Thursday, February 07, 2008

How Quackery "Works" Part 2: Observer Expectancy Effects

Most quackery and pseudoscience depends on testimonial evidence rather than scientific evidence. In the absence of controlled trials, there are many other explanations for why a treatment seems to work, when it actually doesn't. This series of posts aims to address those explanations and to highlight how anecdotal evidence is no replacement for controlled scientific study.

Closely tied to the placebo, or subject expectancy, effect is observer expectancy effect. This is when an experimenter gets the results (s)he wants through unconscious manipulation. From wikipedia:
"An example of the observer-expectancy effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards. Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds."
In terms of medical effects, this unconscious bias can manifest in the assessment of symptoms (usually qualitative). A rash looks 'better', hair looks shinier, a person looks less tired. Regarding testimonial evidence, it's hard to separate observer expectancy from placebo effect since the person is both the subject and the observer but both can result in positive testimony even in the absence of a working product. Evidence-based medicines rely on double-blind studies (ie. the researcher doesn't know who has been treated and who has been given placebo) to separate real effects from observer bias.


Bayman said...

Nice. Loving this feature. Looking forward to more.

Jeff Milner said...

I've got a site that showcases some examples of backmasking.

It's designed so that you can listen to the backwards clips without knowing the message, and then again with the message revealed.

It still amazes me how the power of suggestion makes one feel like they can actually hear these words.

Anonymous said...

Awesome Jeff.
I always suspected that Satan eats Cheez Whiz

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