AN OPEN MIND, OR EMPTY HEAD?
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps it's unfair to compare the work of an intern at a small-town newspaper to that of best selling author Dan Brown (he of the Da Vinci Code fame) but compare I shall, because there is a deeper lesson involved.
My local paper, the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif., has a features section called "Today" with a feature called "Mind & Body." In it, you will find listings for self-help organizations, ads for weight-loss and plastic surgery clinics, and even a bridge column.
This is not meant to sound sarcastic. Centinela Hospital advertises high-tech joint replacement, the Varicose Vein Center advertises its remarkably well qualified staff, and for those with various ailments, the cancer support group, diabetes support and Overeaters Anonymous groups provide caring for those in need of it.
But then, we notice the first page in the August 9, 2004 edition of the Breeze and all the good work comes undone. "Healing by homeopathy" is the headline, with the subhead "Age-old medical practice said to stimulate body to heal itself." The story commands almost the all but two columns of page B1 from top to bottom. The top two-thirds is taken up by an attractive photograph of homeopathic practitioner Janet Shultz, who is positioned in front of a diagram labeled "Homeopathic Process: Detoxifying & Strengthening," followed by "Vital Force" and "Energy Field."
The story was written by an intern whose name, out of charity, I shall omit. The story is typical of a certain genre.
It begins with the usual miracle cure. In this case, we read, "Rob Swaine began having severe allergic reactions to cats about a decade ago." It says that he "tried allergy medications Zyrtec and Claritin, but the results were disappointing." We learn that Terese Lang was suffering from symptoms of menopause, "but she didn't want to take hormone supplements."
By paragraph three we learn, "Swaine and Lang thought they would have to learn to live with their conditions, until they heard about homeopathy."
The story goes on to mention the theory behind homeopathy, it's roots in early 19th Century Europe, the theory of founder Samuel Hahnemann that "like cures like," and the practice of preparing homeopathic remedies by diluting various substances to almost infinite proportions.
Actually, our author doesn't go much into the technical details of homeopathic practice or how homeopathic "remedies" are prepared. For that, you can visit Quackwatch.com, the web site I have described as the gold standard in evaluating fringe therapies. There, you can find a description of homeopathy as just one more stab in the dark from the early 1800s, a time when modern medical science did not yet exist, when the function of germs in disease was not understood, and when medical practice with its bleedings and folk remedies often did more harm than good.
If you read carefully, you will find that homeopathy is a construct which is based on multiple incorrect postulates without any experimental or theoretical validity. Curiously enough, one of the better debunkings of homeopathic practices was delivered by none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes (the senior of the two) in 1842, a remarkable piece that you can find on the Quackwatch sister site Homeowatch.
Holmes, in a paper that is remarkable for its logical rigor, explained how homeopathic practice was neither founded in logic nor supported by any reasonably honest studies. He described how various physicians of the day had tried homeopathic treatments and found them to be useless.
Holmes even offers up an important clue in understanding the Daily Breeze article. Ailments are often seen to resolve themselves. In any group of patients, some will get worse, some will stay the same, and some will get better. Holmes even offers an early version of that all-important concept of comparing treated patients to a control group. Even in that more primitive era, reasonably controlled studies had demonstrated to honest observers that homeopathy was no better than doing nothing at all.
We can make the point a little more simply. Hahnemann decided that the way to treat a fever was to take something that caused a fever (this is the "like cures like" idea) and then dilute it agin and again. The standard practice is to take some extract, dilute it tenfold, then tenfold again, and so on for as many as a hundred dilutions. If you have studied a little chemistry you can figure out that this procedure results in a solution just a few molecules of the original substance.
In other words, it is like saying that if two aspirin cool you down (which they can), then the way to warm yourself up is to toss an aspirin in the Pacific Ocean, wait until it mixes well, and then drink a thimbleful of ocean water. It is preposterous in theory, and numerous controlled studies show that it doesn't work.
Back to our newspaper article: The Breeze story is strangely honest at one point, making the following admission: "By the time the homeopathics are ready, there is often no theoretical trace of the original substance left, just a sugar pill." Unfortunately, we also have the very next sentence: "Homeopaths say the 'memory' of the original substance is still with the pill and is potent enough to stimulate the body, but some modern doctors disagree."
It would be more newsworthy if our intrepid reporter could have found a doctor (as in MD) who agrees with the theory, or a chemist who buys any of the nonsense about homeopathic remedies working through some watery "memory" of the original substance. The phrase "some modern doctors disagree" is, indeed, the understatement of the month.
According to the news story, the cat allergy sufferer and the menopausal woman both found distinct improvement. Here is the caption to one photo: "Rob Swaine pets a Siamese cat at the Redondo Beach home of Vicki Radel. Swaine overcame allergies to cats with the help of homeopathic remedies." Likewise, the other patient "saw a tremendous difference in her mood and physical symptoms."
What are we to make of this, and what does it have to do with Dan Brown and his puzzling novels?
Whatever else you may think of the novel The Da Vinci Code and its prequel, they present an attitude which has become all too rare in mass media journalism. It is the respect for the intellect, for learning and for the use of reason. Protagonists are recognized by their scholarly accomplishments - the Harvard classics professor, the physicist from Europe's scientific powerhouse CERN, the director of the Louvre. In Dan Brown's New York Times best seller, it is better to be smart than stupid, better to be learned than ignorant, and better to be capable of rational thought in a crisis. There is respect for intellectual honesty.
Above all, there is an undercurrent in Brown's novels that calls for making a real effort to think, to get one's facts right and to know what other thinkers think about the subject under discussion. (As a media note, Brown isn't always perfect; his Angeles and Demons, the "prequel" to The Davinci Code, keeps referring to a British tv cameraman as hoping to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work; only American journalists can win the Pulitzer, and there is no category for tv work, which is honored instead by the Peabody Prize.)
This sounds like a decent prescription for the young reporter, wouldn't you think? Learn a little something about the subject, check other sources and learn the arguments for and against the assertion that homeopathy works.
It would be unthinkable to report that the battle of Waterloo occurred in the 1900s in South America. Why is it any more acceptable to report pseudoscience as fact?
By the way, I used to be allergic to cats. Last year, I discovered quite by accident that I am no longer so allergic. Things change, and allergies are one of those things. So are menopausal symptoms. What is important in evaluating whether a homeopathic remedy is actually effective is to do a controlled clinical study. (There is a certain random scatter in clinical tests, whereby some tests will show homeopathic remedies working even worse than nothing at all, some show them equivalent to nothing at all, and once in a while by chance a single study shows as positive. The honest person evaluates the studies in total rather than looking for that one anomaly.)
The fact that the Daily Breeze ran this story in its laudatory, uncritical form demonstrates an attitude scientific facts and reason are somehow unimportant, or perhaps out of ignorance are considered controversial when they are not. Whatever the reason, an editor (who did not return my phone call) allowed this story to be published in its current form.
What this and so many other printed pieces demonstrate is how ignorant the working press may be about technical facts and principles, how cynical they have become about their own ignorance, and how accepting the editorial system has become regarding this condition.
A working reporter would not accept uncritically the word of a convicted burglar who swore to his own innocence. Why should it be so different when fringe practitioners make equally bogus claims?