Cover science responsibly and expose pseudoscience

02/17/2014 8:31 AM

02/17/2014 8:31 AM

Reader Mariana Abadie recently emailed me to suggest The Kansas City Star report on a topic of acute and universal interest: a common substance that may pose a serious public health hazard.

A prominent national retailer sells in its pharmacy a product labeled as a “homeopathic oral spray” for the relief of asthma symptoms. The problem: Homeopathy is utter nonsense. Its principles, concocted in the late 18th century, are based not on science but rather on a belief that illness is caused by disturbances to a person’s “vital force,” and can be treated by ingesting various substances diluted to miniscule concentrations.

Abadie correctly points out one major issue with this spray being sold alongside actual medicines: “Homeopathic products can prevent people from seeking the proper treatment. A person can die if they use these products instead of seeking the proper treatment.”

The National Institutes of Health warns of another danger: “Although people sometimes assume that all homeopathic remedies are highly diluted and therefore unlikely to cause harm, some products labeled as homeopathic can contain substantial amounts of active ingredients and therefore could cause side effects and drug interactions.”

Not all pseudoscience is necessarily dangerous. Skeptics are chagrined at the massive popularity of horoscopes, but a reader’s life isn’t on the line because he believes the heavens have decreed he’ll have a four-star day.

But journalists should document the real-life consequences when science is misapplied — or not applied at all. For example, I’ve spoken to many readers through the years who have encouraged The Star to combat the nonsense that continues to proliferate on the Internet falsely claiming autism (along with other maladies) is caused by childhood vaccinations.

In reality, there is no such link. Yet vaccination rates have dropped in some segments of the world population, at least in part leading to a dramatic increase in diseases once thought largely eradicated, such as measles and pertussis or whooping cough.

Many of us sometimes indulge in a little wishful thinking on matters of science, though. We may compliment our rational, steely gaze on the flim-flammery of seances and mediums. But how many of us pop a daily multivitamin pill, even though the science is pretty clear? They are useless at best, and mega-doses of vitamins such as A or E can be harmful, according to a recent strongly worded editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Organic foods are better for you than conventional? Allergies to gluten are common? Acupuncture and reflexology are effective at reducing pain? Science isn’t generally on board, regardless of how widespread these beliefs may be.

I realize that citing “scientific consensus” can often be reduced to the common argumentative fallacy called the “appeal to authority.” And while one often hears that the science of climate change is so overwhelmingly consistent that it should no longer be open to debate, I’ve always thought that is a dangerously inflexible and anti-intellectual position, regardless of how vital it is to stop pollution and waste.

Matters of serious public policy hinge on science. It’s the lynchpin of medicine, agriculture, transportation, energy and other industries that drive the world economy. It deserves vigilant news coverage.

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