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Victor Dominocielo: Tooth Fairy Science Falls Short

“Tooth Fairy Science” is postulating an improbable, outlandish explanation (or hypothesis) for routine data when much more reasonable hypotheses are available.

This technique, while harmless for the Tooth Fairy, Santa and the Easter Bunny, is very wasteful of investigatory time and research money when applied to scientific subjects. Tooth Fairy Science short-circuits five basic principles of scientific investigation:

» 1. In science, the simplest explanations of events with the fewest assumptions are usually correct (Occam’s razor).

» 2. The “What’s more likely?” question has to be asked when considering a hypothesis.

» 3. The “Where does the preponderance of evidence point?” question should be answered to keep the investigation on track.

» 4. The principle of “Prior Plausibility” must be met — hypotheses must be in line with the basic understandings of physics, chemistry and biology.

» 5. The Null Hypothesis: Science must take the orientation that the hypothesis is not accurate and try to disprove the evidence presented. Tooth Fairy “scientists,” on the other hand, are always trying to prove that their improbable hypotheses are correct.

Hypothesizing farfetched explanations of events that are unreasonable and then collecting real world data does not confirm the unreasonable explanation. In the case of Tooth Fairy Science, the data only confirm the data. A tooth fairy researcher might ask: How much money was left? Coins or dollars? More for the first tooth? Was the money left on top of the pillow or underneath? This type of data can also be collected for Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. The more probable cause of the data (parental gift giving) is intentionally not considered.

A researcher could spend years examining the vast amount of anecdotal data collected on Bigfoot and ghosts. For Bigfoot, there are noises in the woods, fuzzy pictures and thousands of anecdotal stories that confirm that there are, without a doubt, noises in the woods, long distance, fuzzy pictures of mammals and that people will say anything. Reports of ghosts are either dead relatives who refuse to leave or … the result of the powerful “sensed presence” effect and “sleep paralysis” that is fairly common among human beings. What explanation is more likely?

There is data since the 1940s on UFO sightings and, more recently, crop circles. Unexplained lights in the sky are either alien visitors or high altitude test flights. Crop circles are, most certainly, proof that an advanced civilization spent years of its time and most of its wealth to fly to our planet and … cut the grass … or farmer John got drunk one night and took the tractor for a spin. What explanation makes the fewest assumptions?

Most of these Tooth Fairy beliefs involve thousands of anecdotal stories that are mistaken by their believers to be significant evidence. However, “the plural of anecdotal stories is not scientific evidence,” says Michael Shermer, columnist for Scientific American. Unfortunately, these personal stories, testimonies, reports, etc., are influenced by emotion, bias and faulty perception. We all tend to focus on and see what we want to see and hear what our biases want us to hear. This human pre-disposition to self-delusion is the rationale for the existence of Science. Without science, self-delusion rules.

Perhaps the worst example of the self-delusion inherent in Tooth Fairy Science comes from the C.I.A., that is the Complementary, Integrative and Alternative folk medicine people. The situation is so unscientific that “Tooth Fairy Folk Medicine” might be a more accurate term.

Why do we continue to propose fantastic, immeasurable and supernatural mechanisms for such a well-studied area of human biology as is our disease process? It’s understandable that thousands of years ago we explained the natural and normal disease process as mystical. It’s understandable that we looked to the supernatural 500 years ago or even 200 years ago, but for how long are we going to continue to explain the natural process of getting sick and getting well by immaterial energies and invisible body parts?

Alternative folk medicine practitioners have constructed a magical world in which “anything cures everything.” Pick any brand of folk medicine, its practitioners will perform some type of theatrical display and then claim to cure everything from headaches to cancer. The therapeutic environment is ripe for this type of self-delusion: Most illnesses get better on their own, the placebo effect is reliably generated by every conscious patient in any therapeutic environment, the patient desires to get well and the practitioner wants to heal. Self-delusion is rampant in these circumstances.

If a sugar pill, the white lab coat and the stethoscope around the doctor’s neck can induce a patient to produce a placebo effect, then anything can. Every society and culture on Earth has been proving this continuously since the beginning of recorded history. At different times and in different places, human civilization has marveled in the amazingly “curative” powers of witchcraft, bloodletting, auras, energy attunement, vibrations, iridology, nano particles, reflexology, snake oil, homeopathy, voodoo, balancing the four humors, invisible meridians, releasing evil spirits from the blood, moxibustion, ear candling and, lest we not forget that contemporary paragon of human gullibility and confirmation bias, Tong Ren doll tapping.

Either all these manifestations of magical energies and invisible body parts are true and “work” or it’s the placebo effect combined with doctor and patient biases. What explanation is more likely, and where does the preponderance of evidence lie?

Tooth Fairy folk medicine also violates the scientific concept of prior plausibility: their belief-based mechanisms do not operate according the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology.  There is only one way to counter the self-delusion that is inherent in the therapeutic environment: medical practice and protocols have to follow researched based, scientific experimentation.

All these manifestations of human belief and cultural expression, from the Tooth Fairy to Bigfoot and on to alternative folk medicines, provide a rich and varied history of our civilization. But please, just don’t call them science.

— Victor Dominocielo, M.A., a California-credentialed teacher for 37 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. He earned his master of arts degree in education from UCSB. The opinions expressed are his own.

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