The Fetish in relation to Skepticism

I was just glancing through the blog of Katheryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, a book about people who were wrong about stuff, often big stuff (for example, she talks about individuals who spent decades in jail owing to false convictions). Meantime, I'm working on posts related to the falsehoods and "Everything you know is wrong" series. And, as I do this, I'm thinking about a way in which people get things wrong that is often overlooked or, perhaps, not recognized as a specific category of irrational thinking.

This has to do with the idea of a fetish. It is likely that I'm using the word "fetish" in a different way than it is usually used in modern English parlance, so some definition is appropriate. Here's some material from various dictionary sources:

Fetich \Fe"tich\, Fetish \Fe"tish\, n.[F. f['e]tiche, from Pg. feiti?o, adj., n., sorcery, charm, fr. L. facticius made by art, artifical, factitious. See {Factitious}.]

1. A material object supposed among certain African tribes to represent in such a way, or to be so connected with, a supernatural being, that the possession of it gives to the possessor power to control that being. [1913 Webster]

2. Any object to which one is excessively devoted. fetichism

(From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48)

From WordNet (r) 2.0 [wn]:

n 1: a charm superstitiously believed to embody magical powers [syn: {juju}, {voodoo}, {hoodoo}, {fetich}]
2: excessive or irrational devotion to some activity; "made afetish of cleanliness" [syn: {fetich}]

From the Urban Dictionary:

2. A sexual fixation or obsession with a usually non-sexual object. EX. socks, horses, monkeys, pain, bondage.

The two definitions that commonly come to mind for most people are probably the sexual fetish (the object or, perhaps incorrectly, the noun referring to the practice of fetishizing the object) and the more general term for talisman or object with magical powers.

None of these definitions are the ones I want to use here, though the meaning I'm using is reflected in the WordNet second definition. But even that is not accurate.

When modern anthropologists use the term "fetish" we often mean something that is very much of interest to skeptics, because it has to do with getting things wrong. In particular, it may be that a fetishized belief is a special category of how to get things wrong that, because of the psychology (or if you prefer, anthropology) of how it works, requires a special skeptical approach.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Purchasing goods that are labeled as made from recycled material can be a fetish. The consumer is not using a rational calculus with each purchase, or even a rational rule that "recycled is good" but rather has oriented semi-obsessively towards the term "recycled" and assumes it is always good, and that the label "recycled" is always meaningful and always discriminates among products. As a rule, going for the recycled product sounds like a good idea. If one uses this as a guideline then the planet will be a better place. But, what if this is actually a bad idea in some cases, and should be avoided? Consider that possibility for a moment.

If your immediate reaction to the idea that perhaps we should not always buy the product that says "made from recycled materials" is negative or you think I must be crazy, or perhaps the thought occurs to you that I'm a right wing neocon post Earth Day apologist for industry with some lame argument about how recycling is actually a bad thing, then you might be fetishising recycling. Not because it turns you on sexually, or you think the recycling bin has magical properties, but rather ... well, you think the recycling process is a magical solution to our environmental problems and you know that if you engage in it you will feel satisfied. So maybe it is a little like talisman use and sexual gratification. But with plastic bottles.

Have you ever seen, or purchased, recycled toilet paper? Of course, I don't mean toilet paper that was plucked, used, from the sewage system and converted back into nice clean toilet paper. I mean toilet paper that was made from paper fibers that were recycled from some other use of paper. Very rarely is toilet paper ever labeled as "recycled" because people are generally pretty stupid and will avoid buying something that the think is used toilet paper. There was a time when only one or two brands of toilet paper made the claim that they were made of recycled paper, yet many brands were partly or wholly made of recycled material. The decision to buy the paper that says "recycled" would be correct, but the decision to avoid the brand that does not say "recycled" would be incorrect much of the time. But it is the word "recycled" not the recycled paper itself we are going for.

Today, there are numerous brands that signify that they are recycled, but the correlation remains imperfect. This means that you need to check with a consumer guide of some kind to know if your toilet paper (or tissue or paper towels) comes from recycled product, rather than relying on the labeling. So, this is probably not a good example today, but just ten years ago there was no correlation between whether something was labeled as recycled and whether or not it was, in fact, recycled.

Water use is similar. All use of water from piped-in sources demands energy and thus has a carbon footprint of some kind. But the amount of energy (or other resources) one saves by feeding your dehumidifier water to your plants instead of tap water or growing cacti instead of bushes in your yard depends enormously on where you live and how water is managed in that particular area. Yet, highly environmentally conscious people are more similar to each other in their water conservation methods than may be appropriate. In making that statement, I assume that most people make choices in what to spend their energy on to lower their impact on the environment. Crushing your recyclables may cost you a lot of hours per year that you could have spent on caulking your cracks. Given that the way most recyclables are handled, crushing the does nothing useful other than making them fit in your own recycling bin, so this time consuming behavior may not be worth it. (Consider getting a larger recycling bin!)

Food fetishes (and I'll have more to say about this later as well) can probably explain a lot of what might be considered illogical behavior. Many individuals strive subconsciously to classify all foods into the category "wild" vs. not. Once a food is determined to be wild, it won't taste good. A person may love Cornish game hens, believing them to be not wild, but reject all other birds (save turkeys and chickens) because they are "game," We will be able to identify this as a fetish if a person rejects the food as tasting "gamy" without actually trying it. Musical tastes, tastes in movies, theater, other areas of life may follow similar patterns. I listened to a tirade recently about how terrible all Woody Allen movies were from a person who had seen two of them. Seeing one bad movie made by a certain director may be a clue that all the other movies are bad. And/or that experience can be converted into a determination that movies one has not seen are bad. Using the badness of one movie as a clue is rational. Concluding that you did not like movies you have not seen is rationally impossible, but common, and it is fetishized behavior.

