There are several critical thinking errors associated with wellness, an intentionally vague term that can mean most anything a marketer, company, or user wishes it to.
Some of these are among the most frequent logical fallacies, such as the ad populum. Here, the ubiquity and popularity of a product is considered synonymous with its efficiency. Sometimes products sell because they work but other times it is due to who is endorsing it, a savvy marketing approach, or manipulated data.
Another frequent fallacy which is seen in wellness products is the appeal to tradition. While some traditions endure because they are good, others exist only because that’s the way we’ve always done it (i.e. circumcision or the Lions playing on Thanksgiving). Tradition is another way of saying inertia and the duration something has been done has no bearing on its soundness. If I punched myself in the mouth every morning, that would be a bad idea. At no point would it morph into a good idea because it had been done for a certain time length.
Still another frequent fallacy that makes its way into wellness marketing is the appeal to nature. This extends to other areas too, where with the exception of motor oil, synthetic is presumed to be undesirable. Appealing to nature is gold for the wellness industry since it targets those who think they are getting back to the way things were in a glorious past, be that our grandparents’ time or the Paleo era.
Proponents will use “natural” and let the assumption be that means foods the way nature intended. Or it is meant to bring to mind snowcapped mountains and flowing streams when it also means arsenic and box jellyfish venom.
I sometimes see a putative list of ingredients in fries or chicken sandwiches as sold in the US as opposed to their counterparts in other countries. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of either nation’s food constituency, but the implication is that the number of ingredients, along with their polysyllabic nature, means they are dangerous. There is no truth to this. Writing for Skeptical Inquirer, Nick Tiller gave this example: “Consider two glucose molecules —one synthesized in a lab and one found in nature. Both have the chemical formula C6H12O6, both appear as identical under an electron microscope, and both will have an identical effect on the body when consumed.”
Now we’ll move onto some fallacies that are less seen in general but which are still common in the wellness industry. We’ll start with the use of pseudoscience. This refers to using scientific terms improperly or fabricating terminology designed to sound scientific. In any event, the goal is to obfuscate.
Tiller cited the PowerBalance bracelet that enjoyed popularity among elite athletes early this century. It purported to harness the power of “holographic technology,” which is not a thing, with the bracelets said to be “embedded with frequencies that react positively with the body’s energy fields.” Frequency, positivity, and energy are all legitimate scientific terms but as used here are meaningless. Always beware of references to energy and remember that this refers to “measurable work capability.” Insert this phrase in place of “energy” when you see it in ads and it will usually become clear that the claim is absurd.
Along with energy, other words frequently bandied about are balance, immunity, and anti-inflammatory. Again, these are all valid concepts but likely are not so in the way they are used in wellness advertisements. At other times, the peddlers will just coin a term like bioharmonic in hopes of impressing the scientifically illiterate.
While hardly the exclusive purview of wellness, the industry it often guilty of observational selection, which refers to only counting the results you like. I have gone on extreme diets before and lost 25 pounds in a matter of a few weeks. I could highlight this as a success, but to tell the whole story, I would need to tell what happened when I went back to my old habits rather than instituting a lifestyle change. Ignoring such stories enables companies to tell the truth, but not the whole truth.
We also often see a confusing of correlation with causation, often in the form of post hoc reasoning. There might be a connection or it might by coincidence or it could be causation. But we need data and double blind studies to determine this, not anecdotes. As Tiller explained, “Personal accounts trigger emotion and contrast sharply with empty messages from large data sets of cold numbers and statistics. Products are often sold alongside customer testimonials and ‘before and after’ images to compensate for a lack of scientific legitimacy.”