Junkfood Science: Ad Populum

December 15, 2008

Ad Populum

“Everyone uses and loves this product!”

Making a product claim like this is a tried-and-true advertising technique. It’s hoped that you will take others’ approval as a good enough reason to buy the product, too. Falling for this is a fallacy of logic called Ad Populum (“appeal to popularity”) — going along with what’s popular. It’s right out of high school.

So, when a media release went out last week from the NCCAM Press Office (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine), saying that 38% of adults use complementary and alternative ‘medicine’, were you tempted to think — even just for a moment — “Maybe, there is something to CAM.”

Instead, what if you had heard:

The 2007 National Health Interview Survey on CAM use, conducted by the CDC, found that about 99% of American adults don’t use acupuncture, energy healing therapy, reiki, naturopathy, Qi gong, Tai chi, or homeopathy; and that 99.9% of Americans have shunned ayuveda, macrobiotics, feldenkrels, Trager Psychophysical Integration, biofeedback, hypnosis, chelation, megavitamins and the Alexander technique, which have fallen to their lowest rates in a decade. The popularity of lifestyle diets are also at their lowest levels in nearly two decades, with only 1.5% of people eating vegetarian and 1.2% following Atkins diets, while fewer than 0.1% follow the Zone, Pritikin or Ornish today.

Same survey.

But if you’d heard those details, you might have thought: “I’m not going to fall for CAM, either.”

The NCCAM department, funded with our tax dollars to promote CAM, releases these reports every few years that purport to show widespread use of CAM. I was going to break them down for you, but Avery Comarow synopsized them in U.S. News. He called these NCCAM press releases, including the latest one, “intellectual dishonesty,” explaining:

Alternative Medicine's Rapid Spread? Nonsense

…Spin, folks. The kind that would do a political consultant proud. It started almost 20 years ago with the first large survey in 1990. That one found 34 percent of U.S. adults used alternative medicine (as it was then called). "Used" was defined so generously, however, that it's hard to understand how almost every person surveyed didn't qualify. You were a user if one time in the previous year you used one of the 16 listed therapies, which included such marginal entries as "self-help group," "commercial diet," and "lifestyle diet." The 1997 survey was the same except more so; usage was up to 42 percent.

In 2002, the hype really kicked in. The first figure cited in the report showed that adult CAM users had jumped to 62 percent. But read a little further and you see why—"prayer for health reasons" had been added. When that was removed, CAM usage dropped to 36 percent, a decline from 1997. And that was even though six more types of CAM therapies had been tacked onto the 1997 list.

Here is the chart of the most common types of “CAM therapies” included in the 2002 survey to make it appear that practically two-thirds of everyone had gotten on board. Note that praying for yourself, praying for others, praying with others, deep breathing and medication were all separate categories and added together to get the percentages up:

The point being, that when most consumers hear about “alternative modalities,” they think it refers to exotic modalities, they wouldn’t think it is praying, massage and dieting. Definitions are everything.

The latest survey changed the definition of CAM to include even more things, bringing the total number of categories to 25. [Because of backlash about including prayer, it was eliminated.] Take a look:

It would seem like it would be hard to find anyone who hadn’t tried at least one of those sometime in the past year — started a diet, gotten a massage, or tried some deep breathing or to relax. And, in fact, the largest percentage of “CAM” use was for deep breathing (12.7%); meditation comprised 9.4% of “CAM” use, and massage accounted for 8.3%. But, even broadening the definition of CAM, as Comarow explained, “the percentage of users was about 38 percent, or what it was in 2002.”

Reading the actual report, while the numbers turning to the types of alternative modalities like acupuncture are minute, the reasons people gave illustrate a belief in “wellness and preventive health” that sound science fails to support, even though it is widely promoted in popular press. About a quarter of people who tried acupuncture, for example, did so thinking it would improve or enhance their energy, another 22% thought it would improve or enhance their immune system, and about 43% used it for “general wellness and preventive health.” The CDC also found that “40% had received mental health counseling for the same condition they were using acupuncture.”

As Comarow concluded:

That brings me to the final criticism, that the number of people using therapies that a reasonable person would consider CAM, such as Far Eastern medicine, homeopathy, and energy healing, is tiny. The percentage of ayurvedic medicine users is so low, 0.1 percent or less, that it is statistically invalid… I can go on, but you should read the report and judge for yourself. My point is that by and large, we are not a nation that buys into CAM. No amount of statistical twisting will change that. And that's what the message should be — not an artificial conclusion that tens of millions of people are into CAM.

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