Skepticism in a Small Town

The following is a cross-post from Science-Based Pharmacy, contributed by a Canadian pharmacist who blogs under the pseudonym “Sara Russell”.

In my last post, I introduced myself as a pharmacist in a small-ish town, eager to combat the growing acceptance of pseudoscience into the mainstream. I love living where I live for a multitude of reasons. But I’ve found it rather challenging to wave the flag of skepticism. I have no problem displaying my preference for science-based medicine at my workplace, but outside of work a rather large road-block has emerged – social isolation. While I have found a few kindred spirits in a public health nurse and a high school science teacher, they, too, remain relatively quiet about their skepticism. I decided a few months ago to push the boundaries, and learned the hard way why others have been forced to keep quiet.

I am very involved in my kids’ school council. Just over a year ago, the principal announced that she was taking a leave of absence for health reasons. Of course, I ran into her a few weeks later around town, and she confided in me that she has been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue by her naturopath. How timely that I had just read this article  at Science-Based Medicine so I could at least acknowledge that I’d heard of it. I stopped short of offering my support, but dared not question the diagnosis given that I wasn’t her health care provider, and she was still in control of my children’s education. She has a Master’s degree, by the way. One of the more prominent parents on the council calls himself a “family physician” and specialist in sports medicine. Most teachers call on him for health advice, believing him to be an actual Medical Doctor. Since his practice is in a nearby city, not many actually know that he is a D-TCM, and his sports medicine “specialty” is based on the fact that he does acupuncture on athletes. He even goes as far as joking about being “on-call” at the hospital, and writing prescriptions for some “good stuff” for the teachers, both of which I know are false, but he seems to feel the need to keep up a front. The mother of my kids’ best friends is a Reiki practitioner, and is often inviting us to lectures about how to align our chakras. A local chiropractor is very vocal against vaccination and chemotherapy, but a friend of mine – knowing that his views are extreme – still takes her child there for treatments. Another local naturopath presented a Lunch n’ Learn at my husband’s place of employment, where he promoted the idea that vaccines cause autism and a multitude of other disorders like allergies and ADD, and then advertised that he was a DAN! Doctor so he could cure them! My husband sent me the flurry of e-mails that soon followed, as HR was sent on a pursuit to find out if his services were covered by their health benefits. (They were disappointed to find out his services were not covered as he is not certified as a naturopath by any Canadian organization.) As my son progresses in a competitive sport, I am finding that the coaches encourage (but stop short of mandating) many forms of alternative treatments, such as fire-cupping and supplements to try to enhance the performance of these kids. Guess who the “team doctor” is? Yup, my school council colleague. A team parent even told me that the clerk at a local health food store could give me excellent advice on supplements for my son. I politely stated that I didn’t think a clerk could teach me anything, to which she replied “Oh, of course! You’re a pharmacist!” Even members of my extended family shun medical / pharmacy care in pursuit of so-call “natural wellness”. I am literally surrounded by quackery every single day.

So I don’t know what possessed me to try to take on the anti-fluoride movement in my town. Our town council consists of less than 10 members, none of whom have any sort of degree or background in science – although one of them is a chiropractor. Every 4-5 years the fluoride issue reared its ugly head, and every 4-5 years council had firmly sided with science and either voted to keep it in, or squashed the motion to even have it discussed. This time, however, things were very different. A council member was very involved with the Fluoride Action Network, and began to give public lectures about the dangers of fluoride. She put a motion through council to have fluoride (in her words – the dangerous chemical hexafluorosilicic acid) taken out of our water supply. The language of the motion she put forward left no doubt in my mind that she was going to win. At the very least, I wanted to correct the pseudoscience strewn throughout the public motion. In a few decades time, (hopefully!) someone will look back on that motion and wonder what we were all thinking.

So began the orchestrated letters-to-the-editor in our weekly paper, coming from all reaches of Canada to tell us why we should remove the evil substance that was poisoning our children, causing our cancers, and violating our health freedom. It led up to a public forum, where each “side” would have an expert speak to the issue in front of council. My Mother-in-law wanted to attend, so I agreed to go with her and watch. As I arrived at the standing-room only event, I saw that the expert on the anti-fluoride side was passing his book out to each of the council members. After the experts finished, I was shocked to find that the public was invited to share their views. They would take 2 from one side, then 2 from the other and continue until everyone who wanted to speak had a say. Time was limited to 2 minutes. My Mother-in-law was the 1st one to jump up and speak even though she had nothing at all prepared. My partner-in-crime the public health nurse and I decided to keep our behinds firmly planted on our chairs. I listened as my mother-in-law passionately stated her case on why fluoride should remain. She admitted that her information was anecdotal, but proudly stated that her boys – who grew up with fluoride in the water but did not take good care of their teeth – had very few cavities. This was in contrast to her experience growing up without fluoride, and despite taking obsessive care she has ended up with thousands of dollars of dental care stemming from multiple cavities as a child. I applauded her bravery at taking on the obviously anti-fluoride crowd. When the ring-leader of the local Facebook group against fluoridation stepped up to the microphone, I was struck dumb when she opened by stating that “the lady whose sons grew up with fluoridated water should know that her boys would have had higher IQ’s if they had grown up without fluoride.” That was MY husband she was talking about! Not only am I well-known by council members as a local pharmacist, my husband is also very well-known to them through his profession. As I sat there listening to one anti-fluoride speech after another (the pro side had long since run out of vocal supporters), a slow burn developed inside of me. Those sitting around me nudged me to get up there and defend my husband, as it was becoming painfully obvious that their own efforts were being drowned out.

