For The Record: Wooful Journalism

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

I’ve touched upon the tendency of the media toward churnalism and puff pieces on woo under the guise of “health” or “lifestyle” before on The 21st Floor (See: the Scotsman on reflexology), as such pieces uncritically promote alternative medicine (sometimes alongside medicine) often at (in my personal opinion) exorbitant prices.

The latest offender is the Daily Record with a piece under the banner of “health news”. The piece appears to be little more than an advert for the services of Nuffield Health, a private health care company that offers a number of services including health assessments, minimal surgery and laser surgery, health clinics, sports centres, fitness and well-being centres. As well as actual medical treatments, they also offer a range of treatments which may be combined with traditional medicine, including homeopathy and acupuncture.

The advert– sorry, article!– also mentions Wholistic Healthcare, an Edinburgh based company whose website declares:

Our aim is to offer you the best and informed Naturopathic Medicine and massage, to help you improve your health naturally.

As a multi disciplinary therapy, Naturopathy is about making the right choices in life to improve and sustain an individual’s health whatever their age maybe.
Helping people understand themselves gives them a greater sense of knowledge about their own health, preventive care and have control over their own life.

If you are looking to improve your state of health and wellbeing or want to simply relax and unwind then, Wholistic Healthcare is here to offer you the right therapy.

Wholistic Care offers such delights as a herbal pharmacy, ear-candling and Celloids – which appears to be a variant of homoeopathy focused on mineral salts.

The Record article advertises the following services from the Nuffield Trust and Wholistic Healthcare that are dubious to say the least…

Hair mineral test

Elemental hair and mineral analysis is done by taking a sample of clean hair from the nape of the skull.

It may identify those exposed to heavy metals, environmental pollutants, extensive dental surgery and fillings, difficulty with conception, infertility and chronic ailments.

(Costs £45 from Edinburgh-based Wholistic Healthcare UK).

Hair Mineral Testing is a popular– among nutritionists at least– yet poorly evidenced way to test for mineral deficiencies (see the Quackometer blog) where you look for traces of minerals in a strand of someone’s hair. This supposedly tells you a great deal about them.

In 1985, a study of the HMT technique found:

The reported levels of most minerals varied considerably between identical samples sent to the same laboratory and from laboratory to laboratory. The laboratories also disagreed about what was “normal” or “usual” for many of the minerals. Most reports contained computerized interpretations that were voluminous, bizarre, and potentially frightening to patients.

It further concluded that:

Six laboratories recommended food supplements, but the types and amounts varied widely from report to report and from laboratory to laboratory. Literature from most of the laboratories suggested that their reports were useful in managing a wide variety of diseases and supposed nutrient imbalances. However, commercial use of hair analysis in this manner is unscientific, economically wasteful, and probably illegal.

In summation, HMT has not been shown to be a useful technique for diagnostic purposes, and may unnecessarily frighten patients. But it’s not the only odd diagnostic method on offer…


Iridology is the study and analysis of the iris – the coloured area of the eye – and can be used as a diagnostic technique.

Tests on the iris are used to determine a person’s constitution and health of the body at any given time – but it does not diagnose disease.

It can determine any inherited weaknesses, pre-disposed illnesses, organ function, body system function such as the immune system and toxic accumulations in the body.

By referring to a detailed iris chart, an iridologist locates areas, organs and body systems within the iris to determine an individual’s health from an holistic basis.

(Iridology consultation costs £50 from Edinburgh-based Wholistic Healthcare UK)

Iridology is pretty much reflexology for the eyes. Certain diseases can be spotted by staring into the iris of a patient – noncular disease, for instance – and medics and optometrists will use this to diagnose some specific ailments and diseases. However, the idea that you can tell if someone is sick or well simply by looking at their iris has been roundly debunked. The co-author of “Trick or Treatment” Edzard Ernst had the following to say on iridology:

“…the validity of iridology as a diagnostic tool is not supported by scientific evaluations. Patients and therapists should be discouraged from using this method.”

This is perhaps unsuprising for a therapy that is based on spurious correlations decided upon by confirmation bias suffering practitioners whose definitions of “markings” and “disease” are so wide as to be almost utterly useless. There are arguably some correlations in iridology that may reveal some diagnostic information, but these are few and far between. It is likely that these instead arose by chance.

As the Skeptics’ Dictionary points out, iridology just doesn’t work:

In fact, when iridologists have been tested to see if they could distinguish healthy from sick people by looking at slides of their eyes, they have failed. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1979, vol. 242, 1385-1387), three iridologists incorrectly identified nearly all of the study slides of the irises of 143 healthy and diseased people. “In fact, they often read the irises of the sickest people as being healthy and vice versa. They did not even agree with each other.” Similar results involving five Dutch iridologists were published in the British Medical Journal (1988, vol. 297, 1578-1581)

So essentially, we have two highly circumspect diagnostic procedures advertised in one of Scotland’s most popular red-tops under the guise of health journalism.  Why do the media persist in advertising such nonsense and woo?

The Record itself has a track record of championing consumer rights, exposing sham sales techniques and other scams, so why is it happy to promote, via an article in the health section of its website, utter nonsense at fifty quid a pop?

Why is it that health, which is to my mind a lot more important than a duff car stereo, is somehow excluded from the same standards as every other consumer area? Surely there are enough duff and unevidenced health treatments out there to investigate and debunk for consumer advice columns to never run out of things to talk about?

Why is The Record helping woosters sell their unevidenced treatments?