The Fetish in relation to Skepticism

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I was just glancing through the blog of Katheryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, a book about people who were wrong about stuff, often big stuff (for example, she talks about individuals who spent decades in jail owing to false convictions). Meantime, I’m working on posts related to the falsehoods and “Everything you know is wrong” series. And, as I do this, I’m thinking about a way in which people get things wrong that is often overlooked or, perhaps, not recognized as a specific category of irrational thinking.

[This is a repost, originally published here. You may want to glance at the comments on the original. It is possible that I struck a nerve.]

This has to do with the idea of a fetish. It is likely that I’m using the word “fetish” in a different way than it is usually used in modern English parlance, so some definition is appropriate. Here’s some material from various dictionary sources:

Fetich Fe”tich, Fetish Fe”tish, n.[F. f[‘e]tiche, from Pg. feiti?o, adj., n., sorcery, charm, fr. L. facticius made by art, artifical, factitious. See {Factitious}.]

1. A material object supposed among certain African tribes to represent in such a way, or to be so connected with, a supernatural being, that the possession of it gives to the possessor power to control that being. [1913 Webster]

2. Any object to which one is excessively devoted. fetichism

(From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48)

From WordNet (r) 2.0 [wn]:

n 1: a charm superstitiously believed to embody magical powers [syn: {juju}, {voodoo}, {hoodoo}, {fetich}]
2: excessive or irrational devotion to some activity; “made afetish of cleanliness” [syn: {fetich}]

From the Urban Dictionary:


2. A sexual fixation or obsession with a usually non-sexual object. EX. socks, horses, monkeys, pain, bondage.

The two definitions that commonly come to mind for most people are probably the sexual fetish (the object or, perhaps incorrectly, the noun referring to the practice of fetishizing the object) and the more general term for talisman or object with magical powers.

None of these definitions are the ones I want to use here, though the meaning I’m using is reflected in the WordNet second definition. But even that is not accurate.

When modern anthropologists use the term “fetish” we often mean something that is very much of interest to skeptics, because it has to do with getting things wrong. In particular, it may be that a fetishized belief is a special category of how to get things wrong that, because of the psychology (or if you prefer, anthropology) of how it works, requires a special skeptical approach.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Purchasing goods that are labeled as made from recycled material can be a fetish. The consumer is not using a rational calculus with each purchase, or even a rational rule that “recycled is good” but rather has oriented semi-obsessively towards the term “recycled” and assumes it is always good, and that the label “recycled” is always meaningful and always discriminates among products. As a rule, going for the recycled product sounds like a good idea. If one uses this as a guideline then the planet will be a better place. But, what if this is actually a bad idea in some cases, and should be avoided? Consider that possibility for a moment.

If your immediate reaction to the idea that perhaps we should not always buy the product that says “made from recycled materials” is negative or you think I must be crazy, or perhaps the thought occurs to you that I’m a right wing neocon post Earth Day apologist for industry with some lame argument about how recycling is actually a bad thing, then you might be fetishising recycling. Not because it turns you on sexually, or you think the recycling bin has magical properties, but rather … well, you think the recycling process is a magical solution to our environmental problems and you know that if you engage in it you will feel satisfied. So maybe it is a little like talisman use and sexual gratification. But with plastic bottles.

Have you ever seen, or purchased, recycled toilet paper? Of course, I don’t mean toilet paper that was plucked, used, from the sewage system and converted back into nice clean toilet paper. I mean toilet paper that was made from paper fibers that were recycled from some other use of paper. Very rarely is toilet paper ever labeled as “recycled” because people are generally pretty stupid and will avoid buying something that the think is used toilet paper. There was a time when only one or two brands of toilet paper made the claim that they were made of recycled paper, yet many brands were partly or wholly made of recycled material. The decision to buy the paper that says “recycled” would be correct, but the decision to avoid the brand that does not say “recycled” would be incorrect much of the time. But it is the word “recycled” not the recycled paper itself we are going for.

