Woozle effect

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The Woozle effect, also known as evidence by citation,[1] or a woozle, occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence, and nonfacts become urban myths and factoids.[2]

Origin of the term, definition of the effect, and related notions[edit]

A Woozle is an imaginary character in the A. A. Milne book Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926.[3] In chapter three, "In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle", Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet start following tracks left in snow believing they are the tracks of a Woozle. The tracks keep multiplying. Christopher Robin then explains that they have been following their own tracks in circles around a tree.

Prior to the introduction of the specific term “Woozle effect”, the underlying research phenomenon (and connection to the Woozle) dates back over 60 years. Bevan (1953), writing about scientific methodology and research errors in the field of psychology, uses the term “scientific woozle hunters” in the title of his paper (only the abstract was available for review).[4] Wohlwill (1963) refers to a “hunt for the woozle” in social science research,[5] and Stevens (1971) cautions readers about woozles in the study of a misquoted letter.[6]

According to Richard J. Gelles, the term "woozle effect" was coined by Beverly Houghton in 1979.[7] Other researchers have attributed the term to Gelles (1980)[8] and Gelles and Murray A. Straus (1988).[9][10] Gelles and Straus argue that the woozle effect describes a pattern of bias seen within social sciences and which is identified as leading to multiple errors in individual and public perception, academia, policy making and government. A woozle is also a claim made about research which is not supported by original findings.[11] According to Dutton, a woozle effect, or a woozle, occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence mislead individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence, and non-facts become urban myths and factoids.[2] The creation of woozles is often linked to the changing of language from qualified ("it may", "it might", "it could") to absolute form ("it is") firming up language and introducing ideas and views not held by an original author or supported by evidence.[12](p28)

Winningham and Barton-Burke (2000) argue that "slavish worship" of political correctness contributes to the woozle effect.[13] Dutton sees the woozle effect as an example of confirmation bias and links it to belief perseverance and groupthink.[12](p109) Due to the fact that in the social sciences empirical evidence may be based on experiential reports rather than objective measurements, there may be a tendency for researchers to align evidence with expectation. According to Dutton it is also possible that the social sciences may be likely to align with contemporary views and ideals of social justice, leading to bias in favor of those ideals.[12](p110) Gambrill (2012) links the woozle effect to the processes that create pseudoscience.[14] Gambrill and Reiman (2011) also link it with more deliberate propaganda techniques; they also identify introductory phrases like “Every one knows …”, “It is clear that …”, “It is obvious that …”, “It is generally agreed that …” as alarm bells that what follows might be an Woozle line of reasoning.[15]


In 1979, Houghton[16] illustrated the Woozle effect, showing how work by Gelles 1974 based on a small sample and published in The violent home[17] by Straus, who had written the foreword for Gelles's book, was presented as if it applied to a large sample.[18][19] Both of these were then cited by Langley & Levy in their 1977 book, "Wife beating: the silent crisis".[20] In the 1998 book "Intimate Violence", Gelles and Straus use the Winnie-the-Pooh woozle to illustrate how poor practice in research and self-referential research causes older research to be taken as fresh evidence causing error and bias.[2]

In a study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, Weiner and Hala (2008) reported some of the research-related difficulties associated with measuring human trafficking.[21] They describe and map the unfolding of the Woozle effect in connection with prevalence estimates of human trafficking. Searching the relevant literature between 1990 and 2006, Weiner and Hala found 114 prevalence estimates in 45 publications. Only one of the publications cited original research and several prevalence estimates appeared unsourced.[21] The authors concluded that the sources they reviewed lacked citations, adequate operational definition, and discussion of methodology.[21] Stransky and Finkelhor (2008/2012) criticize the general methodology involved in human trafficking research. They cite the Woozle effect (p. 3) and post a prominent warning on the first page of their report cautioning against citing any specific estimates they present, as the close inspection of the figures “…reveals that none are based on a strong scientific foundation. (p. 1)”[22]

