The Science of Natural Medicine - Analysing the Language

Sometimes life presents you with hidden opportunities. How was I to know while idly perusing the magazine rack at Christchurch airport that I would find something that has astounded most of my friends, had me and my flatmates screaming incredulously? I was waiting with my nephew for our plane to come in, my eyes glazing over Women's Days and Men's Health headlines, when... something stood out. It was like in period dramas, when the young, naïve protagonist catches the eye of the dashing, dangerous, dark eyed stranger (not the love interest, we're talking a Mr. Wickham here). What can I be talking about, besides The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine?

Now, many of you will already be shaking your heads at me. "Grace," you will say, having scrolled to the top of this blog to find the subtitle which contains my name, "by buying that 'journal' you are only encouraging them!" I know, I know, call me gullible but I was thirsting to know whether I should avoid ALL vaccines, curious about the "connection" between ADHD and fluoride, and yes, like any red-blooded person in their twenties I too wanted to know the secrets of sexual nutrition (what about an endless diet of two-minute noodles was not improving my sex life?). This journal was the gift that kept on giving. From the three-page article claiming that biological systems are able to create elements through nuclear fusion (yes, what the Sun’s 15 million degrees Kelvin core does), to the advertisements of a partner (?) conspiracy magazine in which a featured cover shows a child with marijuana angel wings, to the incredible line in an article on aspirin which boldly claims that ‘the list of [aspirin's] adverse side effects seems to grow greater the more it is studied’ which I had thought was part of the scientific process; that the more we study something the more we find out about it. Truly, writing a rebuttal on one of these articles alone would warrant a blog in itself, along with photographic evidence that I did not make up any of those examples (I'm not that creative). Instead, you will have to make do with this probably sub-par analysis of the language behind the pseudoscience, and what makes it so attractive.

Fly high, you healing weed-angel (marijuangel?) child...

Fly high, you healing weed-angel (marijuangel?) child...

Recently Chiasma hosted a workshop on Science Communication with Dr. Lakshini Mendis and Peter Kerr. The workshop was wonderful, and provided me with excellent ideas and techniques on how to engage with the community on scientific ideas. However, this blog is not about engagement. This is about something that Peter Kerr said at the beginning of his talk; that all communication is at its heart a persuasive message. As he spoke I reflected that many of the key points of persuasive language was present in The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine. The simple writing, the use of analogies, of personal, emotive, plot-driven, surprising pieces, penned or associated with “credible” sources saturates The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine. The more I hate-read the articles the more their use of language stuck out to me. At its heart The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine tries to win you over to its side and it does so by using so many persuasive techniques you glance over their shoddy sources and accept their narrative, not because of logical deduction, but because they emotionally manipulate your view.

The articles in The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine are simply written, meant for consumption by a public with little biological, biomedical or scientific knowledge. This is not a bad thing, in fact I greatly admire scientific articles which are able to simplify their concepts so that the general public can understand it. New Scientist and Nature Reviews are two great publications that come to mind. Despite their mostly plain language, The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine has articles which contain some “buzz words” to give scientific credibility. For example, in the article on the “connection” between ADHD and fluoride they claim an ecological association… which does not mean an association between the environmental factor and the incidence of the studied disorder (that would be an epidemiological association) but means that the two exist in the same communities. This can be said of many things, like say, did you know that mono-oxide dihydrogen is found in virtually every community with a high rate of cancer? Scary stuff. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop drinking water. In these articles the authors take advantage of the reader’s assumed ignorance of scientific terms and throws them in when it suits them, particularly when they want to scare the reader or when they want to make their point sound like it is a fact.

Which brings us to the second point, the credibility of their sources. Many articles fail to reference the papers they refer to directly. The only article with a comprehensive list of sources was the article on the connection between ADHD and fluoride, which listed around 39 scientific articles on the dangers of fluoride, none of which actually linked fluoride and ADHD. I spent some time looking through the referenced articles, and couldn’t find 12 articles online, even using my university’s access, found 14 which either reported fluoride poisoning or used experimental models with excessive amounts of fluoride (NZ drinking water has up to 1mg/L of fluoride – some studies gave the animals a whopping 30mg/kg/bodyweight, a toxic dose), and 11 articles which either denied a link between fluoride and the studied disease, or which didn’t support the anti-fluoride rhetoric. I personally find it quite amusing that these articles are so determined to pawn themselves off as proper scientific literature, while constantly thrashing the scientific method and findings. Logically, it would make more sense for them to base their belief because a hallucination of a talking goat rather than the few examples which slightly support their findings given their hatred of science. However, science is credible. People believe in the scientific process, or at least that it is trustworthy, that is why the peer-review process was made, and why scientists are outraged whenever it is ignored. It is this trust that these articles seek to exploit by posing their conspiracies as science.

