Has the Journal Nature Sullied its Brand?

By Keith Kloor | December 22, 2011 3:09 pm

The prestigious journal Nature has published a special supplement on traditional Asian medicine (free access). Financial sponsorship for it came from the Kitasato University Oriental Medicine Research Center and the Saishunkan Pharmaceutical Co, which is described as

a herbal medicine manufacturer which aims to help people make the most of their natural powers of healing and self-recovery.

That’s one big red flag. Of course, Nature duly acknowledges the sponsorship, and appearances notwithstanding, gives this reassurance:

 As always, Nature takes full responsibility for all editorial content.

Nature also explains how it to came to treat traditional Asian medicine as science-worthy:

When the topic of traditional Asian medicine was first mooted, we were sceptical. To a magazine based in Europe and steeped in the history of science, there is much about traditional Asian medical practice that seems mystical and pseudoscientific. Other than well known success stories “” artemisinin for malaria, and arsenic trioxide for leukaemia “” there seemed to be a lack of scientifically proven remedies.

Yet a bit of probing revealed what a complex story this is. Not only are big efforts underway to modernize traditional medicine in China and Japan, but Western medicine is adopting some aspects of the Eastern point of view too. In particular, modern medical practitioners are coming around to the idea that certain illnesses cannot be reduced to one isolatable, treatable cause. Rather, a fall from good health often involves many small, subtle effects that create a system-wide imbalance.

Orac, unsurprisingly, is aghast, and says the special issue is “chock full” of “atrocities against skepticism and science.”  I’m still making my way through the articles, so I’m going to reserve judgement, for now. Orac, though, has done his own deep dive and concludes that,

to their eternal shame, by publishing this issue, the editors of Nature have become willing shills for the TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine] industry. Nature has sold out, and its editors and publisher should be called out for it.

It’ll be interesting to see how other scientists (and science journalists) react.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: traditional Chinese medicine
  • Jarmo

    OK, perhaps we’ll get all scientific on reindeer and rhino horns or tiger balls….

  • Mary

    I weep.

  • harrywr2

    I would be surprised if there was a single ‘General Practitioner’ of medicine who doesn’t acknowledge the ‘placebo effect’ or acknowledge that things that have ‘subtle effects’ on the human auto-immune system don’t play a large role in ‘healing’.
    If I go to the local pharmacy the bulk of the ‘over the counter’ medications are basically so you can get a ‘good nights rest’.
    Take two aspirin and call me in the morning and ‘eat a teaspoon of rhino horn and call me in the morning’ are basically the same prescriptions.
     

  • EdG

    They sullied their brand years ago with their AGW advocacy.

    Same for Scientific American, who first sullied their brand with their concerted attack of Lomborg and got worse on the AGW bandwagon.

    Follow the money and agenda. Both are owned by the same German corp,

  • hunter

    @4 Ed G,
    You beat me to it. Nature would not hurt their reputation any more if they started covering UFOology and Abductions.
     

  • http://www.skepticalscience.com Steven Sullivan

    This is deplorable.  But Nature has raised disapproving eyebrows before — most famously by publishing the ‘water memory’ homeopathy study of Beveniste et al, later famously debunked with the help of James Randi.
    I notice this is published as a supplement.  That’s a good sign. When and if I start seeing alt med articles regularly published in Nature, *then* I’ll call the journal a loss.  Meanwhile it remains a premier, high-impact journal in the eyes of most scientists, and I’ll confidently bet any of the denier cranks here that it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
     

  • Keith Kloor

    Steven (6)

    I agree, that Nature still “remains a premier, high-impact journal” and my own respect for it doesn’t diminish because of this one special issue.

    That said, I think it’s a slippery slope they ought to be mindful of… 

  • EdG

    From the ‘good old days’ of Nature… I saved this long agao because it concisely summed up the context of the AGW question:

    “The Greenland (Arctic) and Vostok (Antarctic) ice cores are particularly informative, offering fine temporal resolution and continuity. This has revealed surprising oscillations of climate on a millennial scale within the main 100-kyr cycle. The Greenland Ice Core Project (GRIP) identifies some 24 interstadials through the last ice age with average temperature rising rapidly by ~7 C over just decades. Further ice and sediment cores from around the world are demonstrating the global scale of these major climatic events.”

    From: Hewitt, G. 2000. The genetic legacy of the Quarternary ice ages. NATURE, Vol. 405, 22 June 2000 (www.nature.com)

    Again: “with average temperature rising rapidly by ~7 C over just decades.”