Many will argue with the earlier points I discussed, claiming that one can in fact maximize one's effort in each and every area of personal environmental action ... using minimal water, recycling everything, never buying anything that is held in a container, and so on. That could be true. Or, it could be a matter of fetishizing this subset of personal environmental action (limit water use, recycle, buy only certain products, bring your cloth bag to the store instead of using paper/plastic). So, given that these examples will only be reasonable to a handful of people, let me offer some different examples from, say, Cabin Life.

Here in Minnesota it is common for families to own cabins out in the wilderness, typically on a lake, typically up north. If you visit a cabin owned by people who have had cabins for decades, and who practice the old ways (and assuming the cabin is not just an out of place 5 bedroom 4 bath 2-floor suburban home, as many are these days), you will find quite a bit of fetishized behavior. You will find some of these behaviors in people's regular homes as well, but not as often.

Here's the key that holds all of the following behaviors together as fetishes: They don't make sense when you actually analyze them, even if they are "based on truth" in some way. In some cases, the behavior itself is a waste of time. In other cases, a particular behavior on its own makes sense, but some principle is being applied inconsistently. Some of these items will be familiar to you, others not. And, you may know of examples I've not included, so please add those in the comments.

1) When you go to the cabin, don't bother closing the curtains or blinds of your home, but when you leave the cabin to go home, make sure you close all the curtains and blinds. The rational is that sunlight fades rugs and upholstery. The reasons we know this is a fetish and not a sensible act are many:

a) No one ever skips closing drapes or blinds on windows that don't face the sun at all.

b) The rugs and upholstery at home never seem to fade.

c) There is a down side: People know the cabin is empty. An empty cabin is much more vulnerable than an empty home in town, for obvious reasons. In fact, we often avoid closing up the home in the city in this manner ... we leave some curtains open, leave some lights on, etc. so people think we have not left. But the cabin is endowed with numerous signals that it is abandoned when we leave it behind.

d) There is another down side: With no sun (UV light) streaming into the cabin, mold spores which are normally killed by sunlight can have a field day. There are a lot of reasons that cabins tend to be musty. This is one of them.

2) Turn on the water heater after you turn on the pump.
This is probably not a bad idea if there is no cost, as it is the case that a water heater with no water in it should not be turned on, but the importance attached to this sequence is almost always overdeveloped. If the pump is turned on first, water will be forced into the heater and it won't burn out from being empty. The reason that this is a fetish is that the water heater is never empty. There are only two ways it can be empty (short of someone emptying it): a) It is broken and leaking; or b) It was installed incorrectly so it siphoned out when not in use. So, when you first occupy your cabin after winter, make sure you run the pump first. The water heater may have been emptied out last fall to avoid cracking, or maybe it cracked during the winter, etc. But on a day to day basis, acting as though it is broken or as though the plumber came by and emptied it out when you were not looking is fetishized behavior. You can turn both switches on at once, and if you accidentally turn the pump on second by several seconds, the world will not end. But if that makes you nervous, you've fetishized the sequence of the circuit breakers.

3) When you pull in the row boat for the end of the season, remove the plug from the back of the boat, turn the boat upside down, and then put the plug inside the cabin, preferably some place where it will take you a week to find it next spring. This is fetishized behavior. The propose of the plug is to allow the water to drain out of an up-righted boat that is on land or on a lift. Once you turn the boat upside down, that drain hole is not needed. Just leave the plug in the hole so in the spring when you put the boat back in the lake you don't accidentally sink it. "But wait," you say, "what about the idea that if you leave the plug in your boat, someone can steal the boat more easily?" Well, the answer to that is "The plugs are two dollars at the hardware store. The boat thief knows this." You should leave the plug in the boat. If the boat is upright and out of the water, pull it but don't bring it into the cabin. The plug should be tied to a string that keeps it attached to the boat so no one can walk off with it. But no, nobody does that. Every year, the search for the plug commences anew.

4) When you leave the cabin, certain things must be unplugged or the cabin will explode even though the power has been turned off. I love this one because it is so complex yet so simple. What things do you unplug, what things do you leave plugged in? Many people leave the TV plugged in but remove the plug on their coffee pot. Yet, the TV is actually drawing electricity while it is plugged in, and all that complex circuitry, especially in the old clunker TV you put in the cabin because the TV is not that important, can short circuit at any time. But a drip coffee pot with an off switch and an automatic shutoff is going to sit there, plugged in, and do no harm. Most people will leave a clock radio plugged in but unplug, again, the coffee pot. I'm not sure of the current situation, but I read some years ago that old beat up clock radios are the cause of a disproportionate number of electrical fires.

If you go into someone's cabin and inspect what is left plugged in vs. not, it may well be explainable with this model: In the old days (and still, in some households) coffee is made in a percolator. Some plug-in percolators need to be unplugged or they will cook the coffee until it turns to varnish. Or at least, that was true in the old days, though not so much these days. So, we fetishized the percolator, and by extension, all coffee pot related things. I know people who unplug automatic one-cup-at-a-time coffee makers, which are by default turned off (or have a switch and an indicator light) but leave the toaster oven or microwave plugged in right next to it. (This is common in office kitchens as well as cabins.) In short, if something gets classified as related to making coffee, unplug it. Everything else, leave plugged in. That's a fetish.

