Is the media complicit in promoting quackery?

Having read Edzard Ernst’s recently published memoir, A Scientist in Wonderland, in which he describes at length the real trouble he has encountered beyond mere repeated (and ongoing) attempts to besmirch his character and integrity (which can be troubling enough), it perhaps doesn’t do to whine about fallacious reactions to one’s own (brick-wall-head-banging) contra-quackery activities. Even though, relative to many more active sceptic bloggers/tweeters, I consider myself a relative pussycat, being accused of bullying and other (predictable) ad hominems somehow comes with the territory, it seems.

So, my attention increasingly drawn to quackery and its propagandists’ promotional claims, I happen to consider occasional interjection worthwhile. Moreover, as someone who does not get paid to write, I can be incensed into jumping-up-and-down-irritation by the kind of remunerated journalism that irresponsibly facilitates the tactic favoured by quack apologists, á la intelligent design’s clandestine creationists: ‘teach the controversy’. Hence, my ire upon being recently directed to:

DM quackery

I detest articles like this: not just because they are (the celebrity/health-drecked online version of the) Daily Mail; not just because they are dumbly written/edited under the assumption that readers will be lost if they risk paragraphs containing more than one sentence. But because such sensationalist clickbait churnalism, though guaranteed to draw attention and instigate a good playground scrap, is not only irresponsible and misinformative; I would argue it is also, in its quackery-promoting complicity, potentially dangerous.

The ‘Who? What? Where? When? Why?’ are provided in the first two sentences/paragraphs. Shocking, emotional, human – and, being cancer, relevant to all: we’ve either got/had it, and/or know(n) someone who’s got/had it, and/or lost someone to it, and/or fear the likelihood we will get it. Cancer gets your piece read. The human emotive angle is anecdotally accentuated through the story of a recently married, photogenic young lady who reportedly seeks to maximise her chances of having a child. And is thus material ripe for exploitation by those looking to promote their favoured alternative ‘modalities’ (how quacks love that word) as the claimed means of curing/treating it. The chemotherapy-eschewing subject has been led to believe that copious carrots, intravenous vitamin C, and oxygen will do for her breast cancer. Hence, in addition to a wedding photo, we are also provided with apparently willing images of her preparing carrot juice in her kitchen; strapped to an IV drip; and sporting an oxygen mask in a ‘hyperbaric oxygen chamber’, in which she sits twice a week breathing ‘pure oxygen’ (with no explanation of how that makes her feel).

Immediate questions that come to my mind: though all very ‘Health Ranger’-/Gerson-/Gonzalez-/Clement -/Mercola -esque, specifically wherefrom has she come by these particular ‘treaments’? Through her own Google ‘research’? Or the inadvertently malign influence of some deluded do-gooder? Who has recommended this useless course of action over treatment that could save her life? How has she developed the ‘strong gut feeling’ that leads her to disregard the recommendations of real doctors and to reject the only effective course of treatment? Who has fed her the line that: ‘… cancer doesn’t like oxygen and prefers an acidic environment… ’; and convinced her that ‘Chemotherapy stays in your system for a good few years… ‘ and thus endangers her chances of having children? (Perhaps she came across it in a previous MailOnline article?) Why has she been persuaded that permitting publication of photographs showing her undergoing said ‘remedies’ is a good idea? (Has she been paid, providing funds for continued vitamin C IV drips?) If she was diagnosed in April last year, then why has this story only recently come to light… and what of her progress? (Is this story true?)

Alas, reading on, I find no answers to such inquiry. Just repeated fleshing of the emotive angle. Not until the final sentence-paragraphs of the article is there any contrasting viewpoint, provided by Cancer Research UK’s science information officer, Dr Aine McCarthy:

‘There’s no scientific or medical evidence to show that alternative therapies like taking vitamin C or using oxygen can cure cancer.’

That’s the most accurate, valid, important sentence in the whole piece – buried at the bottom. (Oh wait, that was actually mentioned in the title, wasn’t it? – yes it was… immediately followed by bullet-pointed affirmation of the story’s message.)

But wait… let it not be overlooked that the post-modern media strives to maintain neutrality and present absolving balance. We are provided with a side panel featuring counter-comments by consultant oncologist Karol Sikora – which is a tad surprising to me, as he has CAM-sympathetic form, having contributed the Foreword to this quackery-accommodation a few years back, in which he lauded ‘integration’, writing:

‘I believe there should be a rebalancing of funding to allow other modalities to be offered alongside orthodox care.’

Which is a bit vague. However, here he explicitly dismisses diet and (‘false hope’) oxygen therapy as cures. But does:

‘The patient is always in the driving seat; their treatment is up to them.’

not jar with:

‘There’s no evidence they work. A lot of people believe they work and that is the problem.’ 

? Is ‘choice’ between treatments which includes those of unproven effectiveness legitimate and ethical?

After all:

‘Alternative therapists will have great stories of people who have benefitted from their therapy, but they won’t give you the real statistics, because the facts show it doesn’t work.’

But he then seemingly legitimises their use:

‘I would recommend having conventional treatment, and then by all means, have alternative therapies as well if you really like, but don’t replace the former with the latter.’

This is mixed, confusing messaging. Because people believe they work, they should have access to them – even though they don’t work? (And who should fund them?) Whatever, it is green light to opportunistic quacks… such as those who have got their figurative claws into the mind of a young lady who needs real treatment now. If you think I’m being unreasonable, unfair and wide of the mark, then take a trawl through the comments below the article.

Dangerous quacks giving false hope to vulnerable sick people; or those attempting to call them out: who are the bullies here? If a newspaper is going to publish a human interest story like this, should it not identify the providers of the ‘modalities’ given publicity, thus enabling others to investigate the legitimacy of their claims? Because if, in its illusory balancing act, it considers this all worthwhile valid information, then it would be in the public interest to direct others to them, wouldn’t it? Certainly, I would have thought it one of the first inquiries a journalist would make. (My attempts to prompt the attributed author of the piece into naming the relevant ‘alternative therapists/suppliers’ have been roundly ignored.) Unless, in full awareness that such issues are controversial (– though not scientifically –) they have been deliberately withheld. Nevertheless, this questionable story has potentially sown seeds in the minds of others, and provided free promotion for any diet-/vitamin C-/oxygen therapy-touting quacks, without exposing those directly responsible for misleading the lady whose story concerns us.

I wish her well.

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