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Water—Only $9.99 for ½ fl oz.

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Since writing the following article back in 2010, the makers of the product have changed its name. It is now called “Irritated Eye Relief” and no longer contains a reference to conjunctivitis. You can view the new product here. Note that the URL still refers to pink eye relief. It also states, in good homeopathic fashion, that it “stimulates the body’s natural ability to relieve” the symptoms of irritated eye. The idea is that substances that cause redness and irritation will cause your body to produce natural substances that relieve the redness and irritation. But since your body is already experiencing redness and irritation, wouldn’t it also already be producing natural substances that relieve these symptoms? Keep in mind that at one part per million there is not enough “medicine” in the water to make a difference in the response your body is already making. (Updated 04-27-2012).

I had a cold last week, and when I got over it, I found it had left a little irritation behind. I had an itchy, irritated eye.  So today I was at Rainbow picking up a few things when I passed the pharmacy section and noticed a large sign that said “eye care.” Maybe I’ll just see if there is something that can give me some relief from the itching and burning in my eye. I found the section for the eye drops and started scanning the little boxes for something to soothe my eye. On the top shelf, right at eye level was a box labled Pink Eye Relief. Odd. I thought medicine for pink eye (conjunctivitis) required a prescription. I picked up the box and turned it over to see what were the active ingredients. This is what I saw:

Active Ingredients
Purpose
Belladonna 6x
redness, burning, grittiness
Euphrasia 6x
watery discharge
Hepar Sulphurius 12x
redness, stinging

For me the 6X and 12X were giveaways, but I started searching for the word anyway. Ah, yes. There it was. Homeopathic. I glanced at the price: $9.99 for ½ fluid ounce. I looked back at the box: “According to homeopathic principles, the active ingredients in this medication temporarily relieve minor symptoms associated with viral and environmental conjunctivitis.”

For a brief introduction to homeopathic principles, check out this article on Wikipedia. In a nutshell, homeopathy claims that the more diluted a substance becomes, the more powerful its healing effect. The notation 6X indicates that the original solution was diluted with one part medicine to 10 parts water. Then the dilute solution was diluted 1:10 again. Then again and again for a total of 6 times. In other words, this ½ fluid ounce contained 0.0001 % belladonna extract, the same amount of euphrasia extract and 0.0000000001 % of hepar sulphurius. Compare it to other preparations. For example, The active ingredients in Visine® are: dextran (0.1 %), polyethylene glycol (1 %), povidone (1%), and tetrahydrozyline HCl (0.05 %).   The ingredients in the homeopathic remedy are too dilute to be effective.

By the way, it’s a good thing they are. Both belladonna and hepar sulphurius cause redness and itching rather than relieving it.

I would not have minded if this so-called remedy were being sold in an alternative medicines section where its dubious character could be instantly recognized. But this concoction was sharing shelf space right next to the other eye drops as if it, too, were real medicine. Moreover, the fact that it is a homeopathic remedy is not very noticeable. A consumer who knows nothing about homeopathy or how to read the ingredient list would not know that they were purchasing a ten-dollar vial of 99.999 % pure water. That’s as pure as the distilled water the same store sells by the gallon for less than $2.

Caveat emptor.

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Primal—Book Review

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Mark Batterson wants to change the world. He wants to see a new Reformation, one that will get Christians back to the basics of their faith and make them a powerful force once again. Using the framework of the Greatest Commandment, Batterson calls for renewal in four areas: compassion (heart), wonder (soul), curiosity (mind), and active involvement (strength).  He envisions a newly unified Church, laying aside its doctrinal differences and working together in ways that could lead to significant change.

It sounds great. In fact, it sound too good to be true, and Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity starts to feel like an infomercial on late night cable. Glib and breezy (though better than most), Batterson’s book belongs with a plethora of other spiritual self-help books. It is heavy on inspiration and light on practical suggestions for its readers.

Like many inspirational writers with big ideas, Batterson gets carried away by them. He likes science, so he uses science to bolster some of his claims, apparently unaware that he has not offered any evidence. Here’s a typical passage:

The human brain typically produces beta waves that oscillate between thirteen and twenty-five cycles per second, but when we are in a state of relaxed alertness, the brain produces alpha waves that oscillate between eight and twelve cycles. So what? Well, some truths are only comprehended via contemplation. You quite literally have to get the right wavelength. If surface knowledge is sufficient, beta waves will suffice. But the only way to get truth into your soul is via alpha waves. You can’t just think with your mind. You have to think with your soul.

Here are a number of deep questions airily dismissed! I won’t deny that some truths become clear only with meditative reflection. But I also won’t admit that adding the bit about the difference between alpha and beta waves does anything to clear up the mystery of why some truth is easily accessible and other truth less so. Primal is full of such odd bits and pieces, and Batterson seems not to notice that the facts he relates serve only as metaphors, not as evidence, for his central arguments.

I share Batterson’s hope for a new Reformation. Maybe Primal will get some believers thinking about what could happen. If it does, it will help, but I think it lacks sufficient weight. It is also too centered on American Christianity. Real change in the American church will require rethinking the church’s relationship to the American dream. Few Christians are willing to go there because it may require so much personal sacrifice. But the whole message of the gospel is about sacrifice for a cause so great that no price is too high.