Gambrill and Reiman (2011) analyze scientific papers and mass-market communications about social anxiety and conclude that many of them engage in disease mongering by presenting the disease model of social anxiety as an incontrovertible fact by resorting to unchallenged repetition techniques and by leaving out of the discourse any competing theories. Gambrill and Reiman further note that even after educating their subjects about the tell-tale signs of such techniques, many of them still failed to pick up the signs in a practical test.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Strauss, Murray A. (14 July 2007). "Processes Explaining the Concealment and Distortion of Evidence on Gender Symmetry in Partner Violence". European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 74 (13): 227–232. doi:10.1007/s10610-007-9060-5. .
  2. ^ a b c Richard J. Gelles; Murray Arnold Straus (July 1988). Intimate violence. Simon and Schuster. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-671-61752-3. 
  3. ^ Milne, A. A. (1926). "3". Winnie The Pooh (1 ed.). London: Methuen & Co Ltd. In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle 
  4. ^ Bevan, William Jr. (1953). "Modern psychologists: scientific woozle hunters? An opinion in outline.". Nordic Psychology Monographs (4): 6–24. 
  5. ^ Wohlwill, Joachim F. (1963). "Piaget’s system as a source of empirical research". Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development (Wayne State University Press) 9 (4): 253–262. 
  6. ^ Stevens, Joan (1971). "Woozles in Brontëland: A cautionary tale". Studies in Bibliography (Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia) 24: 99–108. 
  7. ^ Jean Malone; Andrea Tyree; K. Daniel O'Leary (August 1989). "Generalization and Containment: Different Effects of Past Aggression for Wives and Husbands". Journal of Marriage and Family 51 (3): 687–697. doi:10.2307/352168. Gelles (1980) suggested that the 'woozle' effect, first named by Houghton (1979), is operating in the cycle-of-violence area to magnify findings and to ignore peculiarities of sampling issues. 
  8. ^ Nilsen, Linda (2012). Father-daughter relationships: contemporary research and issues. New York: Routledge Academic. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-84872-933-9. 
  9. ^ Dutton, Donald D.; Corvo, Kenneth (2006). "Transforming a flawed policy: A call to revive psychology and science in domestic violence research and practice". Aggression and Violent Behavior 11 (5): 466. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2006.01.007. 
  10. ^ Ehrensaft, Miriam K. (2009). "Intimate partner violence: Persistence of myths and implications for intervention". Children and Youth Services Review 30 (3): 279–286. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2007.10.005. 
  11. ^ Richard J. Gelles; Murray Arnold Straus (July 1988). "2". Intimate violence. Simon and Schuster. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-671-61752-3. 
  12. ^ a b c Donald G. Dutton (30 May 2006). Rethinking Domestic Violence. UBC Press. ISBN 978-0-7748-1304-4. 
  13. ^ Maryl Lynne Winningham; Margaret Barton-Burke (2000). Fatigue in Cancer: A Multidimensional Approach. Jones & Bartlett Learning. p. xi. ISBN 978-0-7637-0630-2. 
  14. ^ Eileen Gambrill (1 May 2012). Critical Thinking in Clinical Practice: Improving the Quality of Judgments and Decisions (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-470-90438-1. 
  15. ^ a b Gambrill, E.; Reiman, A. (2011). "A Propaganda Index for Reviewing Problem Framing in Articles and Manuscripts: An Exploratory Study". PLoS ONE 6 (5): e19516. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019516.  edit
  16. ^ Houghton, B. (November 1979). "Review of research on women abuse.". annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Philadelphia. 
  17. ^ Richard J. Gelles (November 1974). The violent home: a study of physical aggression between husbands and wives. Sage Publications. ISBN 978-0-8039-0381-4. 
  18. ^ Foreword By Straus, Murray A. (November 1974). The violent home: a study of physical aggression between husbands and wives. Sage Publications. pp. 13–17. ISBN 978-0-8039-0381-4. Original Author Richard J. Gelles 
  19. ^ Richard J. Gelles (Nov 1980). "Violence in the Family: A Review of Research in the Seventies". Journal of Marriage and Family 42 (4): 873–885. doi:10.2307/351830. The 'Woozle Effect' begins when one investigator reports a finding, such as Gelles's (1974) report...In the 'Woozle Effect,' a second investigator will then cite the first study's data, but without the qualifications (such as done by Straus, 1974a). Others will then cite both reports and the qualified data gain the status of generalizable 'truth.' 
  20. ^ Roger Langley; Richard C. Levy (1977). Wife beating: the silent crisis. Dutton. ISBN 978-0-87690-231-8. 
  21. ^ a b c Weiner, Neil A.; Hala, Nicole (2008). Measuring human trafficking: Lessons from New York City (PDF) (Report). Vera Institute of Justice. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  22. ^ Stransky, Michelle; Finkelhor, David (2008/2012). Sex trafficking of minors:How many juveniles are being prostituted in the US? (PDF) (Report) (4). Crimes Against Children Research Center. pp. 1–4.  Check date values in: |date= (help)