You'll die if you do that

by sixes_and_sevens1 min read12th May 201174 comments


Personal Blog

"They told me that if I ever turned this flashlight on, I would die! They told me that about everything! I mean, I don't even know why they bothered giving me this stuff if they didn't want me to use it."

-- Wheatley, Portal 2

Today I received some shoes in the post, which included a couple of packets of silica gel. I don't think I have ever seen a packet of silica gel that didn't have "DO NOT EAT" printed on it, and it's always bemused me.  It doesn't look edible, or smell appetising, and isn't even especially harmful to ingest in most circumstances.  Chances are that if I ever did want to eat silica gel, I'd probably have a damn good reason, and a lifetime of being told to not eat it is an obstacle to that.

This has started me thinking about all the other things we internalise as serious hazards contrary to reality.  As a child, I was told that picking my nose and eating it would have some sort of cumulative toxic effect.  This was obviously a lie manufactured by my parents (or maybe their parents) to get me to stop doing it, but a couple of decades later I felt positively scandalised when I read about an Austrian pathologist who claimed the practise was beneficial to the immune system.  (Although this is mentioned in the delightful Wikipedia page on nose-picking, the reference links are dead, so I'd actually treat this assertion with caution, but feel free to munch away on your own dried nasal mucus anyway).

Although nose-picking and eating the packaging that shoes come in are pretty trivial examples, I do wonder how many of these prohibitive false dire consequences I'm still labouring under, invisibly making my life more difficult.  I also wonder how many full-grown adults still don't accept sweets from strangers.

Do you have any examples of an authority figure, or a prevailing piece of cultural conditioning, giving warnings of dire outcomes you later discovered to be false, misleading or based on an agenda you were naive to at the time?


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based on an agenda you were naive to at the time?

This is almost always the case with warning labels (such as the silica gel example), I don't recall ever seeing a warning label that also told you why it was warning you.

This reminds of a recent post over at Meteuphoric: Don’t warn nonspecifically!

Although the packets are labeled "silica gel," they aren't guaranteed to contain nothing but silica gel. In fact, they can contain cobalt chloride or other poisonous things. If you do one day want to eat silica gel, I would recommend getting it from a food- or laboratory-grade source rather than from a packet which says "DO NOT EAT."

Tangentially, silica gel packets are sometimes packaged with food. Wild guess: The warning is intended for that context. Your point still stands, though.

0Clippy10yBut, if humans shouldn't eat it, why would they mix it in with the food supply in the first place? I guess a factory manager finally took one of my suggestions.
0[anonymous]10yWe also sell microwave ovens which are not intended to be used to dry cats. I also never understood that one. It usually works, given enough time.

There's the whole stranger danger myth, and how most sexual abusers are people you know... there's no razor blade Halloween candy....

One of the stupidest ones I saw, from personal experience, was when the superintendent of my Middle School took over a history class one day to inform us that if a school bully attacks you, and you fight back, you will be suspended/expelled, and the only way to protect yourself from this fate is to passively accept whatever beating the bully offers you by curling into a ball and exposing your back to them.

By the way, kudos for taking an interesting lesson from the biggest moron in all of Portal 2. You have truly displayed that the wise can learn (at least one, but possibly many) thing(s) from a fool.

4wedrifid10yWhat a dick! If my children were sent home with a suspension in such a circumstance I would be sure to give them my full support and assurance that they did exactly the right thing. I may also explain to them that if defending oneself receives the exact same penalty that attacking someone gets it will usually be best to initiate the combat yourself. Particularly if done with no bravado and noncombative body language right up until you strike. Appropraiate places to hit bullies include the testicles, throat, solar plexus, eyes and nose. The nose and testicles are particularly good for humiliating them in front of their peers.
3wilkox10yThis is excellent advice, with the caveat that the school's disciplinary penalty is probably not the only cost. Being known as "the kid who walks expressionlessly up to other kids and punches them in the testicles without warning" may be a significant penalty too. (This doesn't mean striking first is always a bad strategy, just that it needs to be done carefully).
0wedrifid10yI was more referring to that time period when the bully was working himself with bluster right in the non-victim's face. :)

The one that I can think of is cracking your knuckles, which supposedly causes arthritis. It's beyond me how cavitation can cause an autoimmune disease, and seems much more likely to me that people are bothered by the sound and settled on a joint ailment as a deterrent. (Studies have shown there is no link, but that cracking your knuckles is correlated with other hand problems. I suspect that's because people with those problems are more likely to be able to / get relief from cracking their knuckles.)

