How We Fool Ourselves into the Quick-Fix by Lack of Critical Thinking
The other day at a networking meeting an acquaintance told me about the “Chocolate Diet” where eating chocolate causes you to lose weight. He was waxing quite enthusiastically about it. I was more dubious.
It turns out that the “study” behind this amazing result was a deliberate fraud initiated by a journalist to demonstrate how easily the media and the general populace are credulously duped into believing anything that promises quick rewards.
An actual study was performed but by the use of a small sample size and large number of items included in the study a statistical anomaly occurred which showed the apparent linkage between dark chocolate consumption and weight loss. Although the reported effect was a merely 10% – not exactly something to sink your teeth into – the media went wild over it.
The results were published in a journal that was known for taking money and publishing without the normal peer-review process which usually would have caught such transgressions. Through the use of artfully prepared press releases by the authors the news media picked up the story and suddenly millions of people took up this new, simple and tasty way to lose weight.
Nobody in the media questioned the work, nobody looked into the (bogus) “institute” that published the findings. Nobody looked into the details of the study to verify that it made sense. Nobody used any type of critical thinking to verify the veracity of these claims.
The reality is that no special diet or supplement or energy-enhancing pill or cleanse has any real effect (except perhaps a placebo effect at best). There is no magic or super food that will save us from our sins of excess or from our metabolisms. Like many things connected with the real world it is quite difficult to separate something substantive from background noise.
Cause and effect are often inverted or not present. Sometimes things just occur together by chance. The human body is an extraordinarily complex system to use as a laboratory and even painstakingly conducted experiments often end with contradictory results.
To just announce that ingesting one food is going to save us from ourselves is ludicrous. It is fodder for the hypesters and those who benefit monetarily by using emotion to override common sense. It’s a great way to sell magazines and to get people to buy things but it is not a very good way to ensure a healthy body or long life.
We rely on the media and our friends and family to help us sort out truth from fiction. What to buy or not buy. A sign of a desirable product is the buzz or word of mouth that virally draws customers into the store to buy. Marketers and others who have something to promote take advantage of that fact whether the product actually has any merit or not. As consumers we all need to find a way to ask the right questions and, as always, if it sounds too good to be true then it is.
For a discussion about how statistics and statisticians are so easily confused see Statistics Done Wrong, The woefully complete guide by Alex Reinhart
Alchemy Business Consulting
May 29, 2015
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