Aug 05 2013

Changing Your Fate

There is a cartoonish sight gag that I have seen multiple times – a patient lying ill in a hospital bed has some indicator of their health, on a chart or monitor. The doctor comes by an flips the downward trending chart into an upward trending one, or adjusts the monitor so the readings are more favorable, and the patient improves.

This is a joke that a child can understand, even if they don’t explicitly understand that the humor lies in the reversal of cause and effect. And yet more subtle or complex forms of this same flawed reasoning is quite common, especially in the world of pseudoscience.

Even in medicine we can fall for this fallacy. We often measure many biological parameters to inform us about the health of our patients. When the numbers are out of the normal range it is tempting to take direct action to correct those numbers, rather than address the underlying process for which they are markers. Medical students have to learn early on to treat the patient, not the numbers.

Of course when the underlying belief is magical, rather than scientific, it is hard to argue against just changing the signs so that the reading is more favorable. Since the cause and effect is pure magic to begin with, does reversing it make it any worse?

Apparently not – at least for those in Japan who still believe in palmistry, according to the Daily Beast. At least one cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Matsuoka, is offering surgery to change the lines in the palm of your hand in order to change your fortune. Living longer, therefore, is just a matter of extending the life line.  Of course this is absurd, but is it really more absurd than palmistry itself?

Dr. Matsuoka does not make direct claims about the efficacy of his procedure, but does justify it with the placebo effect and anecdotes:

“If people think they’ll be lucky, sometimes they become lucky.”

There is some truth to that, actually. Belief in being lucky or fortunate does seem to lead people to exploit more opportunities because they are more positive about their chances of success. This reasoning could be used, however, to defend any superstition, and it’s difficult to measure the psychological benefit against the risks of being that gullible and believing in magic.

He also reports:

The woman with the early wedding line wrote to the doctor that she got married soon after he had performed the operation. Two male patients wrote to him that they had won the lottery after the surgery. His luckiest patient collected more than $30,000 (3 million yen).

Well, there you go. I have no way to counter these completely unsubstantiated anecdotes.

Now excuse me while I roll back the mileage on my car. It’s been acting up a bit lately and I’m hoping this will make it run more like it did when it was new.

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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Changing Your Fate”

  1. Bronze Dogon 05 Aug 2013 at 11:07 am

    There is some truth to that, actually. Belief in being lucky or fortunate does seem to lead people to exploit more opportunities because they are more positive about their chances of success.

    Pretty close to how I interpret “fortune favors the bold.”

    Speaking of changing appearances to change the condition, it makes me think of that paragon of woo, homeopathy. We raz on them a lot about absurd dilution, but the underlying idea of the Law of Similars is pretty stupid in itself. Remedies are based on the symptoms they allegedly cause in healthy people, and presumably they cure those symptoms in a sick person. That’s how they determine treatment: They’re out to negate symptoms without any actual thought to the underlying causes.

    And they can’t even do that right.

  2. Skeptical Steelon 07 Aug 2013 at 2:32 am

    It does sound like exactly the kind of hubristic move that would anger the gods in Greek mythology. Then, once they suss you out you end up with dishpan hands for eternity or something.

  3. Bruce Woodwardon 07 Aug 2013 at 5:10 am

    Our destinies are obviously written in the stars and cutting the palm to change our fortunes would be akin to moving the heavens…

    ???

    No?

    Am I getting my woo’s mixed up here?

  4. Sastraon 07 Aug 2013 at 3:06 pm

    A genuine belief in magic gets along very well with an inflated belief in a powerful mind-body connection.

    The woo never loses. If changing the lines on your hand changes your life, then palmistry is true! But if a critic argues that it can be explained as a purely psychological phenomenon — then the mind creates reality through the magic of belief!

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