The Jason Paradox

Clever people believe silly things.

This is why the argument that religion must be intellectually tenable because academics and scientists subscribe to such beliefs holds no water. Of course it could be that religious beliefs actually are true or at least make intellectual sense but we cannot say that that clearly aren’t stupid beliefs just because smart people believe them.

Case in point, my friend Jason. He’s a pretty smart guy, attended the University of Leeds, graduated, now part of the Row 1 team here at BuzzBet.

Yet this morning he dropped into the conversation that he takes vitamin pills.

I was quick to point out that such supplements have been scientifically shown under double blind trials involving huge sample sizes not only not to have any positive health benefits but also to have a negative impact on your health.

At very best when you buy vitamin supplements you are wasting your money, at worse you may be increasing your risk of mortality by up to 16%. While it is easy to dismiss such claims when published in the Daily Mail, it is a different matter when such research is published by medical journals and endorsed by the NHS.

And yet Jason’s response was “well, I’m still going to take them.”

Indeed it went as far as “it provides me with vitamins, how can it not be good for me?”

I’m not exactly sure whether this is a problem with credulity in the vitamin companies or incredulity in the scientific community or perhaps even a third option – his dad works for a vitamin supplement company and he assures me that they do a lot of research and development which at first seems to give the idea some substance but then here is an organisation which does homeopathic R&D so it is apparently quite possible to waste time and money thinking or pretending you’re researching a topic which has been scientifically proven to be bullshit (as if you need to look beyond common sense to see that the idea water has a memory of certain incredibly diluted ingredients but has forgotten all the piss and shit it’s been in is anything other than 18th century quackery).

This to me then brings up two questions. Firstly why does Jason, even know he has been presented with the evidence that vitamin supplements don’t work, still subscribe to the idea? Secondly, what can I do to persuade him out of such a belief?

I don’t think either question has an easy answer or indeed one single answer but I will float a few possibilities. Actually the possibilities bare as much of a striking resemblance to the religious topics I usually deal with in day to day life as the scenario which I have so far posed does.

Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly if I had thought about it), the main claim was that of personal experience. Jason claims that he has been taking the tablets for a while and rarely gets ill. Except colds of course – they don’t count, apparently. Bare in mind that he is taking vitamin C tablets and therefore the only illness it really protects against is scurvy. I of course countered this by saying I haven’t been ill recently and I’m not taking vitamin supplements but I can’t imagine this counted for much in the same way you’re not going to convince the religious out of their belief because you “personally, have not experienced god.”

The second claim was that on a scientific basis, or at least a pseudo-scientific one. The argument followed “everyone knows vitamins are good for you, the tablets contain vitamins, therefore they must be good for you.” The counter arguments for this is that you can’t say there is a definite connection there as maybe you need to take them in via eating fruit and that scientific studies have shown that too much vitamins aren’t good for you and probably others which I can’t think of right now but I think a more important point is that the scientific studies show that taking vitamin supplements aren’t good for you and therefore it is fallacious to then build an argument for them from a scientific standpoint.

The other point I found interesting was I brought up the idea of a healthy balanced diet and Jason immediately jumped in and said “well I have a healthy balanced diet as well – their supplements, they go on top of that.” It would seem possible for someone to eat a healthy balanced diet which includes all the vitamins and minerals and would help prevent us falling ill, and yet accredit the lack of illness down to the placebo pills you’re taking on top.

I guess there is also the idea that you have invested time and money in a belief and so you don’t want it to turn out to be false. This is something that Christopher Hitchens often comments on when he talks about the end of the Soviet Union where the communists knew the game was up but didn’t want to let go of their dream.

As for persuading people out of such beliefs, I think education and critical thinking are probably the key. I’m sure I, once upon a time, didn’t go “vitamin supplements huh? Let me just check what the actual scientific basis for such claims are.” I’m sure most people still don’t – as anyone who goes out and buys a 12 mega pixel phone camera will prove.

How interested people are in learning this is another matter though. Jason for example did not seem particularly concerned it was taking at best placebos and at worst a potentially harmful pill every morning. Similarly the anti-wrinkle industry is built on the idea that people just aren’t interested in the truth – the news that Boots had developed the first anti-wrinkle cream that actually may work has done little to dent the sales of other brands.

I would love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on this, especially if anyone else has had a similar experience, I would imagine many of us have.



Don't have time to check my blog? Get a weekly email with all the new posts. This is my personal blog, so obviously it is 100% spam free.


This entry was posted on Monday, November 2nd, 2009 at 2:42 pm and is filed under Friends, Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.