Monday, April 30, 2007

"Stop the presses! He found something he didn't hate!"

If only to refute the skeptics who claim that I'm never happier than when I make life sound as dark and hopeless as possible, I'm ever on the lookout for things I can point to in the SHAMscape that may actually be worthwhile (or at least less fraudulent than the rest of it). Such is the basis for today's post, which focuses on a segment I saw earlier on Good Morning America; it featured Lisa Drayer, well-known nutrition expert and a marquee Women's Health columnist, giving advice about vitamin consumption. At this point faithful readers will be doubly surprised, because anyone who's been following along, or who has simply read SHAM, realizes that I'm not terribly high on Rodale, which publishes Women's Health.* It's not often you'll hear me get all warm and fuzzy over one of Rodale's products, plans, or personalities. And I'm not really doing that here, either. That said, I must compliment Women's Health and Ms. Drayer on the segment, citing the following three factors:

1. It was specific. Drayer didn't talk in touchy-feely vagueries about "empowering yourself to take control of your health." She talked about vitamin deficiencies that were likely to affect women, and why.

2. It was actionable. We do need a caveat here, and it comes in the form of the following clause: Assuming the science was sound.... That's always a huge "if," because a lot of these how-to programs, especially in the area of health maintenance, are based on flimsy science, and purposely so: For marketing reasons, it's important to sound like you have something "totally new!" to say, so con artists will pluck out a factoid here and a flawed study there and try to weave themselves a "breakthrough" program for weight control, disease prevention, whatever. So—assuming the science was sound—Drayer was direct and persuasive in her arguments for why women should use certain types of vitamins/supplements and avoid others. She backed up everything she said with credible info, or appeared to.**

3. It didn't overreach. Drayer didn't promise GMA's female viewers that if they followed the regimen she outlined, they'd live a wrinkle-free, forever-young existence in which they never got sick, their cellulite magically disappeared, and their breasts instantly swelled by two cup sizes. She simply said what she had to say about vitamins' role in nutrition and then, knowing that her 10-minute segment couldn't possibly answer all questions, directed viewers to Women's Health's website for further info.

Now, did she take that last step because she hopes to create more WH subscribers? Duh. But there's nothing wrong with that, as long as the people who subscribe get fair value in return. One of the biggest misconceptions that my critics try to spread about me is that "he's totally against people spending money to improve themselves!" Nonsense. I shouldn't have to say this, but I'm going to, once again: I don't oppose advice, per se. What I oppose is worthless, generic, overblown pseudo-advice that may well end up doing you significant harm, especially when it's rendered by self-appointed gurus (see under "Kevin Trudeau") who have no standing to be giving such advice in the first place and are, in too many cases, only in it for the money.

Damn. I guess I just couldn't stay positive all the way through, could I.

* and which, for the benefit of those who haven't read SHAM, was my last 9-to-5 employer as well. Between June 2000 and October 2001 I served as managing editor, then executive editor, of Men's Health Books.
** I didn't doublecheck her science. The utility of vitamin supplements as a class is increasingly controversial these days, so the question of which method of intake is "the best" may be a moot point, in the end. This is one of those topics we'll just have to monitor as time and science march forward.


J.W. said...


I am overcome by joy and a little shock over your most recent post. Are you finally giving advice on how to evaluate self-help? I think your publisher should stand up and cheer. I was so impacted by this shift in your writing the I created a blog post with my extended comments. I hope this shift to the positive and toward finding good solutions is not temporary. My opinion is that solutions tempered with criticism and warnings are better than no solutions at all. Thank you for the post.

a/good/lysstener said...

Hmmm, it's interesting Steve that the one person in recent memory you single out for praise just happens to be (1) a beautiful woman who (2) also happens to work at a job you were formerly employed at as well. Is there something we shoudl know here?

More seriously I'm also curious about why you have the skeptical remarks about vitamins in a footnote rather than in the main text of your post. If vitamins have no value or haven't been shown to have value, then why is what this woman says any more an example of "something positive" in self-help than any of the other people you write about so critically?

Steve Salerno said...

I seriously considered rejecting this as a comment, due to the gratuitous nature of your opening remarks here. However, since I often accuse SHAMsters of a conflict of interest, I suppose it's reasonable for you to wonder the same about me. So I'll answer you directly: I have never even met the woman. And I have no ongoing dealings with Rodale in any form, nor am I trying to position myself to be welcomed back into the fold.

