What’s Truth Got to Do With It?
Jacob Schor ND FABNO
October 28, 2008

Tina Turner received a Grammy back in 1985 for her hit, “What’s love got to do with it?”
In my mind, this lyric has been transformed by this season’s political campaigning to “What’s truth got to do with it?”

The current campaign season has impressed me by what seems like a blatant disregard for the truth by politicians in both advertising and stump speeches. Even after their claims have been questioned and proven inaccurate, they continue to employ false arguments without hesitation. It would seem that the new criteria for differentiating truth from fiction is number of repetitions rather than evidence.

Jim Giles writing in the October 10 issue of New Scientist attempted to explain this phenomenon. Mr. Giles in asking how politicians get away with this writes, “Ignorance is part of the answer. Many voters will never read the newspaper article or watch the news broadcasts that reveal the true situation. But psychology is also at work.”

Giles explains that our brains make shortcuts to make sense of the world around us, “we tend to arrange the world into categories. This saves thinking time…” It’s our own brains at work that allows the politicians to get away with this. Clearly political strategists have learned to exploit our inclination to categorize and have calculated the cost of lying is outweighed by the power to win votes.

We categorize things and people. During the election season we often categorize people and messages as Republican of Democratic. Strategists employ this tendency to sort information and don’t mind using inaccurate data to reinforce preconceived notions.

Giles credits this appreciation of deceptive campaigning strategy with research going back almost 30 years: “Experiments conducted in the 1980s by Milton Lodge and Ruth Hamill at the State University of New York at Stony Brook examined how beliefs and stereotypes, such as those associated with gender or race, affect the way that voters analyze candidates. They found that correct information about a candidate was often forgotten or misinterpreted if it conflicted with the way voters categorized that politician.

It is this that the campaigns are tapping into when they release false information. Palin's misstatements on the Bridge to Nowhere have not attracted much attention with voters in spite of stoking media discussion, because Palin is a Republican and so is expected to want to cut back on government spending.” In this example it was incorrect information that was accepted because it was congruent with the way voters had categorized the source.

This process of accepting statements as true just because they make sense based on our brains’ tendency to categorize, “has now been modeled for political beliefs by Nathan Collins, a political scientist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. In a paper being considered for publication by The Journal of Politics, he finds that voters are more likely to misremember a candidate's position if it conflicts with the party line”

Campaign strategy today focuses on key words and images that trigger our brains to put the candidate in a preferred category. Actual content and meaning is far less important and facts, come after that.

[From the photo on his bio-page at the Santa Fe Institute it appears Collins can pull off a pretty decent telemark ski turn.]

All this boils down to, ‘We only hear what we expect to hear and see what we expect to see.’

A similar phenomenon happens all too often in the practice of medicine. This is well understood by drug sales representatives. Is there another explanation for the multitude of free pens and other logo embossed stuff littering doctors’ offices? Though the talk in progressive medical circles is of evidence based medicine, the same sort of phenomenon can occur in medicine as in politics. We only see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear.

I’m reading Nortin Hadler’s book, "Worried Sick: A prescription for health in an overtreated America." Dr. Hadler warns against a ‘culture of medicalization’ in which consumers have been trained to believe “that life’s challenges require medical intervention when science dictates otherwise.” Hadler goes through each of the common accepted medical treatments calling into question the assumption that they have been proven efficacious. His attacks are heresy to our commonly held beliefs; he goes after mammography, colorectal screening, statin drugs, coronary bypass surgery and coronary stents and the rest, arguing that the evidence does not support claimed benefits.

Of course it’s not just ‘straight medicine’ that’s at fault. Users of alternative medicine may be at even greater fault. We persist in believing antiquated theories decades after they should have been discarded. For example, the idea that eating more alkaline foods will change cancer tumor pH and kill the cancer cells should have been dropped half a century ago. Yet rarely does a week go by without a patient telling me they are following this sort of diet. We leap onto new strategies of treatment long before the evidence fully supports their use. It’s embarrassing but I know of colleagues who charge patients money for Detox foot baths. We only notice studies that support a new therapy while those that detract from its use are invisible.

Our patients tell us about discussions they have had with their medical doctors and are aghast that their doctors have never heard of the interventions we suggest and have no interest in investigating further. It is that same I only see what I expect to see, hear what I expect to hear mindset at work

The ability to categorize our life experience is a lifesaver. If one were to suddenly de-categorize all one’s sensory input, memories, and knowledge, the experience would probably be one of overwhelming chaos. We cling to our internal systems that organize the world. They provide safety. People that would attempt to open our minds to new ways of seeing things are viewed with suspicion and resistance. They threaten us. This may explain the attitude we sometimes see on the part of some medical practitioners were patients attempt to explain some complementary therapy we may have suggested.

Writing this brings to mind a JAMA article from last January written by Erick Turner at the VA Medical Center in Portland. Turner and his colleagues got hold of reviews conducted by the FDA on 74 clinical trials of antidepressant drugs. The FDA concluded that about half the time, in 38 of the 74 trials, the data showed symptoms improved using the drugs. About one-third, 24 of the 74, of the trials showed no benefits. The remaining 12 trials showed mixed results that weren’t conclusive.

Turner then looked at which of the studies were published. He reported that 37 of the 38 studies that concluded antidepressants work were published. Of the remaining 36 studies that did not show positive results only 14 were published. Of those 14, all managed to put a positive spin in their conclusions to the negative results.

I can hear Tina Turner singing, “What’s truth got to do with it?”

The busier the world gets and the more new information we are exposed to, the greater our need grows to simplify information and categorize it. Otherwise how can we keep up with it all? As a result we are left with a conundrum, the easier it is to research and find out the truth, the easier it has become to believe falsehoods.

How do we pull ourselves out of the habit? As far as politics, Collins, suggests that FactCheck.org “should be compulsory reading for any American with a vote.”

Unfortunately, as far as medicine goes it is difficult to find an equivalent unbiased website. The Cochrane Collaboration has done some interesting work in this area producing carefully researched and written overviews of current research on specific topics including natural medicine.


Cochrane Collaboration:


Watch Tina perform What’s Love Got to Do With it:


Read an interview with Nortin Hadler, MD: