Science, schmience. It works for me!

Disturbing trend in non-reasoning – still take a supplement even if it’s ineffective.

The real reason we take supplements, even if they don’t work.

Taking supplements is common among U.S. adults, and the most oft-cited reasons people give for taking them are wanting to feel better, improving energy levels and boosting the immune system, a new survey finds.

But these aims have little to do with measurable improvements to health, the researchers said. Moreover, most people taking supplements indicated that the supplements’ proven effectiveness didn’t matter to them – only 25 percent said they would stop taking a supplement if it was found to be ineffective, according to the survey.

“We call this the ‘effective for me’ attitude,” said study researcher Kathleen Weldon, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. “As long as something is safe, people think they are a better expert on whether it works for them, better than any clinical trial.”

The survey of 1600 people is published here. People use herbs, fish oil, and other food derivitives thinking they are doing something positive for their health. They are often completely unaware that not only are such products poorly regulated for efficacy (and safety) but they may interact with prescription drugs or cause other problems.

Yet, as the piece notes, people are more swayed by their own personal subjective experiences (likely to be misinterpreted) instead of scientific evidence. That’s bad. I suspect the same would show up if we asked about alternative treatments as well. What can we do about it?

Tip: David Bloomberg

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  11 comments for “Science, schmience. It works for me!

  1. Richard
    December 3, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    The comments in the article you have listed would indicate that the findings in that survey are quite correct. The comments are a never ending sting of “They work for me!”, “The FDA wants to kill you”, and other alt med psyco babble.

  2. One Eyed Jack
    December 3, 2012 at 3:21 PM

    Are we including multivitamins in this? I know a multivitamin isn’t necessary if you have balanced diet, but I recognize that I don’t eat enough veggies. It’s a habit that isn’t likely to change, so I take the vitamin which I figure is better than nothing.

    • goddessofstuff
      December 3, 2012 at 3:50 PM

      I’ve been wondering about that myself. A few girlfriends and I are getting together on a health kick, trying to change our bad habits and all of that, and the topic turned to vitamins and supplements. They swear by herbal supplements like ginger & st. johns wort. I remember reading something about those not being effective, but couldn’t direct them to a credible source (and forgot about it till now, so I haven’t looked for one). I do take a daily “for women” multivitamin for the same reason you said. My diet is limited and I know I don’t get enough fruits & vegetables or calcium. And I’ve been told I’m a good candidate for osteoporosis in my later years. I guess it’s time to do some actual research on the subject…

    • December 3, 2012 at 8:55 PM

      It did not include vitamins and mineral supplements.

  3. Mr. Shreck
    December 3, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    I understand the methodological preference for controlled studies and the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, but is it necessarily always non-reason? My doctor prescribed fish oil to me about eighteen months ago for cholesterol. This was in addition to the statin I had already been taking for some time. Since beginning the fish oil, my lipid numbers have been consistently better despite otherwise essentially unchanged diet and lifestyle.

    So, what is more rational? That I continue to take a supplement when I have personal evidence of the change in my health status (not some subjective feel-good thing but a measurable lab value) or that I stop taking the supplement because theoretically more rigorous studies have said they are ineffective?

    • December 3, 2012 at 8:58 PM

      You could be wasting your money. Many people use the excuse, “it doesn’t hurt”. Mostly it doesn’t but it can get costly and can lead to other products that may be harmful.

      There really is no good reason for taking substances for better health when they don’t actually do that. It is unreasonable to waste money on a “feel good” pill that is just a placebo.

      • Mr. Shreck
        December 4, 2012 at 9:51 AM

        But I’m not making the superstitious “it doesn’t hurt” claim nor one based on subjective feeling. I am citing measurable changes in my blood work. My question was why would it be “non-reason” to ignore the case-specific data in front of me in favor of a study that concludes it isn’t effective at the population level.

        • EvilTwinSelf
          December 4, 2012 at 11:33 AM

          The problem with looking at individual cases is that there is no way to be sure whether any changes seen are caused by the medication or intervention rather than just random chance or other factors, and the problem with looking at your own case is that it is very hard to be completely objective about your own symptoms.

          • Mr. Shreck
            December 4, 2012 at 12:04 PM

            I seem to have gone down the rabbit hole here following the specific mention of fish oil because it was named in the commentary. It turns out the NIH at least does claim it is effective for what I use it for:

            http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/993.html#Effectiveness

            So sorry if I have wasted anyone’s time. Guess I don’t need the special pleading after all. :-)

          • One Eyed Jack
            December 4, 2012 at 3:42 PM

            Actually, when we’re considering body chemistry, individual cases are the very best determination. People react differently to specific diets, medications, etc. This is why medications are never prescribed on a flat, X amount for any patient. It always has to be individualized.

            Sure, it’s not good for broad study of efficacy, but when it comes to application, every patient needs to be treated as an individual.

            • EvilTwinSelf
              December 5, 2012 at 11:34 AM

              Fair point. I was making a more general comment based on cases where large studies showed that something had no effect but individuals claimed they could see effects in themselves (which is where the article was at). I should also clarify that I am no way suggesting “Mr. Shreck” should ignore the advice of his doctor.

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