The Times on Woo: Covering the Basics

The Times is running a series of articles today that cover the basics on woo, wooish thought, and one of my favorite subjects, pre-pure-food regulation impure food. Not much new here for Sciencebloggers, but these are good resources to help individuals think through the bogus claims we see so often in the marketing of woo.

William Broad discusses the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at NIH, which is charged with bringing better standards to situations like this:

…a 2004 Harvard study identified 181 research papers on yoga therapy reporting that it could be used to treat an impressive array of ailments — including asthma, heart disease, hypertension, depression, back pain, bronchitis, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, insomnia, lung disease and high blood pressure.

It turned out that only 40 percent of the studies used randomized controlled trials — the usual way of establishing reliable knowledge about whether a drug, diet or other intervention is really safe and effective…

But an enduring problem for higher-quality studies is the Frankie Avalon argument, discussed by Gina Kolada. Kolada explains that marketers can take advantage of years of headline-grabbing, smaller studies even where a large clinical trial disproves the efficacy of some treatment. Frankie Avalon apparently did this when a large trial showed that beta carotene was ineffective in preventing cancer:

When the bad news was released, he appeared in an infomercial. On one side of him was a huge stack of papers. At his other side were a few lonely pages. What are you going to believe, he asked, all these studies saying beta carotene works or these saying it doesn’t?

And of course, marketers of woo are always gaming the holes in the FDA’s jurisdiction. PalMD has written extensively on the Quack Miranda Warning. The new representation, covered by Gardiner Harris, is the “registered with the FDA” claim:

…the sellers of quasi-medical devices or food products that claim their products are “registered” with the F.D.A. may have done little more than send a letter to the agency. The Bioterror Act of 2002 requires food manufacturers to register with the F.D.A., but the agency almost never inspects these facilities or products.

Adding to this problem is the nutritional supplement situation. Although supplements look like drugs and are marketed in similar ways, Harris explains that, “the F.D.A. does almost nothing to ensure that dietary supplements work as advertised. Only when supplements are proved to be unsafe or to contain regulated substances can the agency take action.”

* * *

And on to pure food.

“…it’s worth remembering that it has been far worse. China’s present is America’s past,” argues Bee Wilson in an article discussing the Swill Milk Scandal in New York City during the 1850s.

This one is really worth a read, even if you’re familiar with the more general topics covered above. The past is a grotesque animal:

In a city growing fast, but lacking refrigeration, it was hard to provide sufficient milk. Fresh milk was brought in from Westchester and Orange Counties, but not enough to meet demand. In 1853, it was found that 90,000 or so quarts of cow’s milk entered the city each day, but that number mysteriously increased to 120,000 quarts at the point of delivery.

Some of the increase was due to New York dairymen padding their milk with water, and then restoring its richness with flour — just like their latter-day Chinese counterparts, who increased the protein levels in watered-down milk by adding the noxious chemical melamine. But the greater part was swill milk, a filthy, bluish substance milked from cows tied up in crowded stables adjoining city distilleries and fed the hot alcoholic mash left from making whiskey. This too was doctored — with plaster of Paris to take away the blueness, starch and eggs to thicken it and molasses to give it the buttercup hue of honest Orange County milk. This newspaper attributed the deaths of up to 8,000 children a year to this vile fluid.


  1. Ugh, that is horrifying!

  2. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Interrobang

    People nowadays think Upton Sinclair was exaggerating his “Pure Leaf Lard” incident in The Jungle.

    He wasn’t.

  4. The Free Market at work.

  5. Oldfart

    I read that article the other day and passed it on to family and friends as a sort of “the way things were” vs. “the way things are” article. The point being that the world was much worse off without modern medicine, drugs, vaccinations and even the FDA, bad as it is. And, any of you that are interested, might want to look up the history of railroad safety in this country. Our ancestors weren’t only tough – they were crazy.

  6. not only were rr workers dismembered at a horrific rate, rr accidents were a major cause of death in cities such as chicago.

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