[-][anonymous]10y 10

It's beyond me how cavitation can cause an autoimmune disease, and seems much more likely to me that people are bothered by the sound and settled on a joint ailment as a deterrent.

Osteoarthritis, which is the most common form of arthritis, is not an autoimmune disease; rather it seems to be related to aging, including cumulative wear and tear on joints. (Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease.) Cavitation can mess up hydraulics components pretty bad, so I do think this passes the common-sense test. Apparently it doesn't pass the evidence test, though.

There's a fence in the San Diego Zoo that I leaned on before reading a nearby sign: CAUTION, ELECTRIC FENCE.

2Normal_Anomaly10yDid you get schocked?
2ewang10yNo, the sign was the only indication. I actually grabbed it with my hands before I noticed it.

This is why you don't eat silica gel.

I'm always mildly bemused by the use of quotation marks on these packets. I've always seen:



Why would the quotation actually be printed on the package? Who are they quoting?

In case you don't know about this site: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

Edit: When I worked fast food I had a store manager who used (parentheses) and [various kinds of {brackets and braces}] to ({[emphasize]}) things.

4thomblake10ySeriously folks, click the link in parent.

I don't know if it's on-topic, but "trust your parents" seems to be a pretty good heuristic, evolutionarily speaking. Your parents were successful enough to produce at least one child, and the advice they give will be tuned to your genetics and environment more than average.

An obvious side-effect of this is that you will believe a lot of stupid stuff that your parents tell you.

(Even more off-topic: do people with more siblings trust their parents more?)

0[anonymous]10yNitpick: Having offspring is not sufficient for being above average in any evolutionary sense. Though the original point (believing parents due to them usually being helpful to you for survival) still stands. And not off-topic, but actually interesting. But as in other cultures upbringing and education is often more strongly associated with a larger part of family and also the peer group, I doubt we would see much there.

Small electronic appliances often have some sort of safety warning tag that includes, in large text, "DO NOT REMOVE." I remember being a bit horrified the first time I saw my mother cut one off a power cord, and only later actually thought through the logic that the hairdryer or whatever it was would be staying in our house, and none of us were going to try to use the thing underwater or something similarly unhealthy.

Thinking about it, a few less savoury examples would be the circumstances surrounding most cases of murder, rape and child molestation. The prototype most people have for these situations tend to involve unknown assailants, but with all three, in the overwhelming majority of cases the crime happens in a social context where the perpetrator is known to the victim.

And extremely common one in my cultural (USA) context is that "being cold" can give you a "cold". According to common wisdom, being out in cold weather with wet hair and no hat will cause you to be infected with a rhinovirus.

The expression encapsulating this is "You'll catch your death!"

When travelling in Eastern Europe, I found a similar attitude towards drafts from a couple locals. The safest was to keep all windows and doors to the outside closed (in a room or car). Opening one portal was frowned on. Two or more (creating airflow) was taboo and would cause sickness.

Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can weaken the immune system, so the advice is at least helpful, though false.

Also see: "A gun is always loaded."

OK, here is my contribution to the exercise set by the OP:

Although there are important exceptions, such as doxycycline, the vast majority of expired medications are perfectly safe.

Although pharmacies in the U.S. never put an expiration date on the label that is more than 12 months after the fill date, a study done by the U.S. Department of Defense showed that most medications are safe after even 10 years of storage.

