David & Goliath: A Dramatic Role Reversal Spurred On By The Media

The Internet is teeming with false health claims and a long line of celebrities willing to throw their media weight behind every new flavor of snake oil. The irony is that alternative medicine proponents see themselves as a persecuted minority – the victims of some nebulous health industry conspiracy. But in reality, they have ingratiated themselves with the media to such an extent that they may in fact have the upper hand.

Pseudoscience has become Goliath, and physicians have never faced a more pernicious foe. With patients’ lives hanging in the balance, some of us are waging the war for hearts and minds with gumption, zeal, and a little help from a brave minority of media who have finally woken up and realized that alternative medicine is not as soft and cuddly as they once thought.

Take for example those who wrongly believe that vaccines cause autism. Many of them subject their children to unproven and harmful therapies, diets, and regimens – some of which are tantamount to child abuse. Consider the cases described most recently by David Gorski here. One child underwent repeated IV chelation therapy for years followed by the invasive injection of “stem cells” into her cerebrospinal fluid.

The Huffington Post publishes some of the most bizarre and pseudoscientific medical advice on the Internet. Some recommend ozonated water, blood electrification, deep cleansing enemas, or garlic instead of vaccines to prevent H1N1 influenza. The challenge with interpreting some of these posts is that they blend unproven and potentially harmful treatments with reasonable diet and exercise advice. The average consumer has a hard time teasing out fact from fiction, all the while being influenced to doubt the safety and efficacy of tried and true medical treatments. I would argue that when a media outlet with an audience as large as the Huffington Post intentionally posts misleading and false health information – they become a public health threat.

There is a bit of good news. Some media outlets are beginning to tire of the fantastical claims of the snake oil community, and seem to be hungering for some objective truth. Or at the very least, they finally seem to be seeking the scientific counter point to the celebrities and pitch men who pose as medical experts.

Lately Newsweek, the Associated Press, Salon, and even Forbes have taken a more critical look at some of the misinformation being spread by Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, and the Huffington Post. One comedian commented on the media’s over-emphasis on alternative perspectives in medicine (supposedly for “balance” purposes) this way:

“You never see the media using the ‘balance’ rule on hard science like physics. You never see them interviewing a guy from NASA about space stations, and then for balance they turn to a guy named Barry who believes that the sky is a carpet painted by God – Gary, what do you think of this space station plan?…”

But this same comedian hit on an interesting point about human nature. He also said,

“Most people would just as soon believe a relative about miraculous disease treatments. Like you’d rather believe your mum when she tells you she rubbed a cat on her face to make her headache go away.”

Just yesterday I was explaining how frustrating the Goliath misinformation problem is to a business acquaintance. I told him that I was contributing to a blog called Science-Based Medicine in an effort to combat some of the medical quackery that is being promoted online. He looked at me and said I’d never be a success with that message. He said that people like Oprah and Mehmet Oz were successful because they “went with the flow” and gave people what they wanted.

“Most people don’t want to think critically about things – they want to hear about miracle cures, self-help, and vitamins. They already have the media they ‘deserve.’ You’ll never appeal to a mass audience with your skeptical message.”

So I responded that maybe the critical thinking movement would never have as many followers as Oprah – just as NPR doesn’t have the reach of CNN. But NPR is a brand that appeals to a certain educated segment of the population.

“Well, if you want to be NPR then you better figure out how to aggregate your audience as successfully as possible,” he said.

And so I wonder how we can come together in a more organized way around our common desire to seek truth in medicine, using science to further our understanding of the human body? Can we help mainstream America to develop an appetite for critical thinking, or is that about as likely as getting folks to stop eating fast food? I’m not sure, but I’m proud of the few things we have accomplished by raising our concerned voices through our blogs – and hats off to Harriet Hall for being invited to write a regular column in O-Magazine to provide a 200 word counter point to the rest of the 100’s of pages of content.

May that little sling shot do some damage!

Posted in: Science and the Media

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