How to Think Critically: Testimonials

The testimonial is the favorite tool of pseudoscientists everywhere. Search the internet far and wide, and you’ll have trouble finding a cancer-curing scam machine, thermodynamically impossible engine-conversion kit, or obscure psychic website that doesn’t feature glowing testimonials from true believers. Eshu of Bridging Schisms gives many more examples, in his post “Testimonials and Research“, like this gem from a satisfied client singing the praises of a psychic claimant:

“I came to Philena when I was in a very dark place. Through her patience, guidance and gentleness, I genuinely left feeling hopeful. She held me together emotionally and spiritually throughout this time. She lit the candle in my mind and let my spirit guide me to light. She has a wonderful personality and in my heart I know our paths were meant to cross.”

And when the testimonial is given by a celebrity, people are especially susceptible. Often, the name of a famous person will attract consumers in droves to whatever product is being peddled, even if the celebrity endorser has no relevant knowledge that would allow them to evaluate the product with any more expertise than an ordinary person.

The influence of celebrity testimonials, and our infatuation with celebrities generally, probably have their roots in humanity’s evolutionary heritage. The earliest human societies, like those of our ape-like ancestors, were small hunter-gatherer bands where individuals could rise or fall in status depending on their ability to sway the group. Although the rewards of being the group leader sowed the seeds of ambition in all of us, the tribe had to have stability for the sake of all its members’ survival, which is why humans also have an inbuilt instinct to respect the authority of the alpha male or alpha female.

In modern society, where our social networks are vastly farther-ranging, celebrities have stepped into the role of alphas. We look up to them because, in a sense, we’re programmed to do so. This is a predisposition that can be resisted through reason, but not if we’re not aware of it.

The key thing to keep in mind about all testimonials is that, at best, they are anecdotal evidence. When it comes to alternative medicine, for instance, most diseases and injuries heal on their own. But if you just happen to be taking some dubious remedy when you begin feeling better, most people will credit their recovery to the treatment. Even a treatment that actually helps some people may be ineffective in others for any of a wide variety of reasons. And people who’ve already been persuaded of the efficacy of a treatment are much more likely to report positive results, and disregard any negative outcome that doesn’t fit with their expectations.

For all these reasons, isolated anecdotes are of no value in judging the usefulness of any dubious claim. At most, they may be an indicator of which avenues might reward further exploration. At worst, they are outright deceptive, leading naive people to expect outcomes that are extremely unlikely. To truly judge the worth of a claim, we need statistical evidence that gives a genuine measure of likelihood that it will work. Thus, it’s good news that the FTC is mulling requiring advertisers to report the average person’s benefit from their product, rather than relying on “results not typical” testimonials. Marketers may howl, but in the long run it will help people make informed decisions and move the market as a whole in a more rational direction.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • nfpendleton

    Xmas Eve dinner at the inlaws was an exercise in anti-medical science drug company conspiracy. While I agree that a lot of Pharma’s business practices are often as atrocious as those of any other large megacorps, the efficacy of our medications is rarely in question. I had to suffer through everything from “Garlic saved my life,” to “Doctors don’t want you to know the real herbal treatments for…”

    After listening for an hour, I realized you’re apparently not a pill-popper if the handfuls of junk you’re swallowing each day are over the counter ground up weeds.

    Attempting to be the tasteful guest, I bit my tongue and pour just a bit more wine than I normally would. That seemed to have a medicinal effect as well.

  • Nes

    I feel your pain, nfpendleton. My mom, whose house I spent Christmas at, has an entire wall dedicated to books like Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About, crystal healing, herbal cancer cures, and all sorts of other quackery. I’m not willing to engage her in it (which would entail getting in to UFOs, ghosts, psychics, magick, and a whole plethora of related topics), so I end up biting my tongue, but I do tell her to let doctors know about any “natural cures” that she’s using as they can interact with any drugs she might be prescribed.

    Thus, it’s good news that the FTC is mulling requiring advertisers to report the average person’s benefit from their product, rather than relying on “results not typical” testimonials.

    While the FTC is at it (and it’s about fracking time!), can they prohibit implicit claims and weaselly wording, too? There’s a series of commercials for a “male enhancement” cream that I hear on the radio all the time. One says that men feel bigger after using it. Not that they are bigger, but that they feel bigger. Pretty weaseling wording there, IMO. Later in the commercial (I think it was the same commercial) they describe the effects: “The first X seconds are a cooling sensation, the next Y seconds are a heating sensation, then during the next Z seconds… You’ll be surprised what (product) does to you, and for you! Interested?” It’s pretty obvious to me what they’re trying to imply there… and it drives me nuts that they can get away with it because they didn’t explicitly make a claim. HeadOn is another example. They never explicitly claim that it’s for headaches in the commercials, but I think it’s pretty obvious that they’re implying such. Especially given that their commercials cause headaches…

    I know, it’s pretty hard (impossible?) to prove intent in those cases, but still, it aggravates me to no end.

    Now we just need the exemptions for dietary supplements to be removed so the FDA can actually go after bull like Airborne and other so-called herbal remedies “supplements”.