Today, there are numerous brands that signify that they are recycled, but the correlation remains imperfect. This means that you need to check with a consumer guide of some kind to know if your toilet paper (or tissue or paper towels) comes from recycled product, rather than relying on the labeling. So, this is probably not a good example today, but just ten years ago there was no correlation between whether something was labeled as recycled and whether or not it was, in fact, recycled.

Water use is similar. All use of water from piped-in sources demands energy and thus has a carbon footprint of some kind. But the amount of energy (or other resources) one saves by feeding your dehumidifier water to your plants instead of tap water or growing cacti instead of bushes in your yard depends enormously on where you live and how water is managed in that particular area. Yet, highly environmentally conscious people are more similar to each other in their water conservation methods than may be appropriate. In making that statement, I assume that most people make choices in what to spend their energy on to lower their impact on the environment. Crushing your recyclables may cost you a lot of hours per year that you could have spent on caulking your cracks. Given that the way most recyclables are handled, crushing the does nothing useful other than making them fit in your own recycling bin, so this time consuming behavior may not be worth it. (Consider getting a larger recycling bin!)

Food fetishes (and I’ll have more to say about this later as well) can probably explain a lot of what might be considered illogical behavior. Many individuals strive subconsciously to classify all foods into the category “wild” vs. not. Once a food is determined to be wild, it won’t taste good. A person may love Cornish game hens, believing them to be not wild, but reject all other birds (save turkeys and chickens) because they are “game,” We will be able to identify this as a fetish if a person rejects the food as tasting “gamy” without actually trying it. Musical tastes, tastes in movies, theater, other areas of life may follow similar patterns. I listened to a tirade recently about how terrible all Woody Allen movies were from a person who had seen two of them. Seeing one bad movie made by a certain director may be a clue that all the other movies are bad. And/or that experience can be converted into a determination that movies one has not seen are bad. Using the badness of one movie as a clue is rational. Concluding that you did not like movies you have not seen is rationally impossible, but common, and it is fetishized behavior.

Many will argue with the earlier points I discussed, claiming that one can in fact maximize one’s effort in each and every area of personal environmental action … using minimal water, recycling everything, never buying anything that is held in a container, and so on. That could be true. Or, it could be a matter of fetishizing this subset of personal environmental action (limit water use, recycle, buy only certain products, bring your cloth bag to the store instead of using paper/plastic). So, given that these examples will only be reasonable to a handful of people, let me offer some different examples from, say, Cabin Life.

Here in Minnesota it is common for families to own cabins out in the wilderness, typically on a lake, typically up north. If you visit a cabin owned by people who have had cabins for decades, and who practice the old ways (and assuming the cabin is not just an out of place 5 bedroom 4 bath 2-floor suburban home, as many are these days), you will find quite a bit of fetishized behavior. You will find some of these behaviors in people’s regular homes as well, but not as often.

Here’s the key that holds all of the following behaviors together as fetishes: They don’t make sense when you actually analyze them, even if they are “based on truth” in some way. In some cases, the behavior itself is a waste of time. In other cases, a particular behavior on its own makes sense, but some principle is being applied inconsistently. Some of these items will be familiar to you, others not. And, you may know of examples I’ve not included, so please add those in the comments.

1) When you go to the cabin, don’t bother closing the curtains or blinds of your home, but when you leave the cabin to go home, make sure you close all the curtains and blinds. The rational is that sunlight fades rugs and upholstery. The reasons we know this is a fetish and not a sensible act are many:

a) No one ever skips closing drapes or blinds on windows that don’t face the sun at all.

b) The rugs and upholstery at home never seem to fade.

c) There is a down side: People know the cabin is empty. An empty cabin is much more vulnerable than an empty home in town, for obvious reasons. In fact, we often avoid closing up the home in the city in this manner … we leave some curtains open, leave some lights on, etc. so people think we have not left. But the cabin is endowed with numerous signals that it is abandoned when we leave it behind.

d) There is another down side: With no sun (UV light) streaming into the cabin, mold spores which are normally killed by sunlight can have a field day. There are a lot of reasons that cabins tend to be musty. This is one of them.

