In any case as a science-phile I am somewhat skeptical. I subscribe to The Skeptical Inquirer and am an avid reader of skeptical blogs like the venerable Skepchick, which has the distinction of publishing a nude calendar as a fund-raiser. Relax, folks, there's a calendar for boys and girls. In any case my natural skepticism can sometimes be rather annoying for my associates. Honestly, it sometimes surprises me how negative people can be about skepticism- especially when it is focused on matters that shouldn't be of any particular emotional import. Oddly, this negativity towards skepticism seems to lead people into not being skeptical at all.
I was struck by this very phenomenon this past Thanksgiving. While conversing with my Sainted Fiancee's grandmother, whom I will call Mabel, I heard something very interesting. In short, Mabel told my Sainted Fiancee that her cousin, Kate, had called recently crying about the death of her parakeet. Apparently Kate had been using a teflon coated pan and toxic fumes from this pan had overcome the poor bird. Mabel then told us that she has disposed of all of her teflon, including some expensive items, because of their serious health risks and encouraged us to do so as well. Accoding to Mabel teflon is really quite dangeorus stuff.
Now, all of this struck me as a little odd. Teflon has been around for quite a long time and is still a popular material in cookware. If it is as dangerous as Mabel made it out to be- and if that danger is so well-established- why is it still on the market? My skeptical interest was piqued. So, I immediately turned to Wikipedia to see about some answers. As it turns out Teflon does produce toxic vapors when heated. As is so often the case, however, the devil is in the details. In order to start producing these dangerous vapors the teflon must reach a temperature of 460 degrees F, and doesn't begin releasing a large amount of vapor until a temperature of 660 degrees is reached. To give you some comparison, cooking fats, oils, and butters begin to scorch at a much lower 392 degrees and meat is fried between 400 and 450 degrees. So, in most normal usages, the pan will not produce any toxic fumes. More accurately, by the time the pan starts to generate any significant fumes the food it contains is likely burnt into inedibility.
Then we come to the additional important point: cooking oils produce the same sorts of fumes. More importantly, they produce them at lower temperatures than does teflon. It actually appears that dry heating a teflon pan likely produces fewer byproduts than the cooking oils themselves and that these byproducts will overcome a small bird at much lower temperatures than fumes from the teflon itself. So, put simply, it's likely that Kate's parekeet died from exposure to fumes from the oil rather than the teflon.
I take all this as good news in that it means that I don't have to dispose of a very useful technological innovation but I don't think everyone would respond quite in this manner. Frankly all of this reminds me of nothing so much as the Alar fiasco. Or, if that isn't enough for you, the new movements to refuse vaccines. It seems that in many cases people are quite determined to hold onto ideas with very little support and a great deal of counterveiling evidence. To return to our story, I'm not quite silly enough to bring all this up with Mabel. Perhaps she would believe me (and, more importantly, the FDA) but I suspect that she would instead sweep my findings aside in favor of good old common sense. Kate used a teflon pan, the bird died, ergo the teflon killed the bird. This is, of course, the same common sense that gave us geocentrism, but I digress.
Of more interest to me than refusing to use some newfangled product of science and industry is insistence upon using something that has received no support whatsoever. I refer, mainly, to the whole alternative medicine industry.* Now, it's entirely possible that some alternative remedies do work but, by and large, many of them are either useless or totally absurd. As I've said before, the mere fact that something is alternative doesn't make it good. Yet, these remedies continue to earn companies enormous profits while providing little, if any, benefit to their users. Why do ineffective remedies remain popular? Well, for the same reason that people come to believe that teflon will kill you: we keep hearing other people say it. If you hear from one person that teflon is dangerous you probably won't believe it. If you hear it from five or six, on the other hand, you may start to dispose of your teflon-coated pans. The problem, however, is that the raw number of people you hear a thing from has little impact on its veracity- as we should all remember from high school when rumors of a more personal nature were rampant. If all of the rumors about me in high school were actually true... well... let's just say my Sainted Fiancee would have been in for a surprise.
Well, it's time to fight fire with fire. If the popularity of ineffective remedies is maintained by rumors, then maybe it's time to start some rumors in return. Some rumors that give people the facts about their health and risks to it. And maybe this article is a good place to start:
Last week’s study showing that the widely touted and sold supplement DHEA does nothing to slow the effects of aging was only the latest major piece of research with powerfully negative results from the National Institutes of Health Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. Previous placebo-controlled trials proved the uselessness of St. John’s Wort for depression and saw palmetto for enlarged prostates, shark cartilage for cancer, echinacea for the common cold and glucosamine plus chondroitin sulphate for arthritis.
Do us all a favor: read the article, and then pass it on. The reality is we must stop holding our tongues so that we don't offend people who use alternative remedies or who decry perfectly safe products. Some things work, and so can be used safely. Some things don't work, and so usage of them at best simply wastes money. Remaining silent about either does nobody any good and may ultimately do considerable harm.
If people want to use alternative remedies I have no problem with it. I just hope they can make their choice without any illusions.