A serious problem in our hobby: how do you know what to believe?

I’m fired up again–get ready for a rant. Don’t know why I’m fired up, but I am.

I’m frustrated with all the nonsense that’s out there in the discussion forums. It’s a shame, it can be confusing to the uninitiated and it is a disservice to the hobby. Why is it that we aquarium hobbyists are so easily swayed by ‘the latest’ additive, product or dosing scheme? And why do we accept the general premise that ‘it worked’ with so little evidence?

I think back to when I first started out in the hobby–and how confusing it was. How do you know what to believe? Garlic additives, peroxide dips, vitamin c…sometimes I think we’re all mad scientists more than we are scientists.

How do you know what to believe?
There are so many claims out there, either from companies promoting products with questionable or incomplete data and from hobbyists who are evangelical about the latest fad. What is a hobbyist to do? How do you know what to believe? How do you sort out fact from fiction? How can you tell quantified, time-tested evidence from circumstantial?

Unfortunately, this is a serious problem in our hobby–and I’m not sure there is an easy answer.

The problem

The problem isn’t unique to our hobby. Snake oil has been around longer than the hobby has–and there are snake oil products throughout the mainstream consumer markets. No, the problem isn’t the hobby or slick hucksters trying to make a buck. The problem–is probably in our brains. It’s almost like we’re hard-wired to want to believe this stuff.

Your brain is a supercomputer that looks for patterns and quickly assesses cause and effect. The downside of having such a powerful supercomputer is that you occasionally get ‘false positives’–a false positive is a test result that supports the existence of a connection that isn’t really there. That’s what the hucksters are preying on–and that’s why you just want to believe that the new garlic/vitamin c/omega-3/spriulina/hydrogen peroxide/rotifer/organic/sustainably harvested/green/fossil fuel-free/ fair trade/color enhancing/hunger stimulating/parasite killing/reef-safe/flavor burst/teeth whitening/NOW with condroitin to improve fish flexibility mega vitamin (patent pending) you dosed into your tank for the last month is the source of the boost of growth you witnessed (now that I think about it, it sounds like a good product…).

The Problem

So what can we do about? Well, we can’t swap out our brains–and while brains are on the menu for the upcoming zombie apocalypse, I think there are three things we can do that are a little more practical than preparing for the zombie apocalypse:

1)  Recognize that it’s human nature–for whatever reason, people are great at looking at things and jumping to conclusions–so chances are, the guy who’s thread you’re reading on a popular forum may have been guilty of this–and he doesn’t know it–or worse yet, he has a case of ‘it’ so bad, whatever ‘it’ is, that he swears this is the real thing–and that his results are real. In fact, there are scholarly articles that suggest our brain is a machine built for jumping to conclusions.

2) Have a healthy, scientific skepticism–ask for the proof–and demand measurable, repeatable proof from a well-controlled study. “I have a friend who…,” “I saw explosive growth…,” and “they perked right up,” or “it blasted the problem away” probably isn’t well-controlled or measurable enough.

Now, the only thing worse than zombies are trolls–I’m not encouraging you to be a discussion forum troll (somebody who starts flaming threads just for the sake of being…well…a troll)–but I am encouraging you to politely ask for the proof.

3) Finally, if you are a trailblazer, and you’re trying out a new cocktail–or if you are inspired by a thread and want to try it out for yourself–don’t allow yourself to be tricked by your own brain–don’t settle for vague results. Try to control the variables, try to find an objective, measurable criterion for success–and by all means–share it. Just watch out for the trolls.

Do you know of a supplement that seems to be all hype? How about something that lives up to the hype? Post it here so others can learn–or just to discuss openly so we can exercise our healthy, scientific skepticism.

A rant, by Al Ulrich

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