Anti-Science

Why yes, that did hit a nerve.

I have a very long commute. In the mornings, I spend about an hour and a half on trains and buses, offering lots of time for reading, completing puzzles, and just decompressing, so I don’t really mind. This morning I picked up one free daily paper at my subway stop and did all three sudokus and then the crossword, and finally flipped through reading the articles. One was the requisite animal story, this time about a tiger cub being raised by pigs at a zoo in China. This set off skeptical alarms in my head, since it sounded so much like that false and slightly sad story about the piglets dressed in fur and left in the tiger cage at a zoo in Thailand. I decided to look into it when I got to work, and send a letter to the editor if it, too, proved to be fishy. I don’t send many letters like that, but I decided that maybe I should start in case they reach readers who would otherwise be left with false information.

I changed trains and picked up another free daily paper, so I could finish the sudoku and crossword there. Afterwards, I again flipped through to immediately see an article about reflexology in the “lifestyle” section. Oh, man, what a way to start the day. This article wasn’t just leaning toward the credulous side – it had already fallen off the cliff into Credulous Ravine. The “journalist” stated as fact that reflexology (basically foot massage plus acupressure plus $$$) has been proven effective for treating specific diseases. There were plenty of quotes from a reflexologist who was identified by name and business (a spa in New York City where one can not only pay for reflexology treatments but also naps – I kid you not, you can pay $12 to take a 20-minute nap). The article was followed by the names and addresses of two other spas in Boston offering reflexology treatments. By the time I got to work my brain had exploded into gooey bits, probably because my new shoes were hurting my feet and interfering with the “energy flow” around my body.

So I wrote a letter. In accordance with the paper’s suggestion, I kept it to (exactly) 100 words, but still got in the important bits, I think.

Despite what was written in Tuesday’s absurd article “Hitting a Nerve”, reflexology does not “release toxins,” affect any “energy sources”, or effectively treat depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, allergies, drug dependence, or impotence. As shown by Wiener’s suggestion that healthy people get treated once a week for a month (at her spa, $260-$500/month), the entire article was a shameless plug for quacks who’ll never admit that reflexology is no more beneficial than a massage. The Metro failed in its responsibility to check the facts before printing drivel that could cause people to delay getting real medical treatment for serious problems.

Please note that the reflexologist’s full last name is “Crean Wiener,” and I did not mock her name a single time. In the letter. Mostly because of the word count.

The Metro gives out free papers in cities all over the world, so if anyone else is in a Metro city I’d be interested to know if they print that same article, just with different, local spas at the end. I’ll let you all know if I hear anything back from them (holding breath starting . . . now).

Oh yeah, and I briefly had a moment to look into the pig and tiger cub story, and so far it looks like it may be legit. Anyone else come across this?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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11 Comments

  1. Ugh. Yeah, the Metro is a real mixed bag. Most of the general news articles are relatively sensible, but the editorial & letters page routinely makes me gag.

    At least it's not the Herald, though.

    I usually bring my own reading material these days, so I don't encounter this stuff often, but I do occasionally compose letters to the editor when I come across something egregious. The last was actually a Time article, though I admit that I was pointed at it by a post on Feministe! that singled Time out for publishing an inaccurate characterisation of Plan B contraceptives as "abortion-inducing".

    I think there's a good chance of actually seeing success by writing letters to newspapers and other media outlets. The letters sometimes get published, but more importantly they have to care what their readers think because there's no such thing as "winner-take-all" in business. Even for an ad-based free newspaper, losing a reader is still a loss, where a politician honestly doesn't have to care as long as the other 51% of people still support them.

    Glenn Greenwald has also recently had a few productive conversations with folks from major media corporations, although of course he has a blog published by Salon, which gives him a significantly higher profile than most of us.

  2. So… wait a second…. I have had professional massages a few times now (no, not the Happy Ending kinds… though in one case, I might have been okay with… no wait, sorry, off-track…), and for a while after each one, I felt somewhat nauseous and sick in general. The masseuses all said that this was due to the release of toxins from my muscles.

    Was that BS? I mean, it does pass the "smell test" (smells like bs), where maybe the massage works excess acids out of the tissues and into the bloodstream where the kidneys then assume I'm getting kinda toxic….

    Anyone know anything about this? There was no reflexology involved that I know of – it was all very deep massage.

  3. I guess if massage progresses to the point of actually briusing/breaking muscle or other cells, there may be various cell contents leaking into the bloodstream, which from one point of view could be seen as toxins, in sufficient doses.

    'Toxin' doesn't necessarily have to be something alien, or even a waste or excess product as such, but could be chemical parts of a working organism caused to be in the wrong place or wrong concentration.

  4. jeremy,

    QuackWatch has a page on massage therapy, which says in part,

    "Toxin" removal by massage was a concept I not only heard in school, but read in articles and heard from practicing massage therapists. However, no toxins were clearly defined. Our instructors stated toxins were "things like caffeine," but offered no further explanation of how massage presumably removes these toxins. They also claimed that massage also helps eliminate the body's natural waste products, which some people also refer to as toxins. That statement suggests that the body somehow needs outside help to become cleansed. Some therapists advise their clients to drink large amounts of water following the massage to help them rid their body of toxins released during the massage. The client's need to urinate then supposedly proves that toxins are being removed. Of course, drinking lots of water increases urination whether a massage is given or not.

    Since massage causes lymph to flow, it is assumed to be removing toxins. There is even a procedure called lymphatic massage that is purported to significantly improve the detoxifying functions of the lymphatic system.

