"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
June 17, 2014
The Least Reliable Evidence
by Ami Chopine

I'm writing this from outside of a little town in Montana, where my sister now lives. This is the first time we've been even in this part of the state. It's beautiful and I'm in a good place with family I don't get to see very often. 

We got here because we followed a map (from our cell phones), the rules of the road, and drove an incredible piece of machinery designed by our human knowledge of natural laws. All of these things have been developed through careful observation. If we had used bad directions, broken laws, or used machinery that was badly designed we would have been unable to get here.

It was science that gave us this ability.

It's also science — careful observation and questioning — that scientists use to understand how our bodies work and how they can be helped (if possible) when we become ill or injured.

There are so many directions out there for these things, told to us by so many people, all of whom want our money. How can we tell if a treatment or supplement someone has told us to try is actually effective? What kinds of observations or studies should we be looking for? 

The least reliable kind of observation is anecdotal evidence — stories or testimonials. Why? Even though they may be the most emotionally involving type of evidence, a story is about only one person’s experience with an illness and its hypothetical treatment. Every person’s body and environment is different. 

Cancer, for instance, can sometimes go into spontaneous remission. Interestingly enough, it used to happen a lot more often — before the discovery of antibiotics. People who had cancer and got serious, life-threatening infections would sometimes go into remission. Why? Because the tumor cells were less resilient to the infection and died faster than healthy cells.

But there are other reasons, sometimes totally unknown, that cancer can stop growing or even shrink.  If someone happens to be taking a treatment at the time, one can’t be completely sure if the remission was spontaneous or a result of the treatment.

Things get even more complicated when we aren’t talking about serious illnesses — things that are self-limiting like common colds. Did the treatment actually reduce the illness by a few days, or was it just shorter by nature? Did you not get it because you were taking lots of vitamins or herbs, or because you actually had that cold last month so you had immunity? Or just happened to not get exposed?

And if the anecdote is hearsay, or in any kind of advertising, it’s even less reliable since you have no way of knowing if it’s even a true experience.

To get a really accurate idea of if a treatment works, you need a lot of stories. That’s all a study really is: a lot of stories about a treatment working (or not). This way, we begin to see if such a treatment is universally effective.

The more people that participate in a treatment study (the sample size), the more accurate that study will be. A larger sample size reduces the effect that unusual treatment events will have on the results.

But there is another effect of treatment. Doing anything, even if it were totally useless against an illness or symptom, makes a person feel better than doing nothing. Or, in the case of appearances (products like wrinkle creams), we fool ourselves into thinking we look better. We have more power over our bodies than we think.

This placebo effect needs to be accounted for.

A blind study is good. That’s when half of the treatments are fake — placebo pills or injections — and patients don’t know if they are taking the drug under study or the fake treatment that does nothing.

Unfortunately, if the providers giving the treatment know which patient has the real treatment or the fake, they might give accidental cues or even take the history differently and skew the results.

So it’s better if the providers don’t know either. Only the test administrators know which patients are having the treatment — and sometimes there is even another layer of administration that doesn’t know between the providers and distributors. The providers submit each patient’s results, and then the data are all compiled.

This is the best way to reduce the human effect — error or believing that they are getting better. This is a double-blind study and it’s the best kind of study you can have to prove that a treatment is actually effective.

If someone says there has been a study about a supplement or treatment that proves it works, find out what kind of a study it is. The larger the sample size, the better, and look for double blind studies.

The procedures for testing treatments are designed to eliminate as much human error as possible. The idea is to get to the real truth, not what we wish is true.  

Always test the claims people make. Just saying there have been studies to prove it doesn’t mean the claim is true. Check into the study, evaluate if it was well designed or not. Not even all scientific journals are good sources. Some have been created simply to publish the poorly done studies often found proving ineffective alternative treatments.

It’s God’s will that the elements obey, not our own. By seeking to find out how they really fulfill the measure of their creation, and by following the principles we learn from that, we are aligning ourselves with God’s will.

Accepting what science has told us about a thing, even if that delivers bad news to us, is another way of accepting God’s will. When we give ourselves up to God in every way, giving up our desires in exchange for what our Heavenly Father wants for us and of us, we will find ourselves at peace and truly free no matter what happens. 

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About Ami Chopine

Ami Chopine started out her mortal existence as a single cell. That cell divided into a collection of cells that cooperated enough to do such things as eat, crawl, walk and eventually read a lot and do grownuppy things.

When she was seven years old, hanging upside down on the monkey bars, she decided she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. Even though she studied molecular biology at the University of Utah, that didn't quite come to pass. She became a writer instead. Still, her passion for science and honest inquiry has remained and married itself to her love of the Gospel. 

Ami is married to Vladimir and together they have four amazing children -- three in college and one in elementary school, where Ami is president of the Family School Organization. Vladimir is the better cook, but Ami is the better baker. She also knits, gardens, stares at clouds, and sings. She can only do three of these at the same time.

Besides two published computer graphics books and several magazine tutorials, she writes science fiction and has a couple of short stories published. You can find her blog at www.amichopine.com.

Ami was surprised to not be given a calling as some kind of teacher the last time she was called into the bishop's office. She currently serves as the Young Women Secretary -- somewhat challenging for the girl whose grandmother used to call the absentminded professor.

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