2) Turn on the water heater after you turn on the pump.
This is probably not a bad idea if there is no cost, as it is the case that a water heater with no water in it should not be turned on, but the importance attached to this sequence is almost always overdeveloped. If the pump is turned on first, water will be forced into the heater and it won’t burn out from being empty. The reason that this is a fetish is that the water heater is never empty. There are only two ways it can be empty (short of someone emptying it): a) It is broken and leaking; or b) It was installed incorrectly so it siphoned out when not in use. So, when you first occupy your cabin after winter, make sure you run the pump first. The water heater may have been emptied out last fall to avoid cracking, or maybe it cracked during the winter, etc. But on a day to day basis, acting as though it is broken or as though the plumber came by and emptied it out when you were not looking is fetishized behavior. You can turn both switches on at once, and if you accidentally turn the pump on second by several seconds, the world will not end. But if that makes you nervous, you’ve fetishized the sequence of the circuit breakers.

3) When you pull in the row boat for the end of the season, remove the plug from the back of the boat, turn the boat upside down, and then put the plug inside the cabin, preferably some place where it will take you a week to find it next spring. This is fetishized behavior. The propose of the plug is to allow the water to drain out of an up-righted boat that is on land or on a lift. Once you turn the boat upside down, that drain hole is not needed. Just leave the plug in the hole so in the spring when you put the boat back in the lake you don’t accidentally sink it. “But wait,” you say, “what about the idea that if you leave the plug in your boat, someone can steal the boat more easily?” Well, the answer to that is “The plugs are two dollars at the hardware store. The boat thief knows this.” You should leave the plug in the boat. If the boat is upright and out of the water, pull it but don’t bring it into the cabin. The plug should be tied to a string that keeps it attached to the boat so no one can walk off with it. But no, nobody does that. Every year, the search for the plug commences anew.

4) When you leave the cabin, certain things must be unplugged or the cabin will explode even though the power has been turned off. I love this one because it is so complex yet so simple. What things do you unplug, what things do you leave plugged in? Many people leave the TV plugged in but remove the plug on their coffee pot. Yet, the TV is actually drawing electricity while it is plugged in, and all that complex circuitry, especially in the old clunker TV you put in the cabin because the TV is not that important, can short circuit at any time. But a drip coffee pot with an off switch and an automatic shutoff is going to sit there, plugged in, and do no harm. Most people will leave a clock radio plugged in but unplug, again, the coffee pot. I’m not sure of the current situation, but I read some years ago that old beat up clock radios are the cause of a disproportionate number of electrical fires.

If you go into someone’s cabin and inspect what is left plugged in vs. not, it may well be explainable with this model: In the old days (and still, in some households) coffee is made in a percolator. Some plug-in percolators need to be unplugged or they will cook the coffee until it turns to varnish. Or at least, that was true in the old days, though not so much these days. So, we fetishized the percolator, and by extension, all coffee pot related things. I know people who unplug automatic one-cup-at-a-time coffee makers, which are by default turned off (or have a switch and an indicator light) but leave the toaster oven or microwave plugged in right next to it. (This is common in office kitchens as well as cabins.) In short, if something gets classified as related to making coffee, unplug it. Everything else, leave plugged in. That’s a fetish.

4) Food taboos having to do with fish. Ever since I was a kid, I was told to not eat rock bass because they have parasites.
It was rather interesting to discover that the “bass” I had been catching, cleaning, cooking, and eating for two or three years from one of our favorite camping spots were rock bass. The bass were supposed to be wormy. But they never were. After moving to Minnesota, I’ve heard the same thing: Rock bass have worms, don’t eat them. Well, I checked. Rock bass and perch tend to get certain parasites as the season goes on. They are harmless to humans and rarely noticeable, and more importantly, it seems that this is an issue for fresh water fish generally as summer progresses, and not a special trait of rock bass. What is widespread is not worms in rock bass, but rather, rumors of worms.