I started scribbling notes on a scrap piece of paper that would specifically address some of the points that had not already been countered and cautiously stepped up to make my voice heard. Not a great public speaker under pressure, I fumbled a little with my defense of science and medicine, but boldly stated that I thought their fearless leader had dealt my husband a low blow – while looking to council and mentioning that since they all knew him, they could all vouch for the fact that his IQ is just fine. I hurried back to my seat where I received lots of pats on the back, and even a quiet “good one” from the lone radio reporter in attendance. The fearless leader rushed over to me after the hearing had ended to apologize that her words had come out wrong, but it seemed that she was trying to save face after realizing that she had not just insulted a random citizen, but someone who was obviously known to the decision-makers. Not long after, I ran into the mayor and he and I had a good laugh about my defense, and he congratulated me on my stance. Little did I know that a few months later, his would be the lone vote against the motion.

For a month afterwards, the public was invited to send in their letters. One letter was brought to my attention after it landed on the public record. Addressed to the mayor and council, it was a poorly written diatribe about health freedom and democracy, but included a page about the “pharmacist lady” who spoke at the hearing. Using such descriptions as “absurd”, “sheer stupidity” “confused lady who should not have a say on the matters of health” and “someone who sells toxic chemical compounds”, he concluded by saying that pharmacists have a very high rate of cancer due to being around so many chemicals. While he didn’t use my name, it wouldn’t take anyone long to figure out whom he was talking about. Several months prior to the hearing, I had been held up at the pharmacy for OxyContin by a man wielding an 8-inch knife. I lost more sleep over this letter than I did after the robbery. Thankfully, after a few words with the mayor, the letter was removed from the public record. He admitted that it was libellous and should never have been included. I took a step back and tried to figure out what I had learned from this experience. I finally stepped up to call out pseudoscience, and what did I get? Personal, public attacks against my husband, myself, and my profession. What did they learn? That public attacks are not only necessary against those who are more qualified to speak than they are, but they also WORK. Every single one of those council members, save for the mayor, voted with them – albeit mostly for the reason that fluoride should be an individual choice, not because they believed it was harmful.

Every day I read blog posts from skeptics who are not afraid to take the punches in order to defend science. Many of them, if not most of them, have had far worse experiences. Perhaps being part of a larger community is somewhat insulating? For me, it seems that to take my stance public would be to isolate myself from most of the people with whom I have day-to-day involvement. I’ll never adopt the “if you can’t beat ‘em” attitude, but maybe someday I’ll have the courage to get my voice back. Until then, my main focus is to teach my children critical thinking skills – because it’s clear that they won’t be learning them in this village.

Photo from flickr user poweron used under a CC licence.

3 Responses to “Skepticism in a Small Town”

  1. Ms. T says:

    Wow. This is both tragic and inspiring. I love small towns and rural areas, but I’m worried about coming up against nonsense as well, particularly with what I see as the spread of new age-y quackery. When I moved away from a small-ish town and a peer network saturated with naturopathy, reiki, and ‘animal communication,’ it was like I could finally breathe again. I hope to eventually end up in a rural area, but living in a city with an actual skeptic/pro-science presence has made my life a lot more pleasant.

  2. efz says:

    this is scary stuff.
    I remember a high school debating topic “we are at the mercy of the naive” so true it is!
    What is perhaps needed are skeptics guides. Preprepared arguments and data, even presentation material that can be used to counter all the standard cam and tcm woo. Keep it professional, stay above the fray. Never lower ourselves to their abusive level.
    We need more spokespeople. Unfortunately there are so many people in the cam and tcm business that happily get paid to speak and have a vested interest in promoting the woo.
    I have tried to talk skeptical logic with some friends. Unfortunately it really can ruin friendships the same as critisizing someone’s religion. There is little difference between the two!


  3. lex zeppelin says:

    I actually hail from a small town. Even in our place we had a lot of quacks. Many illiterate people would flock to them for even a small problem like cold. All this was done in the name of god, so these people were not ready to listen to any advice provided to them.


  • Scott Gavura

    Scott is passionate about improving the way drugs are used. A pharmacist by background, Scott has a professional interest in improving the cost-effective use of drugs at the population level, while helping consumers make more informed decisions about their health. He blogs about pharmacy practice and questionable science at Science-Based Pharmacy and Science-Based Medicine. All views expressed by Scott are his personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current or former employers, or any organizations or associations that he may be affiliated with. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.