Another strong entry in this regular Healthy Skeptic column by the LA Times, this story provides readers with nearly everything they need to know about dolphin therapy treatment centers. We especially liked how the story showed that different claims are being made by different centers and all of the claims lack support.
People with hard-to-treat conditions or people who have children with autism or other disorders want badly to find something to improve their lives. Getting a chance to swim with dolphins, as this story points out, has a romantic, fantasy-like appeal that may, in fact, make people feel temporarily better. The trouble with claiming actual long-term benefits from playing with dolphins is that it gives people false hope, and it also allows the dolphin organizations to charge people a lot of money to go swimming.
The story notes the costs of several of the therapy sessions offered. “A five-day program costs $2,200 and includes about 20 minutes of dolphin time each day.”
The story only makes reference to one specific claim of quantified benefits. “The website for the Living From the Heart Dolphin Experience says that 95% of autistic children who receive dolphin therapy enjoy benefits that last up to two years. Those benefits are said to include longer attention spans, better emotional control and improved communication skills.” The story debunks this and other more vague claims in the story by saying, “There are a few dolphin studies out there, but they don’t add up to much, says Lori Marino, a neuroscience and behavioral biology researcher at Emory University in Atlanta.”
The story does not quantify the potential harms from dolphin therapy. We think the reporter may have had a hard time finding this information in the literature, but we would have liked to at least have seen a little more discussion of how money and effort wasted on an uNPRoven therapy might actually be detrimental for people who have serious illnesses that could benefit from other, more proven courses of treatment.
The story does not spend a lot of time with the studies that have been touted as supporting dolphin therapy, but it doesn’t have to. There are very few studies that have even examined the topic, and none of them have examined a substantial number of people. Instead, the story brings in strong independent analysis to help readers understand both the reasons why some are claiming a thereaputic benefit and the paucity of the evidence supporting those claims. The executive director of one of the dolphin centers “agrees that there’s no real research to support dolphin therapy, but she sees that shortcoming in a positive light: “If there’s no science behind it, how can you say that it doesn’t work?” This is a classic argument, and one that the column handles adroitly.
The story does not engage in disease-mongering. It also doesn’t make light of the people who are seeking help at these centers. It says, for example, “The dolphins also work with some adults, including veterans who have lost limbs.” We think it is often too easy to take cheap shots when it comes to far-fetched sounding treatments, even though some of the people who have sought these treatments may believe whole heartedly that they benefited.
The story uses a wide variety of sources and allows many of the centers operators to speak for themselves. We would have liked to have heard from at least one of the researchers examining the issue.
There were no comparisons with alternatives, and this goes back to potential harms. The story mentions that “Through mechanisms that aren’t completely clear, there are also reports that dolphins have relieved chest pain and restored faulty vision.” Anyone seeking to relieve chest pain through dolphin therapy may be ignoring serious warning signs about heart problems. This is just one of many ways that people could be sidetracked by an uNPRoven therapy like this.
The story does a great job showing where these centers operate, even saying, with a mind toward its regional audience, that there are no such centers in California.
The story makes it clear that there is nothing novel about dolphin therapy.
The story does not rely on a news release.