Monday, December 13, 2010

At lunch: praise of woo for colds

I was at lunch with some friends, one of whom had a cold and complained she had trouble sleeping because she coughed so much at night.

Friend 1: Use castor oil. That'll knock it right out!

Friend 2: Before you needed a prescription to buy quinine, I used it to treat myself when a cold first started. Gone, overnight.

Friend 3: The best thing for a cold is to put Vicks VapoRub on the bottom of your feet before you go to sleep. Wear socks so you don't smear VapoRub over your sheets.

Friend 4: (skeptically--yay!) The feet? Why? How would that work?

Friend 3: No one knows how it works, but it really does! I used it on my son when he couldn't sleep because he was so congested and coughing, and within minutes, he was able to go to sleep. It's been scientifically proven that your body can absorb stuff through the soles of your feet really well. In a study they rubbed garlic on the bottoms of people's feet, and within minutes, they could taste garlic in their mouths.

Friend 1: So it's sort of like acupuncture? No one knows why it works, but it does?

Friend 3: Exactly!

I was about to say something about the efficacy--or actually the lack of efficacy--of acupuncture (which probably would make acupuncture exactly like the use of VapoRub* on one's feet to ease a cough or improve a cold), but I limited myself to rolling my eyes. No sense ruining a nice lunch with friends to lecture them on woo, the placebo effect, and confirmation bias. 

But the friend with the cold, who knows of my general skepticism, gave me this look--not quite a glare, but an "I know what you're thinking" look, and said to me, "I believe in 'woo'." 

I obviously need more skeptical, or at least more-skeptical, friends.

*My skeptic sensor was vibrating like crazy about the notion of using VapoRub on feet bottoms to treat a cold, but I couldn't find any studies on the use of VapoRub used this way. (And if Vicks thought it would work, don't you think they'd do the studies? Wow! What a claim that could be for Vicks if it did.)

I did find this information:
The Skeptic Detective 
Urban Legends

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