Thursday, September 9, 2010

What ear candles can teach us

Ear candles, for the uninitiated, are long, hollow cones of waxy cloth with a small hole on the pointed end. To use an ear candle, an individual has to lie on his or her side, put the small end of it in the ear, and then have someone light the top, wider end, which is open. The candle slowly burns down, and the theory is that the air inside the lit opening is heated, causing it to rise, and this creates suction inside of the tube, so that the small end sucks the wax out of your ear. When the procedure is finished, you're left with a small cone full of nasty brown wax.

I first heard about ear candles when I was fairly young. They were featured on the news, and my family and I watched, bemused, as the lady laid there, with the burning candle sticking out of her hear. When they opened it up, the newscasters weren't willing to show the gunk inside on camera. My how the decency standards of television have changed in the last fifteen years.

It seemed like a nice idea (using fire to cleanse, I think, has a deep root in our psychology) and I was interested in trying it. It never quite sat right in my brain, though, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the ear is a dead-end. It's not like the nose, that has a big sinus cavity behind it, with a tunnel leading all the way down to the lungs. The ear canal goes in an inch or so, and then terminates at the eardrum. Where are we keeping the copious amounts of wax?

Another reason it felt off was because it seemed like cartoon physics. You can't dust the inside of a cabinet by sticking a vacuum-cleaner hose inside, and then leaving it in place, waiting for all of the dust to come to you. Whatever you're vacuuming needs close personal contact with that hose. So how could the small bit of convection generated by the candle draw all of the wax out of your ear, like the pied piper drawing rats out of a town?

Well, let me tell you the twist ending.  Ear candles don't work. I'm sorry if you've put a lot of stock in that, but they don't. The world we live in is one where ear candles don't do anything good for the ear.

There have been lots of different studies, with ear wax measured, the suction measured, and debunking it this way and that way. According to Wikipedia, "Several studies have shown that ear candles produce the same residue when burnt without ear insertion and that the residue is simply candle wax and soot."

Now, I agree with all of their conclusions, but I think so much work is unnecessary. We don't need research dollars spent on these things, we don't need to measure the suction, or look at the before/after of wax in someone's ear. When someone is trying to make an argument, it's actually problematic to have a longer list of evidence. The folks who made the film Loose Change could benefit from this lesson.  If you give someone ten reasons why something must be true, they will argue against the weakest five, and ignore the rest.  Then you're left elaborating on your least compelling evidence.

Take your strongest argument.  The argument that you've always seen the other side avoid.  The argument that knocks it right out of the park.  Focus on only that argument.  If people start responding to arguments that you never made, then redirect them to the one argument that you did make.  Make people think.

With ear candles, the single, simple, thing that needs to be communicated, to bring this whole business to an end, is this:  Go buy one.  Stand it up in a cup of dry beans, and light the thing.  Follow the directions carefully (or not carefully, it doesn't matter).  Now is there loads of earwax in the thing?  Of course there is.  Because the stuff is from the candle, which is made of wax.  Don't wait for a scientist to do it, and then read his results, do it yourself!  They're five dollars for four!  That's cheaper than Gatorade.

That's simple science, right there.  If it does it in this condition (in the ear) but still does it without this condition (out of the ear) then that condition wasn't necessary in the first place.

Believe it or not, even such a simple alternative treatment is going to break a lot of hearts when people realize that they've been fooled.  That's what beliefs do, great or small.  They dig in claws, and when they're removed they take flesh with them.  What bothers me is that I'm sure that every company that sells these things knows as well as I do that they're actually more harm than good, and they just keep doling out the snake oil.  We're lied to by businesses so often, that we're almost fine with it.  But maybe we shouldn't be.

Thanks for reading.

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