That does not sound like a fetish. It sounds like people just getting something wrong. But it is a fetish because it is part of a larger pattern of food taboos having to do with fish. It is my hypothesis that any given fauna of fish must be sorted out by humans into those you can eat vs. those you can’t eat. It does not matter too much which fish go in which category, though there will often be reasons, and sometimes those reasons will make sense, other times not. Here in Minnesota, we don’t eat rock bass because of the worms, and we don’t eat eelpout or bowfin because of the taste. In Europe, eellpout are prized because of their excellent taste, and in the southern US, bowfin are routinely part of the diet. In Central Africa, visiting tourists pay extra to fish for Clarius (a large catfish) and find them tasty. The locals don’t mind touching the fish (they are the ones who get to clean and cook them) but won’t eat them becuase they are considered unedible.

The bowfin and eelpout taboo in Minnesota is related to two things: 1) A confusion between the two fish (many people think they are the same) which makes any taboo against one a taboo against another, and the strange practice of the eelpout to wrap itself around the angler’s arm, snake like, when caught. Which, I’m pretty sure, hardly ever happens. The Clarious taboo in Central Africa has to do with the idea that Clarius feed on dead human corpses. Well, they probably do, but so do other fish that are not taboo, and usually there are not that many dead human corpses laying around. The parasite loaded rock bass is a case of one fish taking all the blame for a general phenomenon. People won’t avoid perch in August, but they are about as likely to have parasites as rock bass. Yet, everyone’s got a story about the wormy rock bass.

As I said above, I think this is a fetish in that we humans have some sort of a need to restrict fish or other aquatic food. Aquatic food is somehow considered dangerous, but we still want to eat it, so we blame a subset of the foods for something (being creepy in some way, usually) and avoid them, but eat everything else. A famous example of this, of course, is the specific set of Kosher restrictions from Leviticus.

… These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. … And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you … They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.

Imagine a cabin-culture version of Leviticus.

These ye shall close tight on the day of your departure; Whatever covers ye fenestrations. Ye shall disdain the plug of the boat even soever when it is tipped asunder or pulled from the sea. That which draws fire from the wall to prepare the strong water shall be disconnected, while you will shun the disconnection of all other items, but to fire the water before moving it with the pump shall be an abomination unto you. The fish that acts like a snake or all other creatures of the sea or lake or stream that resemble it shall be an abomination, and all creatures with a red eye shall be considered infested with myriad worms and shunned, as though an abomination unto you.

An whole ‘nuther category of fetishes has to do with the basic hydraulic theory of the human body (or mind) vis-a-vis health.

5) If it is a vitamin, it is good, and more the better. Vitamins are, of course, good (as are minerals) but supplements may be useless since they are not metabolized, excesses are not stored or used, or some cofactor is not present for them to be useful. But their goodness is attested to in enough places that all-are-good and more-is-better, two aspects of any good fetish, are widespread beliefs. Of course, once you are convinced, as a skeptic, that vitamin supplements are a scam, you might not thing vitamin supplements are ever good. I’m fairly sure the APS still recommends pre-natal vitamins, for example, though I recently witnessed a self proclaimed skeptic suggest that they would not be. Similarly,

6) Vaccines, as highly manufactured chemicals injected into the body are always bad. It is interesting that in Central Africa, anything you inject into the body is good, no matter what. You can sell people vials of pure water, or vials of anything, as long as they can can inject it to cure disease, restore youth, enhance virility. In Western culture, perhaps, the relevant fetish is that anything we inject is automatically dangerous, even if recommended by a doctor. It is a little hard to reconcile why a long list of manufactured chemicals is really good no matter what on one hand (vitamin/mineral supplements) but always bad on the other hand (carefully researched and highly regulated vaccines). But again, fetishes are not about thinking, but rather, about having a rule that is a bit more stark, more colorful, more strident than the average guideline.

A fetish is a thing that people do, but shouldn’t, not because they have done the calculus wrong, but because they’ve not done a calculus at all, but that thing … the thing they do or that they avoid … has a feature, or a signal, used to make the decision. All things garbage must be ensmallened, even if most of it is not going to a landfill. Anything related to coffee at the cabin gets unplugged. Coffee machines at home, don’t bother. If you can unscrew it from the boat, do so. Snake like fish taste bad (in Minnesota … in Louisiana, they taste good). These are all links between specific traits and specific behaviors where there may or may not be an identifiable reason for the link but there is always a lack of context appropriate calculus.

