The difference between science and fake science

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Animals depend on humans using science to help them
Animals depend on humans using science to help them

Fake news and false science have begun to seep into the world view of many people. If you ask people about the Twin Towers, or the moon landings, or many other news items, you'll be surprised at how many believe the made-up conspiracy theories. And when it comes to health and medicine, many people now have faith in non-scientific theories such as diagnosing allergies from pieces of hair, or using energy forces to heal serious illnesses. The world of pet health is affected by these issues just as much as human health.

Some people have always been prone to believing in fringe ideas, but the social media culture is increasing the trend. It's easy to create a website with a fictitious story, presented as truth. As long as you don't libel anyone, it's unlikely that you'll be forced to take it down. And if you can convince a few folk to believe you, they'll even share it on social media. A small audience can be virally converted into a large group of people who may even be prepared to pay money. Chancers promoting hare brained ideas and selling charlatan wares are able to reach a global market.

At the same time, practitioners of genuine science, including vets and conventional companies, tend to be vocally criticised. People denigrate standard, well-proven products (including commercial pet food, effective flea treatments and many standard medications). Despite multiple studies that have shown the safety and effectiveness of such items, holier-than-thou commenters decry them, making up scare stories about their "hidden bad effects". Such critiques are often also linked to insinuations that the profit motive is the only reason that certain products are on the market, so that when companies defend the integrity of their wares, the critics wryly say "well, they would say that wouldn't they".

The truth is that we live in a science-based world, where companies must provide proof for the efficacy and safety of their products before putting them on the market. It would be illegal to sell "complete" pet food unless it had been proven to be nutritionally balanced for the animals that it's designed to feed. It's against the law to sell treatments for animals unless they have undergone extensive trials and licensing to prove that they do what they claim to do. And the data sheets that must accompany animal treatments contain detailed listings of possible side effects, derived from the exhaustive studies that need to be done before a product license is granted.

These facts do not stop the amateur scientist cynics, who manage to confuse people with pseudo-statistics and pretend-facts. In particular, people are easily confused about the important difference between "correlation" and "causation".

Correlation of two significant events is common: if any animal falls seriously ill, there's a high chance that a number of events may have coincidentally happened in the preceding few weeks. The pet may have been wormed, given flea treatment or even been vaccinated. This does not mean that there was any link whatsoever between the treatments given and the subsequent illness. But this fact does not stop people from "having a sense" that there must be a link, and then telling the world about their personal belief that this is an absolute truth. The situation is aggravated by social media: if fifty people around the world believe that a particular product has caused an issue with their pet, it can begin to sound even more like "the truth". A Facebook support group can easily be set up, and a long standing myth can be created. People may start to say "there's no smoke without fire", and the truth is lost in the online shouting.

"Causation" is a different matter altogether. This is when there is a definite, proven link between a product being given and a negative outcome. For example, if a small dog eats chocolate, signs of poisoning will develop. This happens predictably: many studies have shown that this is a fact. Similarly, if pet medications or other products did cause a predictable negative outcome, the vague possibility hinted at by the word "correlation" would be changed to a proven link called "causation".

The terms correlation and causation are not just important when considering adverse effects: they also apply to treatments. If I wave my hands over a sick pet, it may recover coincidentally: this is correlation. It may seem to an onlooker as if I have somehow created a cure, but in fact it had nothing to do with my hand-waving. It was just a coincidence. Many sick animals do recover naturally, in time: this is a phenomenon known as "reversion to the mean" (i.e. returning to the normal state of existence). This is the reason for many people believing in bogus treatments that cannot be proven to work.

On the other hand, if I give an injection of antibiotics to an animal suffering from a bacterial infection, the animal will recover. This is causation. All licensed treatments have been proven by scientific studies to be effective: animals respond to the treatment because of the proven causative link.

Science has brought many benefits to our society. What we need to do now is to find an effective way of quashing false science. We would all benefit if we could do this, and so would the animals in our lives.

Wexford People