A Huckster, a Bystander, and a Scientist walk into a Bar

In Random Musings, Travel by EudaimoniaLeave a Comment

The other day I was on a short vacation with my significant other, and I had one of those encounters with a peddler trying to sell me on the medicinal and therapeutic merits of a magnetic bracelet. We’ve all had those encounters…and depending if you believe in magic, ghosts, fairies, the use of colloidal silver, or homeopathy in general – you either buy into what they are selling, or tell them to buzz off.

I typically like to play along with these people when I come across them, as I generally find their sales tactics interesting, if not downright entertaining. In fact, I’m incredibly entertained by magic shows of all sorts, hypnotism, and fortune telling. But, not for the reason most people are entertained.

I’m entertained for three reasons:

  • I enjoy them for the time I can throw my rational mind to the side and just be entertained. (This is probably why most people enjoy them)
  • I enjoy watching the complicit nature of other people partaking in the show. (A short sociological inquiry)
  • At the end, I enjoy knowing how the show was performed, or at least trying to figure out how it was performed. (The moral high-ground/gotcha factor)

Back to the peddlers sales pitch…

To start, he had my lady friend stand on one leg and hold her arms out to her side as if she were performing a test for drunkardness (mind you we were actually 2-3 drinks into the night – so the entire situation was apropos).

After she had steadied herself, the huckster pulls on her arm to show her a baseline level of “instability, or lack of vigor” so to speak. She barely flinches – which is both a testament to her coordination after a few drinks, and to her low center of gravity.

Meanwhile, she’s bewildered and wondering why the hell this guy wants her to do these tests. She looks at me with eyes that say “WTF is going on?” and I’m trying my hardest not to laugh as I’m grinning like the Cheshire cat.

Must keep impartialness for the sociological study to commence. Poker face, poker face, poker face…

The huckster proceeds to put a magnetic bracelet on her arm; and instructs her to get in the same position as before (one leg up, arms straight out). He pulls on her arm, and she tumbles.

I can see in his eyes the mental processes going through his mind. The crowd of people is watching closely, he’s getting nervous. He’s thinking “Dammit woman, the magnetic bracelet is supposed to make you stronger, not weaker.” With beady eyes, and a twitching face he looks around the crowd, and with all the decision making power he can muster he quickly grabs another target and dismisses the previous results.

“Step right up!” I hear him say.

That target was I…a man who is 6’7” tall, a man who has had a few drinks, and a man who without a few drinks is not the most graceful of humans. He had chosen the perfect human guinea pig. I had to give him credit for that.

I oblige him with a grin from ear to ear.

The test commences as before and I fail the “baseline instability, strength test”. Not surprising to me at all – I have a high center of gravity, and I’m unequivocally the worst human being ever to try surfing.

(I could write a whole blog post on my 90 minutes of trying to stand up on a surfboard, while my 5’3” sister rode the first wave she caught all the way into the shore…she said I needed to do pilates. Pilates my ass, no amount of pilates would make a man my height stable on that board.)

But I digress, the huckster puts the magnetic bracelet on me, espouses to the crowd its powers and nears me for the final test to prove once and for all it’s efficacy.

Meanwhile I look around…

I find myself in a moral dilemma – as I realize the man is nearly homeless when I see he has all of his possessions in a bag next to his dog. Do I falsify this test, waver and let him prove the bracelet’s efficacy, so that he can make ends meet? Or, do I point out the fallacies in his argument, shame him, and ruin any possibility of him making a dollar tonight?

What would you do?

I faltered, let him win, and hoped that he would sell a magnetic bracelet so that he might be able to eat that night.

While many scientists would reprimand me for allowing a pseudoscientist to propagate a seemingly benign idea and profit off of it; I believe firmly that it is not my place to make the critical decision for the potential customer or mark. If they’re going to fall for pseudoscience due to their lack of developed critical thinking skills-so be it. If they want to believe wearing a magnetic bracelet will improve their life – so be it. It’s their life.

Could I ever be a huckster myself? Nope. Sometimes I wish I could – most of the medicines, supplements, creams, beauty products, salves, tonics, and herbs are sold completely without any scientific backing or merit. I could make a lot of money selling people pseudoscientific products, but there’s just something in me that won’t let it happen.

While I was walking away from the salesman I asked him loudly over the crowd “Are those bracelets made of hematite?” Hematite is a magnetic form of iron ore. He responded, “No, that’s old technology…this is new!”

Old technology my arse…sure the rocks are more than 4.2 billion years old, but how are you even labeling this as technology? It’s a damn rock.

It was at that point that I shook my head in disbelief as the bracelets were clearly made of magnetic hematite, and it was in that moment that I reaffirmed why I could never be a huckster.

While ethics and morals certainly keep me from becoming the snake oil magnate I could be, the cognitive dissonance I would experience by selling a bullshit product would eat me to the core.

Then again, if I find myself nearly homeless – my relationship with cognitive dissonance might change.