How People Are Fooled by Bad Science

When I have been muscle tested in the past, I could easily tell that the practitioner was applying different pressure depending upon what result he was expecting...

The importance of actual scientific testing is illustrated in this article by Ray Hyman, Ph.D., "How People Are Fooled by Ideometer Action":

Applied Kinesiology - Muscle Testing

Legitimate kinesiology is the study of human motor performance using the standard tools of biochemistry, physiology, biomechanics, and psychology. "Applied kinesiology" purports to show that isolated muscle group weakness can be used to diagnose allergies, toxicities, and other disorders. Naturopaths and chiropractors are among its most ardent practitioners. Such things as refined foods, foods grown with chemical fertilizers, artificial food colorants and preservatives, infinitesimal pesticide residues, refined sugar, or even flourescent lighting are said to sap vital energies and cause disease.

To measure susceptibility to such influences, practitioners place their palms face down on the hand or forearm of the patient who is told to exert an upward counter-force. The practitioner then puts a small amount of the allegedly offensive substance on the patient's tongue, skin, or nostrils, or turns on the fluorescent lights. The patient loses strength instantaneously, the kinesiologist's force easily overcomes the resistance, and the arm collapses. Of course, both participants in this folie deux feel they maintain a constant effort throughout. As the reader is no doubt aware by now, such a demonstration proves nothing in the absence of a placebo control and a double-blind administration. Knowing an allegedly harmful substance has been applied, the practitioner unconsciously presses a little harder and the patient unconsciously resists a bit less.

Some years ago I participated in a test of applied kinesiology at Dr. Wallace Sampson's medical office in Mountain View, California. A team of chiropractors came to demonstrate the procedure. Several physician observers and the chiropractors had agreed that chiropractors would first be free to illustrate applied kinesiology in whatever manner they chose. Afterward, we would try some double-blind tests of their claims.

The chiropractors presented as their major example a demonstration they believed showed that the human body could respond to the difference between glucose (a "bad" sugar) and fructose (a "good" sugar). The differential sensitivity was a truism among "alternative healers," though there was no scientific warrant for it. The chiropractors had volunteers lie on their backs and raise one arm vertically. They then would put a drop of glucose (in a solution of water) on the volunteer's tongue. The chiropractor then tried to push the volunteer's upraised arm down to a horizontal position while the volunteer tried to resist. In almost every case, the volunteer could not resist. The chiropractors stated the volunteer's body recognized glucose as a "bad" sugar. After the volunteer's mouth was rinsed out and a drop of fructose was placed on the tongue, the volunteer, in just about every test, resisted movement to the horizontal position. The body had recognized fructose as a "good" sugar.

After lunch a nurse brought us a large number of test tubes, each one coded with a secret number so that we could not tell from the tubes which contained fructose and which contained glucose. The nurse then left the room so that no one in the room during the subsequent testing would consciously know which tubes contained glucose and which fructose. The arm tests were repeated, but this time they were double-blind -- neither the volunteer, the chiropractors, nor the onlookers was aware of whether the solution being applied to the volunteer's tongue was glucose or fructose. As in the morning session, sometimes the volunteers were able to resist and other times they were not. We recorded the code number of the solution on each trial. Then the nurse returned with the key to the code. When we determined which trials involved glucose and which involved fructose, there was no connection between ability to resist and whether the volunteer was given the "good" or the "bad" sugar.

When these results were announced, the head chiropractor turned to me and said, "You see, that is why we never do double-blind testing anymore. It never works!" At first I thought he was joking. It turned it out he was quite serious. Since he "knew" that applied kinesiology works, and the best scientific method shows that it does not work, then -- in his mind -- there must be something wrong with the scientific method. This is both a form of loopholism as well as an illustration of what I call the plea for special dispensation. Many pseudo- and fringe-scientists often react to the failure of science to confirm their prized beliefs, not by gracefully accepting the possibility that they were wrong, but by arguing that science is defective.

Some Common Features of Ideomotor-Based Systems

Although the effects of ideomotor action have been understood for at least 150 years, the phenomenon remains surprisingly unknown, even to scientists. To conclude, the following are some of the psychological features that characterize nearly all the systems and schemes that have bases in ideomotor action.

  • Ideomotor action. To reiterate, all systems using the rubbing plate, the dowsing rod, the exploring pendulum, or related technique depend on an almost undetectable motor movement, amplified into a more noticeable event. The impetus arises from one's own subtle and unperceived expectations. Elaborate, grandiose theories are then devised to explain the observed effects.
  • Projection of the operator's actions to an external force. This is one of key properties of ideomotor action. Although the operator's own actions cause the fingers to stick, the rod to move, or the pendulum to rotate in a given direction, the operator attributes the cause onto an external force. Subjectively, that is what it feels like. Lacking a sense of volition, one credits unknown forces, radiations, or other external emanations.
  • The cause of the action is attributed to forces new to science and revolutionary in nature. This is implied in the previous point. Not only is the cause attributed to an external source, but each time the phenomenon is encountered anew, those who have not read their history attribute it to a force previously unknown.
  • Delusions of grandeur. Not only do the proponents insist that the cause is external, but they tend to see themselves as revolutionary saviors of mankind. They claim to have discovered new principles and forces, ones whose ramifications will transform contemporary science, not to mention society as we know it.
  • Delusions of persecution. Those who suffer from delusions of grandeur frequently exhibit delusions of persecution. Self-styled revolutionaries assert that orthodox scientists dismiss discoverers of breakthroughs such as radionic devices and the like merely out of envy, pig-headedness, conformism, or unwillingness to give credit to brave outsiders who are not part of the scientific establishment.
  • To be forearmed Is to be disarmed. Proponents of quack devices and procedures will often argue that they are aware of ideomotor action and the role of expectancies. They often assert that their awareness makes them immune from its effects. Many dowsers now admit unconscious expectations can affect the action of the divining rod. They assert that their awareness prevents ideomotor action and allows expression of the "true dowsing response." Unfortunately, the awareness of ideomotor action does not make one immune from its expression.
  • Self-sealing belief systems. Once the proponent becomes convinced that his favorite system "works," then the psychological forces discussed by James Alcock come into play. These self-serving biases serve to protect the belief system from falsification. Loopholism is one way proponents protect their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Saying "It is not the same thing" allows the believer to shield the system. Alcock supplies more examples of this ability to distort, forget, or ignore evidence. The true physician is aware of distortions of one's own judgement, as well as those of pseudoscientific competitors.

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