Your second point is, on the surface, more germane, but keep in mind that I say the subject of vitamins is CONTROVERSIAL. I didn't say it's an out-and-out hoax, which is the case with so much of the rest of SHAM. Indeed, there are many highly credentialed types in conventional medicine who swear by the value of vitamins and supplements. We can't just arbitrarily go through life ruling out everything that hasn't been proved to a 100 percent certainty, because then we'd rule out just about everything. I'm simply saying that if you're going to buy into the idea of using vitamins--and there's a fair amount of institutional support for that--then I like the way this woman goes about it, relative to some of the others. No more and no less. I hope that answers your questions.

Anonymous said...

I saw the segment and thought the same thing you did, she did a very nice job without going off the deep end about what vitamins can do for you. I also thought something like what JW did when I read his comment, that you'd probably get a lot wider readership if you shifted the emphasis from all the fraud stuff, to telling people where they can find some actual value in self-help. It would be a way of doing the Lord's work as you see it while also achieving greater commercial success. And you wouldn't have as many of the problems you've talked about with the media either, where they think you're attacking their golden goose. Maybe there's a sequel to SHAM here? I know I'd buy it and I'm sure JW would too!

RevRon's Rants said...

C'mon, Steve... We're all a bit gratuitous by nature. I'll be first to admit that it's my tendency to give a beautiful woman the benefit of the doubt more readily than I would a man. There are, however, some real limits to that tendency. I won't even address the subtle undertones in Alyssa's first question. :-)

Seriously, though, while I get really tired of the hustledorks we delight in skewering, I tend to cut more slack to those "experts" who take the "try it, and if it does you some good, doesn't rot your teeth or cost you too much, that's great" approach. It's when their "advice" segues into a sales pitch that my eyebrows and hackles get up.

Keep up the good work. And let's see more "hotties with integrity" posts! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Look, I won't say there haven't been times when such an approach has crossed my mind--like, say, when my royalty statements arrive every six months. But no matter how you spin it or slice it, and no matter how careful I try to be in parsing language and explaining what I'm doing, the bottom line would be this: If I undertook such an effort--telling people why the glass was half full, not half (or almost entirely) empty, I would've switched sides. I would then be a part of the self-help movement. Not only that, but I would've set myself up as The Mega-Guru: the one guy you can REALLY trust, instead of all those other pretenders. Which is basically the same argument the con artists have been using for decades to establish their own credibility.

I can't seem to get past such obstacles, and I can't seem to make myself see it differently--though lord knows my agent would stand up and cheer, right alongside JW, if that transformation were to occur!

Steve Salerno said...

Oh, and Ron:


Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, congratulations for sticking to your guns as a journalist. As you've 'splained dozens upon dozens of times, it's not your job to provide solutions. It IS your job to describe the problem.

Naturally, if you really were to endorse any guru or expert or "method" or "technology" -- even if you truly believed in that person or product -- not only would you be straying from your job as a journalist, but you can be sure that you would be criticized for having an "agenda" (getting some financial reward for your endorsement, or having a personal relationship with the endorsee). As facetious as Alyssa's comment may have been, it's just a small dose of what you'd be getting from serious critics if you were to start writing glowing reports about "things that really work!"

But you already know that.

Perhaps what J.W. is looking for is a sort of "Consumer's Report" for SHAM, but the problem is that a SHAM path or teaching really can't be held to the same rigorous testing that, say, a car or washing machine or notebook computer can.

Since SHAM experiences are largely subjective (and people aren't always that honest about their experiences anyway), we are going to have to settle for the critics, the proponents, and our own experiences. Oh, yeah, and the professional smart-alecks like yours truly. "Gratuitous" is my middle name! :-)

J.W. said...

Steve, If it is too much of a stretch for you to write about how to evaluate "good" SHAM from "bad", I understand. But what about creating a framework for thinking critically about SHAM, and then using it to skewer said works, not endorse them. Building a critical framework adds a cohesiveness to each new argument against different SHAM works. This cohesiveness would resonate with a broader audience and win greater exposure for your message. What would a legal code that protects the public from SHAM look like for example. Hmmm ... I feel the stirrings of a master work here. Warning: You would have to put a HUGE DISCLAIMER that if a given work passes the critical filter, it may sill be harmful in the same way that a defendant proven Not Guilty may actually be guilty ... O.J. A critical framework for SHAM would have the same risk as our legal system. Proving "not guilty" does not prove "innocence". I wish the broader public understood this point better. Is this why you avoid creating a critical framework?


Steve Salerno said...

JW, I confess that you raise a number of points I hadn't seriously considered. This deserves more than an off-the-cuff reply, and so perhaps I'll address the topic(s) you raise in a subsequent post. Regardless, thanks so much for taking the time to ponder this in such depth. This blog could not succeed in any kind of ongoing sense without feedback at this level.