Friday, December 3, 2010

Tubeless again (and placebo)

This post is my third update on my experience with tubeless tires. On November 2, I posted an update on riding with tubeless tires on my road bike.  It detailed my experiences with tubeless road tires that I first reported on in January of 2010.
Tubeless tire

In the November update I commented that tubeless tires ride as well as any tire (provided the pressure is the same) and that people who believed differently were likely swayed by what they had heard or read about them. This is nothing more than a twist on the well-known placebo effect. We humans just like to believe something works or doesn't work based on our preconceived notions and what others around us say or do. This effect is remarkably strong and well illustrated in a recent episode of dateline that illustrates the extent to which humans are influenced by what their peers say and do.

People unfamiliar with the placebo effect underestimate its power. They think it is something rare that only happens in highly susceptible and gullible individuals. Unfortunately that is not the case. Placebo effects are very strong and they happen in even the most skeptical and cynical individuals. Placebo responses are so prevalent that a rather convoluted study design, known as a double blind placebo-controlled study, is needed to sort them out. In a double blind placebo controlled study, half the patients get a sham treatment but neither they nor their attending physician (or anyone else) knows who gets what.

A good rule of thumb regarding placebo is that half the people getting a placebo will show or report a benefit. So if I give a new drug to 100 people, 50 are expected to claim it works for them, regardless of whether it does or not. They may even show objective signs of improvement (as to why that is requires a longer discussion).

Or to put it another way, if half are doing better, the drug does not work. Ever wonder why it is so easy to find people who will testify to the value of a bogus treatment or diet? Or why user testimony is useless and misleading?

In any case, to come back to tubeless tires, in that November post I commented that I did not like to use sealants when installing a tire because I did not like to have fluids sloshing around in my tires. I hereby implied that the sloshing was noticeable or that it might affect handling. That evoked a comment from a reader.

In essence I was falling prey to my own preconceived notions. That was doubly ironic since I was trying to dispel other people's preconceived notions. Even in responding to the comment I noted that tires with fluid feel different. But is that really true?

To find out I tested some tires with the recommended amount of sealant and some without. It turns out one can detect fluid when holding the tire in one's hand, but there is no way one can feel it when riding.

So, there you have it. As the Brits would say, I eat humble pie.

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