You can find testimonials to the efficacy of pretty much anything: homeopathy, cancer-killing teabags, magnetic cures, or faith-healing. It’s a form of marketing which can be incredibly persuasive. We are probably more likely to make a judgment about some treatment or other based on a personal recommendation or testimony than on the basis of expert advice or research. Take, for example, “Miracle Mineral Solution,” an elixir commonly touted as a cure for autism, and sometimes even for AIDS and cancer. Not only is MMS utterly useless as a treatment for any of these conditions, it is a noxious brew containing industrial bleach that can quickly cause renal failure. Health authorities all over the world warn against it, and sadly many people – including children – have suffered severe internal injuries from using it. Despite being medically effete and actively hazardous to health, it isn’t hard to find glowing testimonials – on the websites of dubious pushers of the elixir – from people whose improvement coincided with using it.
The trouble is that testimonials are incredibly unreliable.
Firstly, many people don’t have a terribly good grasp of their own condition and may even be self-diagnosed, such that when they claim to have been cured of X it might well be the case that they never had it to begin with, or it wasn’t as serious as they thought. Secondly, testimonials are selected by the advertiser/pusher of some quack procedure, and represent a few hits in a sea of misses. For instance, one can find volumes of testimonials in a Christian Science reading room. It gives the strong impression that Christian Science works. However, you aren’t being told of the thousands of people who got worse or even died as a direct result of applying Christian Science methods. Suppose I show you my dart board and you see 3 darts in the bulls eye. You might be tempted to think I’m a fair player, at least until I tell you I was throwing darts for 5 hours straight before I got those 3 hits. That’s what testimonials do – they present a lop-sided and carefully selected – sample that is highly misleading. Thirdly, claiming that one got better after using some quack medicine or spiritual procedure demonstrates a correlation in that instance. It doesn’t provide evidence of causation. If every time I have a headache I take 2 aspirin and eat a tube of Smarties can I rightly conclude that Smarties help take away pain? You need proper scientific evidence of the sort that only emerges after lengthy – often expensive – research before you can justifiably claim causation. Fourthly, testimonies are used for marketing purposes and can be edited to make them sound even more persuasive. “My doctor had me on antibiotics and other medicines, but then I tried QUACK X and my improvement was immense!” becomes simply “I tried QUACK X and my improvement was immense!” Or “QUACK X was the only thing that helped me!” sounds convincing because it implies that all other treatments were pursued, but that might not have been the case. Testimonials are a form of marketing, and marketing is rarely straightforwardly honest with us.
Furthermore, the nature of sickness helps the quacks sound more plausible and can provide them with testimonies of cures or improvements where none are present. The trick is to understand that every illness or health condition has a natural variability. With most illnesses or conditions there are times when you feel better, or at least less rotten, and it is during these times that a quack healer will claim that his prescriptions are working. Many people will seek out alternative therapies or spiritual healers when regular treatments don’t seem to be helping. If the person begins using the therapy at a stage when the symptoms are receding then the alternative therapy looks efficacious. If the condition doesn’t improve the quack healer can claim that the patient is fortunate to have started the treatment when he did or he would be in a much worse position. Should the patient get worse then the quack healer can claim he needs to redouble his efforts. If the patient dies then sadly he started treatment too late and everyone should take note and not make the same mistake! The pushers of quack cures – whether medicines or spiritual procedures – are in a win-win situation; if they are crafty enough they can always avoid being proved wrong, and no matter what the outcome the quack healer can have himself a testimony.
In order not to be mislead it is crucial to bear in mind how flimsy testimonials are as evidence. In fact, as Terence Hines, the author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, reminds us: “It is safe to say that if testimonials play a major part in the “come on” for a cure or therapy, the cure or therapy is almost certainly worthless. If the promoters of the therapy had actual evidence for its effectiveness, they would cite it and not have to rely on testimonials.”
Stephen J. Graham