The Most Precious Thing

For my book club, and for Carl Sagan Day - November 9th - I am reading The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan (kindle edition).

This is one of those books that I never knew about when it came out. Once I became a skeptic several years ago, I just never had a chance to read it. It's one of those books that every skeptic should read, really, so it's about time.

I want to share it with you as I read it. Just the really wonderful bits that are too good to keep to myself.
"My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method."  (pg xiii)
This, to me is the greatest gift you can give to someone. The gift of genuine wonder and skepticism. The whole world becomes amazing as it can only do with science. And skepticism helps you avoid falling into delusion as well as to help avoid being duped and scammed.
"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike - and yet it is the most precious thing we have." Albert Einstein (pg 2)
Einstein is right! Do people make mistakes in science? Are our tools limited? Yes, definitely. But it's the best tool ever devised for showing us how the world works.
"And yet, there's so much in real science that's equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge - as well as being a lot closer to the truth."  (in response to questions about aliens and other pseudoscience)
..."Mr. Buckley - well-spoken, intelligent, curious - had heard virtually nothing of modern science. He had a natural appetite for the wonders of the Universe. He wanted to know about science. It's just that all the science got filtered out before it reached him. Our cultural motifs, our educational system, our communications media had failed this man. What the society permitted to trickle through was mainly pretense and confusion. It had never taught him how to distinguish real science from the cheap imitation. He knew nothing about how science works." (pg 4)
This was written back in the late 90's and it seems that it's only getting worse. Carl is right. Science gets filtered out and people are inundated with pseudoscience and bullshit.

Yesterday I asked my Facebook friends for what facial cream they use, as the one I have leaves my skin feeling dry, especially getting into winter. So I asked the following:
What face cream do you use? I want something that moisturizes but isn't full of gimmicky nonsense. I have sort of dry skin and just want something basic.
Since most of my friends are atheists, I like to hope that most of them are skeptics too, but of course the two don't necessarily go together all the time. One person told me about the cream she uses. It's called, I kid you not, Hope in a Jar. Oprah loves this stuff. (Already my BS meter is sounding klaxons).

.5 ounces costs about $15.00 (plus shipping). So that's $30 an ounce. Here is what the label says:
"philosophy: where there is hope there can be faith. where there is faith miracles can occur."
I just sprained my eyes from all the rolling they just did. So if you hope that this works, then it will magically make you look like you're 18? What the hell? What nonsense. It doesn't actually say that it does anything!

Here are the ingredients:

Hope in a Jar by Philosophy
water, lauryl lactate, behenic acid, behenoxy dimethicone, glyceryl stearate se, glycerin, behenyl alcohol, cyclomethicone, pentaerythrityl tetracaprylate/tetracaprate, tocopheryl acetate, benzyl alcohol, retinyl palmitate, stearic acid, panthenol, betaglucan, lavandula angustifolia (lavender) oil, xanthan gum, triethanolamine, propylene glycol, methylparaben, propylparaben, diazolidinyl urea

I'm not a chemist, but I don't see anything in there that is miraculous or proven to be the fountain of youth. So basically you're paying $30 an ounce for hope and faith, which is pretty much completely useless.

Here are the ingredients for the cream I bought, which was recommended to a friend of mine by her dermatologist and was $9.47 for 8 ounces ($1.18 an ounce, over 25 times cheaper than Hope in a Jar):

Cetaphil DailyAdvance Ultra Hydrating Lotion
Water, glycerin, hydrogenated polyisobutene, cetearyl alcohol, Macadamia integrifolia seed oil (macadamia nut oil), Butyrospermum parkii (shea butter), acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, sodium polyacrylate, phenoxyethanol, tocopheryl acetate, ceteareth-20, stearoxytrimethylsilane, stearyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol, farnesol, sodium PCA, panthenol, cyclopentasiloxane, dimethiconol, citric acid, sodium hydroxide

It's probably even a bit fancier than it needs to be. But it's non-greasy and non-comedogenic. I just put it on to see what it's like and a little goes a long way. It feels nice.


Update Nov 9, a week later: The cream I bought (the Cetaphil) was the wrong one! The one listed above is for the body, and I really like it, but it did cause my face to break out. But that's my fault for not paying attention to the label. (and they never said what it was for, so since it was next to the other one labeled for the face, I thought it was too. Lesson learned!)

Instead of getting the Cetaphil for the face, I took the suggestion of another friend who recommended Burt's Bees Beeswax Moisturizing Day Creme which sounded so delightful. Here are the ingredients:

water, helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil, stearic acid, glycerin, cocos nucifera (coconut) oil, beeswax, tocopheryl acetate, citrus aurantium dulcis (orange) peel wax, aloe barbadensis leaf juice, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) extract, sodium borate, xanthan gum, sucrose stearate, glucose, glucose oxidase, lactoperoxidase, beta-carotene, fragrance

It's not as cheap as the Cetaphil, but it's also actually meant for the face. It smells like rose water and feels fantastic, without promising ridiculous miracles.


You really don't need all the stuff they put in those expensive creams. According to WebMD, there is little rigorous research done that is conclusive on the 'special' ingredients. Often they are in very small amounts, too, so it's difficult to see how they could achieve a great benefit, as advertised.
"The bottom line is that if these creams could accomplish the same thing as a medical procedure, they would be drugs and not cosmetics -- and that's what you have to keep in mind when deciding whether to try or buy," says Marsha Gordon, MD, vice chairman of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
So what you really get is the placebo effect, and confirmation bias that you look better. A simple moisturizer will suffice, plus some sun protection. The other stuff is not well tested for what the claims are.

It's so easy to buy the hype. We all do it to some extent. But if we have our Baloney Detection Kit working, we fall for a lot less nonsense.

Does that take enjoyment away from living, when our bullshit radar goes off when we see a commercial for the latest hot craze? Not at all! There's a huge difference between a denier/cynic and a skeptic. A cynic denies everything, and in my opinion is overly negative. A skeptic questions every claim and applies what he or she knows of reason and logic, instead of just blindly believing something.

It can be a lot of work and a challenge to research claims, but it's so rewarding to figure something out, learn something new, and realize something isn't what it claims to be.

Reality and science are awe-inspiring and fascinating. Personally I'll take that over feel-good delusion any day.

It's not easy sifting through all the claims made every day. For a new skeptic, it can be a bit daunting. I recommend listening to, watching or reading skeptical resources to get lots of practice in. Don't worry, it gets much easier to cut through the nonsense as you hone your skeptical sword.

Here is a brief article I wrote about honing your skeptical outlook.

What are your favorite skeptical resources? Let's compile a list for the new skeptic. Please share what your favorites are, and why you like them.


  1. Most face creams that are "proven" to reverse aging really don't do anything special, it is true. Number one thing that prevents signs of aging is a good sunscreen.

    The only ingredient proven in actual studies to reverse signs of aging is alpha-hydroxy-acid, which can be purchased for very cheap. I think I paid 5 bucks for a 3oz jar. It gives you a light facial peel, which is how it works. You can go to a department store and pay $70+ an ounce for the stuff or you can just check the grocery store and read labels to find an off-brand with the same ingredient.

  2. Thanks, Anon. Yes, I remember an episode of the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe awhile ago where they talked about 3 ingredients that are proven to actually work for nicer skin. One was alpha hydroxy acid as you said, and I can't remember the other ones. All the rest is just wishful thinking.
    I don't like the idea of peeling my face so I avoid alpha-hydroxy acid, not to mention I read that it thins the skin. I'll stick to a decent moisturizer and sunscreen.