4) Food taboos having to do with fish. Ever since I was a kid, I was told to not eat rock bass because they have parasites.
It was rather interesting to discover that the "bass" I had been catching, cleaning, cooking, and eating for two or three years from one of our favorite camping spots were rock bass. The bass were supposed to be wormy. But they never were. After moving to Minnesota, I've heard the same thing: Rock bass have worms, don't eat them. Well, I checked. Rock bass and perch tend to get certain parasites as the season goes on. They are harmless to humans and rarely noticeable, and more importantly, it seems that this is an issue for fresh water fish generally as summer progresses, and not a special trait of rock bass. What is widespread is not worms in rock bass, but rather, rumors of worms.

That does not sound like a fetish. It sounds like people just getting something wrong. But it is a fetish because it is part of a larger pattern of food taboos having to do with fish. It is my hypothesis that any given fauna of fish must be sorted out by humans into those you can eat vs. those you can't eat. It does not matter too much which fish go in which category, though there will often be reasons, and sometimes those reasons will make sense, other times not. Here in Minnesota, we don't eat rock bass because of the worms, and we don't eat eelpout or bowfin because of the taste. In Europe, eellpout are prized because of their excellent taste, and in the southern US, bowfin are routinely part of the diet. In Central Africa, visiting tourists pay extra to fish for Clarius (a large catfish) and find them tasty. The locals don't mind touching the fish (they are the ones who get to clean and cook them) but won't eat them becuase they are considered unedible.

The bowfin and eelpout taboo in Minnesota is related to two things: 1) A confusion between the two fish (many people think they are the same) which makes any taboo against one a taboo against another, and the strange practice of the eelpout to wrap itself around the angler's arm, snake like, when caught. Which, I'm pretty sure, hardly ever happens. The Clarious taboo in Central Africa has to do with the idea that Clarius feed on dead human corpses. Well, they probably do, but so do other fish that are not taboo, and usually there are not that many dead human corpses laying around. The parasite loaded rock bass is a case of one fish taking all the blame for a general phenomenon. People won't avoid perch in August, but they are about as likely to have parasites as rock bass. Yet, everyone's got a story about the wormy rock bass.

As I said above, I think this is a fetish in that we humans have some sort of a need to restrict fish or other aquatic food. Aquatic food is somehow considered dangerous, but we still want to eat it, so we blame a subset of the foods for something (being creepy in some way, usually) and avoid them, but eat everything else. A famous example of this, of course, is the specific set of Kosher restrictions from Leviticus.

... These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. ... And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you ... They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.

Imagine a cabin-culture version of Leviticus.

These ye shall close tight on the day of your departure; Whatever covers ye fenestrations. Ye shall disdain the plug of the boat even soever when it is tipped asunder or pulled from the sea. That which draws fire from the wall to prepare the strong water shall be disconnected, while you will shun the disconnection of all other items, but to fire the water before moving it with the pump shall be an abomination unto you. The fish that acts like a snake or all other creatures of the sea or lake or stream that resemble it shall be an abomination, and all creatures with a red eye shall be considered infested with myriad worms and shunned, as though an abomination unto you.

An whole 'nuther category of fetishes has to do with the basic hydraulic theory of the human body (or mind) vis-a-vis health.

5) If it is a vitamin, it is good, and more the better. Vitamins are, of course, good (as are minerals) but supplements may be useless since they are not metabolized, excesses are not stored or used, or some cofactor is not present for them to be useful. But their goodness is attested to in enough places that all-are-good and more-is-better, two aspects of any good fetish, are widespread beliefs. Of course, once you are convinced, as a skeptic, that vitamin supplements are a scam, you might not thing vitamin supplements are ever good. I'm fairly sure the APS still recommends pre-natal vitamins, for example, though I recently witnessed a self proclaimed skeptic suggest that they would not be. Similarly,

6) Vaccines, as highly manufactured chemicals injected into the body are always bad. It is interesting that in Central Africa, anything you inject into the body is good, no matter what. You can sell people vials of pure water, or vials of anything, as long as they can can inject it to cure disease, restore youth, enhance virility. In Western culture, perhaps, the relevant fetish is that anything we inject is automatically dangerous, even if recommended by a doctor. It is a little hard to reconcile why a long list of manufactured chemicals is really good no matter what on one hand (vitamin/mineral supplements) but always bad on the other hand (carefully researched and highly regulated vaccines). But again, fetishes are not about thinking, but rather, about having a rule that is a bit more stark, more colorful, more strident than the average guideline.

A fetish is a thing that people do, but shouldn't, not because they have done the calculus wrong, but because they've not done a calculus at all, but that thing ... the thing they do or that they avoid ... has a feature, or a signal, used to make the decision. All things garbage must be ensmallened, even if most of it is not going to a landfill. Anything related to coffee at the cabin gets unplugged. Coffee machines at home, don't bother. If you can unscrew it from the boat, do so. Snake like fish taste bad (in Minnesota ... in Louisiana, they taste good). These are all links between specific traits and specific behaviors where there may or may not be an identifiable reason for the link but there is always a lack of context appropriate calculus.

There are fetishes within skepticism as well. We saw this with cranberry juice, where many reactions by skeptics about the effectiveness of cranberry juice to limit chronic urinary tract infections had more to do with the fact that cranberries are a "natural" item (a plant, in this case) than with the available data from several studies. Skeptics fetishize many things. If a blog post were written with a title indicating some sort of concern or question about the safety of a vaccine, how many skeptics would NOT approach that blog post with the presumption that the writer of the post is a vaccine denialist? Is it really true that vaccines are universally safe and there is never, ever a question about them? No. It is true that most anti-vaccine rhetoric is part of the anti-vax movement and is bullshit? Yes. So one can see where it comes from. But automatic reactions to dog-whistles is, or at least can be, a fetishized behavior.

