Why is health reporting so hard?

Published on
December 17, 2009

C'mon, Times, it's not like you're some kind of penny-ante operation. You've got at least modest resources, you know like the internet and telephones to call up experts. Right?

I don't know whether it's a lack of resources, laziness, or ignorance that allows pieces like this one into the paper, but it doesn't change the craptastic nature of the piece.

The byline says:

Anahad O'Connor, who writes the Really? column for The New York Times, explores the claims and the science behind various alternative remedies that you may want to consider for your family medicine cabinet.

I also "explore the claims and the science behind various alternative remedies" and I do it without the resources of a major national newspaper---and my pieces aren't half as credulous.

O'Connor looks at something called "Devil's claw" and the claim that it helps back pain. If I were to look into this claim, I'd start with looking at anecdotes. If there was anecdotal evidence for the claim, I'd like to see some lab data backing up possible relevant properties of the plant, such as anti-inflammatory or analgesic properties, or at least chemical moieties similar to known drugs. Then I'd like to see some studies in animals and/or humans. But as a "dietary supplement", Devil's claw doesn't need external validation of safety or efficacy. It can also make just about any claim as long as it includes the Quack Miranda Warning. There is little monitoring or standardization to this type of product and a capsule can contain just about anything in any amount and still be marketed as "Devil's claw".

Given the "mushiness" in marketing this type of product, this statement seems rather hyperbolic:

Known for its anti-inflammatory effects, it has been shown in recent years to work particularly well for chronic lower back pain.

Known by whom? Works particularly well? How do we know? From my research these claims can be found in many ads for Devil's claw, but there is damned little real research. The author references a couple of small pilot studies with weak conclusions. One of the studies put Devil's claw against a very small dose of Vioxx which isn't even on the market anymore. The Cochrane review found that the studies that exist are of poor quality. And yet O'Connor is giving the stuff an unqualified boost as a pain killer.

I'm not a journalist, but I've heard that journalists are supposed to ask questions, preferably hard ones. Where are they?