3khafra10yAre they effective, or just safe? If the efficacy reduces drastically after a year or two, it seems reasonable to call them "expired" after that point.
3rhollerith_dot_com10yAlthough I know that it is the standard terminology, I consider it actively misleading to call a pharmaceutical 'effective' just because it has the full amount of whatever it says on the label since most pharmaceuticals do not have net positive effect for most patients even when the best prescribing protocols are used by the best clinicians. Now to answer your question, the DoD study assessed both safety and how much was left of whatever was on the label -- both were satisfactory, except again for a few important exceptions like doxycycline.
3[anonymous]10yImportant if true. Evidence?
3rhollerith_dot_com10yMy evidence comes mostly from personal experience. I have more than one serious chronic illness, which have caused secondary effects like chronic depression which I have tried to treat with pharmaceuticals. Also, my attempts to treat the chronic illnesses have put my physiology into novel abnormal states that I sometimes needed pharaceuticals to get myself out of. For example, I once took too much vitamin D, and (since about a year's supply of D was being stored in my body) I had to go around wearing particularly dark sunglasses and avoiding the sun for about 12 months and also take an ACE inhibitor called Benicar to mitigate the adverse effects of the D. Point is I have taken many kinds of pharmaceuticals for many different purposes. Although most of my evidence comes from personal experience (and the experience of my friends, most of whom also have serious chronic illness), I have seen significant evidence in the form of arguments that cite studies that the most commonly used family of antidepressants, the SSRIs, have no positive effect on most of the depressed people who take them. I do not pay much attention to the medical literature, though, relatively to how much I pay attention to the stream of my treatment attempts, my symptoms, how they might be related and (vitally) how things (both natural human cognitive process as are discussed here and the disease process itself) might be biasing my perceptions of those things. Also there is a basic argument from information theory to the effect that health is maintained through an elaborate network of negative-feedback loops (maintaining what the medicos call "homeostatis") plus the observation that the most common way health is lost is when some of the feedback loops get stuck as a single setting plus the observation that it is vastly easier for a pharmaceutical or prospective pharmaceutical to freeze a feedback loop (in the "always-on" or "always-off" "position" usually) than to unfreeze it. We have a lot of know
4[anonymous]10yOk, thanks for answer. It is certainly true that people have a desire to believe that medicine works independent of its actual effectiveness; you only have to look back a few generations to when people were very serious about prescribing and using remedies that came down to various combinations of opiates, laxatives, and alcohol.
2rhollerith_dot_com10yScepticism of pharmaceuticals, BTW, is common among my chronically-ill friends and friends of friends. In other words, after 5 or 10 years of being sick and having tried various treatments, the sick people I know who were originally agnostic towards pharmaceuticals tend to have soured on pharmaceuticals. Most of them BtW still like non-herbal supplements, herbs being more like pharmaceuticals than they are like non-herbal supplements. A lot of them will not even try antidepressants, cholesterol-lowering drugs, non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs and (notoriously) muscle relaxants anymore when they are suggested by a doctor. Hormones in contrast are generally well regarded (but generic thyroxine is universally regarded as garbage). And most of the insomniacs I know are willing to keep on taking pharmaceuticals for that condition, and to keep on trying new ones, even when the results are far from ideal. EDIT: comment rewritten for intelligibility.
0Eugine_Nier10yRobin Hanson has blogged extensively on this topic. His most recent post here [] has links to a few others.
0wedrifid10y... That would be bad for business!
0[anonymous]10yAn instance where ignorance is actually rational. Wow.
0drethelin10yTo somewhat elaborate on this one, they also tell you to never use medication that's not prescribed to you by your doctor. I have used non-doctor antibiotics on many occasions with no trouble.

It doesn't look edible, or smell appetising, and isn't even especially harmful to ingest in most circumstances. Chances are that if I ever did want to eat silica gel, I'd probably have a damn good reason, and a lifetime of being told to not eat it is an obstacle to that.

People can be stupid. Shockingly stupid. Much like the infamous McDonald's coffee case (which turns out to be much more sensible and fair a verdict when you read the details), I would not be surprised if there were a reason for the warning.

Or do you read the Darwin Awards and think they... (read more)

I would not be surprised if there were a reason for the warning.

Silica gel packets look a lot like the sugar packets people use to sweeten coffee. Sugar packets are mostly handled by tired people. If silica gel wasn't clearly labelled, a misplaced packet could be mistaken for sugar and poured into a drink. And since most people don't know what the words "silica gel" mean, a direct description could be mistaken for branding.

