When I was 7 and my sister 9, our parents told us to expect a new addition to our family. Was it to be a boy or a girl?
On this they said, “Just wait and see.” My sister, of definite opinions, declared it would certainly be a girl and thus, I was obliged to say the opposite. How to be sure?
At the time the Wheaties cereal boxes hid a toy in the bottom of each box, one of which was a “Jack Armstrong truth box” offering to the two of us the truth – or so we thought. When my sister asked, “would it be a girl,” the answer was yes. My turn, and I asked, “Would it be a boy,” and the answer was no.
My brother’s birth several months later was my introduction to the fine art of skepticism, aided and abetted by my father who told me on many occasions, “Always ask why, and when you get an answer, ask why again until you reach ‘I don’t know.’ Beware of those who always have the answer.”
Between the nihilist, who believes nothing, and the true believer, who believes something with absolute certainty, lives the skeptic who believes only what can be proved. It is often an unhappy and lonely life, because saying no when so many of us want to believe in yes does not garner many friends, and if carried too far, can lead to mild social ostracism.
And yet we are surrounded by falsity. In the evening news a “medical breakthough” is announced almost weekly, the vast majority being no such thing.
Readers of The Bee are assaulted regularly with full page ads offering anything from a golf club that will cure whatever ails your game (believe me, there is no such thing) to the cure of Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, arthritis, heart disease and a host of other common conditions.
All offer no scientific proof, multiple unsubstantiated testimonials and urgent advice to “hurry and buy while supplies last.”
Few read the very, very small print at the bottom giving notice that any claims of health benefit have not been verified by the FDA and disavowing any curative or medicinal value.
And now enter Dr. Oz, appearing before Congress as a victim of misuse of his name only to be chided gently – too gently – as part of the problem, given his blatant support of unverifiable remedies for obesity and other conditions. His excuse – “flowery language” but little contrition. As a TV host, he is a huckster. As a physician, he is an embarrassment and as a scientist an incompetent.
Several years ago, as a joke, my kids gave me a paid membership in the Flat Earth Society. Along with the membership certificate was the statement, “This is not a hoax. The world is not round, but flat,” citing multiple sources of proof (Google, Wikipedia and the Flat Earth Society)!
Ah, Jack Armstrong – where are you when we need you?
Allen is a retired doctor. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.