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On the Wrong Side

Skeptical Inquirer is “the Magazine for Science and Reason”. It is published by the Center for Inquiry (CfI) with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). The September/October 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, is a special issue, “The Health Wars: In the Trenches Against Alternative Medicine”. There are eight articles within this expose. National Geographic books are central to the first two articles. Unfortunately, the Society fall on the wrong side of this “War”.

The Remedies of National Geographic, by Victor Benson

National Geographic Book is a ‘Natural’ Disaster, by Harriet Hall

Quackery at WHO: A Chinese Affair, by Cees N.M. Renckens and Thomas P.C. Dorlo

Magic Water, by Joe Nickell

Laser Acupuncture: High-Tech Placebo, by Sebastien Point

The New Phrenology, by Robert Stern

Unskeptical: Indian Scientists’ Opinions of Ayurvedic Medicine, by Barry A. Kosmin

Suing for Science, by Nicholas J. Little

All are well written and full of references and notes but, for obvious reasons, I’ll only be discussing the first two.

The Remedies of National Geographic

The National Geographic Society has published a series of books about ”natural healing remedies”. They are full of claims that lack scientific evidence, are inconsistent and internally contradictory, and don’t reach even minimal scientific standards. The NGS should reconsider them.

That paragraph is the introduction to the article and sets the tone for the next nine pages. The article is a review of six National Geographic publications. The author, Victor Benson, MD, is a retired family physician whose career was at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California. He is a Volunteer Clinical Instructor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The National Geographic Society (NGS) has for more than 130 years been at the forefront of combining science, exploration, and storytelling to better understand the world around us. Its long storied history well known, few people would doubt the Society’s sincerity when it describes its “passion for science”. It was surprising to learn that the NGS has in the past decade published at least six books that, according to their covers, promote natural healing remedies, home remedies, and medicinal herbs, all of which “treat common ailments”. Do these publications align with the well-deserved, science-based reputation of the NGS? The author states that the focus was kept on the publications with no attempt to engage in the debate regarding the value of “alternative medicines”. The six books (actually three books and three Collectors’ Edition “bookazines”) are listed below:

Books reviewed:

Guide to Medicinal Herbs, (2010), 384 pages

Complete Guide to Natural Home Remedies, (2012), 384 pages

Nature’s Best Remedies, (2019), 318 pages

“Bookazines” reviewed:

Healing Remedies, (2014), 112 pages

Nature’s Best Remedies, (2015, reissued 2018), 128 pages

Natural Home Remedies, (2017, reissued 2019), 112 pages

In a measure of fairness, the author first highlights the good things about the books. He states that they are well written, beautifully illustrated, and often provide appropriate cautions. They offer many helpful suggestions. He states that in many respects, the books are praiseworthy.

But… although warnings are present, they are not helpful. The authors overreach and promote ideas that are not supported by the evidence. The readers cannot be sure that the advice is safe and/or effective. Five of the six books do not identify an author on the cover – and have the word remedies in the title. A remedy is something that cures or relieves a disease or bodily disorder. Judging by the covers it appears that the NGS is offering cures for disease.

Two of the publications’ introductions state that “we have sought the best ideas from around the world and put them to the test of science”. Another states, “This book showcases the … herbs, plants, and essential oils that can help you treat diseases and ailments”. From statements like these it is clear the books are claiming to offer scientifically based advice about treating and preventing disease. The small-print “Note to Readers” at the beginning of each book in disclaiming “any liability whatsoever” states that the author and publishers are not rendering medical advice. This disclaimer contradicts the obvious message of the books.

Dr. Benson then addresses each problem with these publications. I am only going to list them and not go into the detail of each. They are: lack of actual evidence, overreach stretching credulity, is there evidence, internally contradictory, bad advice, failure to inform on alternatives, and inconsistency among the books.

The article then goes in depth to examine the books’ treatment of any one herb. The author chose Butterbur (Petasites hybridus). Bottom line, there is some evidence that butterbur might be effective in decreasing the frequency of periodic migraine headaches, though the evidence is sparse and not strong. But there is evidence that it may not be safe. The discussion of butterbur is inconsistent among the six books, and it is recommended for use in numerous conditions for which there is no evidence of effectiveness or safety.

In conclusion the article state that the editors of the NGS should reconsider their “natural remedies” publishing enterprise. Producing books full of claims that lack evidence and don’t meet even minimum scientific standards belies the NGS’s stated “passion for science”.

National Geographic Book is a ‘Natural’ Disaster

The next article is abbreviated review of the NG Collectors’ Edition “Nature’s Best Remedies” written by Harriet Hall, M.D. She is a contributing editor and columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer and coauthored the textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions. The full review appears online at: skepticalinquirer.org

Photo courtesy of Scott Shier

The National Geographic store proclaims, “This authoritative guide to the foods, herbs, spices, essential oils, and other natural substances that alleviate common ailments will enhance your life- from treating illness to sharpening the mind, losing weight, cleaning the home, enhancing pregnancies, and reducing the effects of aging.” Dr. Hall says, No it won’t. The information in Nature’s Best Remedies is biased, incomplete, unscientific, and sometimes even dangerous. She is a longtime subscriber to National Geographic magazine, but she no longer trusts it.

The author of the book, Nancy J. Hajeski, is a writer with no medical or scientific credentials. The forward is by Tieraona Low Dog, MD, an integrative medicine specialist. Integrative medicine is a marketing term designed to infiltrate quackery into science-based medicine. It accepts poor quality evidence and tries to co-opt recommendations of mainstream medicine such as diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. The book subscribes to the naturalist fallacy – the idea that a natural remedy is inherently better than a pharmaceutical one. That concept is demonstrably false. Around half of pharmaceuticals were derived from plants.

Dr. Hall relied on another resource on the subject, the much more trustworthy and complete, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. It rates each natural medicine on effectiveness and safety. Only 5% are rated “effective” and almost all of them are vitamins, minerals, and medicines available as prescription or over-the-counter drugs approved by the FDA. Adverse reactions, drug interactions, warnings, and other health concerns are well documented.

In contrast, this National Geographic book describes only “health benefits”. It mentions that there are positive studies and studies that indicate that a remedy “may” have beneficial effects, but some of these are animal and in vitro studies. It provides no citations or references to help readers. It fails to mention negative studies, adverse reactions, or interactions with other remedies.

If National Geographic had presented this as a coffee table book describing folklore and belief systems, Dr. Hall wouldn’t have objected. But the NGS presented it as an evidence-based review of the top natural medicinal remedies and the natural medicines as effective. Nothing in this book can be trusted without confirmation from other, more reliable sources. The NGS let us down. They should be ashamed.

Tom Wilson

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Replies to This Discussion

Note: The National Geographic as has yet responded to the Skeptical Inquirer regarding the scathing reviews of their books on Natural Healing appearing in the September/October 2019 issue of SI.  In an apparent attempt to make peace, the Editor of SI, Kendrick Frazier writes in his Jan/Feb 2020 issue a disclaimer of sorts.  The highlights of the article are:

 

National Geographic magazine itself still seems to exhibit its usual high editorial standards.

 

Perhaps the non-scientific books on natural healing remedies were an aberration; most likely they were a purposeful money-making operation.

 

Looking at National Geographic's recent output in total, [the author] sees less reason to fear that the National Geographic brand is in danger of becoming tainted.

 

While this in no way can be construed as a retraction, it is definitely an olive branch.  Will the Society respond?  Time will tell.

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