Anecdotes and Truth Claims

My life is filled with claims that ______ (oh my goodness sooooooo many things)___ will change your life in some way or another, from relieving a headache to curing a disease, from financial blessing to weight loss.

I started to list these different, uh, “things,” but the list was soooooo long and I didn’t want to cause an uproar with those that believed in them.  But you can use your imagination.  They are everywhere, from markets to stores to advertising to social media.

I may be skeptical of many of these claims, but that doesn’t mean I’m closed minded to any possibility that they actually work.  There are ways, solid SOLID ways, to determine whether or not a drug or oil or crystal or religion or special water or different way of eating works.  It’s called the scientific method, especially that which is done through a double blind study of a large enough sampling group to be able to draw conclusive evidence with replicatable results and a control group.  Add an unbiased evaluation of the data, a margin of error, then a conclusion as to whether it works a significantly greater percentage of the time than chance would predict, and once can conclude that the product does what it claims.

That seems incredibly daunting, so let me just explain why saying, “I put this stuff on my arm and that fat melted!” doesn’t prove anything about the product or your arm.

This is why an anecdote (even one with before and after pictures) doesn’t work.  An example:

Jill has had a severe headache every day of her life for the past 3 years.  Jill has tried many things, but nothing really helps.  Jill starts taking a magic pill every morning, and her headaches disappear.  Assuming it was because of the pill, Jill starts telling all of her friends about this pill and about how great it was for her headaches.

The problem:  The same day that Jill took the magic pill, the following things occurred:

  • Because she woke up late, she took a quick 3 minute shower instead of her usual 15
  • Without her awareness, she ate an omelet made with organic instead of regular spinach
  • She didn’t have time for toast or oatmeal, so she ate 15 g less sugar than usual
  • She drank her morning coffee 30 minutes later than usual
  • She used a different brand of creamer for her coffee
  • Her husband was the one took the kids to school this morning
  • She wore an amethyst necklace
  • She started a new prayer journal
  • She sat at red lights 30 seconds less than usual on her way to work, reducing her exposure to exhaust fumes
  • Climate change
  • Environment change
  • Lifestyle change
  • Her brand of popcorn stopped using diacetyl
  • Saturn started retrograde
  • A child was shot in West Africa

And this is all within the first hour.  We’ve still got 24  more to go.  And this doesn’t even begin to account for the hundreds of millions of other tiny variances that occurred within this hour, things that we cannot see or are too unimportant for our conscious mind to observe.  The last bullet point illustrates this — there are infinite number of events outside of our control and awareness that still affect us.  This is the Butterfly Effect .

But, perhaps one of the most important factors that made this day different than the others was Jill’s awareness that she took the pill.  Regardless of whether or not she believed the pill would work (which would, in and of itself, suggest higher inconclusivity), her mind cannot escape this new knowledge that she had partaken of a new substance that claimed to help headaches.  That knowledge alone can be powerful enough to produce uncanny results.  It’s a scientific phenomenon called the placebo effect .

So.  Let’s be willing to learn, discover, test, and become a healthier, happier species.  But let’s do it honestly, truthfully, and seeing in clarity.