Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bad Argument: Wishful Extrapolation, Testimonial, and Placebo Effect

English: A chocolate-flavored multi-protein nu...
English: A chocolate-flavored multi-protein nutritional supplement milkshake (right), consisting of circa 25g protein powder (center) and 300ml milk (left). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sometimes, the product in MLM, esp. nutritional supplements, are marketed one way that in no way can be proven. One company is known to claim their supplement "assists your body's natural release of stem cells" (huh?). Clearly, if they wish to not enrage the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) they need to be very careful about what they claim their product can do. In other words, if it's known to have a direct effect on the body, it's a drug, and therefore ILLEGAL TO MARKET (unless registered and underwent safety trials).

Not too long ago, FDA took the cosmetic maker Estee Lauder to court over some of their anti-aging cream claims that it affects the cells. THAT would make it a drug, not cosmetic.

Nutritional supplement companies only test to prove safety (i.e. at the concentration it's being sold it's not toxic) for their products. Unlike drug companies, nutritional supplement companies are NOT required to prove that product actually has any effect, and in fact, would prefer NOT to have any direct effect else they'll run afoul of the FDA.

Which is why you see all these "weasel wording". That stem cell "support" company clearly wants to say that if you take their stuff, your general stem cell level in your blood will increase, and therefore you'll be healthier. However, they need to word their ad very carefully, and the result is one vague sentence that allows you to interpret it any way you like. It's "You know what I mean".

Problem happens when this "you know what I mean" turns out to be unproven narrative that is wildly extrapolated from minimal research.

To give an example, a certain nutritional company is famous for having a line of products featuring "glyconutrients".

Scientifically, glybiology researchers call glyconutrients junk science, and one went as far as saying that they do nothing except contribute to flatulence.

Of course, this company will not cite the experts that are "against them". Instead, they found some researcher in Australia to do trials on mice, and the results are conflicting. First test shows no effect, and second test, done a few years later, shows positive effects.

You can guess what comes next: their sales affiliates tout the "effective" test results, without mentioning any of the controversy, and somehow wishes to imply that some test done on mice will translate to real benefits for people who buy this stuff now, when NO SUCH BENEFIT are proven.

I call this "wishful extrapolation": wishful thinking combined with extrapolation.

When you then throw in testimonials, like "I feel great after taking this" (implying that "it works") you end up with "woo". This "feel great" thing can be attributed to placebo effect, among other things. It's "anecdotal fallacy", in that only a few examples, NOT done using scientific methods as to rule out other causes, CANNOT prove whatever this product "works".

This is not limited to nutritional supplements, but it is most prevalent in the nutritional supplement industry, enough so that it was termed "the Big Placebo" (as counter to "Big Pharma" these nutritional supplement companies sometimes want to call the existing drug companies, implying some sort of "conspiracy"). You can see this from the simplest stuff like LifeWater, Brain Toniq, and such products for a few dollars, to bottles of special stuff that costs like 100 dollars due to some special ingredients (reishi mushrooms from Asia, or some custom blend of some fancy chemical). None of the products are proven to actually do anything. At best, some of the ingredients in these products are known to do something to test mice.

And of course, they want you to pay for the privilege of being their guinea pig... by convincing you it really does "work".

It's science denial disguised as fringe nutritional science.

Here's Michael Specter on Science Denial, a TED talk, explaining how denial of science leads to proliferation of these unproven nutritional supplements, among many other things, and that can have serious consequences to all of us.

P.S. When a promoter of such nutritional supplement products was shown a link to this video, instead of analyzing the contents, and respond with an honest review, he went on multiple ad hominem attacks, like "he doesn't know what he's talking about", "he's just a reporter", and so on and so forth.

If you sell nutritional supplements, you better know your stuff backwards and forwards, and be ready for some sharp questions from knowledgeable people.

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