Consistenly, some of the highest grades for health care news stories awarded by HealthNewsReview.org have gone to the LA Times’ Healthy Skeptic column. You can do a Google search or a search of our site to see some of what we’ve written about this column. But no more. Author Chris Woolston posted this note on the Reporting on Health blog (re-posted here with his permission):
After nearly six years, the Los Angeles Times has dropped my Healthy Skeptic column. I’m not surprised. I’m just amazed—and grateful—that it lasted so long.
The column—freelanced from my home in Billings, Montana—took a scientific look at brand-name health products, often with unflattering results. At a time when newspapers are hemorrhaging ad revenue, taking a critical look at Nestle or Swanson Vitamins probably wasn’t a solid business move. But my editor Rosie Mestel supported me from the very start, and we plowed ahead, through good products and bad.
The approach was simple. I would find a health product that made bold or interesting claims. No shortage of those. Then I would interview at least two independent experts who could shed light on those claims. When possible, I’d also check the medical literature. (Some products—ionic foot baths for one —were too goofy to have much presence on Medline.) I would also try to get comments from someone at the company, an often frustrating pursuit.
Some products easily passed the plausibility test. Probiotics really can prevent diarrhea, vitamins really can protect against macular degeneration, and a toothpaste containing a cocoa extract may really help strengthen teeth and prevent cavities.
But others never did show much promise. Experts laughed when I asked if pendants could shield against radiation or if Kinoki foot pads could really suck toxins through the soles of the feet. Detoxifying infrared saunas, electric ab belts, homeopathic cold remedies—lots of products never really got off the runway of reason.
Oh, I got feedback: Companies complained about “hatchet jobs” and “hit pieces.” But my editor Rosie always had my back. Here’s part of her response to a disgruntled skin care company: “Neither Chris nor the L.A. Times Health staff would have an interest in suppressing data so they could slam a product. We are actually interested in learning what products make sense to buy and which do not, and some of the products get favorable reviews. The name of the column—Healthy Skeptic—pretty much sums up its purpose, which is to approach consumer health claims with healthy skepticism, not credulousness on the one hand nor out-of-hand dismissal on the other.” How great is that?
I also heard from some readers who questioned my approach. Why didn’t I personally try more of the products or at least interview real customers? In fact, I did test-drive a few products. I really did wear a Kinoki foot pad overnight, I worked out (briefly) with a Shake Weight, and, in one of my favorite columns, I wore a human pheromone, designed to attract the opposite sex, with thoroughly disappointing results.
As I told one reader, the Healthy Skeptic tried to take a scientific view, and a one-person test isn’t scientific. I didn’t have the resources to set up double-blind trials. But I think I was still able to find information that readers could really use, information that often wasn’t available anywhere else. When expert opinion and the medical literature suggest that a product is making false promises—that’s something worth knowing.
Ultimately, the column became a casualty of a newspaper reorganization. Such things happen. I want to thank Rosie—and later Karen Kaplan— for such excellent guidance and support. Thanks also to Gary Schwitzer and the other folks at HealthNewsReview.org for paying attention. And thanks to the many experts for their insights, opinions and yes, some good laughs.
Bogus health products can be funny—assuming everyone is in on the joke. But when people don’t have enough information to protect themselves, worthless pills and gadgets can be truly dangerous. Although the column is gone, healthy skepticism is as important as ever.
That was a gracious, no-whining note from a columnist whose work – in that forum – will be missed. What a shame that a major newspaper can’t find space for that kind of work anymore. But, as Woolston himself wrote, it’s not surprising. Not given the current news industry.