    Lymphatic massage is supposed to strengthen the performance of the immune system, benefit internal organs, and again, help get rid of these vaguely described toxins. "Pumping" the lymphatic system by pressing forcefully, up and down on the chest is a technique used to stimulate lymph movement. Again, I don't know how one could objectively measure all the claims made about this particular massage modality or how this "pumping" is proven to do what they say it does. In whatever form I found it, I could not get a consistent explanation of how massage removes toxins.

    See also the second message in this Google Answers thread for several quotes and literature links. Short answer: any time you hear talk about removing unnamed "toxins" from the body, your woo sensors should activate at Star Trek Siren Level 4!

  5. For convenience, I re-reproduce the quotations reproduced at Google Answers:

    The ability of massage to remove muscle 'toxins' or lactic acid has also been claimed to result in benefits to the healing of muscle damage and DOMS [delayed onset muscle soreness]. It has been well established that lactic acid does not cause muscle soreness sensation and that lactic acid and 'toxins' have no influence on exercise-induced muscle damage. Hence this suggestion can be dismissed outright. In addition, human studies have demonstrated that massage has no influence on post-exercise blood lactate clearance, while mild exercise can significantly speed up its removal. Since, as previously mentioned, massage has little influence on muscle blood flow, this finding is not surprising. Several recent studies have also found little consistent effect of massage on DOMS. One earlier study, albeit with a limited subject pool, also found no effect of massage on circulating levels of the potential analgesic hormone, b-endorphin.

    IVIS: A Review of Human Massage Therapy
    http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/AAEP/2000/302.pdf

    There's a statement, seemingly pervasive throughout massage education and massage books, that unspecified toxins accumulate in the body, and that these toxins can be flushed out by massage. I believe this is yet another myth that continues to be passed on as misinformation to massage students. This is not to dispute that there are very real toxins that accumulate in the body, notably persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in fatty tissues and heavy metals in skeletal tissues. However, these toxins are too chemically bound to their target tissues to be significantly liberated by the mechanical motions of massage.

    Massage Today: Flushing Out Myths
    http://www.massagetoday.com/archives/2002/12/08.h

    To examine the effects of leg massage compared with passive recovery on lactate clearance, muscular power output, and fatigue characteristics after repeated high intensity cycling exercise, with the conditions before the intervention controlled and standardised…

    Conclusions: No measurable physiological effects of leg massage compared with passive recovery were observed on recovery from high intensity exercise, but the subsequent effect on fatigue index warrants further investigation.

    British Journal of Sports Medicine: Effects of leg massage on recovery

    from high intensity cycling exercise
    http://bjsm.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/38/2

    This investigation highlights the comparison of blood lactate removal during the period of recovery in which the subjects were required to sit down as a passive rest period, followed by active recovery at 30% VO(2)max and short term body massage, as the three modes of recovery used…. Analysis of lactate values indicated no remarkable difference between massage and a passive type of sitting recovery period. It was observed that in short term massage recovery, more oxygen was consumed as compared to a passive type of sitting recovery. It is concluded from the study that the short term body massage is ineffective in enhancing the lactate removal and that an active type of recovery is the best modality for enhancing lactate removal after exercise.

    PubMed Abstract: Comparative study of lactate removal in short term

    massage of extremities, active recovery and a passive recovery period

    after supramaximal exercise sessions
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd

  6. Finally, If you'd like to see what the skeptical side of the web has said about toxins, try QuackSafe Search.

    All this goes to show that I really have no idea why you'd feel "somewhat nauseous and sick in general" after a massage. Of course, I'm wary of inventing an explanation, dependent upon "toxins" or otherwise, before I know that it's really the massage which made you nauseous. As you no doubt recognize, avoiding the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy is tricky in this kind of situation. You may, for example, have had a burrito at the same restaurant, across the street from the massage parlor, each time you went for a deep rub, in which case we should blame the Super Steak Special instead.

  7. Awesome… I wonder where the nausea came from then. Very interesting stuff overall.

    Maybe it's just the fact that the massage felt just *THAT* good… when it was over, my body felt a let-down of sorts.

    Like withdrawal. :)

  8. Oh, this is rich. I picked up a copy of the Metro on the T today, and lo and behold it had a multi-page "health guide". Among many other topics, there was a brief article on Maum Meditation.

    However, I noticed a little bit of blue text, "Copy Provided by Maum Meditation Center". And it wasn't just that article! Every article in the Metro "health guide" had the "copy provided by" tag, including some by the quite legit Tufts Medical Center.

    What a complete fucking sham! The Metro's "health guide" is apparently nothing more than five pages of ads with a slimy layer of faux-respectability slathered on. Disgusting.

  9. Josh, I saw the same thing! I'm thinking I may have to write another letter today. It makes me wonder if every day of the Metro is like this and I just never noticed before, since all I ever used to look at were the puzzles. If so, I have a lot of letter writing to do. Maybe I should just apply to be a journalist there with a regular column: "Things the Metro Screwed Up Today."

    I got an email from them last night asking to confirm that I wrote yesterday's letter, but that's not a guarantee they'll print it or respond.

  10. I am a Chicagoan working in Toronto for a couple of months… picked up the "Eye Weekly", one of a few free papers here and on page 14 in the style section there was a half page article and picture of a "Reiki Master/certified holistic health practitioner" whose company offers everything from reflexology to Chakra balancing… *sigh* and I thought the canuks were beyond this kind of thing. The article, although a fluff piece, was written by a staff writer. To his credit, he did mention that "this sounds like hocus-pocus to some"… if only "some" meant "many". Good luck on the letters being printed!!!

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