9wilkox10yFrom the linked McDonald's coffee case article [] : Talk about a brilliant use of anchoring...
8Prismattic10yAnd if you think people are stupid... So, yeah, I made the mistake of leaving a shoebox lying around where my ferrets could get in it, without first checking for silica packets. I don't know whether one packet will do much to a human, but it's definitely enough to give a small mammal a bad case of diahrrea (apologies for the image).
7gwern10yYou were lucky. My family once left a sandal around and a ferret chewed on it, blocked her intestines up, and out of sentimentality we wound up paying the veterinarian like $1300 for the surgery.
4sixes_and_sevens10yThe Darwin Awards are (when not apocryphal) extreme outliers, not case studies of common events. I don't doubt the warning is there for a reason, as desiccant packaging is presumably not acausal in nature. My point was that, actually, you can ingest silica gel, especially in small quantities, without suffering any ill effects, but the warning is so consistent and prevalent that it would lead you to believe otherwise, and if I ever did have good reason to eat silica gel, the warning is a needless obstacle. Not that I foresee ever wanting to eat silica gel, but it does raise the question of how many similar events have assumed catastrophic outcomes that aren't warranted.
1Alicorn10yPeople can also have pica []. I think someone who felt inclined to eat things labeled "DO NOT EAT" would be more likely to seek medical attention than someone who felt inclined to eat unlabeled things.
1gwern10yYou would? What would your base rate for such people be? Whatever it is, I think it's probably swamped by all the kids of various ages that eat random things.
0Alicorn10yI don't know what the base rate is. I'm pretty sure I'd have gotten help if I'd been eating something labeled inedible, as opposed to ice.
1gwern10yAs a teenager, sure. But there are lots of little critters that can both read warnings and which won't be taken to the shrinks if they eat odd things. (Who among us can truthfully claim to have never eaten a single inedible or socially disapproved substance in their lifetime? If someone does, they probably ought to go ask their parents what they think about such claims of incredible oral continence.)

I was convinced via Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that I would die if I drank again (1) , and was sober for almost nine years. After having become sober early on (17 years old) and after only having used alcohol and drugs in a rather heavy manner for a little over a year, I often wondered whether I was really an alcoholic like is discussed in the Big Book (AA text), I finally decided to experiment.

I had one beer at a comedy club in a circumstance where I knew I'd just have one and self-observe. I noticed the feeling, but did not have compulsions to drink anymo... (read more)

2[anonymous]10yIt would be interesting to have some real data on consequences of AA style therapy vs. any other methods. I thought I have read something about that, but without remembering any source, well ... Have you had a look into such things once?
1jwhendy10yI'm in the same boat -- vaguely recall something, but not exactly what. And I can't remember what the study was trying to isolate. Googling is alcoholics anonymous effective [,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=cc25713483b3681] seems to suggest that it is not very effective, but that's not comparing it to other methods. Also, one would have to look at the end goal: abstinence or moderation. AA only has one option: abstinence. It does not allow for successful social drinking, but teaches only that an alcoholic cannot ever drink successfully. I believed that about myself for a long time. I now think that in my younger days I had a lot of emotional issues and few tools. Having leveled out significantly as I've aged and as I've seen an increase in how I cope, I started doubting that I would use substances in a crutch or escape-like manner... and so far my doubts appear to have been justified.

I don't think I have ever seen a packet of silica gel that didn't have "DO NOT EAT" printed on it, and it's always bemused me.

Perhaps they should make it "DO NOT EAT (serving suggestion)"?

"Don't swim directly after eating".

2Alicorn10yI've never had a problem with swimming (possibly due to small sample size), but I find that if I walk (or do other significant moving around) right after eating I get awful stomach cramps.

Getting colds. Getting dirty as kid.

My own way of dealing with electricity is a bit more cautious than necessary. But I like to prepare for some risks. In many cases there is no notable negative effect.

Steven Landsburg says he received such a warning as a child.

(He goes on to discuss belief in belief.)

I have heard so many warnings and horror stories about what happens if you reveal personal information on the internet that I'm overly paranoid about doing so. I get feelings of anxiety when talking about anything tangentially related to myself, even when there's no logical reason not to do so.

Chances are that if I ever did want to eat silica gel, I'd probably have a damn good reason, and a lifetime of being told to not eat it is an obstacle to that.

Or a reason in itself! :D

Do you have any examples [...]

It's not really what sixes_and_sevens had in mind, but Genesis 2:17 fits quite nicely. (Notice that in this story, what God says about the tree turns out to be false and what the snake says about it turns out to be true -- though it must be admitted that the outcome is pretty bad anyway.)

