Sunday, January 27, 2013

Smithsonian feeds the quacks

“Over thousands of years, gold has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, inner ear infections, facial nerve paralysis, fevers and syphilis. Now, preliminary findings suggest a new application for tiny grains of gold – destroying cancer cells.”

With that line, the Smithsonian Magazine demonstrates a journalistic habit that undermines science reporting, while at the same time giving comfort to promoters of pseudo-science. A journalist with a story, going in search of a Grand Narrative for the lead.

The rest of the story is fine: a straightforward discussion of research. But the “wisdom of the ancients” is not, I’d suggest, the right “grand narrative” for a serious health story.

“Over thousands of years gold has been used to treat” is linked by the Smithsonian piece to this journal paper. It’s just a throwaway line at the start of the paper, which examines gold-based therapy for arthritis and tuberculosis. Interestingly, that paper notes that “Eventually, gold therapy was extended to arthritis and lupus erythematosus, because of the belief that these diseases were forms of tuberculosis.”

That belief has long been proven wrong … but what of the rest of the list? “Inner ear infections, facial nerve paralysis, fevers and syphilis”. The Smithsonian doesn’t provide a citation, let alone discuss whether any of these treatments were effective.

Ancient Egypt used dung in treatments. That doesn’t somehow suggest they knew something about feces that we since lost; it means they were ignorant and superstitious, and based their treatments on not on science, but on magic.

They’d have used unicorn penis to treat cancer if they could get it: that doesn’t make it an effective treatment, it just sweeps unicorn penis up in the “try everything” pharmacopeia of ancient society.

Spurious credibility is exactly what pseuds, frauds, snake-oilers, ripoff merchants, gull-deceivers, anti-vaxers, crystal-sellers, homeo-sue-anyone-who-disagrees-pathy, chiro-save-a-laywer-for-us-practic and every other quack relies on to draw new, desperate suckers into their net.

Well done, Smithsonian.

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