One of the problems with publically accepted beliefs is the mechanism by which those beliefs come about.
Someone tells us that since they’ve been taking bee pollen supplements, they feel great “more energy, more vitality” they say.
You decide to take their anecdote as a good reason to try some yourself. For some reason, you feel more energetic and vital and you tell other people about it. The advertisements on TV say the same things as your friend said, only instead of merely “more energy, more health” their ads say “boosts the immune system”. “Well that makes sense,” you think to yourself, “I haven’t been sick for a while, this bee pollen stuff is fantastic”. And so forth.
Any positive claim about bee pollen becomes easier to accept and the odd negative story “I wasted my bloody money on the stuff, – it did nada” seem to fade into the background. You are now a believer. But is this really a solid basis in which to form a belief on? Many people would say yes, and it is this very trait in all of us that is cleverly exploited by peddlers of nonsense.
The importance of scientific testing
So what about science? “What about it?” You say, “I feel better, I feel great, what more evidence do I need?” If we set the standard of evidence at, “well I feel more energy” we are not doing ourselves any favours. If it was good enough, we wouldn’t need a methodology and standards of practice to filter biases, emotional content that distorts effects, separate out the placebo effect and ensure the test results have statistical relevance. Besides, anecdotal evidence is heavily influenced by pre-existing ideas, biases and cognitive foibles such as confirmation bias.
As I sit here writing this, an advertisement for “woolrest biomag” is playing on TV, and lo and behold there is a woman saying she is going to get a biomag bed underlay because her parents raved about it (btw… magnetic therapies do not work).
The problem with anecdotal evidence
Marketers love anecdotal evidence. It’s personal and people can claim anything. Unfortunately, when it comes to the crunch, anecdotal claims are useless as evidence. Anecdotes can be useful in indicating further research, but that is where their usefulness starts and finishes.
I don’t blame people for relying on seconhand information like this. It often comes from people we trust and in most cases people don’t have the time to geek around looking at clinical trial data to see whether the snake oil claims have any foundation in reality.
Which brings me to my point. A common theme among “Alternative” medicine practitioners and peddlers of unscientific wares is the sole reliance on anecdotal claims, discredited research and ideology (the notion that Big Pharma is out to get us all for profit).
Special pleading – keep your science away from my beliefs
What all of these forms of claims have in common is the complete detachment from reality-based testing (does this actually work) and thus, the promotion of a belief system over actual results.
Manufacturers of many health “supplements” and all homeopaths, naturopaths and acupuncturists (to name but a few) use these forms of argument to avoid the most important question: does this work and has it been proven to work absolutely in a clinical trial setting, replicated by other researchers?
Usually the focus will be on one researcher who carried out a bad study because of their own bias. In some cases, which I will cover in forthcoming posts, the information disseminated by the proponents of crap-based medicine is merely the pre-scientific (pseudoscientific) version… the “ancient wisdom” or original ideas of the founder. This is particularly so with homeopathy and acupuncture, which I will put the skeptical spotlight on in the next couple of posts.
*NOTE: Crap-Based Medicine is a technical term used on the Science-Based Medicine Blog to distinguish scientifically verifiable (therefore safe and effective) treatments and pharmaceutical drugs from untested nonsense.