For something to really be a fetish, it may need to be more than just an automatic (and typically inappropriate) reaction, or the misuse of a cue or clue interpreted in the absence of thoughtful rationality. It needs to be something where the symbol itself (the fetish) is hypertonic. Bowfin are not really snakelike and don't wrap around people's arms, but they are long and thin and the snakiness is the key signal of this particular food taboo, so even a little snakiness is a lot of snakiness. The danger of the coffee pot looms and the imagination conjures a burning building, while the clock radio silently and innocently mocks us from the corner of the bedroom. These are not electronic devices existing along some spectrum, but rather, they are minimally evil vs. indifferent, if not evil vs. good, when fetishized. The assumption of what will happen when you turn on the water heater before the pump is a disastrous smoky explosion followed by a rapidly spreading fire, while to actually get even a small disaster one would have to work extra hard or circumstances would have to be very unusual. One imagines the thief, huddled against the cold late in the fall when few cabins are occupied, about to drag your boat into the water, and seeing no plug, and storming off frustrated and angry. "Drats!!! Foiled again by those clever cabin-dwellers and their plugs!!!"

The fetishized behavior is more often than not one side or the other of a simple dichotomy. After all,

...this is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth ... To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.


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There are fetishes within skepticism as well. We saw this with cranberry juice, where many reactions by skeptics about the effectiveness of cranberry juice to limit chronic urinary tract infections had more to do with the fact that cranberries are a "natural" item (a plant, in this case) than with the available data from several studies

Got an example? Seriously, do you have an example of a skeptic who dismissed the possibility that cranberry juice might work to limit chronic urinary tract infections more because cranberries are "natural" than because the evidence didn't convince some?


Didn't think so.

As for the bit about vaccines, it's a matter of recognizing the language and rhetoric. Those of us who have been combatting anti-vaccine pseudoscience are generally pretty good at telling the difference between anti-vaccine loons; people who, because of insufficient knowledge, sincerely repeat the pseudoscience of the anti-vaccine loons, not realizing that it's been well and truly debunked; and those who are expressing what might be a legitimate concern about specific vaccines. Finally, it's a MASSIVE straw man to imply that those who combat anti-vaccine pseudoscience argue that " that vaccines are universally safe and there is never, ever a question about them."

Do you have an example of such a pro-vaccine advocate?


Didn't think so either.

I'd just call 'em bad habits and urban legends. Of course "urban legends" is what we used to call "old wives' tales", but that phrase seems unnecessarily derogatory.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 26 Nov 2010 #permalink

..and blessed shall be the one who embiggens the flaw in the ointment?

Oh, I remain unconvinced of the cranberry juice claims. It still looks like wishful thinking to me - I need more reliable figures and tests, not the "we saw a significant 0.00000001% difference" type of claim - that's exactly like many of the homeopathy and acupuncture claims. So I definitely reject the cranberry stories based on poor evidence for it and not because cranberry juice is 'natural'. Hell, most drugs I know of (in current use) are products of nature - they vastly outnumber the designer drugs. Maybe in a few more years we'll have a Cochrane Review of Cranberry Juice.

As for anti-vaccine quackery - I have yet to encounter any that cannot be immediately dismissed by someone who knows even just a little bit about the approval process for vaccines. In most cases, most if not all of the reported side effects are discovered during the clinical trials and in many cases certain side effects are expected in some people even before the vaccine is released (due to other things which may go into the mix). The cases where serious problems are identified after release to the general public are actually pretty rare, and even then for the most part you cannot blame the people involved in the trials - they're not psychic and despite them putting in an honest effort, sometimes something crops up that no one had noticed or even imagined could happen. As far as drugs in general goes, some government agencies have put in a huge effort especially in the past 20 years to improve on post-approval reporting of what are usually extremely rare reactions. There's also this psychological thing where people tend to have a disproportionate fear of rare events and yet are willing to take stupid risks which are known to lead to common fatalities. Stupid apes.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 26 Nov 2010 #permalink

Orac, you do realize, do you not, that you are the poster child for Arrogant M.D.'s? No wonder so many people are anti Vax. They look at you and figure there must be something wrong with the medical profession.

To answer your question for the benefit of those interested, I do. Such a conversation has happened in several places recently, despite your strident and preemptive and typically obnoxious effort to pretend otherwise. The best example may be the one that caused me to look into that situation (cranberries and UTI's) in the first place, a self proclaimed skeptic on a skeptic forum making the statement that "several double blind studies" had shown that cranberry juice is no more effective than any other herbal treatment.

There was also a conversation with your buddy over on Science Based pharmacology on Facebook, in which the conversation went pretty much like I'd expect given the model I've given here. That surprised me because I really don't extend this concept of a fetish to professionals. (And no, most skeptics are not professionals in the areas in which they practice their skepticism.)

Finally, it's a MASSIVE straw man to imply that those who combat anti-vaccine pseudoscience argue that " that vaccines are universally safe and there is never, ever a question about them."

I never said that, nor did I mean to imply it. You're seeing ghosts again. I would appreciate it if you would turn your arrogance down a couple of notches, doctor. I do like the way you answer your own questions though. I'll have to try that as a method for telling other people to shut up. You're so good at it, I can learn from the master.

Mad: "I'd just call 'em bad habits" Yes, a "bad habit" of certain types would fit the bill. Urban legands is not the same thing but rather a broader set of false beliefs. A fetish is more like a rule one might use as guidance (herbal medicines cost a lot but don't work) which one can't break even when one should. (The example of cranberries is a good one in that respect: One answer to the cranberry question, after reviewing the evidence that cranberry juice has something that prevents UTI's from starting up, was "Yeah, but the amount you'd have to drink is enormous, given that cb juice is so watered down in the market." Sounds good. But the evidence for how much cb juice has an effect is .... non existent. The "it's herbal so it's weak or ineffective" fetish presumed a answer for which there was no scientific evidence one way or another.)

