The Research Bypass

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While writing a piece on the pathology of scams (coming soon!), I set out to identify those markers or traits which are common to scams – whether phoney remedies, therapies or even religions.

One of those traits is what I call the ‘research bypass’ – a name which retains that link to things medical, but also amuses me. Anyway, discussion of that trait grew a bit, so I’ve decided to give it its very own post.

So the premise is as follows: what do you do if your product or service won’t live very long in the marketplace, due to its poor or non-performance? You give it a research bypass.

For the untrained, you execute a research bypass as follows:

  1. Find a willing person or group to do a preliminary trial – they can be either a respectable researcher, or, a well-credentialed accomplice (it doesn’t really matter, but the former is probably better)
  2. You make sure that the trial is as crappy as possible – relying largely on self-reporting by willing volunteers, who are suffering non-specific ailments like ‘aches’ and ‘pains’, or ‘feeling run-down’. Try not to include people with broken limbs or suffering from terminal illnesses. Amputees are a definite no-no, as limbs are notoriously difficult to re-grow.
  3. Do the trial. Woo-hoo! You’re on your way now.
  4. You’re relying on our old friend Mr. Placebo to get you some good results. We know that almost anything we say or do to people who have an ailment will give some benefit, if they think or believe it will. Homeopathy anyone? Your trial conclusion will be something like “..participants reported improvements…promising therapy…larger trial required to confirm…” etc.  If your conclusion reads “…subjects died..” or similar, then select a new therapy, go back to step 1. and repeat.
  5. Get your trial report, and ideally have it published in a respected journal – or, any journal. Publishing is not mandatory – you can just put the report on your website, because that’s pretty impressive in itself, isn’t it?. Even if you publish in the ‘Royal Journal of Complete and Utter Crap’, you will still be able to claim that your clinical trial was published in a journal, and allow you to have a very impressive and sciencey footnote reference in anything you write. Don’t worry, no one will go and actually look at it.
  6. Now, this step is critical – so pay attention: Do not, under any circumstances, do a follow-up trial. I can’t emphasise this step enough. However, you’ll need to be armed with a bunch of good reasons to be able to sidestep any questions. I recommend relying on the fact that denying ill people an effective therapy is unethical, and that as a result you’re ‘still working through the issues’ with a number of ethics committees.
  7. OK, now you’re set. Now it’s time to sell. Create web-sites, as many as you can. Testimonials – as many as you can – especially from people in white coats (I suggest chiropractors, who will probably believe what they’ve been asked to say). And, the pinnacle, when you know you’ve made it: Today Tonight / A current affair (same show isn’t it?). In preparation for this last item, make sure you’ve prepared the list of Dorothy Dixers for the reporter in advance – it would be awkward if they were to ask you something inconvenient, like, oh, what do the high quality trials show? (Refer previous point).

And that’s it. Now you too can make a million from selling therapeutic hot-cross buns that promote erections at Easter, or, a computer mouse which harmonises with your body’s natural frequencies to enhance neural activity and help you write better blog posts. Actually, I think I’ll keep that last one for myself.

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7 thoughts on “The Research Bypass

    SCENAR and the Pathology of a Scam « rationalbrain said:
    February 14, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    […] my recent blog on this one. Basically,  proponents do some dodgy preliminary trials, which inevitably show a […]

    Response on homeopathy articles « rationalbrain said:
    July 13, 2011 at 10:56 am

    […] Elaine, in writing this long comment, you’re obviously very passionate about the subject, and I don’t for one minute believe anything I say will change your mind. However, I think you’ve fallen into the trap of putting ideology before evidence. A key symptom of this is to start with the conclusion you wish to confirm, and ‘mining’ information that supports it. The trick here is to quote it authoritatively, and hope that no-one follows up by actually looking at it. Don’t know how something works? Let’s steal a term and use it as the answer. Quantum physics. Don’t have any evidence? Let’s quote wave upon wave of pilot studies and preliminary studies (that way we don’t need to bother about controls), and never bother to follow up with properly controlled studies. […]

    Swisse claims are full of holes « rationalbrain said:
    March 12, 2012 at 1:04 am

    […] no. This is just another variant of the effect I described way back, in which you do a little testing, just enough to indicate ‘promising’ effects, and […]

    filip passeri said:
    August 12, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Do you have any tips for spotting these faulty papers?

      rationalbrain responded:
      August 12, 2017 at 2:10 pm

      Hi filip.
      There is no substitute for research and a healthy dose of skepticism.
      The first thing I would look for is whether the paper is published in a respected journal, or at least via a respected institution.
      Next, is the research methodology sound? We are looking for double-blind (neither the researcher nor the subject know whether they are taking/using the real thing or a placebo), and placebo-controlled (testing the treatment against doing nothing), and need to have enough subjects to make the results statistically sound.
      Next, do the conclusions make sense on two fronts: 1. Do the results demonstrate real effectiveness or are they just ‘noise’ – for example if you test a million people for mind-reading ability, and 1 of them has some anomalous results, that’s noise. and 2. Do the results make sense given the laws of nature? In other words, are the researchers asking us to forget all the established rules in favour of new ones? This would be the case for mind-reading again.
      And how much of this evidence do you look for? Well, the old saying is, the more extraordinary the claim, the more evidence is required. So if I try to tell you I’ve proven that mind-reading exists, you should demand a very high level of evidence, not just a couple of people on the internet who agree with the finding. And evidence also includes replication by some-one else. If the claim is so extraordinary, then people will be jumping at the chance to replicate. A good example is cold fusion. Pons and Fleischman’s claims were so amazing, that lab after lab tried to re-create the results and failed.
      Hope that helps.
      r.

        filip passeri said:
        August 12, 2017 at 7:41 pm

        What is the optimal number of participants for clinical studies?

        rationalbrain responded:
        August 12, 2017 at 11:04 pm

        That’s fairly complex to answer and my statistics are quite rusty, but there are numerous factors.
        Here’s some light reading… https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2933537/
        Enjoy.

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