Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

If It’s Too Good to Be True...

By Peter Bowditch

Despite the NHMRC’s findings on homeopathy and the death of a “wellness warrior”, there is little critical evaluation of health claims by the mainstream media.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has issued a statement about the effectiveness of homeopathy following a review of 225 studies selected after a rigorous assessment of more than 1800 papers. To quote the media release from NHMRC:

The review found no good quality, well-designed studies with enough participants to support the idea that homeopathy works better than a placebo, or causes health improvements equal to those of another treatment.

Homeopaths and their supporters have been highly critical of the findings, of course, and have been making noises about the inadequacies of meta-analysis, the influence of Big Pharma, the long history of people knowing that homeopathy works, and the other usual excuses given whenever the veil of legitimacy is removed from a form of quackery. It is rather telling that only 12.5% of the studies investigated looked like they might mean something, but on further examination none of these better ones demonstrated what is supposed to be common knowledge.

One of the reasons for the continued success of things like homeopathy is that the media generally tend to accept claims without bothering to check the facts. Even when something like this comes along it seems that the media is reluctant to admit that they might have been wrong. I have seen little coverage of the NHMRC findings, yet I don’t have to look far to find stories about the latest miracle cure.

There’s been a lot of publicity recently about two people who purported to have cures for cancer. One ended in tragedy, the other in farce.

Jess Ainscough billed herself as the “Wellness Warrior”, and received a large amount of favourable publicity over the last couple of years as she fought cancer using natural means. In 2008 she was diagnosed with epithelioid sarcoma in her left hand and arm. She rejected the suggestion that she might be completely cured by amputation of the arm, resigned her job and devoted herself full-time to finding a cure. She then decided to preach the cure to other people.

One of the supposed cures she offered was Gerson treatment, which consists mainly of a diet high in fruit juices combined with regular coffee enemas. The Gerson Clinic is in Tijuana, where the cancer quacks go to get away from government regulation.

One of the people who listened to Ainscough was her mother, with the almost inevitable result that she died. This did not deter Jess, who continued with appearances in the media, her website, her books and her bad advice.

Despite regular claims that she was improving and getting better all the time, the cancer finally killed her. For the last year of her life her appearances became less and less frequent as it became increasingly obvious that the deformity of her left arm was getting worse.

Dying young is always a tragedy, but this was a course she chose. If only she had kept her advice to herself.

The other person offering a cure for cancer is Belle Gibson, who produced a book and a mobile phone app called The Whole Pantry. Her app was chosen by Apple for inclusion on the iWatch, and she was flown to the USA by the company to appear at events promoting the device. Her story and subsequent success was based on the claim that she had cured herself of brain cancer.

Suddenly it all imploded. It now seems that there is no evidence that she ever had cancer at all. Her publisher has withdrawn her book from sale, and it appears that the app has been removed from Apple’s online store.

On the basis that you don’t say bad things about dead people the media was rather restrained in reporting the death of Jess Ainscough, but there has been a feeding frenzy over Belle Gibson. Magazines that uncritically promoted her “cure” and dietary advice to their readers have been publishing articles with two-page headlines saying what a dreadful thing it was to lie about having cancer.

Perhaps they should have checked before they accepted her story in the first place. Had she really had cancer, there would be no bad news story, no bad press, and it would be business as usual for The Whole Pantry.

A cure for cancer is good news but the reality of the gradual progress towards solutions for the very many conditions bearing the name doesn’t produce headlines, just as the scientific rebuttal of the claims of homeopathy doesn’t make headlines. Unfortunately, what matters to most of the media are soundbites, not anything that requires any depth of explanation.

There is an old saying: “If it is too good to be true, it probably is”. If journalists and their editors would apply this, plus a touch of Occam’s razor, to claims of miracle cures we might see fewer stories combining tragedy and farce.

But I don’t think that this will happen soon.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).