Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Snake Oil

Sometimes the easiest to swallow is the batch you brew for yourself

It’s one thing to see it when someone else is trying to sell you a bill of goods. It’s another to recognize when you are selling one to yourself.


People learn from others. That’s a good thing. If everyone had to rediscover the world from scratch, all on their own, we wouldn’t have gotten very far as a species. If the person doing the telling is someone that we trust, either because we know them or accept their authority, then we are likely to just let the idea in. That’s especially true because if we are listening to someone we know or trust they are probably playing into our confirmation bias anyway, telling us what we wanted to hear.

But what if the idea was really only a W.A.G. for them, too?  Now we share their W.A.G., but that doesn’t make it true. W.A.G.s are a pernicious lot. They are contagious and only get stronger as they go.

The Dreaded Snake Oil Salesman

Of course, it is always possible that the source of a W.A.G. knows full well what they are doing.   All of this reminds me of the western movies I grew up watching. A common trope in these films is the snake oil salesman who comes to town with a magical elixir that is supposed to fix everything that ails you. What always happens next is that the people who bought the snake oil wake up the next morning with a headache and an empty wallet. Meanwhile the snake oil salesman is long gone.

Not every salesman who knocks on the door is selling snake oil.  But caveat emptor.  Let the buyer beware.

I was teaching an introductory astronomy class some years ago. On the last day of class a student came up to me with a very somber look and he said “Dr. Hester, my father wouldn’t like you.” I thought to myself, “Oh no. Here we go….” But then the student explained himself. He said, “My father is a salesman. What you have been doing all semester is teaching us how to see through the ways he gets people to buy stuff. My father wouldn’t like you.”

I gave him a great big smile and I shook his hand and I said that I was glad that he got exactly the right thing out of the class!

Beware of Your Own Snake Oil

A few months ago a woman came up to me after a talk. “Dr. Hester,” she said, “I really wish that I had heard you speak a year ago.”

She wore a sad expression as she told me her story. She had decided to start a business, and after studying up on how to attract investors she wrote up a prospectus. She did everything right, highlighting all the reasons why this business was the greatest idea ever conceived! She really made that proposal shine!

But then she made a mistake. She went back and read her own prospectus, and fell for her own pitch.  With such a great plan she decided that she didn’t need investors at all. It was her idea so she should have all the profits for herself! So she cashed in her life savings and retirement. She mortgaged her house. She ran up her credit cards. And – you see this coming – found herself in bankruptcy six months later.

Unfortunately for her, the snake oil that is often easiest to swallow is the snake oil that you made for yourself.

Snake Oil ^ Sometimes the easiest to swallow is the batch you brew for yourself  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Reality Straight Up!

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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy’s Rainbow  The statistically likely path to complexityPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughtsUnreasonable Faith
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Entropy is often maligned as the enemy of order. In truth, without the inexorable march of entropy, the universe would be a very boring place.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

  • Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118