The Spurious Use of Pseudo-Science in a Marketing Purpose – or Getting a Bit of Wiggle Room

I’m going to reproduce the graph below, using the defence of “fair use”, before this post disappears.

The Wiggle editor has added a disclaimer to this post which wasn’t there before, to sort-of-distance themselves from the piece after the #boycottwiggle campaign got into gear (ho-ho). Instead, the charity behind the post has been pushed to the front of stage on this one. And I’m pretty sure the blogger’s pseudonym has changed since I read it earlier. 

But it’s still there. An article using a deeply dodgy piece of pseudo-science to try and claim cycling helmets should be compulsory. Odd that a company that sells cycling helmets should try and get them made compulsory.

The questions of whether or not helmets are a good idea at all, and whether they should be compulsory, are complicated and nuanced. I’m not going into them here. You can have a read of this, for assorted similar stuff.

But look at this graph, of deaths in the States while cycling with or without helmets, and the sentence that follows it:

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“With so much evidence to show that helmets save lives you would think that everyone would think that compulsory helmets are a good thing right?”

You know, it knocked me over, did this graph. For a minute I thought, if helmet use makes you so much more safe, we should all wear them.

But you’ve probably seen the flaw in it already. The graph shown is absolutely meaningless, without a vital piece of contextual information. And that piece of information is – the proportion of Americans cycling while wearing helmets.

Do you see? The proposition is expressed as a binary one – people wearing helmets vs people not. Therefore we assume that the rate of wearing vs not wearing helmets must be similar. And so the graph is shocking. But we don’t get told what the ratios are – we’re left to deduce it. And notice the way the number of deaths while wearing helmets jumps towards the end – is that because helmets suddenly became dangerous, or because more people were wearing them?

Let me take a similar example. If that graph were deaths while cycling bare-headed, versus deaths while wearing (it’s America , so let’s go native) 10-gallon hats. We would see far fewer deaths while wearing 10-gallon hats. So 10-gallon hats should be mandatory. Or how about cycling while dressed as the Native American from the Village People? I reckon that would be no deaths. So that’s far safer than cycling without a feathery head-dress.

In fact, if you think about it, if everybody in the USA wore a helmet while cycling, 100% of cycling deaths would involve people wearing helmets. On which basis, helmets should be banned to make everybody safer.

So my moral here is – get the context when someone presents what looks like a scientific argument. Or run the risk that your government insists you have to stick gladioli up your nose before getting on a bike. Nobody with a gladiolus in each nostril died in a cycling accident. It’s a scientific fact. So let’s take no more risks – let’s legislate.

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6 thoughts on “The Spurious Use of Pseudo-Science in a Marketing Purpose – or Getting a Bit of Wiggle Room

      • It’s the pedestrians who need protecting from the cyclists. When I was a lad the police would tell you off if they caught you riding your bike on the pavement and the parkie would shout at you if he caught you riding your bike in the park. Nowadays, adults ride around on bikes on the paths and in parks at full speed with the attitude that everyone else should get out of the way because they are cyclists. When did they change the laws?

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  1. Brilliant catch on the pseudo science. Even I was able to see it right off, and I’m far from scientific or mathematical. As to whether or not it is better to wear a helmet, I just don’t know. Until the science of assuring a full life after head injury catches up with our ability to postpone death the jury is out on helmet/no helmet for me.

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