Too Good To Be True

“‘Herbal medicine’s been around for thousands of years!’ Indeed it has, and then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became ‘medicine.'” – Dara Ó Briain, Dara Ó Briain Talks Funny – Live in London

The thing about skepticism is that it can sometimes be misinterpreted.

The goal of skepticism is to look at the world through a scientific lens, because science is the best method we have of finding the truth. And through this lens, it becomes quite obvious that things like ghosts, astrology, alternative medicine, and homeopathy, are all bunk.

It’s not simply because none of them fit in the standard scientific model of the universe that has been developed and fine-tuned over the past several thousand years. It’s because there is no evidence to support any of it! There have been trials on various alternative treatments, and none of them have been proven to be better than nothing.

So why do some people buy into it? Well, part of it could be due to something called ‘confirmation bias.’ If you believe in a treatment that does nothing, but get better on your own shortly after taking it, you credit the treatment rather than your own immune system. And when it doesn’t work, you never really notice, or remember.

Basically, we ignore the misses, and we count and exaggerate the hits. Astrology tends to work the same way.

And add to that, a bizarre phenomenon known as the placebo effect. Basically, if you think you’re taking something that’s supposed to treat some ailment, the very act of treatment can make you feel better, and make you think you’re getting better, even if the treatment is nothing more than a sugar pill. Combine this with confirmation bias, you end up crediting a glass of water for something that didn’t really happen.

Now what causes the placebo effect? I don’t know. I honestly wish I did. For the most part, it can be explained as a simple psychological trick. But this thing is way more powerful than that. But I don’t really want to get into the details.

The point I’m trying to get at is this: Just because you think it works, doesn’t mean it works. You have to test it. You have to run a proper analysis, and count not only when it does work, but when it doesn’t work. And you have to check to see if it really is nothing more than a trick of the mind.

‘But what’s the harm?’ you may ask. ‘What’s the harm in letting people believe that a bay leaf can cure the common cold?’ Well, do you mean aside from the money spent on it? They don’t give this stuff away for free! And for people to take money from desperate and sick people, and give them literally nothing? As Randall Munroe once said, “Telling someone who trusts you that you’re giving them medicine, when you know you’re not, because you want their money, isn’t just lying–it’s like an example you’d make up if you had to illustrate for a child why lying is wrong.”

But that aside. Often times, these salesmen advise their customers to forgo real medical treatments that could actually help them, because they claim it would interfere with their sugar-water. And when it comes to serious, treatable illnesses, people have actually died because of this. They died, because they were told not to take a life-saving treatment, and instead took ginkgo biloba or something.

I could elaborate quite a bit more on this, but I think I made my point. Is it any wonder why people such as myself try to convince others to give up these pointless endeavours? We’re not trying to be mean or ‘ruin your mojo’ or something, we’re trying to help! I just wish more people understood this.

Well, perhaps they finally will, as a recent episode of My Little Pony covered this very same topic. And if any show can spread an idea to the masses, it’s My Little Pony!

Our story focuses on the Apple clan. And we learn that once upon a time, Granny Smith was a champion diver.

She was the only Apple to ever come close to breaking the Equestria high-diving record… whatever ‘come close’ means in this context.

Best guess, when she tried to beat the record, she missed and hit the pavement.

But as a consequence of her years of high-diving and impacting the water while accelerating at 9.8 m/s2, she can’t swim anymore. It was just too much for her body to take.

And while she laments this fact, wishing she was still young, and agile, they run across a crowd of injured ponies walking down the street.

Was there some type of explosion or landslide or something?

Anyway, the Apples follow the crowd to a circus tent, where a large presentation is being given by…

The Douche-Cunt Brothers!–I mean–The Jerk-Prick Brothers!–I mean–Two assholes!

Yeah, that’s it.

You remember the Flim-Flam Brothers, right? They were the ones with the giant cider-making machine back in season two. It was an amazing device that worked. The only issue was that they were using it to try to run the Apples out of business. But it was a quality machine, that did the job it was meant to. Their undoing was their greed, which resulted in them taking the safety mechanisms off, and producing very low-quality cider. But their greed never resulted in them lying. They just didn’t know the responsible or productive way to sell their appliance.

So what are they doing this time? Well, they’re selling The Flim-Flam Miracle Curative Tonic.

For those of you who don’t know, that’s their you-gotta-be-fucking-kidding-us face.

That’s right, they upgraded from shady business practices to outright fraud.

Oh, maybe I’m being harsh. Perhaps it actually works! Perhaps they researched, developed and manufactured a brand-new medicine that can cure any ailment, and decided to start selling it out of a circus tent, rather than submit it to some medical journal and get worldwide recognition. Let’s see their case.

So, a pony with crutches is asked to come on the stage, is given a bit of tonic, and can suddenly walk again.

Yeah, no, I refer you to my earlier point. Do you know how much any pharmaceutical company would pay for something like that? Millions! Because if you can make it in your basement, I can guarantee it’s cheaper and easier to produce than any other drug they manufacture. And if they have a patent, and monopoly, on a medicine that’s cheap to produce, versatile, and highly effective; they’d make billions!

But how can I explain the pony who can suddenly walk again? He’s the inside-colt! They planted him in the crowd so it’d look like they cured a random member of the public, when he was never injured in the first place.

I mean it’s so obvious! Who would fall for this?

Oh, right, the old and desperate who wish to relive their glory days.

