Wishful Thinking

Man has always sacrificed truth to his vanity, comfort and advantage. He lives … by make-believe.
“The Summing Up” by W. Somerset Maugham, 1938

I think there is a fundamental difference between creativity and imagination. Creativity needs imagination, but it is defined as creating something that is both new and useful. Imagination without evaluating the product on its newness and usefulness often only gives the illusion of having something new and useful.

For example, it is easy to assume that some treatment works. After all, if someone has done treatment X and experienced a relieve, it must work, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, no, because the symptoms of many illnesses come in waves and vanish spontaneously (after all, the body tries to heal itself). It might just be that a decline in symptoms has coincided with doing treatment X. The fallacy “post hoc ergo propter hoc” points to this. Just because I did something doesn’t mean that it is responsible for something that happens afterwards.

What is easy to understand when it comes to ridiculous claims (“a sack of rice fell down in China, that’s why I stumbled while walking in New York City”), it’s more difficult with plausible claims. If someone can imagine a way that doing a treatment has any effect on an illness, it’s very hard to convince this person otherwise. They aren’t stupid, they’ve just made the experience that doing treatment X works.

Problem is that they can become very loud proponents of treatment X even if it doesn’t work. Just imagine that in 2 of 100 cases symptoms of an illness will reduce in the next hour. Now 100 people take treatment X and afterwards 2 experience a relieve. It will be very hard for these two to discount that X had a positive effect, especially if the other 98% say nothing or part of those only think that it might have helped them.

This isn’t limited to medical pseudo-treatments like homeopathy. In a lot of cases we have a hard time finding out whether something really works or is just wishful thinking. Human beings seek causes and often do not accept that a system is so complex that the system with its causal nets (rarely chains in the sense that X does Y, usually there are a lot of other factors involved) cannot be understood without systematic scientific research, which requires extensive training and special tools.

For example, to determine whether a treatment really works it would be necessary to gather a large number of similar cases, randomly assign them to two groups, give both groups something that looks, tastes and smells similar, while only one group really gets the active ingredient and the other group gets a placebo. Of course, the person who gives out the treatment must not know which participants get a treatment or the placebo, neither must the participants know what they get, because this knowledge alone can produce an effect (aren’t humans interesting ;-)).

Instead, in many cases “evidence” consists of anecdotes, confession story like reports of people who believe that a treatment has helped them. One of the worst examples of marketing for pseudo-treatments was an advertisement where a person claimed to have found an advertisement in another magazine which convinced him to try out this ‘new’ treatment. He stressed his skepticism and reported that it helped him and that he now recommends it. Given that an advertisement reports a person reading another advertisement should make the alarm bells ringing storm. But, written intimately and persuasively, it’s — unfortunately — effective.

If you want to go beyond wishful thinking, if you really want to make a real effect on other people’s lives (via their health, in this case), and not only lighten their purses, make sure that you be very critical in evaluating the real effect of your work.

It’s easy to fall into wishful thinking.