Have you read the cranberry juice evidence? From what you are saying I'd have to guess not. If the studies showed 0.0000001% difference in UTI incident, I'd go along with you but not one study shows that. No, I think you're basing this on the herbal remedy fetish. Or may be you were just frightened by Orac.

"Got an example? Seriously, do you have an example ...? No? Didn't think so. Do you have an example of such a pro-vaccine advocate? No? Didn't think so either."

Way to have a conversation! What an ass!

There is another fetish that is really bothering me related to SBM, the fetish that if there is an anecdote about an intervention, then the intervention is less likely to be correct.

daedalus2u, what is SBM?

Greg, you should know better than to even mention vaccines. That is the bailiwick of The Great Orac and all others shall tremble before his Great Oracness. (Or is that a fetish?)

He, I thought I saw where you were heading (and I learned of anthropological fetishes) in a good way, but when the article steered into generalization and "just so" stories. Conveniently at the part I didn't like, but I seriously don't think it is my rationalization. I may just got lucky.

Now I don't feel half as bad about criticism and nitpicking, always easier, instead of positive contribution,


certain things must be unplugged or the cabin will explode

That isn't as much a fetish as a learned once useful behavior. Realize that early electric technology was *unsafe*. The first (or second) generation using it learned to turn everything off if they left a house untended for a day or two, or else they risked uninsured disaster.

I'm sure there is an anthropological term for acquired, if not always real at a later time, nasties. Jujus, taboo, or something like that. Yes, it is a fetish, but it is a subset that may derive from experience.


With no sun (UV light) streaming into the cabin, mold spores which are normally killed by sunlight can have a field day. There are a lot of reasons that cabins tend to be musty. This is one of them.

Glass is a good UV absorber, which is why you want quartz instead in your optical paths for detecting UV spectra.

So that is, contrary to the claim, probably not one of the many reasons cabins tend to get musty.

But, if you let light in, you will warm some surfaces and directly (heating) and indirectly (convection) drive moisture off surfaces and, hopefully by draft et cetera, from the whole building. I don't think molds like that.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 26 Nov 2010 #permalink

Oops, I should have read the commments first:

No wonder so many people are anti Vax. ... your strident ...

"Got an example? ..."

Way to have a conversation! What an ass!

Either you guys are joking (and I confess not to have followed the blog so I wouldn't know) or this is an accommodationist site.

... loony. Of course one can criticize, and of course you can't allege things out of thin air just because you are scared of honest and useful criticism/you think your granny would cry.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 26 Nov 2010 #permalink

tor: "That isn't as much a fetish as a learned once useful behavior."

Yes! I would argue that most of these fetishes do in fact form that way. That may well be what MAKES it a fetish, not what makes it NOT a fetish.

"but when the article steered into generalization and "just so" stories"

Maybe. Maybe I just have a fetish about such things ... but seriously, guilty as charged. I'm thinking out loud here to some extent. Feel free to provide, as I requested in the post, excellent examples.

"The first (or second) generation using it learned to turn everything off if they left a house untended for a day or two, or else they risked uninsured disaster."

Sorry, I should have been more clear: People leave the coffee pot in their home plugged in, but unplug the one in the cabin. Same people, same year, different behaviors. Sure, you leave your house for less time than the cabin, but your house burning down is an unmitigated disaster, while the cabin burning down is not so much (and in some cases may be a blessing in disguise). But again, yes, that's where these come from, as outlined with the water heater example.

I would love it if you could cite me some studies that look at light, mold/mildew, spores, and open windows. We are both conjecturing here. Can we nail it down? I pulled my statements about UV light out of my ass. Do you have anything to back up or elaborate that UV light does not get into the house through windows? Does it depend on the glass? I would think that various ... factors ... would matter.

or this is an accommodationist site.

No, Torbjörn, you clearly have not followed this blog.

I agree with the idea that there may be an entire category of wrongness of which we should be skeptical, as practicing skeptics. The Fetish demands something other than a rational counter argument. For example, the cultural norm that makes injections, and thus vaccines, good in one context and bad in another may be the root problem, rather than the rational argument (or lack of a rational argument) regarding vaccination. Not to say the rational argument is not important, it clearly is, but the route to convincing people to change their view may lie somewhere else.

By Charlotte (not verified) on 26 Nov 2010 #permalink

I think the mold thing is more an issue of relative humidity. Closing the blinds keeps more light out which keeps the temperature inside lower and so there is a higher relative humidity.

There has to be more UV light outdoors than indoors. If mold spores can survive outdoors, they should have no problem surviving indoors, shades or not.

The rugs and upholstery at home never seem to fade.

Whaaaat? Nonsense! Of course they do! I see this consistently and frequently. I could go right now to my north-facing (sunniest) room and part the pile on the rug to see the difference between the pale red top and the richer dark red unfaded portion below. Or show you my latest ruined shirt, dark purple inside and unevenly faded purple outside where it was too long in the sun.

This happens especially with "natural" fabrics and dyes. Perhaps you only ever tumble dry, and your rugs and upholstery are polyester or nylon with modern synthetic dyes?

Sorry but you missed it with the whole pump-water heater thing. Lots of older homes, particularly rural vacation homes which don't get a lot of maintenance have slow leaks in the water lines. These can easily draw the water below the heating element in the months the place is unoccupied. An un-submerged element melts in a second or two.

