How Billy Mays Reinforced my Critical Thinking Skills

Without an ounce of skepticism, I excitedly ripped open the cardboard box. I sifted through bubble wrap and invoices, advertisements and instructions.

And there, lying on a bed of fluffy white packing peanuts, its sharp edges wrapped in cardboard with the full promise of taking the hard work out of yard work, sat The Awesome Auger.

Hard to believe considering my suspicions about the potentially undeclared financial relationship between colgate and its agreeable dentists, hunh?

Yeah, I know. But I am semi-addicted to infomercials. Shiny.

I don’t know what it was about Billy Mays, but that guy made me BELIEVE. And oxyclean does work.

So when we needed to dig fence posts? Really, the awesome auger sold itself. Note: I was pregnant at the time, which is my only excuse for being twirled into a fantasy about a hand drill and THREE augers for just $19.95.

The awesome auger was not, in any way, awesome. It doesn’t even dig holes big enough for tomato plants. Currently, I use the blades as plant stakes.

But even though Australian accents make me pause–infomercial or not–the trust broken by the awesome auger reminds me– damn I want a ShamWow— to not believe.

I’m a skeptic.

So when my city’s annual drinking quality report came in the mail– and who doesn’t want to read about fecal coliform during lunch– I opened it right away.

I started off skeptical, because think about it– what are government reports other than a giant infomercial? Mind you, without a Billy Mays, or an Australian.

Oh, look how great all the results appear to be, but of course they don’t define the collection methods. And every March the city stops adding ammonia, which is why the water tastes like chlorine. But why is ammonia stopped for just March? If the ammonia isn’t required for water safety in March, is it necessary the other 11 months of the year? What the hell is going down in March every year?

But what really threads my skeptic needle are the layman’s examples (e.g., a single penny in $10,000 to define parts per million) for complicated stuff.

You might think, “A penny? Well, a penny is nothing- I won’t even bend over to pick up a penny.

Well, what if each walmart employee stole one penny every day for a year? In the US, Walmart employs about 1.4 million people, and suddenly one penny per person has morphed into 5.1 million dollars.

I always bend over for pennies. And I never take what I read as truth.

But at some point, even Skeptical Me has a choice: either learn about waste water treatment practices, or… god, anything else. But letting it go doesn’t mean I trust them not to lie to me.

It just means that Brita and Pure stand to make a much larger profit off the quest for safe drinking water. And I found mold growing in a new Pure water filter once. I’ve yet to smell mold coming straight from the tap.

Zach, genuinely curious about why I’m mumbling about water, and Elliot asking what’s fecal, Mom leads to a teachable moment.

After seeing the word safe in the first paragraph, Zach looks reassured.

Z: “Well, it’s safe, right?”
Me: “Why do you think it’s safe”.
Z: “They say ‘no violations’, right here.”
Me: “Who are they? Why do you believe them?”
Z: “Um. Uh. They are them? Don’t you believe them?”
Me: “Not necessarily.”

E: “Fecal means POOP.”

I almost went on a long diatribe about how government agencies can be infiltrated by private industry, who are looking at profits, not people.

So. Very. Close.

Instead, I used a simpler example that didn’t involve intimate knowledge of water dwelling microbes.

Thanks to the Corn Refiners Association commercial about high fructose corn syrup— shown during a children’s cartoon, on a children’s network– Zach almost tripped over himself to inform me that high fructose corn syrup is “just corn, Mom!” So we’ve already had a conversation about why a company might stretch the truth (or totally lie) to make money.

And that’s how a bitter skeptic raises future conspiracy theorists critical thinkers.