Finally, the language in The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine is beyond emotive. It contains the emotive writing of the third season of a telenovela, designed to enflame a few emotions in particular: fear and outrage. Fear often targets parents, through gruesome descriptions of a child’s “autistic reaction” to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, but images of bloody teeth and ulcers also strike a very personal fear. Every scientific article which advances their claims is treated as if it is groundbreaking, an ‘aha, caught you’ moment to the current scientific consensus. The simple truth to conflicting scientific evidence is often due to the fact that life is complicated and full of contradictions, and that our understanding improves with time.

Let’s take a look at what a pro-scientific article written in their style would look like:

PARENTS WILLINGLY SUBJECT CHILDREN TO VIRUS

THAT CAUSES "IMMUNE AMNESIA"

With the rise of the anti-vaccination movement, parents are now more than ever willing to take a risk and deny their children valuable immunity to a virus that can cause serious side effects. Despite the “link” between autism and vaccines being disproven many times over, the misconception is still as popular as it is dangerous (1). While 1 in 10 measles cases will require hospitalisation (2), and neurological conditions such as postinfectious encephalomyelitis with a mortality rate of 25% can occur in 13 of 1000 infections (3), even mild infection with measles can have a lasting effect on the immune system (4).

The measles virus is able to infect two cell types, epithelial cells, which line the body’s organs, and immune cells, which fight against infection (3,4). Infection causes cell death, and contributes to the symptoms of measles (3). In the case of immune cells this can ‘wipe out’ memory cells which have fought off previous infections (4). Mina et al found that for two to three years after measles outbreaks, children were more likely to die of other diseases (4). Vaccinating against measles then is likely to not only to reduce the painful deaths caused by measles itself, but by other childhood illnesses as well... (4)

Okay, I know, my impersonation wasn’t the best. For one I couldn’t bring myself to part from my beloved, beloved sources, and perhaps my fear-mongering is not as refined as it could be, but I hope this example has proven a point. When pro-scientific writing is phrased like anti-science rhetoric, the end result sounds condescending, unprofessional. It sounds like it has an agenda.

This whole blog really boils down to one question: why do I care so much? I care because I am a scientist, because I worry about the state of the world when misinformation is so easily spread and believed. Community engagement is a powerful tool, it is the public’s way of making science culpable, of keeping scientists in check with the community’s needs and desires and fears. All of the persuasive techniques I’ve mentioned are useful tools; outrage, fear are powerful emotions that are able to drive us to do the right thing, to take care of ourselves, but when these techniques are misused, when they deliberately play on people’s distrust, ignorance, they are dangerous. They can cause fatalities, harm to people who will ignore warning signs and conventional medicine for an alternative that does not work. They are also malicious in other ways. Let me show you the advertisement for Fluoride Free New Zealand in this journal.  

For an advocacy group, it does seem strange that their first four steps involve giving the organisers money. This monetary focus is seen in other articles, from a book on Conquering Cancer, to authors peddling courses that they teach.

Advocacy is important, to both advance science and to keep it in check, but please ask yourself this question; is The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine encouraging healthy skepticism, encouraging free-thought and education, or is it trying to bamboozle, persuade and scare you into giving them money? And what can we do to circumvent this? Learning how to communicate science effectively, how to engage with the public in a beautifully concise and simple way, how to demystify science, is one way forward. It’s the route I’m willing to take.

References (for made up article)

  1. Taylor B, Miller E, Farrington C, Petropoulos MC, Favot-Mayaud I, Li J, Waight PA. Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association. The Lancet. 1999 Jun 12;353(9169):2026-9.

  2. Ministry of Health NZ. Ministry of Health. [Internet] Measles; [updated 2 Nov 2016; cited 25 May 2017]. Available from: http://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/conditions-and-treatments/diseases-and-illnesses/measles

  3. Orenstein WA, Perry RT, Halsey NA. The clinical significance of measles: a review. Journal of Infectious Diseases. 2004 May 1;189(Supplement 1):S4-16.

  4. Mina MJ, Metcalf CJ, de Swart RL, Osterhaus AD, Grenfell BT. Long-term measles-induced immunomodulation increases overall childhood infectious disease mortality. Science. 2015 May 8;348(6235):694-9.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect that of Chiasma's as an organisation.