Saturday, September 15, 2007

The tricky job of quackbusting

quackery ad
Just tell the truth and refute false myths without repeating them because our long-term memory is good at storing details but bad at keeping track of true and false. This weakness of human memory makes mythbusting look like a mission impossible, but just try the best you can. After all, it is a must to save people from losing money on dubious treatments or even be harmed by them.

Thanks to Skeptics Circle I came to know about a study presented by Mark Hoofnagle and with very detailed comments by Sandy Szwarc: Volunteers have been shown a flyer of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that has been edited in the conventional and serious way: presenting false myths about health, debunking them using scientific facts, and presenting the correct information. Only half an hour later, older people misremembered 28 percent of the myths as true, and three days later the fault rate went up to 40 percent. Younger people made the same faults but to a lesser extent. So we may assume that this is a specific weakness of human memory which is known to lose some of its power in old age. Best we can remember are the details, and much less we can remember if they are true or false. Even more: The more often we hear a myth or a lie, the more probably we are inclined to believe it. Every propaganda makes use of this fact.

A piece of mythbusting drill

I have been told that Med Journal Watch is doing a good job, but of course I am not yet satisfied. When I look at this old post I am not quite sure if I didn't contribute to myths about vitamins and arthritis. Today, I no longer would mention arthritis in the title but, for instance, something like "multivitamin claim refuted".

Anyway, this medical myth study has motivated me to do a little public training in order to improve my debunking fitness and as a finger exercise for the quackbusters among my readers. Look at the historical quack ad at the top of this post; our task is to write a retrospective blog post title and first sentence, assuming that the "great new invention" has been refuted by a controlled study. Let's have a try: Violet ray vibration useless (and not Violet ray vibration does not stop pain). A new device that is being sold to patients does not show the effect that has been claimed by the merchant (again avoiding to mention pain or other details). This is the outcome of a controlled study ... - only here I should bring up the details, for instance that the study has been done with patients suffering from pain and that there has been no difference compared to placebo. Then we conclude that the merchant makes false claims, that the device is useless, and that consumers should not lose their money on this hoax. Finally we give some good advice against pain.

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