Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Sam Specious, Private Eye: The Case of the Fussy Baby…..

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Detective Sam Specious is famous for using his brain to solve cases, or at least for attempting to solve them. What Sam doesn’t realize is just how easily the human brain assigns causation where none exists, finds patterns in random noise, and quickly jumps to conclusions that don’t add up. See if you can use your critical thinking skills to uncover Sam’s errors in thinking.

It was a cold and rainy November evening in Space City. The kind of night where a detective like me would rather nurse a cold beer or two while catching up on old episodes of Ghost Hunters and Medium. But it wasn’t in the cards for Sam Specious, Private Eye. Maybe I’ll pay more attention to my horoscope the next time it tells me that an intersting financial transaction is heading my way.

I got the call at about seven-thirty. I knew it was coming too. I Had a feeling, and my feelings are always right. I make a mental note every time the phone rings after I’ve had one. This time the dame on the other end was barely audible. She was drowned out by the crying baby in the background. The baby was fussy. Damn fussy. And mommy needed my help.

I arrived at the Brown house at eight-fifteen and the baby was still crying. It was a one-month-old little girl, cute as a button but wailing like nobody’s business. Mrs. Brown looked ragged, like she hadn’t slept in weeks. I knew that I had to get this baby to settle down fast so I got to work right away. I hit up Mrs. Brown for all the details she could provide. How long had the baby been crying? When was her last feeding? Did she need a fresh diaper? Had there been any suspicious siblings in the vicinity? I asked every question in the book but kept coming up empty.

Mrs. Brown was a class act, an experienced mom who knew how to take care of a newborn, but she had never experienced crying like this. This baby had been screaming for at least three hours a day almost every day for the past few weeks. Now I’m no pediatric chiropractor, but I now colic when I hear it. Mrs. Brown had tried everything she could think of: swaddling, pacifiers, acid reflux medications, even acupuncture. But nothing had worked. I was her only hope.

I remembered something my mother used to keep around the house for whenever my younger sister had an upset tummy: Gripe Water. Since the 1850’s, this herbal remedy has been held up by thousands of parents as a cure for colic. How could something believed in by so many people not work? I made a quick trip to a nearby compounding pharmacy for a fresh batch of the concoction of chamomile, sodium bicarbonate, dill, ginger, and fennel and gave the infant the recommended dose. Within an hour, the crying stopped. The Gripe Water cured the colic and I got paid. Another case solved.

Or was it? It sure seems like Sam saved the day with his home remedy for the poor infant’s condition but is that necessarily what happened? Where might the good detective’s thinking have taken a wrong turn?


Written by skepticpedi

November 24, 2008 at 9:37 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Ahh, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy! “I gave Substance X to baby, baby stopped crying afterward, therefore she stopped crying because of the treatment!” Of course colic is a self-limited condition, only lasting a few hours per night. Baby likely would have cried that extra hour and stopped whether or not gripe water was administered.

    This fallacy, if not countered by some critical thinking, will likely lead to confirmation bias, where our hero is inclined to remember all the ‘hits’ and forget the ‘misses’ of the treatment! Give that man some polyskepticol, stat!

    P.S. — Hope this case wasn’t inspired by real-life colic!

    The Perky Skeptic

    November 24, 2008 at 10:46 pm

  2. While I completely agree with Perky Skeptic’s analysis or the main logical fallacy committed, I also believe there are some subtle fallacious tidbits here.

    Mrs. Brown (and to some extent, Det. Sam) is definitely guilty of committing a form of the personal incredulity fallacy. “I’ve never experienced this type of crying, therefore it must be something out-of-the-ordinary.” Though many non-medically trianed people make this same mistake, it is usually a safe bet; in other words, they’d rather have a false positive and seek medical help than a missed positive and have their kid die.

    Also, Det. Sam is guilty of using the argument from antiquity (and maybe argument from authority, or, his mother) in his gripe water prescription. “Just because it’s worked in the past means it must work now too.”

    mike D

    November 25, 2008 at 2:41 pm

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