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Mumbo Jumbo

Entry 932, on 2009-01-24 at 15:37:31 (Rating 4, Skepticism)

Recently my wife decided to visit a pharmacy to ask their advice on a minor medical matter. I have heard some fairly scathing criticisms of pharmacists recently so I am currently in the situation where I'm not sure how seriously to take them as alleged medical professionals, but after this experience I don't think I'll be rating them too highly in future!

To cut to the chase: they ended up selling us some sort of pseudoscientific, natural remedy of highly doubtful efficacy. My wife dealt with one of the staff at the pharmacy (not a real pharmacists I must emphasise) and I left her to it, but after she had disappeared for this "consultation" for a while I checked up on what was going on and had a look at the recommended product.

In these situations its difficult to know what to do. I was highly suspicious of some of the claims on the bottle because they seemed to make no sense from my (admittedly limited, first year university) knowledge of chemistry. But should I interfere with a decision my wife was making and should I point out to the sales person that I thought she was talking nonsense?

Well surprisingly enough I managed to control my impulse to rant and rave about pseudoscientific rip-offs and cons and just quietly commented that I was a bit skeptical. I could have checked up on the product on the Internet at the time using my iPhone but I thought that was a bit too geeky so I left it until later.

It turns out that this product is highly likely to be a rip-off, according to evidence I found on the Internet. My wife asked me why I didn't stop her from buying it but if I had done that she would be accusing me of stopping her from buying something that could have been efficacious. I guess this is just another situation where the skeptic can't win! I must add here that this product wasn't cheap: one small bottle was $NZ60, so it wasn't just something you would want to throw away and forget about.

When the woman we were dealing with kept to the basics she didn't sound too bad. After all, there are some natural remedies which have limited effectiveness. But after a while she seemed to get a little bit over-enthusiastic and started talking about splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, static electricity in water and magnetic fields.

Now that I write this I really can't believe that I didn't (verbally) abuse her there on the spot. I mean it was obvious nonsense now that I examine it in hindsight. I guess it was just one of those rare occasions where I was too respectful. That doesn't happen very often!

I started off this entry by criticising pharmacists but said the person we dealt with wasn't a pharmacist herself (I don't know how I would describe her job exactly) so does that really seem fair? Most pharmacies are run by pharmacists and they make the decisions about which products to stock and what sort of staff to hire, so I do put the ultimate blame on the person who should be more professional and have enough knowledge to know that this sort of product doesn't really belong in a shop which is supposed to deal primarily with serious medicines.

But I did use one key word in the paragraph above: "shop". In the end pharmacies are there to sell stuff and make money. I've heard that as a justification for all sorts of unethical and ineffective behaviour in the past: "its just a business decision". It seems to me that business decisions can be used to justify actions which would never be tolerated in other areas of society. Maybe that just confirms my suspicions that many business people don't actually have particularly high moral standards and are prepared to do just about anything to make a bit more profit!

There was one positive outcome from this experience: I gained the moral high ground to a certain extent. The next time my wife criticises me for buying a program or game on the iTunes App Store for example I can point out that it would take many games to make up the amount she spent on a useless remedy.

Actually, I should correct myself there. There is a small chance that this potion might work. Many of the claims regarding it activity are bogus for sure, but that doesn't mean it might not work. Its got so many herbs and other ingredients in it that there is a small chance one might help. But I doubt it. There I go again: the grumpy old skeptic dismissing alternative medicine as mumbo jumbo!


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