Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Illusory Causation

Illusory causation is a term that came up on NPR news this morning, and it caught my ear as something worth discussing in detail. Illusory causation is probably the root of belief in a lot of worthless alternative medicine products that you can find on the market today.

Illusory causation occurs when someone attributes a specific event to the wrong cause. In the story on NPR, for example, they explained how many people credit the herb echinacea with curing their colds. They believe the herb cured their condition because they started taking it when their cold symptoms started, and the symptoms went away soon afterward. However, three separate clinical trials have shown that echinacea doesn't make a cold go away any faster. The echinacea users believe that the cause of their relief is the herb, when the true cause is simply the human immune system, which can usually eliminate cold viruses given a little time. The belief in echinacea is an illusion, but the users want to believe it, and repeated association of echinacea with cold relief simply reinforces the illusion. They build up strong personal, anecdotal evidence for their beliefs.

Illusory causation can be attributed to numerous alternative medicines. Homeopathic remedies like Similisan are obvious candidates. As I noted in my previous article, Similisan makes a remedy for pink eye. Pink eye can have at least three causes, one of which is a virus. The human immune system will defeat viral pink eye after a few weeks, much as it will defeat the common cold. A person who uses Similisan during that time might easily assume that the homeopathic product cured the condition, when it really did nothing at all. Such a person would see Similisan as the illusory cause of his or her relief.

But as I said, pink eye can have more than one cause. There is also a bacterial form of pink eye, and this form doesn't easily go away on its own. Those who contract bacterial pink eye often need antibiotic eyedrops to cure the disease, and Similisan won't do a thing to help it. That's why Similisan has a disclaimer telling users to see a doctor if their symptoms don't improve within a few days (the time it normally takes for viral pink eye to start going away).

It's easy to believe in illusions and false causes, but they won't help you in a real emergency. Evidence-based medicine doesn't offer a cure for everything, but at least you can feel secure in the knowledge that evidence-based medical treatments really will deliver the effects that they claim to have.

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