Scrutinizing Health Testimonials (June 30, 2020)
A couple of weeks ago I was dumping on Health Testimonials here. I will continue to do so.
To briefly recap, I said:
-- That Health Testimonials are used to sell junk because it's natural for people to turn up the empathy and turn off their bs alarms whenever they hear a story from a "real person";
-- That because said bs alarms are therefore not in operation, testimonials tend to keep you from asking hard questions about whatever miracle the testifier is celebrating, in particular whether or not there is any scientific validity for the treatment so fervently attested to; and
-- That they are just plain obnoxious because they are full of shamelessly gushy emotion and excess sentimentality. ... Ok, I didn't actually say that, but for purposes of brevity here we'll just pretend that I did. Because they are.
And finally, I said that whatever treatment is being sold with that kind of persuasion is not necessarily worthless, but that the fact that an emotional (rather than rational) appeal is being used as the primary selling point to a sick and frightened person is morally questionable and throws the entire matter under a cloud. So that is the first thing to look for -- how much of the ad (don't forget that testimonials ARE ads, no matter how charming the speaker) is devoted to yanking at your heartstrings? If the answer is "most of it", that's the first bad sign.
Another dubious indication is related to the first one, and that is the use of excessive, stupefying, over-the-top jargon. "Paradigm-breaking" "once in a century" "miracle cure" "scientists are astounded" "doctors don't want you to know" -- you get the drift.
Once you're through dissecting the story, take a look at the science that is presented. There almost certainly will be some science presented somewhere. People respect science (or they like to think that they do, anyway), and so it gets at least a quick nod in any ad. So when you finally unearth that little nut of evidence somewhere inside that big old shell of a story, work it over thoroughly.
1) If there's no specific study mentioned in support of their assertions (meaning they aren't telling you where else you can look to validate their claims), you can pretty much bag it right there. You can also safely dismiss the study if it was done by the manufacturer/seller of the thing.
2) If there's a legit-sounding study mentioned, but it was published in some (usually online) journal you never heard mentioned before, that's another very dubious sign. You can check this out pretty quickly, and if you're planning on spending some money or foregoing another treatment, you'd better.
There are actual fake journals
plus there are a lot of online journals that will "publish" any study that's sent to them for a fee.
You can look some of them up here:
Or you can ask Mr. Google about the journal. Any phonies will usually show themselves to be such pretty quickly.
You see, you can't trust a publication of any type unless and until it has been around a while. If a publication can stick around for a couple of decades, it has a very valuable reputation, and it doesn't take much to lose it. So in the case of a scientific journal, in order to guard its reputation for accuracy it will do at least some actual evaluation of material sent to it before it publishes it. Then, if something turns out to be fake or questionable down the road, which has happened to both the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet recently, they'll scream the fact that they were scanned to the high heavens -- they won't grin weakly and pretend that it never happened. So you know where you stand with them.
If someone claims that they couldn't do a good experiment or get their study published because the mean old pharmaceutical companies are suppressing them, please don't buy it. There are plenty of respectable people with good reputations who hate pharmaceutical companies -- enough so that anyone who is really on to something will find a sponsor and real support, and they will NOT be working out of an Airstream trailer in their backyard.
3) If there's just one study and you haven't dismissed it out of hand, it isn't enough to rely upon (even if you can trust that it's honest) IF:
--It is an "in vitro" study. That's useless. That means "in glass" and it means whatever the thing is was looked at in cell culture, which doesn't tell you anything except that you might want to study it some more. Or:
--It was tested only in animals. Or:
--If it's a study with people, how many were in it? How long did it go on? Eight people for two weeks is not a study, it's part of the job description for the office staff.
4) There's no study there at all, but there's a "scientific authority" quoted in the piece in support of the product. This is my favorite fraud of all and it's the easiest one to check. Look him -- or her -- up on Mr. Google.
Degrees alone are not good enough. There are endless idiots around with advanced degrees. At a minimum, your authority needs to have worked IN the field in question, preferably at a relevant and respectable institution, for a reasonable amount of time. Physicists cannot comment on nutritional supplements, and biochemists have no idea what a new piece of exercise equipment will do. And half of all M.D.s graduated in the bottom of their class, so don't fall for that either.
Additionally, if the "expert's" resume states that they "spent five years in the Far East studying traditional cures", no they did not; more likely they were in prison or drinking heavily during that time period. If they are a "frequent guest on (talk radio show)", they aren't good at anything but talking. If they were "arrested for fraud", well, if Taco Bell wouldn't hire them, I think you can disregard their health care information as well. And finally, any testimonial by any athlete is completely worthless.
5) The testimonial/article has a link right in it to buy the stuff. That's because a lot of "informative" articles are disguised ads, written just to promote the substance discussed. They are the written version of those "news" stories that are really just ads, prepared by corporations to look like news items and given free to news stations that are trying madly to fill up their time. You knew about those, right? If the article is clearly hawking its subject matter, red flag.
6) If it's a commercial for a prescription medication, that's easy. They follow a general pattern besides a simple testimonial. This SNL skit will be more helpful in depicting it than my clumsy words ever could. Just be sure you send the kids out of the room first.
Also, and this is key, don't forget to read (or listen to) all that stuff they're reciting at top speed while the happy children and dogs are playing in the sun on the screen (or in the case of this skit, while The Rock is beating up on his doctor). They aren't doing that just to save money by cutting down on commercial time. There is some scary stuff in those disclaimers.
Maybe this was too long, but I wanted to give you a few guidelines to help you make up your own mind, which in the end is the purpose of these missives I keep churning out. Don't be fooled, people. Life itself is a miracle. That the human race has lasted even this long is another. There are plenty of things to be awed at out there. Fake medical miracles are not one of them.
--dr. diane holmes
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