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A Skeptic's Vacation From Hell (But Quite Relaxing Nonetheless)

Vacationing at a spa can be quite relaxing... unless you're a scientist paying attention to the all-natural quackery they are feeding you!

Being a skeptic has downsides. Try going to a spa and relaxing.

A few summers ago, I needed to unwind and temporarily disconnect from the virtual world, so I decided to treat myself to a three-day stay at a spa resort outside the city. I told myself, "I am not going there to work. I will not take notes. I will ignore the woo and relax."

"Woo" is a derogatory though fun word used to describe pseudoscientific nonsense, the kind of magical thinking that elicits an audible "woo!" when its credulous observer is overcome by astonishment. You would think that spas could do without the woo to provide a soothing atmosphere: healthy food, dim lights, fresh air, massages, pools, and saunas. That's really all I asked for. There was no need for the woo. But the woo, of course, was everywhere.

They had a "hair spa" which was luckily closed during my stay. Outside, a sign listed the types of treatments one could purchase, such as the "vital energy haircut" (all quotes are translated from French by yours truly). This is no ordinary haircut: it combines a 30-minute upper body massage and a special haircut that, together, will "activate the growth of hair" and "rebalance your blood circulation". I guess regular balancing is no longer the sole purview of car tires. And silly me: I always went to the hairdresser to get shorter hair, not to activate its growth.

I booked a Swedish massage, but my therapist insisted on listing the different types of massages she offered in case I changed my mind. She was particularly insistent on the Amma massage. I asked, "What is an Amma massage?" Me and my big mouth. She told me it was acupuncture without the needles. I said, "Swedish, please".

There were workshops offered every evening on different topics, such as the type of cuisine for which the spa had earned numerous awards. I was genuinely curious to learn more about it. And that's when I started taking notes, because what came out of that sous-chef's mouth was misinformation bordering on an absurdist routine. You see, according to him, none of us should consume dairy or gluten because they cause inflammatory reactions in our colon. Milk is also full of hormones and is acidifying. If our blood needs balancing, so does its pH. So we need to ban milk products and any cereal that contains wheat. Oh, and soy, because of those darn phytoestrogens, which will give us man boobs. And we can't cook anything above 100 degrees Celsius, lest it becomes carcinogenic. And never use aluminum foil, because it is full of neurotoxins. The attendees, which began asking questions with enthusiasm, quickly realized that eating in this way meant starting a commune in the woods and saying goodbye to civilization. GMOs are evil; oils should never be heated; vinaigrettes kill a salad; microwave ovens alter the structure of water. Silicone? "That's fine... as far as I know."

The Food Babe would have been proud and busy opening a corporate account.

I tried to put this behind me. I went for a hike on one of their trails. Trees, wooden bridges, streams, birds, the kind of smell in the air you never get from living in the city. And then I saw the sign. The first of many. "Oh," I thought innocently, "they are helping us identify the trees, that's nice." Here's what I read:

"Eastern White Cedar. Therapeutic properties: Essential oil from the Eastern white cedar is anticatarrhal, mucolytic+++, skin healing, infection fighting, virucidal, cancer fighting, and insecticidal.

"We recommend to people involved in power plays to apply a drop of this oil on their plexus."

Even the trees were dripping woo.

My chakras are fine, thanks for asking, and I did manage to relax while I was there. That outdoor hammock was most welcome. But it is difficult to be a skeptic.

What is easier is to swallow claims hook, line, and sinker. To go for the easy answers, the recipes for happiness dictated by enlightened gurus. For a sore throat, use watermelon. For inflammation, try this simple trick from a grandmother who infuriates the medical establishment. For cancer, well, have you heard of Ayurvedic medicine? It's very old, you know, so it must be steeped in wisdom.

Being skeptical means living halfway between gullibility and denialism: it means asking for evidence before believing. It means that our beliefs should only be as strong as the evidence behind them, and always subject to be changed in the face of better evidence. It means tempering our inner Mulder, who really wants to believe, with the rationality of Scully.

Massages don't activate hair growth. If they did, we wouldn't see so many bald men.

There are no acupressure points on the body. Even the ancient Chinese didn't have them. They are a modern invention and they are meaningless.

Soy won't give you man boobs and there's nothing toxic about milk if you still produce the lactase enzyme and are not allergic to its proteins.

And, believe me, if I never see buckwheat again, it will not be too soon.

If you found yourself relaxing after staying at a spa for a few days, it wasn't because of the vital energy haircut, the quinoa salad, or the reflexology. It was because you were away from sources of stress, didn't indulge in junk food, and didn't have to do anything for a few days.

Beyond that, it's just woo, and it will take you down a long, dark rabbit hole.


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This article was originally published on the author’s website, The Body of Evidence.

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