Sneaky Health Fallacies
(January 12, 2021)
Back in days of olde, ye, even prior to those of my misspent youth, I had a high-school English class module somewhat ponderously entitled "Persuasion and Propaganda". The teacher introduced it to us with the statement that "most of what you learn in high school is going to be useless to you later on; this won't be". And, lo and behold, he was right on both counts.
A big chunk of the class was spent learning to identify logical fallacies, which can be defined as commonly used techniques of argument used to fool people. I think this is a good time to go over a few of them. The ability to spot logical fallacies is a very handy tool to have whenever you're trying to evaluate health information (or any other information, actually) that is coming your way.
What is especially useful about being able to identify logical fallacies is that you don't necessarily have to know much of anything about the subject under discussion. It is brutally hard to make informed decisions about health and/or medical care when you are not well-educated in that area, and no one without a health care degree is. When you start getting into areas of specialized medicine, even a physician who isn't trained in that field may not qualify as an expert, and answers are often far from cut and dried even for one who is. This is a cruel thing for anyone who's just trying to live their life, but no one said life was going to be fair. (Actually, a lot of people do say that. But that's another subject altogether.)
When you don't have the informational background that an expert has, every piece of information that comes your way looks the same as every other. It all turns into a big muddle where you not only can't tell what's important and what isn't, but also even whether some piece of information is factual or not. So out of sheer mental and emotional overload you often end up just picking someone you trust, and going with them.
I've talked earlier about criteria for deciding which authorities you can trust, and some of them are obvious. Felons and people who are trying to sell you a miracle cure that they discovered in their backyard are not especially good candidates, for example. But beyond that? Well, you can look at HOW an argument is being made. If someone is using a bunch of sneaky logic- and evidence-evading assertions to make their case, the chance of them being a liar (or, more charitably, having no real evidence to ground their opinion on) is pretty good. Being able to identify fallacies is useful in deciding on the reliability of both arguer AND their argument.
I'm going to highlight a few of the logical fallacies that I see most commonly in presentations of health care 'information'. Any time you are trying to make up your mind about something, you need to have your antennae up high and quivering in readiness to identify propaganda techniques.
--Correlation and Causation
"Ever since I started taking Super Duper Immune Complex every day, I never get colds." If two things are associated, especially if one happens before the other, it's easy to assume that the first one caused the later one. If the two items seem to be logically related, it's even easier to fall for this one. Just because two things tend to occur together doesn't mean that they have squat to do with each other.
Many disorders are either self-limited (meaning they go away on their own) or come and go or change in intensity, so even if you think you observe this to occur, you might be all wet. Additionally, people who do one healthy thing tend to do a LOT of healthy things, or make several positive changes at once. Whoever it was who was taking the Complex cited above probably also started washing their hands more and stopped kissing their dog at the same time.
That example above can also be used to illustrate
People talk about what helped them and what doesn't all the time. When your co-worker tells you, "I had that exact same thing two months ago, and this is what fixed it", it's interesting but most people know to take it with at least a grain of salt. (How does S/HE know what he had was the same as what you've got? Silly.) But it's pernicious when it's used by someone who should be presenting you with actual evidence. In testimonials for health products it both gets the manufacturer off the hook for lying ("no, no, the speaker really believed what s/he was saying!") and suggests that the listener must be a bad person for disbelieving someone with so many attractive children and dogs frolicking around them. (I know I've mentioned this before, recently; it's just that it's relevant and I got all triggered by it again recently as well.)
I can see that this is going to get pretty long, so I'm going to stop here and continue it next time. Just for giggles, if you have a favorite fallacy (I'll tell you what mine is), send it along and I'll work it in somehow.
--dr. diane holmes
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