Current Affairs Science

Balancing act

What would you do if someone claimed that, because of “geopathic stress”, moving your bed could be the key to avoiding cancer? Well, if you’re the Irish Independent, you give that someone the most prominent picture and article space in a section about cancer prevention and treatment, with the bold headline “The truth about avoiding cancer”.

The man in the picture holding the magical pieces of wire is Brendan Murphy, and the article is little more than an advertising piece for his company, Positive Energy. Though the piece starts promisingly by pointing out that geopathic stress is “an area that is still open to debate”, sadly, it fails to deliver that debate. Instead, the reader is treated to a number of claims with a dearth of supporting evidence.

  • By ‘dousing’ (an ancient practice of using two wires to find underground waterways) Brendan can identify where water runs under a house and has found a strong correlation between that and illness.
  • If you’re constantly waking tired and unrefreshed it could be a sign that you’re sleeping over geopathic stress.
  • There’s a growing interest in how geopathic stress or ‘sick building syndrome’ affects health, with planners in several countries now considering geopathic stress lines when building houses. 
  • On the basis that electromagnetic waves affect the body’s ability to restore itself during sleep, Brendan advises also keeping mobile phones and electricity boxes an arm’s length from the bed – as well as keeping WiFI switched off at night.

The piece neither provides, nor suggests where you might find evidence to support the claims about Murphy’s dousing abilities (or anybody’s ability to accurately douse), or why electricity boxes and wifi might prevent your body from “restoring itself”, and if you found yourself wondering what planners are interested in geopathic stress lines, and how they could possible hope to avoid them all if they are as prevalent as claimed, you are not alone. A quick search through any academic database will cure what ails you – geopathic stress turning up only in low quality journals and those that focus on complementary and alternative therapies. Whatever strong correlations Murphy claims to have found between illnesses and these imaginary stress lines, it certainly hasn’t been documented in any research papers.

Continuing to largely ignore the seemingly fictional nature of the piece, the author concludes that there has been “little investigation into the area, but if something as small as changing where you sleep, or moving your phone, might impact on your health it could be worth thinking about.” A statement of equal legitimacy might be “there has been little investigation into the area of alien-induced head colds, but if something as small as wearing these protective alien UFO blocking nose plugs might impact on your health, it could be worth thinking about”.

Further down the page, nestled between largely sensible articles from an Irish Cancer Society representative and a dietician, Dr. Aileen O’Kane, now an Ayurvedic practitioner tells us that “if the digestive system is overtaxed the immune system is compromised and can’t gobble up the cancer cells that the body is always producing, the way it normally would”, and in a nod to the thoroughly debunked “alkaline diet” craze, that “Many people who have cancer have excess acid in the body.” The conclusion, highlighted for you in a section of its own, is to “keep acidic foods to a minimum”. O’Kane believes that any illness, including cancer, is the body’s warning sign that our lives are out of balance.

Our lives aren’t the only things suffering from a lack of balance – increasingly, in the name of journalistic balance, legitimate and accurate information is overshadowed by misleading quotes and scaremongering by those brought in to “balance” the piece. It’s one thing to include dissenting opinions when discussing the latest trend in fashionable shoes, or whether some movie lives up to the hype, but medical science isn’t about which opinion is more popular or compelling, it’s about evidence.

These articles might pay lip service to the lack of evidence by saying things like “still up for debate” or “Dr. Someone  believes that”, but placing these articles next to pieces by legitimate medical professionals lends them a degree of credibility which they often don’t deserve. When articles like these are published, the trust that is placed in well-respected and nationally read newspapers such as The Irish Independent is extended to the people who make claims about alternative therapies. They are claims that shouldn’t be trusted, claims for which they should have to provide evidence – but the mere fact of publication often means they don’t have to.

Every time an author discusses serious medical conditions like cancer, and decides that appearing to be “neutral” is more important than reporting accurately, they perpetuate the idea that alternative and unproven therapies are as legitimate as proven ones, and that when it comes to treating these conditions, everyone’s opinion is equal, even if those opinions come with no pertinent training, no supporting evidence, or an eye-watering price tag. Encouraging people to “think about” these alleged cancer causes and prevention methods essentially encourages baseless worry, reaching down to a fear of terminal illness and death that we all possess, and as no effort is made to draw a distinction between the sensible advice (eat a healthy, varied diet) and the more ridiculous advice (magical invisible lines under your bed), the overall impression one is left with is that each of these “truths” about cancer prevention are equally valid. Alternative therapies are alternative because they have either not been proved to work, or have been proven not to work, and including these therapies, simply so that you can call your piece balanced is irresponsible to the point of dangerous – a lesson which The Independent sorely needs to learn.

11 replies on “Balancing act”

There groups are probably a valuable source of advertising revenue, of course they will be elevated to the top table in article writing.

I would have dismissed it as paid placement myself, if it hadn’t been part of the main paper. It’s not even a supplement or pull out, though, so it’s not paid advertorial. I’ll be keeping an eye out for advertisements in the paper from them, but I suspect that the journalist simply went looking for alt med practitioners for “balance”.

Appalling journalistic irresponsibility rears its head yet again on this subject. Thanks for the great blog. I can’t help being a bit depressed by the contents, but at least you’re drawing attention to how ridiculous it all is.

News media suck at reporting health related stuff. Not only when it comes to alternative (to) medicine. I was wondering if that is what you mean by “… largely sensible articles from an Irish Cancer Society representative”?

Whenever the subject comes up, I am always reminded of this study from 2008: It’s an analysis of 500 American health related news media reports, where they found that:

“…between 62%–77% of stories failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence, and the existence of other options when covering health care products and procedures “

I didn’t get a chance to read the story or verify the back ground info and research, but yesterday’s edition had a front page article on the University of Strathclyde’s department of Biomedical Science and Pharmacy’s research into developing a melanoma treatment from a green tea extract. What are your thoughts, a step in the right direction or sensationalism?

I think I saw a snippet somewhere, but it seems that it’s a particular chemical that they’re talking about, and that drinking it wouldn’t do the trick. Will see if I can find out more about it…

Sorry I meant extract, but went the layman’s route. My fear would be that the article would not stress this enough and give the quacks something that they could use as put a spin on ans use as “evidence” to support their claims

Imagine that poor farmer. Being told by this diviner that had he only but moved his bed his two wives and daughter in law would not have gotten cancer. Presumably it’s only the one side of the bed where the effects are felt. What kind of monster tells a twice widow(er)ed man that his wives could have been saved by him and that it was his (the widower’s) ignorance that prevented it. Awful charlatan. What’s the harm indeed.

All kidding aside, the part about keeping phones and WiFi out of the bedroom is good advice, but not for the reasons stated in the article. Sleep deprivation is a serious problem, at least here in workaholic USA, and it’s been documented that people sleep better in a dark room with no distractions. TVs, phones, computers, digital clocks, etc. all emit light that can take away from restful sleep. I took all those out of our bedroom and now sleep much better. As for the rest of it, eh. I have a friend who refuses to park her car facing North because she says it drains the battery. Everyone has their own brand of crazy, I guess.

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