    It was this kind of background information, compounded by many other tangents, that led me to become what what Steven Sullivan apparently sees as a “denier crank.”

    Have those ice cores changed since that was written? No.

    Would this ever appear in Nature now? I’m not sure that it would.

    Would it appear there in future? I certainly hope so. That would be a very good sign that they have emerged from their Dark Age.

  • Anteros

    I think some mention should be made of the ignorance of Orac in his spluttering indignance.
    I agree that it is very bizarre for Nature to produce such a supplement but starting from an obvious position of ignorance about TCM, I think I would have expected the tiniest bit of effort to grasp some of the relevant concepts before turning on the ridicule. I found it quite embarrassing. The only caveat that led me to think he suddenly had a pang of “am I being utterly closed-minded here?” was when he said
    “Practically every paragraph had seriously cringe-worthy sentences in it (to supporters of SBM like me, anyway)”

    With that in mind, how much effort did he make to understand a totally novel conceptual world? That’s right – none. It makes it easier to dismiss of course, and that is true for everyone whom declares without hesitation that TCM is the placebo effect writ large.
    Ultimately, though, science based medicine can do little else – it comes up against a profound incommensurability. Which is why it is so strange to me to see Nature venturing into this area. It makes science look like a religion in its desperation to dismiss foreign world views. Where is Feyerabend when we need him?

  • Mary

    @Anteros: that’s complete bollocks. Are you familiar with Orac and his Å“uvre–at all? Or did you make no effort to understand his conceptual (and actual) world? What’s that–you made none?

    Practically every day he battles crank claims of that alternative medicine. He’s been doing this for years.

  • Anteros

    EdG -
    Are you sure there wasn’t a misprint? A drunk copy editor? i think I’d have saved it too! Quite remarkable. [Not sure I can conceive of the physical mechanisms, but still..]

  • Anteros

    Mary – I’m familiar with his world (but you’re right – not at all with him). If he’s a crank battler, all well and good. I’m very familiar with Ben Goldacres work in England. Has Orac stopped at some point in the past to ask if he understands a foreign world view? From my own experience, it takes many years for those of us with a mechanistic understanding, and I can’t say I’ve made much progress – which means to say I’m still aware that much of TCM and its foundations are simply not understandable.

  • EdG

    From Nature Climate Change, this editorial:

    Published online20 December 2011

    “Regardless of what happened at the Durban climate summit, immediate action is required on climate change, and poor nations must be treated fairly.”

    http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n1/full/nclimate1367.html

    In reading this whole advocacy piece, it is very difficult to describe this magazine as a ‘science journal’ when they are so obviously political and unobjective. Shades of RealClimate.

  • Alexander Harvey

    harrywr2 #3:

    “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning and “˜eat a teaspoon of rhino horn and call me in the morning’ are basically the same prescriptions.”

    I know a rhino and we disagree. :)

    Alex

  • Keith Kloor

    Anteros (9)

    I don’t follow you. How is Orac being ignorant in that post? He’s a bit frothy for my taste, but he knows his stuff. Like Mary said, he’s been doing battle against woo for years. He’s especially indignant when it’s wrapped in the veneer of legitimate science, which is what I suspect has set him off in this instance.

  • EdG

    Anteros – I found it by accident. Was looking at the primary topic of that paper,which was put into the context of the climate change that drove those population/genetic changes.

    That’s the thing. Prior to the AGW Era climate change, including rapid periods of it, was simply taken as an understood given. That understanding underlies many other fields of science. And now we are supposedly reduced to debating whether climate change is ‘real.’

    Unreal.

  • Keith Kloor

    BTW, for you climate skeptics, don’t hijack this particular thread with your own pet peeves about Nature. If you have something to say about traditional chinese medicine, CAM (complementary/alternative medicine), and western medicine, go for it. But keep climate change out of this thread. Plenty of others for you to sound off on with your favorite litany.

  • Anteros

    Hm. The fact that I’ve never heard of Orac before I read his frothing, and the fact that he is well known to many here means it’s no wonder you didn’t follow me.
    I’ve never heard of woo either! but can guess at its meaning.
    My misunderstanding was that he has already decided he has enough to dismiss ‘woo’ or mumbo-jumbo dressed up in sciencey language, which is fair enough.
    I suppose my point is that to dismiss everything because it doesn’t fit into a deterministic world view may well miss out on some things of value. But they’ll probably never have value unless understood on their own terms. Just to ridicule the concept of qi without [if he hasn't] having a bash at seeing how it fits into the structure and processes of chines medecine isn’t likely to be the best way to find some new understanding.
    But I guess that’s not what he’s about – and I admit that there’s no reason he should be.

