When I read Susannah Meadows’s article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, The Boy with a Thorn in His Joints, I was at a bit of a loss how to respond. The article is Meadows’s account of dealing with her son’s juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and describes how, wary of the side effects of the treatment recommended by two well-regarded pediatric rheumatologists, she put her son on an alternative-medicine regime instead. Meadows relates how, on a regimen of probiotics, sour Montmorency cherry juice, fish oil, and something called four-marvels powder, her son underwent a near total recovery.
It should be noted, to her credit, that Meadows goes out of her way to acknowledge the anecdotal character of her experience. And, likewise to her credit, Meadows continued to work with her son’s doctors and take their concerns seriously throughout her son’s experiment with alternative medicine. But in spite of Meadows best journalistic instincts and her thorough reporting, her article perpetuates a dangerous misunderstanding. Throughout her article, Meadows makes an implicit distinction between pharmaceuticals and the substances (cherry juice, fish oil, four marvels powder) she was putting in her son’s body. But here’s the thing: the single most important distinction between the methotrexate her doctors recommended and the four marvels powder she chose to administer to her son is that the former has been proven safe and effective in “adequate and well-controlled investigations,” while the latter is essentially unregulated. The active ingredients in both substances are chemicals with hard-to-pronounce Latin names, the difference is just how much we know about these chemicals.
And that’s the point that Michelle M. Francl, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, articulates far more eloquently and forcefully than I possibly could in her recent Slate article: Don’t Take Medical Advice From the New York Times Magazine: The dangerous chemophobia behind its popular story about childhood arthritis. Francl’s article is a must-read, and makes several extremely valuable points, but I particularly want to highlight just one of these. Susannah Meadows is an intelligent and experienced journalist, a wonderful commentator on politics and publishing, and clearly a mother whose love for her children is boundless. But she is not a doctor or a scientist, nor is she even a health or science reporter. Yet her anecdotal account of her own child’s illness is now probably the most widely disseminated article about treating juvenile arthritis ever, and it is one that perpetuates a basic and dangerous misunderstanding about the nature of medicine.