March 31st, 2014

Commentary | January 28th, 2013
Lies, damn lies and pseudoscience
Recent articles misunderstood the basics of research
Written by Shannon Palus and Kate Sheridan

We were stunned to learn, in recent issues of The Daily, that our cell phones might be killing us (Nirali Tanna, “Are our cell phones killing us?” Health&Ed, January 10, page 12) and that homeopathy might be a reasonable way to try to resolve that medical damage (Molly Swain, “In Defense of Naturopathic Medicine,” Commentary, November 26, page 16). Both of these articles fundamentally misunderstand science, and represent a dangerously low standard of journalism. They left us – and many members of the McGill science community – deeply disappointed in what we believe is a valuable resource and learning environment for journalists.

We will briefly address what we see to be the main problems with each of these articles.

Molly Swain asks: “When we question the ‘legitimacy’ of alternative forms of medicine, such as naturopathy or homeopathy, what exactly is it that we are questioning?” Homeopathy is not backed by any kind of laboratory science: when we question homeopathy, we question the scientific principles behind “water memory,” we question whether, in clinical trials, homeopathy could ever be shown to be more effective than a sugar pill. If one wants to use homeopathy, that’s fine, but it’s dangerous to espouse it as a solution against an imperfect medical system.

Swain’s analysis rested on the assumption that, because naturopathic doctors do less harm, as they “have fewer recorded medical errors,” they do good. Just because someone is doing essentially nothing does not preclude them from doing harm. If homeopathy distracts patients from seeking conventional treatments, they could pay with their lives. In the meantime, their homeopathic treatments are doing nothing, as shown in 2005 by Shang et al.

We agree with Swain – medicine, particularly a system in bed with big pharmaceutical companies, can be dangerous, too. But that doesn’t mean that water can cure your cold or your cancer.

“Killer cellphones” – an article whose conclusion made it onto the very cover of the newspaper – similarly failed to correctly identify the existence of scientific research. Cell phones emit a type of radiation referred to as “non-ionizing”: the energy that comes from them is incapable of blasting an electron off of an atom.  This event – ionization – is the process that is associated with mutations, and cancer.  This exact phrase – “non-ionizing radiation” – was actually used in the article to describe the heart of the problem, and then ignored or dismissed without further inquiry or definition. A simple cursory Google search will lead you to a page from the American Cancer Society, which states clearly that non-ionizing radiation has not been shown to cause cancer. Cell phones can be evil little devices, but they have not been shown to cause cancer.

We recognize that criticism of science – including criticism of accepted methods and empirical truth – is necessary and desirable. But writers should understand exactly what they are challenging when they do so, and not conflate other kinds of speculation, or critical thinking, with science. If Swain wants to make a personal argument for homeopathy (or even one involving the whole wide world – it is, after all, her opinion), that’s fine. But she and her editors should do their research and understand that she is making a stand against the bench studies that show homeopathy belongs in a realm separate from medical science, one that can indeed be dangerous. If Nirali Tanna believes that there is some reason why the basic science behind cellphones is misunderstood, there should be the journalism and research to back that claim up. Tall claims require proof.

Kate Sheridan is a U2 Cognitive Science student. Reach her at sheridan.kat@gmail.com. Shannon Palus is a U3 Physics student, and former Daily Sci+Tech editor. She can be reached at shannon.palus@gmail.com

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