Irresponsible Health Reporting? The N.Y. Times and the Perpetuation of Chemophobia

By Patrick O’Leary

When I read Susannah Meadows’s article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, The Boy with a Thorn in His Joints, I was at a bit of a loss how to respond. The article is Meadows’s account of dealing with her son’s juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and describes how, wary of the side effects of the treatment recommended by two well-regarded pediatric rheumatologists, she put her son on an alternative-medicine regime instead. Meadows relates how, on a regimen of probiotics, sour Montmorency cherry juice, fish oil, and something called four-marvels powder, her son underwent a near total recovery.

It should be noted, to her credit, that Meadows goes out of her way to acknowledge the anecdotal character of her experience. And, likewise to her credit, Meadows continued to work with her son’s doctors and take their concerns seriously throughout her son’s experiment with alternative medicine. But in spite of Meadows best journalistic instincts and her thorough reporting, her article perpetuates a dangerous misunderstanding. Throughout her article, Meadows makes an implicit distinction between pharmaceuticals and the substances (cherry juice, fish oil, four marvels powder) she was putting in her son’s body. But here’s the thing: the single most important distinction between the methotrexate her doctors recommended and the four marvels powder she chose to administer to her son is that the former has been proven safe and effective in “adequate and well-controlled investigations,” while the latter is essentially unregulated. The active ingredients in both substances are chemicals with hard-to-pronounce Latin names, the difference is just how much we know about these chemicals.

And that’s the point that Michelle M. Francl, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, articulates far more eloquently and forcefully than I possibly could in her recent Slate article: Don’t Take Medical Advice From the New York Times Magazine: The dangerous chemophobia behind its popular story about childhood arthritis. Francl’s article is a must-read, and makes several extremely valuable points, but I particularly want to highlight just one of these. Susannah Meadows is an intelligent and experienced journalist, a wonderful commentator on politics and publishing, and clearly a mother whose love for her children is boundless. But she is not a doctor or a scientist, nor is she even a health or science reporter. Yet her anecdotal account of her own child’s illness is now probably the most widely disseminated article about treating juvenile arthritis ever, and it is one that perpetuates a basic and dangerous misunderstanding about the nature of medicine.

    4 thoughts on “Irresponsible Health Reporting? The N.Y. Times and the Perpetuation of Chemophobia

    1. This should not turn into a debate about modern Western medicine vs traditional Chinese medicine. That is masking the real issue. I respectfully think that both you and Michelle Francl are both missing out on the key point: nutrition.

      When I was in the third grade (early 80s) I had a juvenile arthritis attack that paralyzed me in bed for several weeks, and I returned to school in a wheelchair. I had a 4 inch long needle stuck into my knee and when the plunger was pulled back, the enormous tube filled with white liquid. I still remember that moment as the most painful minute of my life, screaming and crying in agony. I started seeing a specialist who wanted to try a more aggressive pharmaceutical approach rather than the 32-baby-asprin-a-day regime that my regular doctor was trying. The drug had such side effects that once I went to sit down at the dinner table – and missed. I had no idea how I ended up on the floor. We stopped the drugs and went to a nutritionist. For weeks I ate nothing but New Zealand lamb, fresh spring water, sea salt, and pears. I can still remember the final “cleansing” moment in the bathroom (which I won’t describe) when my body became fully clean. Note that my diet before this was a normal American diet and my parents had always been adamant about no sugary cereals, etc. and my father was very into nutrition on the whole, so my diet wasn’t poor before this.

      I was cured.

      But food is not a regulated drug so it is illegal to have a clinic where you give someone carrot juice and cure their cancer a la Gerson therapy, right?

      Yes it makes sense that one should only try Chinese medicine only as prescribed by someone who is versed in Chinese medicine. Michelle Francl almost makes it sound like Suzannah bought the Chinese medicine directly from the social worker!

      Most importantly, though, the alternative medicine regime included advice on nutrition, which, I would bet money on, is probably what did the lion’s share of actually curing the boy (no sugar, no dairy, etc.) over four-marvels powder.

      The food changes are, at least, what has stopped the pain for me for the past 30 years.

      “Let food be thy medicine” – Hippocrates

      A dangerous misunderstanding about the nature of medicine? Indeed!

    2. Ben – You’re absolutely right that nutrition is a vital part of thinking about human health, and one that we don’t understand nearly well enough. Meadows makes the very good point near the end of her article that the health effects of diet and lifestyle changes are extremely difficult to study scientifically. My own point (and Francl’s, as I read her) was not to denigrate the important role diet plays in health, and I think you’re right to call me out on not giving more attention to that aspect of Meadows’s article. The objective of my post was simply to point out the false distinction Meadows was drawing between pharmaceutical drugs and those sold as herbal supplements, and to query whether this article represented the kind of health journalism we (and venerable institutions like the New York Times) should be aspiring to.

      • I think it is a fine point to make that everything contains chemicals, even powders that started life as plants. It is also fine to mention that we shouldn’t be fooled by nice-sounding medicine names. However, some might argue that synthetically produced chemicals are indeed very distinct from, and harder to trust in our bodies than, something that started life as a plant, and I can understand and sympathize with that. That is not the point I am making though. I am going out on a limb to suggest that both the TCM powder and the Western medicine are probably helpful in certain situations but ultimately both red herrings in the overall cure of this particular child. Therefore to focus on one vs the other seems a little silly without mentioning the elephant in the room which is the diet.

    3. Dear Editor,

      In a February 8 blogpost entitled “Irresponsible Health Reporting? The N.Y. Times and the Perpetuation of Chemophobia,” the writer, Patrick O’Leary, makes two major factual errors about an article I wrote. He writes: “The article is Meadows’s account of dealing with her son’s juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and describes how, wary of the side effects of the treatment recommended by two well-regarded pediatric rheumatologists, she put her son on an alternative-medicine regime instead.”

      In fact, we tried the so-called alternative-medicine therapy (including diet changes) IN ADDITION TO keeping our son on the methotrexate that his doctor had prescribed. O’Leary also writes: “Meadows relates how, on a regimen of probiotics, sour Montmorency cherry juice, fish oil, and something called four-marvels powder, her son underwent a near total recovery.” What I actually wrote in the piece was that since we introduced the supplements and diet changes at the same time that our son was on medication, we’ll never know what made him better.

      So, unless the headline refers to the blogpost itself, I’d appreciate it if the errors could be corrected for the record. And perhaps the next time one of your writers critiques an article, he or she could read the text more carefully. But this is Harvard Law School, so you must already know that.

      Thanks for your help,
      Susannah Meadows