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Changing Your Fate

by Steven Novella, Aug 05 2013

There is a cartoonish sight gag that I have seen multiple times – a patient lying ill in a hospital bed has some indicator of their health, on a chart or monitor. The doctor comes by an flips the downward trending chart into an upward trending one, or adjusts the monitor so the readings are more favorable, and the patient improves.

This is a joke that a child can understand, even if they don’t explicitly understand that the humor lies in the reversal of cause and effect. And yet more subtle or complex forms of this same flawed reasoning is quite common, especially in the world of pseudoscience.

Even in medicine we can fall for this fallacy. We often measure many biological parameters to inform us about the health of our patients. When the numbers are out of the normal range it is tempting to take direct action to correct those numbers, rather than address the underlying process for which they are markers. Medical students have to learn early on to treat the patient, not the numbers.

Of course when the underlying belief is magical, rather than scientific, it is hard to argue against just changing the signs so that the reading is more favorable. Since the cause and effect is pure magic to begin with, does reversing it make it any worse?

Apparently not – at least for those in Japan who still believe in palmistry, according to the Daily Beast. At least one cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Matsuoka, is offering surgery to change the lines in the palm of your hand in order to change your fortune. Living longer, therefore, is just a matter of extending the life line. Of course this is absurd, but is it really more absurd than palmistry itself?

Dr. Matsuoka does not make direct claims about the efficacy of his procedure, but does justify it with the placebo effect and anecdotes:

“If people think they’ll be lucky, sometimes they become lucky.”

There is some truth to that, actually. Belief in being lucky or fortunate does seem to lead people to exploit more opportunities because they are more positive about their chances of success. This reasoning could be used, however, to defend any superstition, and it’s difficult to measure the psychological benefit against the risks of being that gullible and believing in magic.

He also reports:

The woman with the early wedding line wrote to the doctor that she got married soon after he had performed the operation. Two male patients wrote to him that they had won the lottery after the surgery. His luckiest patient collected more than $30,000 (3 million yen).

Well, there you go. I have no way to counter these completely unsubstantiated anecdotes.

Now excuse me while I roll back the mileage on my car. It’s been acting up a bit lately and I’m hoping this will make it run more like it did when it was new.

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10 Responses to “Changing Your Fate”

  1. Max says:

    Mistaking correlation for causation is certainly common. The latest example in national news are the mixed messages over skipping breakfast.
    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jul/25/news/la-sn-skipping-breakfast-20130725

    One observational study found that “men who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of coronary heart disease than men who ate breakfast.”
    The authors speculated that skipping breakfast leads to overeating later in the day, or that those who skip breakfast are generally more stressed, and the stress is what caused their heart disease.

    But then Cornell’s experimental study found that “By the end of the day, those who went without breakfast had eaten an average of 408 fewer calories.” That study’s author said larger people are more likely to skip breakfast, “and we know larger people have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease.”
    Which is also reminiscent of the correlation between drinking diet soda and obesity. Apparently obese people are more likely to drink diet soda. So it’s like obese people try different diets to lose weight, and then those diets get correlated with obesity.

    • Max says:

      Although one thing that’s weird about that first observational study is that they accounted for obesity and high blood pressure. If skipping breakfast affects obesity and blood pressure, why would they correct for that? I can understand correcting for independent variables like age, sex, and income, but not dependent ones.

      • Max says:

        On the other hand, I guess that contradicts the Cornell researcher’s speculation that those who skipped breakfast were already fat, since the observational Harvard study accounted for that.

      • tmac57 says:

        Maybe people who are not able to manage their lives effectively (i.e. managing time for meals) also cannot manage their time for exercise and stress reduction.
        Seems like possibly some confounders may not have been addressed.

      • Max says:

        Yeah, or they’re just very busy and don’t get enough sleep either. That particular study was of educated health professionals like dentists and veterinarians 45 and older.

        What’s interesting to me is that if obesity is a dependent variable, then you shouldn’t account for it, but if the causation goes the other way and obesity is an independent variable, then you should account for it.
        But my guess is there’s negative feedback: obese people are more likely to skip breakfast, and this slows their weight gain. I don’t know if the study accounted for that. It’s sort of like figuring out the feedback between CO2 and global temperature.

  2. Bill says:

    “The woman with the early wedding line wrote to the doctor that she got married soon after he had performed the operation. Two male patients wrote to him that they had won the lottery after the surgery. His luckiest patient collected more than $30,000 (3 million yen).”

    This sounds like was quoted directly from a chain mail letter.

    • tmac57 says:

      Ever wonder how they are able to write on chain mail? Seems like the pen would keep falling through the holes.

  3. Max says:

    Wow, one yen is just a penny? One yuan is around 16 cents.

    • madscientist says:

      It’s the equivalent of a penny – the Japanese don’t have a system of cents and dollars, just the single unit the Yen.

  4. Vincent says:

    > Apparently not – at least for those in Japan who still believe in palmistry, according to the Daily Beast. At least one cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Matsuoka, is offering surgery to change the lines in the palm of your hand in order to change your fortune.

    But then, it’s very common in Japan to believe that blood type governs personnality. Japan’s equivalent to astrology in the West.

    http://www.japantoday.com/category/lifestyle/view/the-importance-of-blood-type-in-japanese-culture