There are fetishes within skepticism as well. We saw this with cranberry juice, where many reactions by skeptics about the effectiveness of cranberry juice to limit chronic urinary tract infections had more to do with the fact that cranberries are a “natural” item (a plant, in this case) than with the available data from several studies. Skeptics fetishize many things. If a blog post were written with a title indicating some sort of concern or question about the safety of a vaccine, how many skeptics would NOT approach that blog post with the presumption that the writer of the post is a vaccine denialist? Is it really true that vaccines are universally safe and there is never, ever a question about them? No. It is true that most anti-vaccine rhetoric is part of the anti-vax movement and is bullshit? Yes. So one can see where it comes from. But automatic reactions to dog-whistles is, or at least can be, a fetishized behavior.

For something to really be a fetish, it may need to be more than just an automatic (and typically inappropriate) reaction, or the misuse of a cue or clue interpreted in the absence of thoughtful rationality. It needs to be something where the symbol itself (the fetish) is hypertonic. Bowfin are not really snakelike and don’t wrap around people’s arms, but they are long and thin and the snakiness is the key signal of this particular food taboo, so even a little snakiness is a lot of snakiness. The danger of the coffee pot looms and the imagination conjures a burning building, while the clock radio silently and innocently mocks us from the corner of the bedroom. These are not electronic devices existing along some spectrum, but rather, they are minimally evil vs. indifferent, if not evil vs. good, when fetishized. The assumption of what will happen when you turn on the water heater before the pump is a disastrous smoky explosion followed by a rapidly spreading fire, while to actually get even a small disaster one would have to work extra hard or circumstances would have to be very unusual. One imagines the thief, huddled against the cold late in the fall when few cabins are occupied, about to drag your boat into the water, and seeing no plug, and storming off frustrated and angry. “Drats!!! Foiled again by those clever cabin-dwellers and their plugs!!!”

The fetishized behavior is more often than not one side or the other of a simple dichotomy. After all,

…this is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth … To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.

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7 thoughts on “The Fetish in relation to Skepticism

  1. A)Very cool…
    B)I originally misread the title as “Fetish in relation to Skepticon” and thought you had come up with a really kinky take on “Gelato-gate”.

  2. Re. definition of “fetish”: I am not an anthropologist (nor, indeed, an -ologist of any kind), but yours is the definition of fetish I usually mean when I use the word.

    Granted, “fetish” isn’t a word I use a whole lot in conversation, but it’s very handy for discussing certain things, and I find that I always have to define it every time I use it. What’s up with that?

    I always thought it was the Freudian definition, but I was recently discussing the fetishization of marriage* with a psychotherapy professional, and was a bit surprised when I had to stop and define terms. So maybe I picked up the sociological/anthropological definition from somewhere years ago.

    * My example of a marriage fetish: “Now that we’re married, you’ll be much better at household repairs.”

  3. Something I meant to bring up the first time I read this: How many boat thefts are pre-meditated by a habitual boat thief who knows to bring spare drain plugs, and how many are simply opportunistic cases of drunk teenagers horsing around?

    Most simple theft prevention techniques are easily negated by a practised thief – yet they are still often effective, because a great many thefts are opportunistic rather than premeditated, and carried out by amateurs on the spur of the moment. However, I have no idea what the ratio might be for thefts of rowing boats in Minnesota in winter…

  4. I dunno, but up at the lake, nobody steals boats but once someone stole a motor. Then once more time somebody stole another motor but did not get away with it because it was too heavy. In the latter case, that theft was not premeditated but the thieves were theivy people who were always stealing shit, so just waking up in the morning was a premeditated crime about to happen. But yes, I suspect that where boat thefts on lakes (of row boats) are more common, it is pranking kids on drugs.

    Anyway, if you want to secure your boat over winter, hiding the plug where you can’t find it is not as good as using a chain!

  5. Yeah, except you put the chain away “somewhere safe” at the start of the season and now you can’t find it… 😉

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