It’s surprisingly hard work to find good pseudoscience, particularly gadget-related pseudoscience. Herbal remedies ripe for mockery abound, but there’s not much gadgetry involved. Rather than hunt all over the series of tubes that is the internets for great gadgetry, we’ve decided to focus on a common theme in all of pseudoscience: the anecdote. According to wikipedia…
Anecdotal evidence is an informal account of evidence in the form of an anecdote, or hearsay. The term is usually used in contrast to scientific evidence, especially evidence-based medicine, which are types of formal accounts. Anecdotal evidence is often unscientific because it cannot be investigated using the scientific method. Misuse of anecdotal evidence is a logical fallacy and is sometimes informally referred to as the “person who” fallacy (“I know a person who…”; “I know of a case where…” etc.) The problem with arguing based on anecdotal evidence is that anecdotal evidence is not necessarily typical; only statistical evidence can determine how typical something is.
When used in advertising or promotion of a product, service, or idea, anecdotal evidence is often called a testimonial. The term is also sometimes used in a legal context to describe certain kinds of testimony. Psychologists have found that people are more likely to remember notable examples than the typical example. This is why casinos usually try to draw attention to someone winning; this tends to make everyone else think that they are much more likely to win than they are. Another example is the fact that people are often afraid to fly after a major airline accident, even though flying is statistically similar in risk to driving.
Being the educated medical/scientific audience that you are, it’s important to recognize and communicate to the masses that testimonials do not necessarily reflect statistical reality. All too often, we see comments of such value as:
I think that whoever wrote this webblog should get a life. I have used this technology and it does work great. so there!!
So there, indeed. Unfortunately “John Hopkins” didn’t really describe much about his conditions or where he received treatment. A good testimonial (anecdote) needs more details. For instance, we have this beauty from last week’s Pseudoscience Friday field trip to eBay…
I DON’T KNOW IF THIS IS OF ANY USE TO YOU AND I WISH I HAD WAITED BEFORE LEAVING FEEDBACK BECAUSE THESE MAGNETS ARE AMAZING THIS IS FACT. I WENT TO LAZIC VISION BECAUSE MY EYESIGHT HAS BECOME SO POOR LATELY, THEY SAID TRHEY WERE UNABLE TO HELP ME BECAUSE MY PROBLEM WAS TO DO WITH MUSCLES IN MY EYES AND AGE RELATED. IT HAS BEENTWO WEEKS SINCE I STARTED USING THE MAGNETS AND TODAY I WAS ABLE TO THROW AWAY MY GLASSES.(I HAVE BEEN USING THEM FOR 2 YEARS) I HAVE NOTICED A STEADY BUT DEFINATE IMPROVEMENT IN MY VISION AND AS I SAID NO LONGER NEED READING GLASSES BECAUSE I CAN SEE AGAIN WITHOUT THEM. MY HUSBAND HAS JUST BEGUN WEARING READING GLASSES AND RECENTLY SPENT £200 ON NEW PRESCRIPTION LENSES HE SAID IF MY EYES CONTINUE TO IMPROVE HE WILL GET SOME MAGNETS TOO. HE SAID £12 FOR PERFECT VISION IS A BARGAIN IN ANY ONES BOOK. CANNOT WAIT TO SEE IF ANYTHING ELSE GETS BETTER I WONDER IF I WILL BE ABLE TO CANCEL MY FACE LIFT SCHEDULED FOR AUGUST. THANK YOU ONCE AGAIN FOR THIS PRODUCT I CANNOT PRAISE THEM ENOUGH, IF MY EYES ARE THE ONLY IMPROVEMENT THEY ARE WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD. TO GET TO MY QUESTION. THE MAGNETS ARE TOO BIG FOR MY FINGERS SO I HAD TO PAD THEM OUT WITH PLASTERS DO THEY COME IN A SMALLER SIZE.
It goes on from there. The all-caps and inclusion of all sorts of outside information definitely suggest that this is someone’s grandmother. Adding extra detail to the testimonial helps create the complete character in the reader’s mind. As a septugenarian venturing into the largest marketplace on earth, how could you not believe such a story?
…and that’s the problem. Patients will come into your clinic armed with all sorts of “My sister/aunt/mother/husband/cousin/landlord/shaman had [insert treatment] and it didn’t work, so I don’t want it either” arguments. It’s your job to advocate the best research-supported treatments around, and more importantly to convince the patient that unfortunately, a number of factors might have contributed to their sister/aunt/mother/husband/cousin/landlord/shaman’s experience, and that the best evidence available points towards this treatment.
Come across something particularly fishy? Particularly deserving of being brought to the center of the internet town square to be tarred and feathered? Drop us a line at tips-at-www.medgadget.com