0MinibearRex10yMy understanding of that passage is that God didn't lie, he just failed to mention that if they didn't eat the apple, they would die as well. Didn't eating the apple just give them the knowledge of death? Or is my theology lacking?
5gjm10yThe lie isn't in saying "if you eat this, you will die", it's in saying "in the day that you eat it, you will die". Eating the fruit supposedly gave them knowledge of good and evil, but indeed knowledge of mortality might be part of what's meant by that. (But maybe not, since shortly afterwards God gets all worried that they might eat from another tree and become immortal.)
4Nornagest10yGood question, actually. I had understood the passage to mean that Adam and Eve were immortal until eating from the tree of knowledge, but now that I think about it that doesn't make much sense in light of Genesis 3:22 []. Seems more likely that it's equating innocence of death with freedom from death, which is a reasonably common motif in Abrahamic tradition; on its face, though, it's hard to deny that it's true at best from a certain rather tortured point of view.

My nephew ate some of the contents of a packet of silica gel in a shoe store while his mother was trying on shoes. He was 3 or 4 at the time. Knowing that silica gel is labled do not eat prompted us to take it seriously and call the poisons board to find out what to do. I took it particularly seriously because I have no idea how it absorbs moisture (eg if it changes volume) and there is usually a lot of moisture in my nephews stomach...

3[anonymous]10yAnd then what happened? Your story ends in a kind of cliffhanger. Did his swallowing the silica gel turn out to need attention or not?
2banana10yHe was fine. I think he spat most of it out. We found out what happened because we saw him trying to get it out of his mouth. The reason I gave the story was that while I would not eat it, the warning that it is poisonous did become relevant to me anyway.
[-][anonymous]10y 0

I hadn't heard about the nose picking study so I'm thrilled to hear about it! My toddler does this. I decided not to stop her.

My thought process went something like this:

1) She's not in immediate danger so I'll observe. (It's a different story for me if there are other adults nearby who don't share my inclination to observe first then react.)

2) Children learn by using all their senses. Smaller children learn by putting things in their mouth and tasting them.

3) Boogers, from my memory, are salty and a bit savory. Not foul tasting or bitter which one woul... (read more)

4Alicorn10yYou probably should teach her not to do it in public, though, for reasons unrelated to her physical health.
6glunkthunker10yI get what you are saying, but this can become problematic. It's actually a daily dilemma I face: Do I do what I think is best for my child or what is acceptable by mainstream standards.
1sixes_and_sevens10yMost of what gets caught by nasal mucus ends up in the digestive tract anyway. I once had an ENT specialist nurse tell me all the assorted bodily substances that find their way into your stomach without you even noticing. It's one of those things you just have to shrug off, I think.
0glunkthunker10yGood to know. It reminds me of advice I read somewhere that advised not putting anything on your skin that you would worry about eating as it was going to end up inside you anyway.
0[anonymous]10yI think you messed up the negatives there.
0[anonymous]10yI do not know whether it's a good idea, but I have to say, the taste is still as good as in the first days. I have never been left unsatisfied. I have absolutely no clue why I got into that habit, though. Probably eating chocolate at the same time, earlier on.

Do you have any examples of an authority figure, or a prevailing piece of cultural conditioning, giving warnings of dire outcomes you later discovered to be false, misleading or based on an agenda you were naive to at the time?

For example, the Y2K bug.

This sort of thing is common. The smoke detector principle explains why.

There's a parable about issuing excessive false warnings: The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

5thomblake10yHow does the 'Y2k bug' fall under this category? ISTM that if a lot of work had not been done, many important computer systems would have crashed / bugged out / lost data. Or are you referring to the folks who thought it would entail the end of the world?
0timtyler10y$308 billion is pretty widely regarded as an over-spend [] on a problem that fizzled out. According to the cite a Wall Street Journal editorial called the Y2K bug an "end-of-the-world cult" and the "hoax of the century".
3thomblake10yIt's really hard to tell whether money spent on prevention was worthwhile, after the fact. We would certainly be complaining if we'd spent $308 billion and everything did crash. The Wall Street Journal editorial would be more impressive to me if it wasn't written in 2003. If it's so bloody obvious to them, why wasn't that editorial written in 1996? The Y2K problem might have been solved in a more cost-effective manner if folks just fixed things as they broke, but lots of chaos would have ensued in the mean time. It's not like it was a non-problem. More like noticing you're spending more than you optimally should on car insurance.