    EdG – have you come across other references to extremely rapid temperature changes?

  • Anteros

    It’s Ok KK – I’m an AGW believer. Can EdG get a day pass?

  • Keith Kloor

    Anteros, whatever you are I don’t care. All I asked is that the obsessive-every-thing-must-be-linked to climate change tendency be checked at this thread. Ed knows what I’m talking about, as I’ve already asked him previously to not link everything knee-jerk fashion to climate stuff. It’s tiresome, especially when it’s not related to the post at hand. 

  • Anteros

    Fair point.

  • EdG

    #17 OK. But maybe you might have chosen a different and more specific title for your post than “Has the Journal Nature Sullied its Brand?”

    To the specific question, all I would say is that the placebo effect, the power of suggestion, and confirmation biases are powerful things.

    If someone firmly believes that rhino horn will make them feel better, and their culture supports that belief, then they are “very likely” to perceive that it works. Same for many Western pills.

    The only real problem I see with this is the destruction of species like rhinos and tigers, etc. required to fill this perceived need. The way they ‘farm’ bears for other medicines is beyond disgusting – but, I suppose, that is arguably better than killing the wild ones for it.

  • Anteros

    KK @ 15 -
    You say he ‘knows his stuff’. from his writing, it sounds like he doesn’t know the first thing about Chinese medicine. Bearing in mind Chinese doctors train for a similar length of time to Western doctors, how would we feel if an Asian writer ridiculed our cancer therapies without even looking at the fundamentals of western medicine? If this writer saw someone performing neurosurgery and said “Oh it’s a form of western massage”. To say Baduajin ‘is a form of Tai Chi’ is simply uninformed.
    There surely is a great impasses here. Orac says the thing that bugs him most is that for the most part TCM is not amenable to randomly controlled trials. That bugs an awful lot of people. To their discredit, many of those people fail to see this as mostly a feature of the methodology of Chinese medicine, and become very certain that it is a deliberate attempt to pass off junk as ‘sort of medicine’ What better example of cultural imperialism do you need?
    Just to say, though, I really am against cranks, shysters, snake oil salesman and fraudsters. Homeopaths too, but then I haven’t got the energy to be reasonable about all things nonsensical..

  • Alexander Harvey

    I have read through the pages, perhaps not alsways very closely, it did not find much of it to be rivetting.

    One strand I did like. The multi-agent treatment regimes but there are examples of this in non-traditional medicine that could have been used to illustrate that point. Also I liked some of the stuff on personalisation but again you don’t hve to reach into TCM. However in both cases comparison to TCM is worth making in so far as there is a merging of approaches. The protocol of the clinical approach used in TCM could hold lessons.

    I found the page describing a trip to a TCM hospital to be anecdote of the sort better suited to a lifestyle magazine.

    The part on endangered species was OK but again general interest stuff.

    What I missed was a stronger ticking off of some of what we do that has parallels in TCM and is not so clever. Drugs prescriptions that spawn other drugs and then yet more as the side-effects get progressively more pronounced. Also the questionable practice of giving antibiotics when not strictly necessary.

    Now more importantly, are selected pages being printed off, perhaps somewhat snipped, and pinned to TCM waiting room walls as I write. Well I would and I might just annotate with an explanation of the significance of the Nature brand. I am not sure that the distinction of it being supplemental is meaningful in that circumstance.

    My verdict might be that in the balance of scientific content to propaganda fodder, it was not worth doing.

    Alex

  • Alexander Harvey

    I have read the Orac piece now and I am glad I had read the Nature piece first.

    I indicated that the Nature piece was pretty lack-lustre. It certainly isn’t now that I have had the meaning and intent pointed out to me. I joke.

    I have an opinion, and that is that I must wonder if it has not gained a little more clout and a wider reach having been given this criticism.

    If I had any of the complaints listed I might only have found this information curtesy of here or from Orac. I wouldn’t have been looking in Nature. Given the sort of desperation chronic disorders can generate, criticism of something of interest to me, could either encourage caution, or a feeling that hope is being snatched away from me. For me Orac would generate the latter. Similarly if I was already recieving TCM, I do not think my reaction would have been of benefit to me. Perhaps that makes me a fool who deserves what he gets.