In a perfect world these leaks would be corrected but it's a cabin and a drop of water every few seconds that falls on bare earth under a cabin isn't much a burden, sure it makes the pump run more often but not that much and only a few months out of the year when the pump is on, and getting a decent plumber out to the cabin is expensive.

Likely the cabin is plumbed in galvanized iron and it has a slot of small weeping leaks that are unimportant for a seldom used cabin. By rights the place should be entirely re-plumbed but it is a vacation cabin and when you're there you're not in the mood to take on a major handyman job. Getting a plumber to go out and do it it pricey because it is forty-five miles into the sticks from a small town and two hours from his workshop and the nearest plumbing supply house.

Working on past-their-prime galvanized iron water systems is a trick. The zinc is gone from the inside of the pipes and the insides are pitted. The entire system is either leaking or about to leak. Torquing a leaking joint or banging the line while installing a patch is begging for one or more joints or pinholes down the line to start leaking. Correcting a simple slow drip can easily escalate into having to re-plumb the house.

As long as you're gentle one or two small leaks can be patched without too much risk of causing more. The creative use of self-hardening pipe wraps, epoxy plumber's putty, and clam-shell patches are good options for staunching the flow from any small leak. But soon enough more will form.

Local handyman, who really doesn't want the job claiming under your cabin to fix it, he also knows it is futile and frustrating to keep patching, tells you it is a design feature; 'it allows the pipes to drain so they don't freeze'.

I've climber under a lot of houses and most either have a leak or two, or they have signs of previous leaks.

Call it a fetish if you wish but best practice is to open a hot-water tap, turn on the pump, and wait for the water to flow free before turning on the water heater. The cost for doing this is less than a minute.

The potential cost for not doing this is the price of calling a plumber forty-five miles into the sticks to replace the heating element, figure $200, Assuming it isn't corroded in place and the heater isn't so old it makes more sense to replace it, $800.

You could do it yourself if you're handy. Sometimes the job is a breeze. Turn off the water and electricity, take off the access plate, remove the wires from the element, loosen the element, unwind the old element but hold it in place, then in one move yank the old element out and slap the new one in. Done well you lose just a couple ounces of water, the new element fits and seals well. You are in and out, job done, in ten minutes.

But be warned, rural jobs, jobs that have been put off and patched several times, are seldom so easy. By the time it gets so bad that people are willing to spend money it has gone from routine repair to major overhaul and replacement of the entire systems. There is a reason the local handyman doesn't want the job.

Art, I hardly missed the point that the water heater system may be broken when I mentioned that the water heater system may be broken. I can easily document, if you like, the fear of water heater explosion in cabins that were built within the last five years, as well as cabins where the plumbing was redone within the last six or seven years. Fear can grow a nice unhealthy fetish indeed.

Cath, my sarcasm may have been a bit subtle. If the rugs at home fade, why did you fail to close the curtains? People act as though only the rugs and furniture in the cabin fade. This is why it is a fetish, and not a calculation.

I am beginning think that the sunlight is not hurting the mold. I looked into it a bit and indeed the range of UV that is best at damaging mold spores is filtered out by regular glass. (The temperature changes in an unheated or very low heat dwelling are probably the biggest problem.)

There is another reason for turning the pump on first. It uses an induction motor, which draws a lot of current when it first starts. The first start after a long shut down might draw an especially high current because the bearings might be a little stiff or corroded. If the electrical supply is marginal, it is better to turn the pump on first, so the water heater isn't drawing a lot of current.

If the heater is on, the current available to get the motor going is reduced, so it takes longer and so it might blow the fuse.

There is another reason for turning the pump on first. It uses an induction motor, which draws a lot of current when it first starts. The first start after a long shut down might draw an especially high current because the bearings might be a little stiff or corroded. If the electrical supply is marginal, it is better to turn the pump on first, so the water heater isn't drawing a lot of current.

If the heater is on, the current available to get the motor going is reduced, so it takes longer and so it might blow the fuse.

I'm not sure that's electrically accurate unless you're talking about voltage rather than current and they're connected in series.

Azkyroth, you're wrong and daedalus2u is right and still flying. Whilst I do know that electrical standards in the U.S. are fairly primitive, I am sure that there is some equivalent of "the company fuse", usually rated at 40 amps in the UK, but probably double that in the U.S.. Notice, amperes, not volts. If you think in terms of water, then volts is the pressure and amps is the amount of water delivered. A crude analogy, but fairly true. At your pitiful 110v it will take a lot of amps to start a seized-up pump (volts times amps equals watts - the available energy) and if the water heater is already on, drawing 3000 watts, say, you could well blow the "company fuse".

@greg: Could you post some links to any credible cranberry juice studies? I can't find anything which even remotely suggests to me that the people doing the study know what they're doing. If there's some decent cranberry juice article out there of course I'll read it and assess the claims.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 26 Nov 2010 #permalink

Regarding current: Obviously, the two machines are on two different circuits. That is how they are turned on or off separately. Nobody is crawling under their cabins to turn on the water heater and the pump. This is all being done at a "fuse box"

Mad, I blogged about this a while back:

I wouldn't be surprised if there are no credible cranberry juice studies. It was a "Well-Known Fact" when I was a medical student 30 years ago that drinking lots of cranberry juice would help clear a urinary infection. The theoretical basis was that the cranberry juice would acidify the urine, making it a less hospitable environment for bacteria. It has seemed apparent to me that it would require drinking a hell of a lot of cranberry juice to substantially alter the urinary pH, and that the benefit of the cranberry juice was probably mostly from increasing the urinary flow, thereby flushing the bacteria more quickly, and that increased hydration by any means would probably have the same effect.

