Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Doctors, and Tales from Their Old Wives: the "Woozle Effect."

In my blogpost of 2/24/25I made fun of scientists who waste research dollars proving things that are already obvious. Some people may object that things that are thought to be obvious sometimes turn out to be false. Of course that happens, but because it happens so rarely, it tends to make the news. 

This may lead some to think such discoveries are common. They are not. As I have said, you really don't need a study to prove that the sky appears blue to non-colorblind humans at noon on a cloudless sunny day on the equator.

There is another related situation which is also quite common - scientific ideas that were thought by many to be obvious turn out, on closer inspection, not to really be obvious at all. 

And not true. They are basically old wives' tales, and are instead based on frequent citations from the scientific literature of poorly-designed studies and/or less-than-well-thought out conclusions drawn from those studies. Such ideas become urban myths.

I have written about several of these in previous posts, and there are undoubtedly dozens and dozens more, many of which I may not be aware. Some completely fictional ideas that come to mind: the human brain only works at 20% of its capacity. We are born with all the brains cells we will ever have. Debriefing for first responders (reviewing in detail what they had just witnessed during a gory disaster) helps prevent post-traumatic stress disorder. Benzodiazepine drugs like valium and xanax interfere with a behavioral treatment called systematic desensitization.

Much to my surprise, I recently learned that there is actually a name for this phenomenon. It is called the Woozle Effect

According to Wikipedia, "A Woozle is an imaginary character in the A. A. Milne book Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926. In chapter three, 'In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,' Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet start following tracks left in snow believing they are the tracks of a Woozle. 

The tracks keep multiplying. Christopher Robin then explains that they have been following their own tracks in circles around a tree."

The Wikipedia article also points out something about this phenomenon that relates to another frequent topic of this blog: groupthink. The Woozle belief persists because it serves the needs of some group of scientists, doctors, or other interest group - whether those needs are ideological, economic, or bureaucratic.

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