Friday, March 23, 2007

Bad Journalism. Worse Science.

This week's edition of the Mind&Body supplement to the West Australian newspaper contains a number of gems (or is that crystals?) of woo masquerading as science.

Should EoR concentrate on SolarisCare's manager? SolarisCare is part of Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and he comments that

he had seen patients after breast and abdominal surgery who benefited from reflexology and reiki in recovery

Or maybe the report based on comments by a woman described as "a scientist" that even "natural" and "organic" products contain carcinogens, mutagens and teratogens, as well as allergens and irritants? EoR suspects that these are the same sort of chemicals that normal products contain and are just as dangerous if anyone is stupid enough to use thousands of times the quantity in the products themselves. It all goes a bit pear-shaped two thirds of the way through the article though, when it is revealed that the "scientist" is touring the land promoting her own brand of "certified organic" skin care products (so there couldn't be any nasty substances in them at all). Imagine if a "scientist" working for A Big Pharmaceutical Company was to go around commenting on the danger of drugs, and then recommending his own company's better product. Do you think any of the readers of this advertorial would not be up in arms about conflict of interest, at the very least?

Okay then, what about the article on Ayurvedic therapy? Especially since

It is recognised by the World Health Organisation as "the world's most complete, natural, scientific and holistic system of health care" and teaches people the skills to empower their own health.

That's a strange quote. The WHO website returns no results for a search on that phrase, but the quote marks would indicate that the journalist was quoting some source, sadly uncredited. Doing a search for those keywords (such as "complete", "scientific", and "holistic" along with "ayurveda" and "World Health Organisation" returns quite a few sites, such as The Raj where it states:

Ayurveda, the traditional health care system of India, is recognized by the World Health Organization as a comprehensive system of natural medicine.

So, it's not quite the same thing as the journalist is claiming. It seems strange to EoR that the WHO isn't brave enough to admit to its own purported claims, but only ayurvedic sites seem to be able to state the the WHO supports them. The WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2002-2005 makes only very brief reference to ayurveda in passing. The only place EoR could find that exact phrase was in a document from the Ayurveda Awareness Centre at the Australian Natural Therapists website (again, without any attribution to the quote). Surely the journalist wouldn't be quoting uncritically from a secondary and biased source like that? Even a trainee journalist would first check the primary source, wouldn't they? Nonetheless, if this journalist is to be believed, putting dough and ghee on your eyes will:

nourish the nervous system, improve eyesight and eye problems, including muscle spasms and itchiness, and will bring a rich lustre to the eyes. It is also said to soothe away wrinkles, promote softness (inside and out) and leave you with a feeling of deep contentment.

Promote "softness" on the inside? EoR isn't even going to touch that!

What about the article pointing out that the "detox" kits you can buy off the shelf are a load of rubbish (something Choice magazine has pointed out over a year ago)? Not because they don't work, but because they're not quality detox.

Naturopath Lesley Oakes said the kits could provide a very basic detox. "Often they just help people clear out their bowels," she said. "Whereas (naturopaths) focus on a deeper cellular level detox."

Obviously, it's better to clear out the contents of your cells, rather than just your bowels. But isn't the cleansing of unclean bowels a fundamental part of altie philosophy?

No: none of those are suitable. This week's most impressive non-fact-based pseudoscience is from Dr Charmaine Saunders' Dream Reader column. In answer to one reader's query regarding dreams of talking to someone he knew twenty years ago, Dr Saunders states (categorically):

Lots of research is constantly being done in dream theory. You'd be astounded at some of the resulting evidence. Telepathy, astral travelling, fulfilling instructions during dreams and such like are now commonplace. So, the short answer to your question [whether communication through dreams by telepathy is occuring] is yes. [...] I remember a woman telling me once she dreamt of a friend in England who appeared like a spirit all in white in her dream one night. She naturally thought he had died but when she rang, found out he was alive and well but had missed her intensely that night and had thought about her for a long time.

Notice how Dr Saunders is convinced that a "telepathic" dream that didn't come true is proof of telepathy? This is the beauty of altie beliefs: if they come true, then that's proof, but if they don't come true, that's equaly as convincing proof.

She tells another reader (who dreams of meeting an ex-boyfriend that she left because of his alcoholism, and making love with him):

I think your ex-boyfriend is in trouble, wherever he is. The car is his life and it's broken. [...] It's probably a metaphor for his life and, somehow, he's communicating with you via your dream.

Look, he's drunk, and his life's a mess. He hasn't seen you for ten years. But he'd really like you to pop round for a quickie... EoR's readers have been suitably warned. Telepathy in dreams had been conclusively proven by scientific research. When you dream of someone (known or unknown, presumably) you're "communicating" with them. Be careful what you say. Or do.

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