Health or Hype
by W. R. Shaw
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With all the talk about alternative medicine and nutritional supplements promising to keep you looking and feeling younger and healthier, how can you separate the real information from the hype? Learn to recognize what students of logic call "logical fallacies" and you won't be fooled by the hucksters. Here are a few of the most common.
The Appeal to Authority: Instead of presenting evidence, the advertisement tells you to buy the product because a celebrity or authority figure uses it. Keep in mind that even if the authority figure has a PhD, he's not an expert outside of his own field. After all, you wouldn't want the best lawyer in the country performing surgery on you.
The Appeal to the Masses: When your mother asked the wise question, "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off too?" she was refusing to fall for your attempt at manipulating her with the Appeal to the Masses. This Appeal claims that hundreds of people can't be wrong. The fact is that hundreds of people can be and often are wrong. Just because they were all fooled, doesn't mean you have to be.
The Appeal to Fear: This one suggests that failing to buy the product will have dire consequences. "Don't suffer with colds all winter! Buy our product." "Don't let this stolen credit card nightmare happen to you! Use our special card." This is not evidence. It's a threat. The advertiser might as well say, "If you don't buy our product, we'll come over and beat you up." Don't fall for it.
The Appeal to Science: This one sounds convincing to folks who aren't well-versed in science. The advertiser claims that "scientific studies" support his claim. This is nothing but a smokescreen unless you know who conducted the studies, exactly how they were conducted, and what the exact results were. Improperly conducted studies tell us nothing. Studies conducted by the company trying to sell the product may be seriously biased. And without fully understanding the results of the studies, it's impossible to judge the claim, even if the study is legitimate. A good example of this is the case of the herb Gingko Biloba. Legitimate studies showed it to be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of certain very specific memory disorders. The same studies showed that it had no effect at all on individuals with normal brain function. Nonetheless, it is still pushed by unscrupulous marketers as a memory and brain function enhancer.
The Appeal to Tradition: This fallacy is turning up more and more these days, used by scammers cashing in on the New Age beliefs about returning to the "ancient wisdom" of anyone from Ancient Egyptians to mythical Atlanteans. If it was used by the ancients, it must be powerful indeed. When you hear this Appeal, think of one word, trepanation.
This was the traditional means of treating headaches in many cultures. It consisted of drilling a hole in the skull, sans anesthesia, to release the evil spirits of the headache. Many traditional herbal remedies are based in fact and many of our modern medications are derived from them. But don't be misled into assuming a remedy is effective just because it is ancient or traditional.
It is not feasible to include all of the possible logical fallacies in a brief article, but learning to avoid these common ones and to pay close attention to what the claimant is presenting as evidence will go a long way toward protecting your health, and your wallet. Don't have time to investigate every claim personally? Visit the searchable database at QuackWatch.com for a quick assessment of the evidence on a wide variety of alternative health and nutrition issues.
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