06 April 2010

Popping my skeptical cherry

Walk softly and carry a swag of evidence

Having done purely freelance work from home for the last four years, it's been a while since I've had an on-site office job. But now I do - I'm in the middle of a part-time contract in a real office, with real people. And that means chats by the water cooler.

One of my chats was about what I was planning for the Easter holiday weekend (giving the impression that Easter is a holiday at our house, and not just four days of the same stuff except without day care). Part of my plans included visiting a friend who happens to have an autistic four-year-old son. My colleague, a native German speaker, was fairly unfamiliar with autism, and asked, "What causes it?". I replied, "Nobody really knows" and that's when it happened. Another person using the kitchen interrupted with, "Are you talking about autism? It can actually be caused by environmental factors, like heavy metals. In fact they think the triple vaccine…"

Cue polite Skeptical Smackdown!

I immediately started shaking my head and mentioned that the only study to even vaguely suggest a link between autism and a vaccine had never been successfully repeated, its author had been discredited and despite many attempts, the link had never been proven. I could have gone on and on (as you're probably aware, if you've ever read anything I've written), but the message had already been delivered, and I saw no reason to risk alienating and annoying someone who merely joined in to a casual conversation.

But I felt fan-frikkin-tastic.

The thrill of having my very first shared-workplace opportunity to verbally quash a morsel of pseudo-scientific hogwash was palpable. There was no smug satisfaction; no holier-than-thou sense of self-righteousness. Only happiness and adrenalin (and a vague recollection that I once sought adrenalin rushes from white-water rafting and spelunking).

When I returned to my desk, another colleague said, "I'll bet anyone ten bucks that it's going to rain at precisely three o'clock tomorrow afternoon" ('tomorrow' being Good Friday). I said, "why so specific?" and she replied, "Because that's the time that Jesus died on the cross". Resisting the urge to roll my eyes and go into some detail about the vagaries of biblical calendars and time-keeping equipment, pagan festival juxtaposition and, let's be frank, the non-existence of god, I just said, "I'll take that bet". I figure the odds are reasonable (despite the wagerer's motivation) and besides, I think I'm on a bit of a roll.


  1. I'm so excited that you saw some in the wild.

  2. Well Bas had his first vaccine just over a week ago and I swear to God it rained the next day at the exact same time as he got his shot. Explain THAT!

  3. Nice polite smackdown! But seriously, aren't you looking forward to the day you're not at the office, faced with consequences? When you can fully ggo off at a stranger, spittle flying from your mouth, eyes bulging? Like Jim Carrey???

    Hang on.

  4. Can you please tell me what spelunking is?

  5. Spelunking is caving. I thought it was an awesome word even before I found out how awesome spelunking is.