You see an ad or website for a drug or medical product and are presented with information about its scientific evidence, mode of action, how it compares to other products, etc. Are you more likely to believe that it will work if there are graphs, charts, chemical formulas, or other scientific-looking elements included too—even if they provide no further information? That is, can you be blinded by the health aura created by such features?
Yes, according to a study by researchers from Cornell University published in the journal Public Understanding of Science. In one experiment, 61 participants were presented with written information about a new medication explaining how it had been found in trials to reduce colds by 40 percent (from 87 to 47 percent), compared to a control drug, and that FDA approval was pending. Half the participants were additionally shown a simple bar graph, which visually depicted this 40 percent difference in effectiveness. Of those who saw the graph, 97 percent believed that the drug was effective, compared to 68 percent of those who had only read the text. "The prestige of science appears to grant persuasive power even to such trivial science-related elements as graphs," the authors wrote.
To make sure the results were not due to visual aids being more persuasive in general, "regardless of their connection to science," the researchers did another experiment in which participants were again all given written information about a drug. But instead of a graph, half were presented with the drug's chemical formula (C21H29FO5). Those who saw the formula thought the drug's effects would last longer (6 hours), compared to those who just saw the text (2 hours).
A third experiment ruled out the possibility that the findings were due merely to repetition of the information; ironically perhaps, it also found that people who believed more strongly in the validity of science were more likely to trust information when it appears "scientific."
"On the practical front, the research demonstrates how easily companies can create scientific appearance"—one that may or may not be backed by evidence. Don't be fooled by things that simply look scientific, the lead authors warned. Rather—and this applies not only to medications but also to dietary supplements, medical technologies, food packages, and news reports—you should look with a critical eye at the actual basis for the claims and not judge a product by its pictures.