Last week the makers of Airborne, an herbal supplement once claimed to help prevent and cure the common cold, agreed to pay over $23 million to settle a false advertising class action lawsuit.
Despite a lack of scientific evidence that the remedy worked as initially advertised, many of Airborne’s defenders believe that the supplement is effective, and that people wouldn't use the product if it didn't work. There was a similar reaction earlier in the winter when the efficacy of children's cough medicines was questioned.
The idea that people wouldn't continue to do things if they didn't work is very common, and on a superficial level it makes some sense. It's also absolutely false.
People do things all the time that don't work—and they do them again and again. The problem is that it's often not clear whether something "works" or not, especially when it comes to health issues. A body is not like a car, for example. A car either works or does not work, and the remedies taken to fix a problem either work or do not work. This is pretty clear-cut.
Medical issues are far more ambiguous and subjective. We know, for example, that the placebo effect can reduce the pain that a person feels even though they were not actually given a painkiller. Let's look a little more closely at the testimonials for Airborne, as posted by users for an ABCNews.com story:
One wrote, "I used it and works for me. I used to suffer from colds, but for some reason taking Airborne has reduced the frequency significantly." Another, reflecting a touch of conspiracy theory, wrote "Airborne has always worked for me and my family. It may not be FDA approved, but it still works. Someone is afraid that it really works and got scared that it just might be a good thing."
Clearly many people believe that the remedy is effective, but just because they believe it works doesn't mean that it does. Here's why: Users have nothing to compare their experience to; there is no alternative set of conditions. This is what doctors call a control group, and it is an important part of science.
How do the Airborne users know that the product worked? Because they didn't get a cold? Maybe, but not everyone catches a cold when they expect to, even when others around them are sick. We (and they) don't know how many colds—if any—the person would have gotten if they had not taken the herbal remedy. If they used Airborne and didn't get a cold, they will likely assume the supplement prevented it. On the other hand, if they used the remedy and did catch a cold, they may still believe that the medicine worked, assuming that the pills probably prevented two or three other colds! As decades of research on placebos shows, whether the preventive measures actually work or not has little to do with whether people believe they do.
Danger of false cures
While colds are miserable but pretty minor, a mistaken belief in the efficacy of medical treatments has killed many people.
People used to believe that disease was caused by an imbalance of fluids in the body called humors. There were four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. Working under this premise, physicians treated patients by trying to restore balance among the humors. Bloodletting was a common treatment (veins would be opened with knives and leeches applied to sick patients), along with the use of laxatives and purgatives. A minority of patients (those who didn't die from severe blood loss or infection) recovered and thanked the doctors for their effective treatment.
Airborne's CEO, Elise Donahue, claimed that "Airborne … helps your body build a healthy immune system. When you have a healthy immune system, then it allows your body, on its own, to fight off germs."
It is certainly true that having a strong immune system helps fight off disease. But there are many ways to boost your immune system, and most are cheap or free. Getting enough exercise and sleep are two ways, and (unlike Airborne's pills) they are proven and don't cost a dime.
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Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about psychological fallacies and alternative medicine in his book "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking." This and other books can be found on his website.