Monday, January 9, 2012

What do I think? (A rant)

I wanted to focus on editing some bug and landscape photos. Really I did. However, I received just one too many of these in my inbox today. Most of the time, the sparkly-kitty, America-and-Christendom-under-attack, send-a-hug junk just makes me chuckle. I might read them to my husband, and I usually consider replying with Weird Al's sentiments, before figuring that it's best not to rock the boat. Medical myths extra bug me, though, as some of you might have previously noticed. And this message did include a "What do you think?" solicitation, so I decided to be consider and reply.

I'll say this up front: I don't think this person, or the thousands or millions who pass these on, is stupid. That's kind of what bugs me. These are perfectly intelligent people, accepting (or halfway accepting) claims that take literally thirty seconds to debunk. And what's the harm? Well, nothing, just from following ridiculous urban-legend advice about placing onions all over your house (except maybe taking a hit socially). But there's very real harm in trusting cut onions over medicine; and even more pervasive harm in the backward mentality that the less elite someone is, the more they're to be trusted; the more ridiculous and hokey something seems, the more legitimate it must be: Why would people do these ridiculous things, otherwise? Sorry, no. Someone going out on a limb and doing something silly isn't exactly proof. Why, just an hour ago, I got this e-mail:


In 1919 when the flu killed 40 million people there was this Doctor that visited the many farmers to see if he could help them combat the flu.. Many of the farmers and their family had contracted it and many died.

The doctor came upon this one farmer and to his surprise, everyone was very healthy. When the doctor asked what the farmer was doing that was different the wife replied that she had placed an unpeeled onion in a dish in the rooms of the home, (probably only two rooms back then). The doctor couldn't believe it and asked if he could have one of the onions and place it under the microscope. She gave him one and when he did this, he did find the flu virus in the onion. It obviously absorbed the bacteria, therefore, keeping the family healthy.

Now, I heard this story from my hairdresser in AZ. She said that several years ago many of her employees were coming down with the flu and so were many of her customers. The next year she placed several bowls with onions around in her shop. To her surprise, none of her staff got sick. It must work.. Try it and see what happens. We did it last year and we never got the flu.

Now there is a P. S. to this for I sent it to a friend in Oregon who regularly contributes material to me on health issues. She replied with this most interesting experience about onions:

Thanks for the reminder. I don't know about the farmers story.. but, I do know that I contacted pneumonia and needless to say I was very ill.. I came across an article that said to cut both ends off an onion put it into an empty jar...placing the jar next to the sick patient at night. It said the onion would be black in the morning from the germs.. sure enough it happened just like that.. the onion was a mess and I began to feel better..

What do I think? Well:

I think the "onions fight the flu" story is bullshit. I think it's been debunked for quite some time now, and the most cursory amount of searching for any combination of "onion" and "flu" will set you straight.

I think this is hardly a new or particularly clever idea, and I don't think it came from a hairdresser in Arizona. The "onions are magical germ zappers" myth goes back to about 1900 at least, and before that there were all kinds of folk myths about keeping onions around for various reasons. (Once I read that keeping an onion under your pillow led you to dream of your true love. I was 13, and my friend and I tried it. My next dream was about lions. She got Montel Williams. Let's just say I call that myth busted.) I think onions, while great, do jack-all to combat anyone's illness in the way described.

I think it doesn't really matter what I think, because these are all matters of fact, which you can look up from well-established sources. I think you should want to know if something is true, not take an opinion poll.

I think you lack a fundamental curiosity and intellectual rigor to really find these things out, or you would have looked these facts up for yourself, or at least tried to find any credible accounts that weren't told thirty-second-hand at best.

I think it's kind of silly to suppose that a farmer's wife would spontaneously decide that onions might de-germ her home and family. I think it's even sillier that folks are quick to mistrust actual experts about scientific and medical issues, but can't wait to find some folklore, golly-gee, just-so story about someone discovering a cure "they wouldn't want you to know about." If this wasn't total crap, I could almost see someone with a working knowledge of disease trying it and stumbling upon a novel solution, but this was (supposedly) a farmer. That would be a little like me saying "Hey, you know what? I know I'm not an athlete; hell, I trip over my own feet; but for some reason today I thought, 'What if I stuck baby carrots up my nose? I bet I'd have killer balance and speed, and could suddenly play football at the pro level.' And so I did it! And I haven't fallen since! AND, I made my husband do it, and we played football, and won! Carrots up the nose, everyone. Miracle sports trick."

I think if the doctor saw the flu virus in the onion and concluded that it "absorbed the bacteria," he might not be such a good doctor.

I think correlation is not the same as causation. Learn that, and you're halfway there. Furthermore, we don't even know that there was a correlation, and beyond that, we don't even know if these stories are legit or totally made up.

I think coincidences happen all the time. Let's assume no one in the hairdresser's salon got sick. Fine. I've gone without a vaccine before, and been fine. I went without one year, and got really really sick. You might luck out. Then again, you might not. "We did it, and never got the flu." Well, bully for you. I crossed my fingers before turning my ignition key last time the car wouldn't work, and it turned over. According to you, I've stumbled upon a genius mechanical strategy. Shall I start the chain letter or will you?

I think a "hairdresser in AZ," while not the last person from whom I'd take medical advice (she'd probably rank above Wakefield, for instance, or this guy I used to know who didn't shower), is pretty far down the list.

I think you, message originator, are full of crap. Your friend who "regularly contributes material to me on health issues?" Um, no. I regularly contribute to publications. Your friend sends you spam. I guess, technically, she "contributes material." On a related note, would you like to take posession of a veritable wealth of "contributed material" I have sitting in the cat's litter box right now?

I think it's sad, tragic, illogical, and totally unnecessary that people turn to chain e-mails and salon rumors when flu vaccines and other real medical advances exist.

I think I can just as easily debunk your other miracle onion claims. Don't stuff them in your socks. They don't cure fevers that weren't going to break anyway. They're not a miracle cure for pneumonia, or the black plague, or cancer. They also don't cause cancer. More importantly, though, learn to apply rational thought. Some totally weird things are actually true. It's not so important what you know, or what you think, as it is learning how to think and learn. And you don't do that by forwarding crap and taking opinion polls.

I think onions have various beneficial properties. When eaten.

I think your brain, and medical science, have nigh-limitless potential. When utilized.


Cybergabi said... Best Blogger Tips

I can relate to that. I usually ask people not to pass on chain letters/ funny power points/ myths by e-mail to me. If they think it's worth spreading, they can do it on their Facebook page - 10 seconds of googling usually reveal an online source, whether it's a YouTube video or some article or other page, and it saves me from being annoyed because the crap has actually landed in my inbox rather than just passing by on my newsfeed.

Christina Wilsdon said... Best Blogger Tips

Hear hear. (But...I've never gotten beri-beri, and I wear black socks, so I'll share that little bit of health advice with you today as a thank-you for your column :)

Carole DeAngeli said... Best Blogger Tips

Thank you for this 'rant' on one of my pet peeves. I have tried to politely ask my correspondents to take me off their 'forward' list, to little avail. I draw the line at the political nonsense that people apparently swallow hook, line and sinker, with no thought whatsoever to the truth of the matter. Then I no longer ask politely.

Anonymous Bacteriologist said... Best Blogger Tips

The doctor couldn't believe it and asked if he could have one of the onions and place it under the microscope. She gave him one and when he did this, he did find the flu virus in the onion.

ROFLMAO! You can't see a virus in anything except an "electron microscope", and they were not around in 1919.

Roberta said... Best Blogger Tips

What is the best part of these e-mail wonders is that the person who forwards them never hides the recipient list, so you end up with loads of spam, too.

Kim Hosey said... Best Blogger Tips

Cybergabi: You're probably right. I still have some folks who post it on Facebook and send it to me. Lucky me.

Christina: Haha. Thanks for the anecdote!

Carole: Agreed. You should just send them that Weird Al video.

Anonymous Bacteriologist: Yes; good catch!

Roberta: Ugh; you're right! Exponential spam. Hooray.

Agrigirl said... Best Blogger Tips

So excited to try the carrot trick this weekend! Thanks for that tip and the funny rant.

heather said... Best Blogger Tips


There are still lots of arguments here in NY amongst my friends and acquaintences over immunizations! I just know that after hearing my father's polio story - he was extremely sick and out of school for months, and when he returned there were empty seats in his classroom from kids that never came back...most because they died, others who never recovered - that we ALWAYS get our flu shots, etc. And yes, my daughter has had the 3 Gardisil shots.