Aug 14 2007

Pseudoscience at MSN

This one comes from SGU listener, David Tyler (Thanks, David) who alerted me to this article posted on the MSN Health and Fitness website in the Women’s Health section. There is nothing special about this article, and that it why it worth dissecting – because it is all too typical.

The first paragraph says it all:

“These courageous pioneers faced extreme disability or death. But when they exhausted the best traditional treatments for their diseases, their hope endured.”

Almost everything in this statement (and the whole article) is flawed. Overall, it is a fine piece of pro-CAM propaganda – and that is how the whole article reads. There was no balance or even the pretense of objectivity, just manipulative cheerleading for an ideology.

The article highlights the personal stories of four women who face serious medical problems. Of course I sympathize with these women and care about their personal struggle, both as a medical professional and just as a normal person. And that is the point of the article, to use emotion to manipulate the reader. It is a common pattern of CAM, trying to make a claim by using emotional anecdotes, and glossing over or outright ignoring the only relevant question – what does prior plausibility and scientific evidence have to say about the safety and efficacy of the treatments that are being advocated?

Let’s get back to the opening paragraph. We are being told that these women are courageous. I am not doubting that, but rather pointing out that making such claims about those facing serious illness is automatic, vacuous, and cliché. It has even prompted lampooning by The Onion with the headline: “Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer.”

And just to be crystal clear, I am not attacking these women or doubting their virtue but just criticizing the manipulative nature of this article.

The women were also characterized as “pioneers.” – again a loaded term typical of propaganda. As an aside, not all such commentary is propaganda if it is presented openly as opinion and analysis (like this blog). This article is presented as news and information but is designed to deceptively coerce. The author, Megan Irwin, writing for Prevention magazine, is a clear advocate of CAM, as her many other articles clearly indicate. Her articles are ideological advocacy disguised as news and health advice.

The term “pioneer” implies exploration of the unknown. The treatments they sought, however, were sought out of desperation, and they are mostly nothing new but rather the recycled and discredited old ideas typical of CAM. One patient was given acupuncture for peripheral neuropathy – hardly new territory.

Further Irwin tells us that the patients sought out these alternative miracles only after they had “exhausted the best tradition treatments.” The actual stories, however, betray this claim as false. The purpose for making this false statement is to imply that traditional medicine failed, to further play the emotional card that these women still did not lose hope, and to avoid any criticism that may stem from choosing CAM over proven or more rational therapy.

Also note that the word “traditional” is used to refer to mainstream scientific medical treatments, a term preferred by CAM advocates because it is subtly derogatory and deliberately avoids the real distinction – treatments that are backed by science and those that are not.

Let’s look at the first story, which is of a woman with ovarian cancer who chose not to take the chemotherapy that was offered her (so she hardly exhausted scientific treatment). Instead she opted for treatment by the infamous Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez. Irwin writes:

“This is really aggressive medicine,” Gonzalez says. “We’re as tough as any oncologist is with chemo. The idea that you just drink some green juice is not true. It’s a tough road.”

That’s some hard-nosed journalism, Irwin. She failed to mention that Dr. Gonzalez and his treatment regimen are highly controversial, to say the least, and that after years of using his idiosyncratic treatment he has yet to provide any compelling scientific evidence that it is safe or effective. There was no mention that in 1994 the New York State licensing authorities put him on probation for incompetence, or of the numerous malpractice suits decided against him.

To be fair, the article does contain a “second opinion” at the end of each story, designed, it would seem, to present balance, or at least the appearance of balance. But this amounts to little more than token skepticism. For example, she writes: “Most doctors would consider Gonzalez’s regimen only as an adjunct to conventional therapy.” Actually most doctors, including this one, would consider Gonzalez’s regimen as unmitigated quackery.

The other three stories are similar in form and content, with completely inadequate scientific context. But the point of these stories is not to inform the reader, but to persuade them with compelling tales – to distract them from the real information. It is also an effective means at deflecting criticism. In reviewing this article, if I want to criticize the treatments discussed and the claims being made, or point out the pitfalls of anecdotal evidence it will be perceived as attacking specific individuals – courageous individuals who are succeeding against the odds, riding their virtue of unbound hope.

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