And it appears to work, since the next day, Granny’s swimming without a care in the world. Her aches and pains have evaporated. But you see, according to Granny Smith, her pain is triggered by looking at water. It’s obviously psychosomatic; i.e.: completely in her head. So just thinking she’s taken something to cure it would obviously do the job.

But throughout all this, Applejack’s the voice of skepticism. But I can’t tell if it’s simply because she doesn’t trust Flim and Flam, or because they’re full of it.

Regardless, she decides to visit Flim and Flam, to investigate, and ends up arriving in the middle of one of their sales pitches just in time to see a particular pony wander out the door.

Told you he was the inside-colt.

They chase after him, and we very quickly learn he has no spine.

You know, if you’re going to hire an accomplice to fraud, you’d think you’d find one that was a bit tougher.

His name is Silver Shill, and once he leads them to his little disguise-preparation area, they quickly piece everything together… though not quickly enough if you ask me.

So Applejack takes the opportunity to confront Flim and Flam.

And so, these two smug cunts confess to everything. Turns out the tonic is nothing more than apple juice and beet leaves. Of course they say this in a roundabout way, that would make one think they confessed to nothing. But since they place the ingredients in a juicer, and fill a bottle with it, I’m pretty sure the demonstration counts.

Anyway, they argue that since Granny’s fear of water is gone, and she’s much happier than she was before, Applejack should keep her mouth shut. Except it’s still a lie, and they’re still taking her money. And since they’ve proven it’s fake, one could go to Granny Smith, explain this, and say her new-found vitality was all her, not some silly beverage.

But Applejack doesn’t say this. Instead, when Apple Bloom asks what’s in it, she says, “As long as it works, I don’t suppose it really matters.”

Except it doesn’t work!!! That’s the point!!! It’s outright fraud, and Applejack is forgetting that.

The situation ends up snowballing, as Apple Bloom enters a swimming competition with Granny, who’s still fuelled by the magic placebo water. Then, Applejack accidentally endorses the fraud-water to the public. Then everypony says, “well if Applejack says it works, who am I to doubt?”

Okay, when exactly did she pose for that advertisement?

But it all starts to get to her, the guilt builds up, and during the big swimming competition, she snaps, and decides to tell everypony the truth, before things end in disaster.

But first, things are about to end in disaster.

You see, Granny’s going to try to make a five-story jump into a shallow pie-pan full of water. So Applejack saves her, and decides to tell her off. But then Granny argues that the fall wouldn’t have killed her, since the tonic somehow makes her immortal! And Flim and Flam support this conclusion, apparently unaware that if she did die, after they said she wouldn’t, it wouldn’t just fuck up their business-plan, it would land them in jail!

Then, rainbows hit Applejack’s eyes for some reason, and she explains that Flim and Flam were defrauding everyone, and she has to apologize for being an accomplice. Even Silver Shill joins in, inspired by Applejack’s integrity, since he has first-hoof knowledge of the fraud.

Then Silver gives Applejack the first bit he earned as a fraudulent salespony, explaining that he’ll pay the victim back, but he wanted her to have this specific coin regardless.

Meanwhile, Flim and Flam quietly make their getaway, before the pitchfork wielding mob shows up, and the episode ends.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I loved this episode. It gives a lesson very few people have heard, and my only concern is that many people may not even realize that it’s still relevant to this day.

We all know about the old-fashioned snake-oil salesmen, selling tonics at medicine shows during the turn of the century, while their products never did anything. Sadly, most people are unaware that it still exists. They’ve just gotten better at fraud. They have made-up pseudoscience about energies, frequencies and quantum. All words which sound very scientific, but are used in ways that have no relevance to their actual scientific meaning. Same fraud, now fancier.

But overall, the message is clear: If someone is lying, just because it makes someone else feel better, doesn’t mean it’s right. Are we agreed? Can you stop taking it personally when I say astrology is a cowpat? And when I say there’s no magic in yoga, can you understand I’m not trying to call you an idiot, or ruin your fun?

I hope people understand this. It’ll make my life a lot easier.

Then we have Flim and Flam, who take the money and run!

Am I angry they got away? Not really, it happens. But here’s a question: Why was Applejack the only one who found Flim and Flam to be untrustworthy? True, last time they didn’t try to defraud anyone, just extort them. Nonetheless, they don’t exactly have the best scruples. And they made that quite clear to the whole town, if you’ll remember, when they tried to sell really shitty cider.

In case you forgot, there were rocks in it. So why would they trust these twats now? They tried to run Flim and Flam out on a rail! Which begs the question: Why would they come back!?

And on a final note, we have a fifth episode to add to this season’s loosely defined story arc. And it’s the only thing I really don’t like. I’ve already banged on about this, but I don’t care, because this episode’s arc-related scene made the least amount of sense out of any of them. In earlier episodes, the rainbows-in-the-eyes shot represented some epiphany the character had. But Applejack already came to the conclusion that she shouldn’t support con artists well before that happened. Then there’s the gift of a single bit, which should’ve been given to the pony who got conned out of it. Oh, sure Silver says he’ll pay the pony back with a different bit, but that just seems to be a case of skewed priorities. And again, giving her anything at all doesn’t really make sense.

But given all this, I have a theory: Each episode so far involved a one-shot character learning something from one of our heroes, before giving them a gift. And I think these one-shot characters were not actually real. They were in fact avatars of the Tree of Harmony, attempting to help them unlock the chest. It would certainly explain the random gifts they were given. Otherwise, why give them anything at all?

I like that theory, I’m sticking with it. And hopefully, the arc will be wrapped up and all will be revealed in the season finale which has already aired, but I have not seen yet.

Don’t spoil!

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