Sunday, October 02, 2011

'Steve knew that NCCAM had wasted an awful lot of taxpayer money...'

As regular readers are aware, this is the kind of stuff that makes me positively apoplectic. And since the word apoplectic, in its most literal sense, has to do with the occurrence or causation of a stroke, it is not a very good thing when (so-called) health information would put you in that state.

So far as I've been able to determine, my local paper, The Morning Call, is not presenting this material as a "special advertising section." Nor is it designated as "opinion writing." Nor does it includes meaningful disclaimers. In short, the reader is being asked to accept this material, "Healing Mind, Body, Spirit"
which has been given a special section all its ownas straight news, or honest-to-goodness health reporting. Even though you can read for yourself, I'm going to quote the lede here, so you can readily perceive the nature of my gripe:

When Connie Konnick was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she knew she would need more than surgery and radiation to heal.

The disease affected her in ways that transcended the body. It shook her emotions, influenced her thoughts and forced her to confront her mortality. She had faith that her doctors would do everything in their power to wipe out the tumors, but the rest was up to her.

A Tai Chi practitioner, Konnick was aware of the connection between mind, body and spirit. She believed that if she nourished her body, monitored her emotions and kept her mind thinking positive thoughts, she would be more likely to defeat this aggressive disease. So she attended all of her Tai Chi classes, especially during those weeks when she underwent radiation treatments five days in a row....
She "knew" she "would need more than surgery and radiation"? The doctors "would do everything in their power," but "the rest" was up to her? She was "aware of the connection between mind, body and spirit"? What I'm asking you to notice here is the total lack of objective distance between writer and subject. When a journalist writes that a person "knew" she would need more than surgery, or that "the rest" was up to her, that writer is tacitly vouching for the information. It's exactly as if I wrote, "Joe knew that the Earth is round, so he decided..." In a journalistic setting, when I write that, I am also writing that I know the Earth is round, and that you, the reader, should know it too.

Only in one instance in his ledewhere the writer, Milton D. Carrero, has Connie "believing" that her positive thoughts would help her beat canceris there any journalistic lens between Carrero and Connie Konnick. But by that time, it's already too late. The spin is established. We've met Mr. Carrero before, by the way, and in a similar connection. So I'm not surprised that the paper gave him the job here.

What I've highlighted above is a very small portion of a six-page section that features quotes like, "If you have positive energy, that's going to help you heal everything" (also quoted uncritically, as if we're to accept it on faith). I don't want to belabor the point because I've already written ad nauseam about alternative medicine; I devoted an entire chapter to alt-med in SHAM. But maybe the simplest and most telling rebuttal is this: Despite well over $1 billion dollars in budget authority, and 20 years spent trying*, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) hasn't been able to clinically validate a single alternative/New Age methodology. Not one. (Read especially the tenth paragraph of my controversial Wall Street Journal piece on the subject.)

So why the hell do we continue writing (and lecturing) about this stuff as if we all "know" it works, or even helps? (And why is it considered so horribly impolitic to say otherwise?)

Look, if you're saying it makes you feel better to meditate or get hypnotized (two of the alternative "treatments" suggested in the section), then by all means go for it. We all want to feel better...even when we're not challenged by cancer. But for God's sake, don't present it as a "treatment model" or imply that it's not just helping you feel better but is actually healing you in the medical sense of the term! And for those who face serious health challenges, or have faced them in the past, I'd like to ask you this: If it came down to a choice, would you rather see a health professional who treated you with utmost care and sensitivity but didn't fix the problem? Or a doctor who's a complete SOB, such that you leave his office every week in tears, feeling hopeless...but also manages to cure you?

Speaking of "curing you," here's the most interesting line in the entire section, to me. It appears as almost a throwaway phrase four short paragraphs from the end of Carrero's very long piece:
Keeping up her with Tai Chi practice helped Konnick after she developed breast cancer again in 2009.
So wait, let me get this straight: She "developed breast cancer again"?

Is the writer really saying that maybe Connie Konnick never got rid of her cancer the first time around? Despite all that healthful, mind-body energy she applied? What a shocker!

* I'm including the early activities of NCCAM's previous incarnation, the Office of Alternative Medicine (1991-1997).


Cal said...

Your post somewhat reminds of a segment on The Today Show in August where Matt Lauer was tested for hearing loss. Although alt-med claims are dubious, many people need or will need hearing aids. And I especially fear for these kids that blast their Ipods.