  • Christopher

    Although the rewards of being the group leader sowed the seeds of ambition in all of us, the tribe had to have stability for the sake of all its members’ survival, which is why humans also have an inbuilt instinct to respect the authority of the alpha male or alpha female.

    I’ve learned much about this concept of the opinion leader back when I was in college and understand the *hows* behind gettng a bunch of ignorant saps to be led around by the nose if you get to their “alphas”(as a Comm. major I took a lot of marketring courses) – but for the life of me I could never understand it on a personal level. I felt lots of group pressure growing up from collective orders (the family, the church, etc…), but was never that affected by individual persons – I can’t think of anyone I would consider an “alpha” to follow, as I’ve pretty much always regarded one person’s opinion as being just that.

    Thus, it’s good news that the FTC is mulling requiring advertisers to report the average person’s benefit from their product, rather than relying on “results not typical” testimonials. Marketers may howl, but in the long run it will help people make informed decisions and move the market as a whole in a more rational direction.

    I’ll bet $1,000 that these regulations won’t ever pass: too much revenue would be lost if people knew the “truth” about the products being sold to them – advertizing relies on lots of hype, and the loss of that hype would be detrimental to sales and – by extention – the consumer economy. People have to keep buying shit for the consumer economy to exist, thus whatever gets people to buy things is “good” so far as business is concerned (and who are we kidding – big business practically owns the government).

  • http://verywide.net/ Moody834

    Two real problems for people in general are 1) Confirmation Bias, and 2) Superstitious Attribution (or Paranoid Attribution). I do not know if there is a specific term for the second item here, but I am referring to the likelihood of taking, say, a shadow for a tiger sooner than taking a tiger for a shadow.

    In the first instance, it is usually our need to be right about something, our need to feel in control. If we think idea x, then we want x to be right. We may have arrived at x via more or less defensible avenues, bur once we are there we will defend x against attack because we need to be right. It strikes me that this is at least partly a social adaptation geared toward establishing or maintaining our power and authority. Even when there’s no-one else around, it serves our ego to believe we are correct in our assessment or judgment about whatever it is. (Wikipedia goes into more depth than I will here.)

    In the second instance, it is clearly the result of our evolution. People who mistake a shadow for a tiger may look foolish, but people who mistake a tiger for shadow wind up dead. In nature, there is often no time to consider the options available for review. As human beings, we tend still to attribute intelligent agency with a purpose to something before we turn a flashlight on the scary shadows.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I’ve been resisting this , but can’t resist any longer. Tim Minchin has the best response I’ve ever heard to this kind of woo woo. Enjoy (Don’t do this on dial up)

  • john

    Oh well, since there aren’t many responses, I’ll paste a link to a testimonial by an atheist.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece

  • Christopher

    I’ll acknowledge that Africa has serious problems with tribalism, but A fail to see how introducing a new religion will solve any of their problems – if anything, it will just create a new “tribe” that fight against the others (as well as be fought against). As for the missionary charity work: at best it’s a temporary solution to a problem of identity for these people – they must learn to break the hold of the idea of the tribe in their minds or else be destroyed by it…

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    And to counter your link, John, I’ll post another about other Christians in Africa. Dig a well, out a witch. Is 50% good a passing grade?
    And in their own minds, they’re both being guided by the special personal relationship with that JC fellow I’ve heard so much about to do the right thing. I’m thinking He’s got a speech impediment.

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Well, that didn’t work right.

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh well, since there aren’t many responses, I’ll paste a link to a testimonial by an atheist.

    Who apparently isn’t a very bright one, as evidenced by comments like

    Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

    As if Christian evangelism were opposed to any of those.

  • Leum

    No doubt john will tell us that Modus’ Christians aren’t Real True Christians, conveniently ignoring the fact that most Christian missionaries do not share john’s rather idiosyncratic beliefs.

  • john

    Drifting off subject here. I happen to agree with Ebon’s article. One of the more prominent celebs is Oprah who endorsed Obama.
    Perhaps some of you can go to Africa and see for yourselves that this “may be an indicator of which avenues might reward further exploration.”

    Leum,”most Christian missionaries do not share john’s rather idiosyncratic beliefs.”
    No they don’t, but they are Christians nonetheless.

    Modus,
    keep looking you will always find what you are looking for.

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    john “Modus, keep looking you will always find what you are looking for.”
    Positive thinking like that won’t help me get past that missing sock. Or my car keys. Or my hair.

  • Stuart

    I’ve learned much about this concept of the opinion leader back when I was in college and understand the *hows* behind gettng a bunch of ignorant saps to be led around by the nose if you get to their “alphas”(as a Comm. major I took a lot of marketring courses) – but for the life of me I could never understand it on a personal level.

    Think of it like wolves – most wolves stay in a pack with an alpha leading them. A few “lone wolves” behave differently, following their own direction. In the wild both behaviours are selected for naturally even within the same species in many cases, as given certain types of environmental stress one or other strategy might fail, so the continuation of the species is best served by two different paths being followed by various individuals.