REALLity Checklist -- 1997 in Review

by David Bloomberg

"News is a consumer product, like sausage. Be careful what you swallow." -- Unknown

Like any other year, 1997 had its ups and downs. Sometimes the media did a great job, and sometimes they needed to go back to the basics. Alternative medicine dominated the fringe science news, especially with the sham announcement regarding acupuncture. Here are the highlights and lowlights.

Best Local Story Award

Tony Cappasso, of the State Journal-Register, wins this award for his three articles on the way the Center for Mind-Body Medicine at St. John's Hospital has been promoting the unscientific practice of Therapeutic Touch (TT), among other questionable ideas.

I suppose it's possible that I'm biased for this story, since the idea came from one of our articles here, but Cappasso did great investigative work on these articles and, had it not been for Princess Di coverage blanketing the paper on the day the articles appeared, I think there could have been a great impact from them. Even so, anybody who read the articles had to question why St. John's Hospital would promote such nonsense.

Cappasso did a good job of explaining TT, which deals with practitioners claiming to be able to adjust the "human energy field" to treat medical problems. He talked to or quoted several experts across the U.S. to show that TT is nothing more than quackery with no good scientific evidence to support its claims.

Of course, the proponents say there is all sorts of evidence to back them up. But when questioned, they come out somewhat light on facts. Cappasso did a great job in pointing this out.

Worst Local Story Award

On the flip side, the State Journal-Register also has the distinction of receiving this "award," for an article on Feng Shui written by Julie Cellini. Feng Shui is the ancient oriental method of arranging buildings and furniture so mysterious energy will flow for the better. (This is not to be confused with "Shin," the ancient oriental method of finding furniture in the dark.)

Throughout both the article and its sidebar, Cellini kept talking about "energy." We read about how the organization of one's house helps in "the proper flow of energy," how mirrors "reflect energy," mountains have "chaotic" energy, round tables "slow down the energy," sharp corners "pierce the energy field," etc. Unfortunately, Cellini doesn't seem at all interested in telling us just what this mysterious energy is or how it can be measured. Indeed, nothing even remotely scientific appears here.

Three topics dealing with mysterious energy fields are receiving awards here -- Feng Shui, acupuncture (see below), and Therapeutic Touch. If these fields existed, you'd think somebody, somewhere would have figured out how to measure it by now. But instead all we have are people who make lots of claims and, in some cases, take in a lot of money to "manipulate" these fields. The State Journal-Register debunked the field for TT, but promoted it for Feng Shui. That simply doesn't make any sense.

Worst Research Award

This award goes to just about all national media outlets, few of whom bothered to critically analyze the recent claims regarding acupuncture. One of the few to escape this award was U.S. News & World Report, as you'll see below.

As you may recall, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a statement saying that acupuncture had been found to be an effective treatment for certain kinds of pain, among other claims. Unfortunately, that's about all most news outlets reported!

Most failed to report that this panel of so-called experts was put together by the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) within the NIH. The report was put out after a 3-day meeting with presentations by a number of acupuncture proponents. As U.S. News reported, the planning committee and the 12-member consensus panel were both weighted with proponents or practitioners of alternative medicine; no balance was given in the form of inviting researchers with an opposing view; less than half of the speakers who presented research are MDs, and most practice or teach acupuncture; finally, a third of the presenters also served on the planning committee!

Last time I checked, science was not determined by three-day meetings, but by repeated scientific testing and verification. Indeed, this panel seemed to be opposed to the scientific method, as the audience was "pleased to hear panelists voice criticisms of randomized controlled clinical trials."

Certainly, the NIH (especially the OAM) deserves a kick in the pants for this one, but the national media dropped the ball as well. They were so eager to jump on this story that most of them never bothered to look beyond the press release.

Best Exposť Award

Dateline NBC continues its dominance in this award category by again winning in 1997 for its corrective story on a 60 Minutes piece done back in December 1990. In that story, 60 Minutes cited supposed cases in which people with multiple sclerosis and other diseases reported having been cured after their dental amalgam was removed; they suggested that the mercury in the fillings was poisoning the public. That report scared a lot of people -- some of whom had their silver fillings pulled! Unfortunately, the one missing element was scientific evidence for the claims.

Dateline interviewed one of the main proponents of the mercury poisoning claims, Dr. Hal Huggins, and numerous other dentists, and came firmly down on the side of science. Among the items cited to debunk Huggins' claims was a report from the U.S. Public Health Service (January 1993) which "concluded that there are no data to compel a change in the current use of dental amalgam." So, Dateline asked, "Have there been any studies of a population showing that people who have mercury in their mouths have more of any disease than people who don't?" Huggins replied, "This is not a fair question because mercury does not create the same disease in each person." Dateline noted, "It's a simple, scientific question, though." Huggins never answered.

While Huggins "claims he cured people of a variety of ailments simply by removing their fillings," he failed to supply any scientific evidence to support his claims, even when he was in front of a Colorado administrative law judge recommending that Huggins' license to practice be revoked! (It was, indeed, revoked.)

The Dateline report ended by noting that the American Dental Association "says it's improper and unethical to recommend that patients have their fillings taken out solely for the purpose of removing toxic substances from the body." They added that if a dentist suggests this, the viewer should "hold on to your wallet and go to another dentist."

Further information on the Dateline web site linked this type of dental quackery to "holistic dentistry," in which dentists may claim to adjust jaw joints, provide "nutrition counseling" and sell dietary supplements, use acupuncture, aromatherapy, homeopathy, iridology, etc. They note that all of these areas fall outside proper dentistry. They continue, "If he proposes to do so with one of the unscientific methods mentioned above, leave the office at once and never return."

Dateline has always been one of the most skeptical and scientific of the TV newsmagazines -- as evidenced by its repeated winning of this award -- so it's good to see that trend continuing, especially with such strong language against common "alternative" methods. (We usually don't see any media outlets state outright that homeopathy and related "alternatives" are "unscientific.") This is the type of reporting that we need to encourage whenever we see it!

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