    As it happens, I read the articles in the order that would do me least harm. Had I read only the Orac piece I think I would have recieved a highly partial viewpoint that would not have served me well.

    My same verdict as for Nature:

    “… in the balance of scientific content to propaganda fodder, it was not worth doing.”


    Alex

  • Edim

    EdG, here it says:

    “These involved changes of as much as 7″“15 °C over a few decades”

    Wow! 15 °C over a few decades!
    http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/359/1442/183.full.pdf

  • toto

    I suppose my point is that to dismiss everything because it doesn’t fit into a deterministic world view may well miss out on some things of value.

    Orac’s point is that if there’s no evidence it works, then it shouldn’t be claimed to work. No matter what price those who believe it works are ready to pay for association with a prestigious journal.

    I can’t wait for Nature Perspectives on Homeopathy or Nature Special Focus on Crystal Healing.
     

  • EdG

    #26 – Thanks. But due to concerns about national security or at least blog thread integrity I have been advised not to comment further on that issue here (see Directives #17 and #20).

    So, please, ignore this link:

    http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=12455

  • Menth

    Ever since I was a child the only thing that has ever worked for curing a bad cold has been my grandma’s trusted cure: endangered Siberian tiger testicle soup.

  • Fred

    It will be fun to learn more about some non-climate change topics on Keith’s blog going forward. Its interesting to see familiar names sounding off on non-climate topics.

    That TCM manufacturers sponsored this section in Nature is disappointing but par for the course.

    It seems like promising treatments don’t get much publicity and research focus unless they are associated with a product that can be sold, preferably by expensive prescription. For example, in the Rotterdam Heart Study, people who took in the highest assessed amount of vitamin K2 (found especially in certain types of cheeses and Japanese Natto) experienced 57% fewer heart attacks than those whose K2 levels were lowest. For a brief rundown on the K2 story see:

    http://freetheanimal.com/2008/11/vitamin-k2-menatetrenone-mk-4.html

    I suspect this finding is getting some but not a lot of follow up. In contrast massive amounts of money have been spent on studying prescription statin drugs. Yet I wonder how statin drugs fare against doses of K2 in lowering heart disease rates.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett
  • Fred

    Eli:
    I wouldn’t kid you! You can read carefully through the studies doing follow-ups or take a look at this popularized summary of a meta-study showing statins having no effect on heart attacks for those who have not already suffered one:

    http://www.gaia-health.com/articles251/000264-major-jama-study-shows-statins-do-not-prevent-heart-disease.shtml

    Given the sharply lower incidence of heart disease in those with a high intake of K2 in the correlational Rotterdam study I think the results of a carefully done prospective study between K2 supplements and statins would be most interesting.

  • Anteros

    @31
    You Josh.

  • Lewis Deane

    I don’t Nature has ‘sold out’, I think they’re confused, in the sense in which the West is confused and doubtful about it’s best nature.

     ‘certain illnesses cannot be reduced to one isolatable, treatable cause’

     Is not a rational statement, it being both tautological and meaningless.

    There is no ‘inbalance’ or ‘balance’ in science. 

  • Lewis Deane

    Sorry about the above, I was hesitant about my copy and paste!
    Surely we are beyond particularistic regions medicine or are we falling back in to that spiritus loci of witches brew! And isn’t that both patronising and racist? 

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Follow the link Fred.  Nothing to do with Statins.

    However, since we are having fun, strange that this pops up just when Lipitor goes generic.  Were Eli a denialist, he would say that it is just a plot by Pfeizer.

  • http://www.skepticalscience.com Steven Sullivan

    EdG,

    it’s NOT that scientists have never addressed abrupt climate change. From that same page you linked to, there’s plenty of analysis:
    http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=12455&tid=282&cid=10149
    or heck, even this short summary does the job:
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-change-little-ice-age-medieval-warm-period.htm
    So, if Nature were to publish a new article showing that climate had changed abruptly over a short term in the past, it would have to be about some aspect of that that we didn’t know already.
    In other words, yours is another denialist attempt at a ‘gotcha’ that falls flat. Yawn.


     

  • EdG

    #37 Steven. Sorry but I cannot respond to your points here. See #28.

    Good to know that everything Nature publishes is a new discovery. That is not evident in the actual magazine.

    Good to see the cartoonist Cook is still on line, and that somebody still visits that creative site. That must cheer him up.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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