Episode 9 − Health Claims: Making sense of alternative medicine

Episode 9 − Health Claims: Making sense of alternative medicine


In the last episode, we spoke about the supernatural,
so aura photography, past-life regressions, horoscopes, chiropractic. We came up with
some more natural explanations for why these things are happening. We spoke about why people
believe what they’re told and why people see what they expect to see. There were a whole
bunch of them: Barnum statements, multiple end points, one-sided events, the confirmation
bias, and the list goes on. This week we’re going to turn our attention
to health claims specifically. Again, last week we saw somebody who claims to be able
to heal people through touch and put that prayer energy into physical batteries. We
also saw a chiropractor who claimed to be able to heal a whole range of ailments, just
by tweaking a little nerve in the back of your spine. We could, again, spend episode
after episode, week after week, going though and debunking each of these claims: acupuncture,
homeopathy, chiropractic, detox diets, blood diet. Any diet that you can imagine is usually
a kind of… Magnet therapy. Magnet therapy is another one. The list goes
on. But we’re more interested in why people believe these things, not just debunking a
lot of the stuff that’s out there. That’s right. Last week we also talked about—well,
throughout the course, I suppose, we’ve been talking about the power of expectation: how
what we see, hear and remember are all shaped by our experiences. That’s true. When you
see what you expect to see, there are limits to that. I can’t, for example, see a unicorn
appear in front of me even though I really, really want to. Instead, you need to have
some sort of ambiguous information. It needs to be a dark room or a noisy sort of environment
where you can bend this noisy information to almost contort into the thing that you
expect to see. That’s perception, but it also works for beliefs as well, right? If I were to ask you or somebody why they
believe in acupuncture and the power of acupuncture in curing depression or something, it’s very
unlikely that someone is going to say, “I believe it because I believe it,” without
any sort of basis for it. Instead, they’re going to probably cite some experience that
they had—or not even that they had—something that their family member had, or a friend
had, or even seeing it happen on a television show, or some expert or alleged expert said
that it’s going to work. Then they’re going to look at the evidence for that, that sort
of vague experience that they had, as evidence that this thing was effective. Also notice, when we were travelling around
the MindBodySpirit Festival, a lot of the health claims or the benefits that each of
these people were making reference to weren’t things like open wounds or broken limbs or
skin disease. They were things like well-being or integration or balance—very vague, ambiguous
statements that you can do a really good job at contorting to your expectations, to see
what you expect to see. That’s one of the mechanisms that we talked
a lot about last week, and it’s really prevalent when it comes to health claims, these very
ambiguous statements that people make that you can contort into your expectations. One really good one is the Rorschach inkblot
test. People may have seen this. This is a test developed a long time ago where you show
people ink blots and you ask the patient what they see in these ink blots. They can say
everything from animals or a bat or a butterfly or people having intercourse or something,
depending on the nature of that person’s personality or motivations. Now a lot of what they see or the claims of
these tests seem to be no better than a lot of the claims that people were making at the
MindBodySpirit Festival in terms of the scientific rigor for these things. It’s no better than
interpreting somebody’s dreams on the basis of what they see in these ink blots. It’s
a really nice example of the role of ambiguity and how you can contort your expectations
to coincide with what you expect to see when it comes to health claims. Yes. I think one of the biggest mechanisms
that’s operating in health claims is regression towards the mean. We’ve spoken about this
a couple of times before. In episode seven, if you remember, we had our two people that
were taking an exam. One of them did really, really poorly, and one of them did really,
really well. Now that’s likely a result of multiple independent error factors. The person
who didn’t do particularly well in the exam, lots of things were working against him. It
was ganging up. The person who did particularly well in the exam, lots of random independent
multiple factors were ganging up on that person for them to do really well. Now I think this is happening when we’re sick
in health claims. Think about it. When you are sick, you are at your absolute worst.
Your health is in decline, and about the time that you start to seek a traditional or alternative
or even medical treatment, you are at your worst. There are lots of random multiple things
happening to push you down. About that time that you decide that you need to do something
about this is the time that things are going to start moving in the opposite direction.
Things will stop going against you and might start moving towards the mean, and you might
start feeling better. Your body is amazing at healing yourself with sometimes no interventions
at all. If you have a treatment at that time, when
you’re at your absolute worst, it’s going to appear as though that treatment is the
thing that is causing you to get better. Remember, we spoke about post hoc ergo propter hoc “after
this, because of this.” We have this treatment here, and we attribute that our feeling better,
our getting better, to that treatment, rather than just regression towards the mean. That’s
probably a phenomenon that’s operating a lot in medical treatments. That’s related to another effect called “the
placebo effect” that many people are familiar with. I spoke to Shep Siegel about this, and
he’s had decades of research into this, and here’s what he had to say.

One Reply to “Episode 9 − Health Claims: Making sense of alternative medicine”

  1. Sure, there really is a lot one could debunk, but everything that you haven't already been taught in your how-many years? Good on ya for drinkin' the Koolade

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