I recall a discussion of whether older women were affected, or not, by cranberry. The study showed that a small sample (of older women) was too small to show a statistically significant outcome, though there was an apparent improvement. This bad data was taken by someone skeptical of the UTI-cranberry link to mean that cranberry drinking did not work in older women, but the same data show that the link is poor overall. This shows that a skeptic is someone who will be very careful about accepting evidence for a claim unless the statistics are really good, unless the claim is a skeptical one, in which case the p-values are of no importance and a weak statistical argument is uncritically accepted.

By Richard S. (not verified) on 27 Nov 2010 #permalink

Has anyone noticed the link between framing and fetishing?

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 27 Nov 2010 #permalink

There was a recent Cochrane review of cranberry juice, presented here. Bear in mind that Cochrane reviews tend to be conservative, but this was done recently. And acidification doesn't seem to tbe the current idea, which is good, as ER doc pointed out (but blood pH stuff is its' own class of quackery)

Peer Review Status: Refereed
Title: Cranberries for treating urinary tract infections (Review)
Author(s): Jepson, Ruth
Mihaljevic, Lara
Craig, Jonathan C.
Contact Email:
Citation: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD001322. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001322
Keywords: Cranberry
urinary tract infection
systematic review
Issue Date: 2009
Publisher: Cochrane Collaboration
Abstract: Background Cranberries (particularly in the form of cranberry juice) have been used widely for several decades for the prevention and treatment of urinary tract infections (UTIs). The aim of this review is to assess the effectiveness of cranberries in treating such infections. Objectives To assess the effectiveness of cranberries for the treatment of UTIs. Search strategy The search strategy developed by the Cochrane Renal Group was used. Also, companies involved with the promotion and distribution of cranberry preparations were contacted; electronic databases and the Internet were searched using English and non English language terms; reference lists of review articles and relevant studies were also searched. Date of last search: December 2007 Selection criteria All randomised controlled trials (RCTs) or quasi-RCTs of cranberry juice or cranberry products for the treatment of UTIs. Studies of men, women or children were included. Data collection and analysis Titles and abstracts of studies that were potentially relevant to the review were screened by one author, RJ, who discarded studies that were clearly ineligible but aimed to be overly inclusive rather than risk losing relevant studies. Authors RJ and LM independently assessed whether the studies met the inclusion criteria. Further information was sought from the authors where papers contained insufficient information to make a decision about eligibility. Main results No studies were found which fulfilled all of the inclusion criteria. Two studies were excluded because they did not have any relevant outcomes and two studies are currently being undertaken. Authors' conclusions After a thorough search, no RCTs which assessed the effectiveness of cranberry juice for the treatment of UTIs were found. Therefore, at the present time, there is no good quality evidence to suggest that it is effective for the treatment of UTIs. Well-designed parallel group, double blind studies comparing cranberry juice and other cranberry products versus placebo to assess the effectiveness of cranberry juice in treating UTIs are needed. Outcomes should include reduction in symptoms, sterilisation of the urine, side effects and adherence to therapy. Dosage (amount and concentration) and duration of therapy should also be assessed. Consumers and clinicians will welcome the evidence from these studies.

Excellent comment Richard. Such âskepticsâ are not true skeptics. They are pseudo skeptics or cargo cult skeptics. They go through the motions of skepticism but don't apply the principles uniformly.

From Science Based Medicine (see link in URL box):

Efficacy ratings thus tend to be conservative, as almost no trials of botanicals can afford to include several hundreds or thousands of patients. Cranberry for UTI prevention and hawthorn for CHF, both of which just got favorable Cochrane reviews, and ginkgo for dementia and memory impairment are rated as âpossibly effective.â âPossibly effectiveâ therefore really means that there is some pretty decent evidence.

Stewart, that study was included in my review ( ) cited above.

Of interest to the present discussion is how we go from, say, that abstract (go read the abstract for those who have not) to this:

Statement: âestablished claims like cranberry for urinary tract healthâ are being rejected

Pseudoskeptical response: "This was probably one of the easier claims to reject. Cranberry juice and extracts have been repeatedly trials for UTI, and shown to be ineffective."


I'm not sure if this is confusion between prevention (which I take to be the original statement) vs cure (perhaps the skeptical commenter is speaking of cure of an existing infection, but if so, he should be more careful) .

Nor does the above cited abstract justify this statement:

"A quick check on the internet will tell you that studies have since established that cranberry juice does work â though not for everyone, nor to the same degree"


Just to be clear: There are several possible outcomes of a study as one might do with CB juice, which might be characterized as follows:

1) The study just totally sucked, i.e., people were told what they were taking allowing confirmation bias. There is at least one such CB study looked at in the meta-review cited above and rejected.

2) A study showed CB associated with more UTI's over time

3) A study showed CB associated with the same UTI's over time

4) A study showed CB associated with fewer UTI's over time

And for 2,3 and 4, you can have lower (inadequate) vs. higher confidence.

If you have mostly lower confidence, and the effect is not there, one is most likely to get a mix of 2's and 4's (getting a 3 is actually very unlikely). In other words, if the effect is random, we'd expect to see random outcomes, sometimes showing a negative, sometimes a positive value, clustering around zero.

What we actually DO see in these studies is that ALL of the studies show a positive value. The value is often huge ... in the sense that a large percentage is indicated. But, the sample population is usually small, so no matter how good the numbers look, the results of a given study are not acceptable and need to be rejected.

But, this is one reason meta studies are done. Sometimes meta studies show that the four or five studies with strong results exist in a sea of lower-magnitude effects that are distributed randomly around zero effect. Or, a meta-study can show consistent positive effect but with zero or few statistical significant results.

