Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Selection Bias Illustrated

Well this is about the dumbest use of scientific research that I have seen come down the pike in a long time. As the linked article describes, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine gave 36 volunteers the active drug in "magic mushrooms", psilocybin, and then had the test subjects describe their experience. Unsurprisingly, the subjects were somewhat overwhelmed and described profoundly mood altering trips that crossed the border of normal consciousness into the mystical.

Umm, why do you think they call them "hallucinogens"? Are we sure these guys are doctors?

After collecting the data, researchers found that these subjects often described their trips as some of the more profound experiences that they've ever had, bordering on the religious. In some cases people suggested that their behavior was changed for weeks after the experiments. The conclusion that our researchers seemed to draw was that psilocybin held promise for helping people learn to love and care more for their fellow man.

My conclusion, as you can imagine, was somewhat different; Selection bias. Our researchers unwittingly picked an experimental group that needed to get a life:

"The study volunteers had an average age of 46, had never used hallucinogens, and participated to some degree in religious or spiritual activities like prayer, meditation, discussion groups or religious services. Each tried psilocybin during one visit to the lab and the stimulant methylphenidate (better known as Ritalin) on one or two other visits. Only six of the volunteers knew when they were getting psilocybin."

Hmmmmm, lets see.....our subjects averaged 46 years of age. That would mean they went to high school in the late seventies and to college in the early 80's and yet they never, ever managed to use any hallucinogenic substances? What in God's name were they doing then when they put on Dark Side of the Moon?! The obvious answer is that they were doing nothing, that couldn't be accomplished in the AV lounge, or the library - not that there is anything wrong with that - it's just that these folks aren't likely to have had a whole lot of exciting experiences from which they could credibly compare sitting in a lab with a blindfold on tripping their brains out.

I'm not 'fessing up to anything here folks, other than having had a good time in my youth at certain moments, but as any veteran of the '70's will tell you, drugs are not the way to finding spiritual fulfillment, or any sort of inner peace. They're nothing more than a way to check out for a while.

That, and be incredibly entertained by flicking the room lights on and off in time to the beat of the music.

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