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“The plural of anecdote is not data” . . . part 1 of 4

Robyn Openshaw - Jun 30, 2008 - This Post May Contain Affiliate Links

I’m still laughing since I read that most excellent quote–thanks, Katie!

When I’m teaching my college students elemental data analysis and research, I tell them my two pet peeves about research in general, but particularly in the field of health and nutrition.

I say that I am completely frustrated with medicine.   The vast majority of research inside modern medicine is bought and paid for, motive tainting it to the point of near uselessness.   A profit motive is often counter to the interests of the public health (a flaw in the capitalist economic system, not that I’m advocating for any other system).   Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of prescription drugs.   The problem is highlighted by the 2007 release of a study of the world’s 20 largest pharmaceutical companies (often referred to as Big Pharma): they spend 2:1 on marketing (drug pushing) versus research and development!

On the other end, as Katie’s quote alludes to, “alternative health” doesn’t have big bucks backing it, so those who market natural remedies often rely on case studies.   One person, or even ten, saying their constipation improved taking X or Y herb?   That’s not compelling research.   Worst of all is the fact that many health/nutrition products are marketed by people with little knowledge base (in direct sales and network marketing models).   Those selling many products these days rely on nothing more than anecdotes, or “testimonials.”      


Their selling sometimes looks a lot like a revivalist religious meeting, and that turns me cold because it’s emotion based rather than logic based.   Look at the folks claiming their gout or their psoriasis or their athsma is better because of Product X, at those meetings, and tell me: do they look truly healthy?   Can you really believe that a diet of hot dogs and potato chips, with a little pasteurized miracle mangosteen juice or a pill of  some kind, is the answer to all health problems?  Do a product’s claims fit with what you already know, or is it just wishful thinking and preying on the desperation of so many people in poor health?

I see the problems with  common reasoning flaws on a micro level, constantly.   Three examples tomorrow.

Posted in: Health Concerns, Lifestyle

5 thoughts on ““The plural of anecdote is not data” . . . part 1 of 4”

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  1. Anonymous says:


    You are so right on with what you say about medicine and Big Pharma in particular. Two years ago I attended a conference that the American Medical Writers Association was having because I was interested in becoming a medical writer for Big Pharma (the carrot was the money). What I discovered was disgusting. These people don’t seem to think it unethical to write FDA regulatory writing on pharmaceutical drugs in such a way as to make their flaws look minor.

    Basically, the trick is to tell the truth but manipulating it so that it’s OK or missed in the formal blah blah blah that goes with scientific writing. How the FDA can’t see this is beyond me….but then again, all Federal agencies probably have a backlog they’ve got to review quickly or else suffer public anger (fueled probably by bought politicians).


  2. Anonymous says:


    I’m reading the Kevin Trudeau book right now, “Natural Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You To Know About”, and while I do think him to be a tad extreme, his views on the FDA and Big Pharma seem to be generally grounded in truth. Have you read it?

  3. Anonymous says:

    “A profit motive is often counter to the interests of the public health (a flaw in the capitalist economic system, not that I’m advocating for any other system). ”

    I’m not so sure this is necessarily a flaw in the capitalist economic system so much that it is a flaw that comes when combining that with governmental regulation. We don’t have a true capitalist economic system when it comes to food, mainly because the government opts to regulate the food & drug industry. That governmental regulation is supposedly to help the general public, but what it does is open the door to companies lobbying and paying for government policy that may not be best for all.

    So one must question – should the government make any policies at all when it comes to food and health? Many would argue yes, as it benefits us all to be healthy – lower health care costs and all that. Yet the government wasn’t even supposed to be in health care in the first place (that’s not in the constitution!) In a truly free capitalist market, you would have independent organizations which could monitor food and health safety, and people would be at liberty to make their own decisions. Not ever having lived in a situation like this though, I can’t say with certainty that you would not have the big bucks companies paying for stats that make their foods sound healthy.

  4. http:// says:

    Trudeau: a bit reactionary/extreme for me. I flipped through it and thought that while I generally agree, I don’t see anything there I haven’t read in many other places. A couple of people had recommended it to me.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Believe it or not, money makes the decisions regarding your healthcare. Remember Nevada? Healthcare professionals using used needles on sick patients because management wanted to cut costs?

    I am of the belief that one day the pride America has of having the best healthcare in the world will burst spectacularly.

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