HOW TO WRITE A NEWSPAPER ARTICLE ON AN UNCONVENTIONAL TREATMENT
by Michael Heap
This article appeared in the Winter Issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria', 2011, pp 5-6. There are some small adjustments to the text.
For years I have noticed that many articles on unconventional therapies in the popular press are based on a common template. After extensive study of this subject, I am pleased to make explicit for all readers the rules on which this template is structured. This will enable you to compose your own articles on 'alternative medicine' in the comfort of your home or office without having to actually find and interview an alternative medical practitioner, with all the annoyance and tedium that this entails. When it comes to describing the actual treatment you may, in addition, find useful my article 'Placebo therapy: How to develop an effective and ethical quack treatment' which appears on this website.
- The writer of the account is usually complaining of some common problem, not necessarily one that would constitute an illness or disorder (not yet anyway; things may change with DSM-V - see note).
- He or she consults a practitioner of the treatment in question, but may express initial scepticism.
- Commonly, the treatment is based on ideas about how the body works and how diseases are acquired (e.g. by mysterious energies), for which there is little evidence and which are unrepresentative of, or incompatible with, existing knowledge about human biology.
- There is often some connection with the Far East (especially India, China or Japan) and therapeutic ideas and practices that 'go back 2000 years (or more)'.
- Administration of the treatment may be quite unusual (as, for example, with acupuncture and non-contact massage).
- The practitioner declares that the treatment is applicable to a very wide or limitless range of ailments and difficulties in life and is reported as being extreme powerful and effective.
- Little, if any, clinical research is cited to support these claims, but -
- Often the fact that certain named celebrities have availed themselves of the treatment is considered to be particularly telling evidence of its extraordinary efficacy.
- The putative mode of action of the treatment is described in impressive-sounding but meaningless terminology (e.g. 'dispelling negative energy' and 'restoring natural harmony').
- The practitioner usually has no qualifications that would be recognised by the Health Service for the administration of any treatment.
- Very often the practitioner's involvement with the therapy was triggered when he or she was successfully treated with it for some problem that had long resisted the efforts of conventional medical practitioners.
- Despite the initial scepticism, the writer declares the treatment to have been a success several weeks after the consultation.
A case study
A fine illustration of the application of this template was to be found in the 'Body+Soul' section of the Times on 24.9.11. The piece was written by Simon Mills and is headed, 'How tapping on my head helped beat my neurosis'. Mr Mills explains that all his life he has been plagued by a certain psychological affliction (cue for violins), namely procrastination. In order to alleviate himself of this affliction he consults Jessica Ortner, who specialises in a treatment called 'tapping'. Ms Ortner practises in New York but administers her treatment to Mr Mills through the medium of Skype. She instructs him to repeat statements such as 'I am aware of the challenge that this brings' and 'I know that discipline is freedom' while rhythmically tapping his fingers on different parts of his body, such as the chest, the lower edge of the hand, the top of the head, below the armpit, and on the bony ridge of the eyebrow. After a session thus engaged, Mr Mills feels somewhat better: 'My spirit seems a bit more organised, I am psychologically scheduled, less prone to crumble even'.
'How does this work?' Mr Mills asks and then informs us, 'The theory is that tapping helps you to destress by rapidly altering neural pathways and unblocking meridians - the channels along which, according to traditional Chinese medicine, energy is believed to flow'. Or, according to Ms Ortner, 'Tapping on your meridians while concentrating on, accepting and resolving negative emotions will access your body's energy, restoring it to a balanced state'.
Ms Ortner is described in the article as 'a college drop-out' who 'began tapping because she was unhappy in her dull job as an estate agent'. 'I became ill and couldn't go back to work for weeks'. Since then she has never looked back. Her website, which includes pay-per-view lectures, has 300,000 subscribers; and her DVD The Tapping Solution ($29.95) is a best seller in the US. It is claimed that this has helped people with phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and nicotine addiction, children who are bullied, and 'obese women who have intentionally gained weight to make themselves unattractive to men'. Who would deny that tapping has bestowed great benefits on Ms Ortner?
Celebrities who have signed up to tapping include Madonna, Lily Allen (to help curb her craving for sweet and fatty food) and Kelly Hoppen (Who's she? - Ed.) for anxiety (tapping and saying, for example 'I acknowledge my nervous system and all the ways in which it fails me').
His fee for writing his article aside, it isn't altogether clear that Mr Mills has benefited from his treatment. 'Weeks later', he tells us, 'I feel less stressed about tasks …. The trouble is, I keep putting off doing the tapping'.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, Fifth Edition, 2013.