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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Media, Medicine, Magic

This article in Norwegian tabloid VG once again demonstrates the media's role in promoting nonsense and woo instead of rationality and scientific understanding. At least here in Norway, where tabloids are some of the largest media outlets around, and VG in particular, known for uncritically pandering to the lowest common denominator, happens to be the largest print newspaper in Norway.

The Norwegian article recounts the story of 16-year old Hannah Clark, who at the age of 8 months had a second heart implanted grafted onto her own, as her own heart was too weak for its task due to cardiomyopathy (deterioration of heart muscle). After ten years, the immunosuppresant drugs she was forced to take to make her body not attack the new heart, gave her cancer. The doctors reduced her immunosuppresants, but this led to trouble with the implanted heart, and they decided that their only hope was to remove the implanted heart. After they did this, Hannah's own heart recovered completely after a several-year-rest.

Fantastic? Oh yes. Magical? I don't think so. The article in VG is basically a write-up of this account by the Guardian. One can find all the turns of phrases and points in the original article. I'm sure this is fairly commonplace among the printed press, but the problem is that the article in the Guardian was actually kind of good. The journalist from VG copypasted the names of the doctors, and gave the story a completely different story, namely that of magic instead of medical interest.

Kirurgene bak inngrepet, Sir Magdi Yacoub and Victor Tsang, som beskrev helbredelsen av hjertet hennes som "magisk".

Between the two doctors' names, it even says AND.. But that is a minor point. Back to the magic. The real quote from the doctors, given by the Guardian, is:

The possibility of recovery of the heart is just like magic. A heart that was not contracting at all, after a time we put the new heart to pump next to it, and do its work. Now it is functioning normally. That is going to be very fundamental in helping people in the future.

And now we get to the interesting part. The doctor said LIKE magic. LIKE magic. Throughout the Guardian article, and this article in medicalnewstoday, the doctors keep a rational voice, emphasizing that they learned something from this unexpected recovery, and that this will prompt more research.

VG however, quote mine the doctors and combine it with a minor comment from Hannah's father that someone said she would die soon, and he replied that he would believe what he wanted.

Combining these two statements makes the supernatural recovery of Hannah complete, even though there is no inkling of those sentiments from the doctors.

Most people clicking around on VG probably do not bother to check the original sources that VG refer to (even though I admit, I probably won't read the Lancet article about her myself), and this leaves them with yet another impression that doctors are not to be trusted and more goodness is accountable to magic than scientists like to agree to.

Never mind the fact that doctors saved Hannahs life as a child and time and again by figuring out what to do more currently. Medicine is complicated, extremely complicated, and attributing recoveries to magic is not legitimate even if the doctors are still exploring the mechanisms.

I recommend a solid dose of Dr. House to all VG journalists.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I read this story as well and was like "wtf?"...

    Nothing "magical" about this. It's an astonishing feat and a great success of science.