Here's where the meaning of statistical significance comes in. If I go down to the local pub and ask four people who they are going to vote for, smith or jones, and they all say smith that is a whopping big result in terms of percentage, but a statistically insignificant result. But if I randomly sample all voters and ask 200 people who they will vote for, and I get 89 voting for smith and 111 voting for jones, then smith is winning by a statistically significant margin, but a small one.

In the case of the cranberries, all of the studies lean in the same direction, but all of the studies suck for one reason or another. Thus the conclusion of the abstract cited above.

What does this term 'Fetish' add to the already existing set of terms including 'Magical Thinking' and 'Superstition'?

Both terms, as I understand them, posit a direct but invisible causal connection between two events which have no direct connection - for example, "Cold weather gives people rhinoviruses", "Blowing on the dice makes your throw luckier", "Crossing a black cat invites disaster", "Brain Training games make you perceptive", and indeed "God said let there be light, and there was light".

Depending on the person, they may or may not cobble together some vague explanation for the supposed connection - "Willpower changes the universe", "cold weather weakens the immune system", "scientists don't know everything" etc. But there's no reason why a half-baked explanation should be essential, and many manage without one.

So what's the difference between a fetish and a superstition?

What is the point of Orac attacking a blog on vaccine anti-denial?

By P. Locans (not verified) on 27 Nov 2010 #permalink

Kapitano, I think most people would agree that a superstition relies, as you suggest, on magical belief. The pretty woman standing next to the dude at the roulette table somehow sends magical rays to the mechanism and makes it know which slot to stop the ball in based on the dude's bets. Fetishizing a concept does not require anything magical. The first time I heard someone use the term is a good example: We were in a faculty meeting talking about pre-req's. The assumption underlying pre-requisites is that they are very important in serving a certain role ... guaranteeing that eveyrone who took the 500 level class had the 400 level knowledge, who in turn too that 400 level class with 300 level knowledge, etc. etc.

SOmeone's suggestion that we had "fetishized pre-requisites" meant that we were making very strong assumption about an important feature of something and then drawing (in this case costly) conclusions from those assumptions, without testing the assumptions at all ... and indeed, this would have been part of a larger fetish: All the usual expectations of hither education ... that 120 credits = a bachelor's degree but 110 does not, that "majoring" required specific courses and 40 credits (or whatever) of concentration, and so on and so forth.

We actually tested the value of pre=-reqs, and discovered that they were useless. Not unimportant, just useless the way we had implemented them. We had assumed their importance because they are part of the system and questioning them is questioning general knowledge.

In discussions of education we see the concept of "process over facts" fetishized. You can't have a conversation of 10 or more people about K-12 education without someone saying "the problem these days is that they teach facts and not process" ... and that is typically said by someone who is not an educator and has not been in a classroom for 30 years, but everyone will nod, accepting it uncritically, despite the fact that in most progressive states teaching process has been a thrust of change in all curriculum development for decades. As a society critical of education we have fetishized that concept.

We see the interest of the "all suffering taxpayer fetishized in politics. We see "free speech" fetishized all over the place on the internet ... uncritically an hypertonically overvalued and centralized without argument.

The fetish is in reference to an underlying theme driving the "logic" of the argument. Underlying themes: Wild animals are gamy. Martin Scorsese pictures always look like Taxi Driver. A plant's compounds are weak and expensive compared to a pill.

Each underlying theme allows to predict the next irrational statement. We can see the cranberry juice comments coming before they are made, we know our friend Ruth will not watch a new Scorcese picture and we know Joe will never order the buffalo burger.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 27 Nov 2010 #permalink

Elizabeth (the first) Yes, there is a link! Spoken like a true anthropologist. The link is the Goffman key. The key identifies the frame and frame-shifts the object of the framing. Exactly. Frames are probably bigger than fetishes but there is no reason the structure can't be applied to both cases.

Funny you should mention this. I am running headlong into the same 'fetish' issue at work with a new 'wonder bottle'. The nurses attended a conference and were thoroughly indoctrinated into the wonders of the Dr Brown bottle. When I checked for studies, everything I could find was so poorly done as to be useless. The nurse who is pushing it the hardest, then falls back onto anecdote "my grandkids used them and never had colic",she was flummoxed when I suggested that perhaps they would not have had colic regardless of the bottle. A fetish has grown up around this bottle system, and the maker is making a fortune out of it. I am waiting for it to be recalled after an older sibling opens the bottle and chokes on one of the many small pieces.... :(

Yes, yes, I have encountered that one too. I'm not sure the Brown bottle can be cleaned effectively either. Someone gave us a partial set of Brown bottle stuff because it was not working for them.

Another fetish is attributing everything to genes. So, you can pick: Your child burps up half its milk ... is that because you need a new bottle or because of genes?

I caught, fried, and ate a bowfin. It was like eating fish flavored mashed potatoes. Black bass have yellow grubs in their flesh in the summer. Just fry them up and they go away.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 27 Nov 2010 #permalink

Why do I fail to close the curtains? Because it's a pleasant sunny room, and that particular faded carpet is not a big deal. We're more careful with some other rugs.

I still can't see how it makes more sense if read as sarcasm. Your writing style is quite obscure to me at times.

"Oh, right, like you'll be an hour down the road and turn back because you remembered that you forgot to close the friggin curtains in the cabin, but you'll go to Cancun for two weeks and leave all the curtains open at home. What is it, like, your rug at home doesn't obey the laws of physics or something??"

How was that?

By the way, I would have thought that the UV light that fades the rug would be the same UV light that kills the midew, in both cases by busting up chemical bonds in complex molecules.

Somebody please explain to me what is wrong here.