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Magical Thinking

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Arthur C. Clarke propounded that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke’s third law). Certainly, we have reached the point where our own technology seems magical to some. We can communicate instantly with almost anyone almost anywhere on the globe. We have devices that can pinpoint our position on the earth within a few dozen feet and calculate a route for us to follow to get to any destination, even taking into account heavy traffic and road construction. Computing technology has advanced so quickly that science fiction can no longer stay ahead of it. The blinking lights and toggle switches of thirty years ago feel almost as ancient now as wooden water wheels and ox-drawn plows. Computer interfaces have become increasingly simple. We will soon have interfaces that can understand a wide range of spoken languages, perhaps even translating on the fly. These technologies, which seemed far-fetched only a few decades ago, are now within our grasp.

Nevertheless, there is an important difference between technology and magic that has enabled even the most primitive cultures to easily grasp that the wonders of modern technology are man-made, not magical. Put simply it is this: technology works according to easily accessible principles of cause and effect, but magic works by performing rituals that have no discernible connection to the desired outcome.

The difference between technology and magic is the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. For example, suppose I give you a little box with a button on it, and I tell you that every time you press the button, your garage door will open if it is closed or close if it is open. Can you test this assertion? Certainly. You press the button and see if the garage door opens. Wow! It works! But how does it work? You try pressing the button when you’re at a friend’s house. Nothing happens. You try pressing it when you’re on a nearby hill where you can see the garage. Nothing happens. You learn with a little experimentation that you have to be within about 150 feet for the button to work. Perhaps you examine the garage and see a motor that activates when you press the button. The motor is attached to a chain, and the chain is attached to your garage door. When the motor activates, it raises or lowers the door. You can do all this and see all this knowing nothing about radio waves, yet you know that what you are seeing is not magic. It is technology. It works; it obeys simple rules; you can see some of the connections that make the system operate.

Now, suppose you give me a little box with a button on, but you tell me that pressing the button will give me healing hands so that the next person I touch will be healed of a disease. I decide to try it out, and it seems to work. Everyone I touch after pressing the button gets better. A few get better right away, but most get better after several days. Another few get better after many days or even a stay in the hospital. Still, I have good success with the button, and I begin to believe in its power. Then somebody I touch after using the button dies a few days later. Maybe there are limits to the power of the button. It doesn’t always work, but neither does your garage door opener.

So what is the difference? When I use the button, I do not see any discernible pattern in how I use it and the results I get. Sure, almost everyone gets better, but perhaps they would have gotten better anyway. In addition, I don’t see any connection between my use of the button and any other phenomenon. When you press your button, you can see a motor activate and see how it connects to the door and raises it. For me to believe in the effectiveness of my button in the face of objections requires magical thinking. Somehow, pressing the button imparts healing power to my hands. I don’t know how it works; I can’t explain it, but I know when I touch people after pressing the button they get better.

It may seem that only religious people are subject to magical thinking, but this is not so. Nearly everyone at some time or other has tried to influence events outside there control by observing some kind of ritual. People of no particular religion talk about gremlins getting into their computer or about how some good deed they have done gives them a karmic edge in a competition. Sometimes when I am driving with my daughter, and she doesn’t want to be delayed by any traffic lights, she will intone as we approach a red light, “Turn green. Turn green.” If the light turns green before we get to it, she will claim that she made it turn green. Of course, if I seriously pressed her, she would acknowledge that she can’t control traffic lights, but in more desperate circumstances, people are willing to try more desperate measures even if they doubt their efficacy.

Magical thinking doesn’t merely claim ignorance; it claims that the connection between ritual and outcome is unknowable or inexplicable. Scientific thinking may well claim ignorance, but it will also insist on devising experiments with a testable hypothesis to see just how a particular cause produces an observed effect. Magical thinking ignores or suppresses evidence; scientific thinking welcomes evidence.

We know now about diseases caused by microbes. People used to think they were caused by evil spirits. Microbes are invisible; so are evil spirits. Overcoming microbes requires expert intervention (a doctor); so does overcoming evil spirits (a priest or shaman). But microbes can be seen if we have the right instruments. They can be cultivated. We can discover what they need to survive and what wastes they produce. We can’t do any of that with evil spirits. This is not to say that spirits do not exist. It is to say that we should not expect to find physical evidence of spiritual phenomena. Someone who claims that the spiritual world does not exist because there is no physical evidence for it, is like a deaf man who refuses to believe in music because no one can tell him what color it is.

Belief in a spiritual world, however, should not make us think that we can control the physical world through ritual observances—any ritual observances. Prayer has no measurable effect on the physical world. Why should it? The purpose of prayer is not to give Christians control of the world but to give God control of the Christians. If we live in obedience to him, with our minds tuned to his Spirit, then we will transform the world. If we think that living by biblical principles is a means to worldly wealth and prosperity, then we will become conformed to the world and nothing good will come of us.

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