The Woozle effect, also known as evidence by citation, 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.
A Woozle is an imaginary character in the A. A. Milne book Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926. 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 an imaginary animal called a woozle. The tracks keep multiplying until Christopher Robin explains to them 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". Wohlwill (1963) refers to a "hunt for the woozle" in social science research, and Stevens (1971) cautions readers about woozles in the study of a misquoted letter.
According to Richard J. Gelles, the term "woozle effect" was coined by Beverly Houghton in 1979. Other researchers have attributed the term to Gelles (1980) and Gelles and Murray A. Straus (1988). 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. According to Dutton, a woozle effect, 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 non-facts become urban myths and factoids. 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.(p28)
Dutton sees the woozle effect as an example of confirmation bias and links it to belief perseverance and groupthink.(p109) Because 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.(p110) Gambrill (2012) links the woozle effect to the processes that create pseudoscience. 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 a Woozle line of reasoning.
In 1979, Houghton illustrated the Woozle effect, showing how work by Gelles (1974) based on a small sample and published in The Violent Home by Straus, who had written the foreword for Gelles's book, was presented as if it applied to a large sample.(pp13-17) Both of these were then cited by Langley & Levy in their 1977 book, Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis. 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.
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. 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. The authors concluded that the sources they reviewed lacked citations, adequate operational definition, and discussion of methodology. Stransky and Finkelhor (2008/2012) criticize the general methodology involved in human trafficking research. They cite the Woozle effect(p3) 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."(p1)
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.
James J. Kimble gives as an example the 1994-2015 historiography of the 1943 American "We Can Do It!" wartime poster. After Michigan resident Geraldine Hoff Doyle said in 1994 that she was the real-life model for the poster, many sources repeated her assertion without checking the two foundational assumptions: that Doyle was the young factory worker pictured in a 1942 wartime photograph, and that the photograph had inspired commercial artist J. Howard Miller to create the poster. Though some media representations described the connection as unconfirmed, many more enthusiastically endorsed it. The weight of these multiple endorsements gave Doyle's story a "convincing" authority, despite the lack of authority in establishing the connection. In 2015 Kimble found the original photographic print of the factory worker, its caption identifying the young woman as Naomi Parker, working in California in March 1942, when Doyle was still in high school.
In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle
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.
The 'Woozle Effect' begins when one investigator reports a finding, such as Gelles (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.'