My problem was with the guy who was presented in the segment. The correspondent and the doctor who tested him made it seem like he didn't have hearing problems before he was an adult. But when you listen to Lauer interview the guy and his doctor after the end of the taped piece on live television (address attached below), the man says near the end of the interview that the hearing aid he uses now are not like the ones he wore as a kid.

So I think the segment was useful, but it was a bit misleading as the man had some hearing concerns before.

But I'm guessing more newspapers will be doing things like this to increase revenue. Don't they call them "advertorials"?

Steve Salerno said...

Cal: To answer your question, no, the section was not labeled in any way that distinguished it from the rest of the paper, except to call it a "special section." It was thus left up to the reader to recognize it as "advertorial." But nothing in the tone of the writing suggested that it was fluff, and the writers themselves were newspaper employees. The word "advertising" was conspicuously missing between "special" and "section." It should have been there, since clearly the 6-pager was built around a bunch of ads for local hospitals and clinics, and I'm sure the whole concept was ad driven--a vehicle for ad salespeople to sell off.

Another thing that bothers me is the increasing tendency for newspapers to allow advertisers, in effect, to sponsor pages. The Call, for instance, frequently has ads on the front page these days, right up next to or above the main title. That just looks terrible, to me.

Dimension Skipper said...

I agree with all your points here, Steve. I don't even like this stuff when it IS clearly labelled as a "special advertising section" because I think many people too easily gloss right by that without noticing it (or maybe they don't WANT to notice it).

Though somewhat off-topic for this post, I mainly wanted to come point out today's Abstruse Goose web comic because I just thought you (and others) might like it.

RevRon's Rants said...

"When a journalist writes that a person "knew" she would need more than surgery, or that "the rest" was up to her, that writer is tacitly vouching for the information."

Sorry, Steve, but I think you're stretching the point too far here. I didn't take the journalist's statements as "vouching" for anything. IMO, the "tacitly vouching" occurs primarily in the perception of one like yourself who is overly sensitized to the typically ludicrous claims of some self-proclaimed healers. What I read was that the patient had steeled herself to her illness, and knew that if she gave up, it would take her. Perhaps not as a death directly attributable to her cancer, but the depression that can follow such a diagnosis can - and has - manifested itself in the patient taking his/her own life.

The woman did the right thing; she sought and accepted treatment from her oncologist. Then, she braced herself for what is inevitably a daunting treatment regimen. And the journalist documented her mindset as she faced the disease and treatment.

IMO, the fact that her cancer re-emerged has nothing to do with her mental attitude, and certainly doesn't serve to diminish the value of her positive mindset in any way. I just hope she was capable of sustaining that positive attitude through subsequent treatments and ultimately, in dealing with her own mortality.

Steve Salerno said...

Rev: And in turn, I disagree with you. We are taught in journalism to use certain identifying words and phrases that alert the reader--albeit imperceptibly--that the "opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of the author [nor are they to be taken as the author's perception of reality]." So, for example, in writing about a politician who just took a position on a certain issue, a writer might write, "Jones claims that women deserve abortion rights" or "Jones asserts that women deserve abortion rights" instead of "Jones believes that women deserve abortion rights," because the writer does not know--for a fact--that Jones actually believes what he (Jones) is saying. This is a subtle but important distinction, because the substitution of believes for claims would suggest to the reader that the politician does, in fact, believe what he says--which the writer has no way of realistically knowing, in most cases. That would be a case of the writer "vouching for" the politician, whether or not s/he intends to.

This is not just sophistry, and a notable illustration would be the ostensible agita on the part of certain GOP lawmakers over gays and gay rights in recent years. We have learned (painfully) that some of the Republican legislators who most vocally decried the "gay movement," gays rights and gay influence in American life were, in fact, themselves gay. So the distinction between "claims" and "believes" is highly pertinent.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think you're missing the fact that documenting the act of projecting one's beliefs upon another is dramatically different from documenting how one believes he or she must face a situation themselves. The patient wasn't projecting a moral standard upon anyone else, and neither was the journalist supporting such a projection, as is the case in the examples you provided.

in all fairness, since I've not walked a mile in their shoes, I can only strongly "believe" or "opine" that our politicians should act with greater integrity. On the other hand, I "know" that I need to live to a higher standard than what most of our elected officials set for themselves. And IMO, a journalist would be acting well within the bounds of journalistic integrity by reporting both instances as I have presented them here.

Steve Salerno said...

Rev: I honestly don't see how you could read the section cited as "generously" as you did, but we can agree to disagree.