October 20, 2009
Exactly what do newspapers want to be paid for? Unbiased, detailed reporting and critical analysis? Made up, self-referencing stories based on “polls” or narrow opinion? Self-proclaimed “special reports”? Celebrity gossip? Or, as in this case, a cheap, distorted rehash of the top point of someone’s research paper? Folks, it’s rubbish. ‘Placebo lives in spinal cord’? It’s nothing of the sort!
OK, the SMH got it from the LA Times (and attributed), simply dropping a few links found in the online LA Times “blog” version. And the LA Times took it from Science mag (again with attribution) but dumbed it down so it basically misleads the reader into thinking that the placebo effect “lives” in the spine, not in the brain. The writer kept making that point, so they must have really misunderstood it. What the researchers actually found was “direct evidence for spinal cord involvement in placebo analgesia”. Did you get that, “involvement”. Not “sole ownership by location”. Involvement. It’s believed to be involved. It’s believed to have a role in the analgesia, but not the guts of the effect itself. Just that the spine is somehow aware of the belief that the placebo really works and does its job by shutting out (in this test) pain stimulus.Which may indeed be a step forward, in that it demonstrates that the brain (presumably!) acts to positively and physically inhibit spinal sensory transmission. Previously we may have thought that the pain signal reaches all the way to the brain, where the brain itself, tricked by the placebo, simply ignores the incoming reports. However that theory doesn’t sit well with the obvious – we already know that the nervous system often takes a shortcut when pain is involved. The brain may get a report later but the response has already happened (an important time-saver where injury is concerned).
So this “placebo lives in spinal cord” story is almost a complete fabrication, isn’t it? It mentions “psychological factors” as an afterthought and really tilts the content towards the spinal cord as a virtual “placebo central” making the decisions, which is really not proven – or suggested – at all. Not sure if the LA Times wrote the first piece itself, but once again it’s an example of what can go wrong when a journalist re-writes the “facts” to suit themselves. Careless.
So who was fooled by the LA Times and the SMH? Interestingly the “Food & Health Sceptic” was true to their name and wasn’t fooled, giving an accurate summation of the research and putting it into context: http://john-ray.blogspot.com/
Which led me to the TimesOnline, which as the Sceptic’s source also got it right with a much more detailed and thoughtfully researched article: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/medicine/article6877064.ece
That’s they way it should be done. I guess there are sources – and then there are sources.