Washington Post's Science section descends into pseudoscience

The Washington Post has some bad news about migraines.
Every Tuesday, the Washington Post has a special section devoted to Health and Science. It’s usually my favorite section, with features such as “medical mysteries” and highlights of the latest news from the world of science.

Not this week. Instead, the front page of the section featured a lengthy article that was a long anecdote by a woman who firmly believes that acupuncture cured her migraines. The title gave me a feeling of dread: “Acupuncture needles stung, but they cured my migraines” (the online version linked here has a different title). As I feared, there wasn't a whit of science in it.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: acupuncture is rank pseudoscience. It’s based on a primitive, pre-scientific notion of a “vital force” (for which no evidence exists), usually called qi, that runs through the body along meridians (no evidence for these either). Plunging needles into the meridians is supposed to manipulate this vital force and cure all sorts of things, ranging from pain to infections to cancer. All of this is nonsense. If you want to know more, I recommend Acupuncture Watch; or see Ben Kavoussi’s article explaining how postmodernism, with its notion that all truth is relative, has allowed acupuncture and other mystical, archaic beliefs to gain traction in medical practice; or check out Jann Bellamy’s discussion of acupuncture as “legalized quackery”.

I’ve written about the nonsense that is called acupuncture before (in 2013, and in 2012, and in 2010), so I won’t rehash that here. But it’s really disheartening to see a great (or once-great?) newspaper devote a large chunk of its weekly science section to pseudoscience.

Back to this week’s nonsense article. In this lengthy piece, author Margarita Gokun Silver describes how she began to experience debilitating migraines after the age of 40, which grew worse over time. She tried pain relievers, which worked at first but then stopped working. One expensive pill worked for the migrations but gave her severe nausea. Eventually, she writes, “exhausted by these side effects, I turned again to the Internet.”

Great. Now, there’s nothing wrong with looking for solutions in the Internet–we all do it. But this is an article in the Washington Post Science section! Nowhere does the author describe anything resembling actual science. Instead, she describes how she discovered a “breakthrough” in her yoga class, when another yoga student suggested acupuncture. She decided to give it a try.

(You might be wondering, who is Margarita Gokun Silver? She describes herself as a writer, novelist, and painter–not a scientist or a doctor.)

After several acupuncture sessions, the author tells us, her migraines seemed less frequent, and eventually she decided she was cured. She still gets migraines, but when they get bad she uses acupuncture again. This, she tells us, is her cure.

The entire story is a classic example of how we can fool ourselves into thinking that whatever we tried last is what worked. Migraines come and go, and this woman’s story is not unusual. She had a long series of bad migraines that eventually subsided, and she still gets them. When they were at their worst, she tried everything she could find, and when the episodes became less frequent, she gave full credit to acupuncture. She might just as well have tried chocolate milk, and then written an article claiming “chocolate milk cured my migraines!”

I don’t blame the author (well, not much) for wrongly believing that correlation equals causation. But we have scientific methods that are really, really good at figuring out if a treatment works. Scientists have already looked at this particularly claim, and the bottom line is that acupuncture doesn’t cure migraines. If you don’t believe me, then read the article about treating migraines by Dr. Steven Novella, a Yale neurologist who specializes in headaches, and look at his summary of how not to treat migraines, which points out that
“acupuncture proponents have been able to change the rules of clinical research so that essentially negative or worthless studies of acupuncture are presented as positive.”
Last week's Washington Post Science section was a major fail. I can't imagine why they gave a lengthy forum to a non-scientist to write about pseudoscience. If they wanted to feature a story about migraines, there's plenty of good science out there, even if there's no magical cure. What's next, Washington Post? Will you invite Jenny McCarthy to write about vaccines and autism, or Gwyneth Paltrow to discuss detox treatments? I sure hope not.

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