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A Helping Hand for a Huckster?
August 29, 2005
Maia Szalavitz
Anecdote undermines New York Times expose of "Natural Cures"

In an article clearly intended to debunk the bestselling Natural Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About, which was self-published by infomercial huckster and ex-con Kevin Trudeau, the New York Times inadvertently ends up helping to promote the book.

The front-page story, which ran Sunday, opens with an anecdote about a headache and allergy sufferer named Carol Boruk. It goes on to profile Trudeau, whom she credits with relieving her headaches and helping her lose weight. The article notes that Trudeau has no medical credentials and has been convicted of credit card fraud and barred by the FTC from selling products on infomercials because of prior false claims he made (the first amendment allows him to sell his book on TV, however).

But while citing experts who dispute Trudeau’s claims, the Times never mentions that anecdotes like Boruk’s do not constitute medical evidence. The paper fails to explain that case histories cannot by themselves show whether medical claims are true or false. It doesn’t caution readers that conditions like allergies and headaches wax and wane, which can make ineffective cures look effective; nor does it discuss the placebo effect, or why control groups are needed to determine whether a treatment works.

While the writer probably assumes that Times’ readers are well aware of these concepts, to include the anecdote without such explanation and to thread it through the whole story suggests otherwise. In fact, the end of the article reinforces the notion that anecdotes can be medical proof. Consider the last graf’s dramatic rebuttal of science:

Some, though, do not care about clinical trials or the judgment of the medical establishment. "I am so grateful I read this book," said Ms. Boruk, the allergy and headache sufferer. "It's changed my life."

By leading and closing with an anecdote supporting the book—and not including an explanation of how such anecdotes are misleading and cannot suffice to prove medical claims—the Times undermines its own expose. Many readers “do not care about clinical trials” because they don’t understand why they should. The Times owes it to them to explain why clinical trials matter when it covers stories about medical science and its conflict with quacks like Trudeau.