10 ways to spot what NOT to share on Facebook

1.  An image with text on it that has no citations or attributions so you can’t track down the source.

2. You Google a snippet of the text and the first hit is Snopes.

3.  It sounds too good to be true, i.e. the stuff in your pantry will cure anything that might be wrong with you.

4.  You’d be embarrassed to tell your doctor you tried it based on a Facebook post.

5. It implies that any/all scientists, doctors, medical professionals are complicit in a high-reaching, broad-ranging, multi-national, corporate-government conspiracy to make money by hiding the truth.

6. The source is Age of Autism, Natural News, Underground Health, etc.

7. It’s an advertisement for some money-making scheme (diet solution, natural remedies website, etc).

8. It contains spelling errors.

9.  You ask yourself, “That can’t possibly be true, can it?”

10. It includes the admonition to “Share if you care,” “MUST Share,” or otherwise encourages you to spread the word.


Filed under Scientist

7 responses to “How to field stupid science questions from people who should know better. (Alternatively titled: 10 Ways to Spot What NOT to Share on Facebook)

  1. We are the Snopes queens in our circle as well– though people tend to forward us their historical/political/religious bullschitt. On more than one occasion we have had to weigh our relationship with the person against the value of being right and sane and setting the record straight. And we often err on the side of accuracy. Julie has an even quicker trigger finger for pointing out the ridiculousness of people’s FB stupidity than I do. I have to say that number 4 works especially well for political facts/stances as well– if “I read it on facebook” is all you have to go on, best keep that political information to yourself. Or look it up. OH— and if the e-mail ends with, “Send this to 14 people before the clock strikes one and the image of St. Peter will appear in your oatmeal and grant you 3 wishes”, please don’t forward it to me. I don’t really like oatmeal 🙂

    “How do you deal with this lack of critical thinking without alienating the people you know?” — If you figure it out, please let us know!!!

  2. MLR

    Next time someone tells you they heard researchers know the cure for cancer but they’re all in a big conspiracy to keep it quiet, I would like you to look at them seriously, muster a slightly guilty look and shuffle your feet, and say: Well, if you hadn’t mentioned it I’d never admit it, but you’re right. We all–every researcher, scientist, and doctor in the field do know the cure, but you see the thing is Aetna (or the government, or Al Qaeda, or whatever entity this person is most afraid of) pays us each a million dollars a year to keep quiet. That’s right, thousands and thousands of researchers in my field all bribed to the tune of billions of dollars–it’s totally profitable for Aetna that way, they can’t hardly help it!
    Then sit back and wait for this person to post your big revelation on facebook and at least you’ll have me laughing along with you..

  3. I cannot say THANK.YOU. with.enough.periods.for.empasis to express my gratitude. 😉 This post rocks the truth world to it’s peer-revied double blind study core. Thank you.

  4. I don’t know about the cure for cancer, but this post is priceless! I need one of those FALSE stamps, much more useful than the apple cider vinegar.

  5. Pingback: The Black Donut | Concept Gregg

  6. Pingback: Wordless Wednesday: Facebook cures cancer?! | mommacommaphd

  7. Dear Ms. Momma ,
    As you have noted that many of these reports start with a grain of truth . In our enthusiasm let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater . I will point out the poster about drink more water .

    The first sentence says that drinking two glasses of water activates your internal organs .

    Quote “Really?! What does ‘active internal organs’ even mean? Does my pancreas have an off switch I don’t know about?! How in heaven’s name are all these people dying of stroke and heart attack when all they have to do is drink water? ” Unquote

    May be pancreas does not have a on and off switch . But the stomach does , and so do the small intestine , large intestine , the colon and the anus . During your sleep you are already dehydrated . When you drink sufficient amount water first thing in the morning , the dehydration is taken care of and expulsion of stools is facilitated .

    Most of the people are chronically dehydrated . This you can research as medical / social fact . So if they begin to drink a couple of glasses of water more after reading this poster , even due to fear of heart attack , I would say that that is good .

    You are not to use your mobile while landing and take off for the rear of it interfering with the navigation signals . The fear is unfounded but the necessity of keeping your focus and avoid distraction is real and it seems people do not obey unless some science / fear is attached to it . So well , let them do it , so far as it is aimed at greater good of more people .

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