Thursday, July 20, 2017

New York Magazine has a problem with pseudoscience*

Not just New York Magazine, of course. The issues here are almost industry-wide (Cracked and the Gawker remnants have fairly clean hands), but NYM might be a bit worse than average and is, at the very least, a good place to start given its association with the conspicuous consumption lifestyle porn that drives so much bad health science.

There is a troubling symbiotic relationship between journalists and people like Gwyneth Paltrow who can be subjects, sources, advertisers, even potential colleagues and employers.

Here's what came up next to one of the stories below.

The problem is compounded by an ethical code focused on covering your ass rather than getting at the truth. NYM reporters are particularly adept at working that system, including just enough snark and caveats to give themselves just sufficient distance. Take a look at this recent example:

I Took the Best Nap of My Life on a $9,000 Crystal Bed by Allie Jones

I hate to do this, but I have to recommend a moderately expensive wellness practice that has no scientific basis or proven medical benefits whatsoever. Last week, I tried Crystal Bed Therapy at the recently opened alternative medicine studio Modrn Sanctuary, and I was changed. I don’t think it did what it was supposed to do (realign my energy field?) but it did make me feel intensely relaxed and also sort of high.

To belabor the obvious, “no scientific basis” doesn't mean much if it's followed by a testimonial, but it does immunize Jones to a degree from the criticism that she's promoting pseudoscience. That's clearly what she is doing, but if challenged, she has plenty of qualifiers to point to.

If you do the promoting in passing, you don't even need the caveats. Check out the end of
Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams are Getting Into the Food Business Together

Subscribers of the DIY-smoothie company can choose from among three plans that ship frozen “superfoods” to their door on a weekly or monthly basis. Plans run between $48 to accommodate the ingredients for six smoothies and $168 for a month’s supply. It is unknown if the smoothies are delicious, but they will undoubtedly be healthy.

“Undoubtedly”?!? First off, there are no “superfoods.” Second, the suggestion that you can count on a Paltrow product to be healthy (or safe, for that matter) is somewhere between funny and sad.

Of course, those are just quick little fillers. Is the standard higher for a major feature? Yes and no...

The Wellness Epidemic by Amy Larocca

Wellness is a very broad idea, which is no small part of its marketing appeal. On the most basic level, it’s about making a conscious effort to attain health in both body and mind, to strive for unity and balance. And it’s not a new idea either. Homeopathy, which uses natural substances to promote the body’s ability to self-heal, was popularized in Germany in the late-18th century, and 50 years later, the YMCA set its mission as caring for the body, mind, and spirit. Dan Rather did a 60 Minutes segment on wellness in 1979, but it was approached more as a fringe phenomenon. “Wellness,” he said, “that’s not a word you hear every day.”

Putting aside the annoyance at seeing the Y (an organization based on giving young men an alternative to taverns and brothels) in bad company, you can't simply say this about homeopathy. This is not a practice that “uses natural substances to promote the body’s ability to self-heal”; it is a practice that does nothing. It is the poster child for medical pseudoscience.

Or later on...
It can be easy to be cynical about wellness, about the $66 jade eggs that Gwyneth Paltrow suggests inserting in your “yoni.” There’s something grotesque about this industry’s emerging at the moment when the most basic health care is still being denied to so many in America and is at risk of being snatched away from millions more. But what’s perhaps most striking about wellness’s ascendancy is that it’s happening because, in our increasingly bifurcated world, even those who do have access to pretty good (and sometimes quite excellent, if quite expensive) traditional health care are left feeling, nonetheless, incredibly unwell.

Cynical is not nearly a strong enough response.  Writing for Gizmodo, Kristen V. Brown explains:

“A lot of things here are concerning,”said Jen Gunter, a San Francisco OB/GYN. “For one, this is a porous rock you’re putting in there, not medical-grade silicon, and who knows what bacteria can lodge in those nooks and crannies. Then there’s also this magical belief that putting something inside you can do something to your aura or chi.”

Gunter, whose practice specializes in pelvic floor disorders and infectious disease, said it’s not just that Paltrow is peddling pseudoscientific eastern mysticism—it’s actually bad medical advice.

If you really wanted to strengthen your vagina’s pelvic floor, for example, Gunter said that sleeping with a weight down there or walking around with it inside of you won’t do the trick. The key, she said, is exercises to tighten and relax the muscles. Keeping an egg up there, she said, could actually do the reverse and damage those muscles.

21st Century journalism has a problem with pseudoscience, It's time for an intervention.

* And real science, too.

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