When Myth Trumps Science

I fell in love with dalmatians when I watched Disney back in communist Romania. We were allowed to stay forever in a movie house with one ticket, and my doting parents each had to endure me begging them to stay and watch 100 Dalmatians twice in a row. This of course was before anyone dreamed of tapes or DVDs and we were lucky to have a camera and slide film, that was a luxury.

I had to wait ’till I was 30 and living in California to own a Dalmatian. Djin-Djin came to us at age 2, unneutered male, AKC-registered, a beautiful example of his breed. He had also been in four households by age 2. He was nuts. My love of the breed, based on the mythical dogs made famous by Disney, was strong. I pooh-pooed any “real” information about Dalmatians needing expert handling, training, and so on. I was in love.

Myths can help us grow and learn
Maybe we really need some myths. Like many other people getting animals, I took on a difficult dog because of the myth. Myths may get us started on a journey, and it’s up to us to change how we travel along that path. Ignoring the warnings about a possibly difficult breed turned out ok for me. Djin-Djin was with me until tumors cut his life short at age 10. We overcame challenges, but I had a working knowledge of animal training and my rural life meant lots of space.

This is not the only time I flaunted reality-as-others-saw-it. I was 100% sure I was ready for my mare, my first horse in California, little did I know what a learning experience that was going to become. Yes, “learning experience” is a code for … that’s a story for another time!

The myths we love
But aside from our initial choice of pets and horses –how often do we rely on myths when we interact with our beloved critters? All the time! Real research into animal psychology is a relatively new field. Proper science protocols separating anecdote from proven results are not easy to implement (read: studies cost money and time.)

And most of us, think we know more than we do. The myths grow on us because they appear to be “true.”

One example: hitting an animal as a punishment
We witnessed an incident in which a trusted mentor, teacher or parent or instructor or someone on TV advocates “being the boss” and showing that by hitting an animal. It may have actually “worked” in that one circumstance and possibly the offending behavior was not repeated. Culturally, the myth that hitting animals creates discipline is powerful; same with spanking children .. or wives .. or slaves .. “for their own good,” of course.

When should we drop the Myth and adopt new procedures?
Like all “good” myths, physical punishment has a kernel of truth — *in some limited cases,* with disclaimers and exact conditions needing to be considered.

So why is there so much resistance to learning how to discipline our critters or children without physical violence? We are fortunate that “gentle” education has made huge strides– still, throughout the world and in pockets here in USA, hitting is advocated as a tool for education.

An illusory correlation

    Once we believe something, whether it’s truth or myth, we begin to see confirmation in the world around us. In psychology, Alcock explains, this is known as an illusory correlation: making connections between particular events that line up with our beliefs about the world. “We can become attached to beliefs that seem to serve a function for us,” Alcock explains, “and we don’t like to give them up even if they’re false because they seem too true to be false.” This is especially true when we get information from a trusted source.

That’s York University psychologist James Alcock, quoted in Newsweek.

    He “admits that it’s difficult to trace where beliefs start. “Even as individuals we usually can’t explain where beliefs come from,” says Alcock, who is currently at work on a book about the psychology of belief.”

Guess I’ll have to check that book out. Meanwhile, I’ll leave the behavioral myths for a field that — one would assume .. hope! — we have LOTS of good research and good data to support our myths or replace them with facts.

Human Health: When Myth Trumps Science
Sarah Kliff writes in Newsweek, May 27, 2009:

    Whether it’s thinking that vitamin C can cure a cold, or that you must drink eight glasses of water a day, people cling to outdated medical lore long after it’s been shown to be wrong. Here’s why.
    Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll weren’t looking to start a controversy. They’re both pediatricians at Indiana University who, as a side project to their day jobs, put together a study on a few medical myths that many doctors believe.

    The results weren’t exactly earth-shattering: they revealed that you don’t actually need to drink eight glasses of water and nails do not continue to grow after death. And the research definitely wasn’t new. “We looked through old research and basically put it all together,” explains Vreeman.

    But from the reactions that Vreeman and Carroll got, you’d think they were questioning the very flatness of the earth. They received hundreds of e-mails from strangers and dozens of media requests.

We are talking about children. And about daily decision making for us humans who want to be healthy.

What about horses and dogs and other animals, wild and domestic? I can think of a bazzilion examples when myth and imagination trumped even the most basic fact-finding mission when it comes to animal care. One tragic example from the past: when infant chimps and gorillas were seized by butchering their relatives in the jungles then stuck in a bare cage and fed only bananas. They died, one can debate whether their broken hearts or poor diet offerings killed them first.

When scientists protest research
More from Newsweek:

    Now, the authors are back with Don’t Swallow Your Gum! (Griffin Original), a book of medical myths and half-truths that will be published next week. Among the 66 myths, there’s something to surprise everyone: that, despite what Mom told us, vitamin C does not cure a cold and even the highest SPF sunscreen will not prevent all sunburns.

    But what’s more surprising than the myths they debunk, is how strongly their friends, colleagues and readers protested their research.

Ok, I don’t have time to seek a bunch of links of who, what, how exactly scientists or MDs (the “colleagues”) protested that particular research. For now, I’ll trust that Indiana pediatricians’ Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll research was “protested” — mind you, not refuted by another serious study, but “protested.”

My goal is simple: the next time new, credible, serious data aims to change how we train, feed, manage our animals .. and we resist any such change .. I can point to these human studies and say, it’s just human nature.

Last words on this topic, for today
I’m not one to jump on new fads. I also mistrust a lot of headlines, indeed, the research itself. Wasn’t life easier when all you needed to know on how to raise your children was taught to you by your own family, mother, aunts, the community?! Wasn’t life easier when all you needed to know about your animals was taught to you by your grandfather on the family ranch?

Maybe, maybe not. Fact is our health and the health of our animals has improved a lot because we have ditched some traditions in favor of new products, new findings and so on. How to discern between fads (leave it) and facts (study before adapting to your life) that’s a whole ‘nother story.

When Myth Trumps Science, by Sarah Kliff, May 27, 2009

Don’t Swallow Your Gum!, by Dr. Aaron E. Carroll and Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman
Myths, half-truths and outright lies about your body and health

James E. Alcock, Professor of Psychology at York University (Canada)


One Response to “When Myth Trumps Science”

  1. PDeverit Says:

    Useful info-
    Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education

    Good read:
    Plain Talk About Spanking
    by Jordan Riak

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