Almost immediately, a reader posted this comment:
you've been so very tough on dr mary newport's promotion of coconut oil for alzheimer's. seems like you're giving pepper an easier time. how come?I'd half expected a challenge like this. It gives me a chance to talk about a concern of mine: How can we evaluate claims that are often made on the basis of personal, anecdotal stories?
First, let's take a look at the Newport and Pepper stories.
Mary Newport and Coconut Oil for Those with Alzheimer's
The coconut-oil-for-Alzheimer's craze really took off. But -- as the Alzheimer's Association emphasized -- many thousands of people tried the remedy, and very few reported relief similar to Steve's.
John Pepper and Conscious Walking for Those with Parkinson's Disease
With trial and error, Pepper taught himself how to think differently by consciously relearning the sequences involved in walking. As a result, he now walks without any signs of PD, and he has not used any medication for the disease since 2002. He wrote a book about his experience, Reversing Parkinson's Disease.
In his current bestseller, The Brain's Way of Healing, Dr. Norman Doidge devoted chapter two to Pepper. The author wrote that his subject had found "through conscious walking a way of using a different part of his brain to walk... by 'unmasking' existing brain circuits that had fallen into disuse."
Stories like These Dominate Health News Today
We've all heard stories like these. TV doctors Oz and Mercola highlight people like Newport and Pepper all the time, but so do the mainstream media. The Washington Post publishes a health and science section every Tuesday. It usually features at least one story about someone with an unusual health problem... or someone who's shown dramatic success dealing with a medical issue.
Articles about health and science -- and books aimed at the general public -- are often overloaded with anecdotes about featured patients. The stories typically include more biographical minutiae than we could ever need... or want to know.
Dr. Diodge's book is a perfect example. Each chapter is built around a protagonist whose story is told in great detail.
Still, I confess: I'd rather read these stories than dull scientific studies.
How Do We Evaluate These Stories?
Here are a few things I check:
Follow the money. If the subject of the story has a financial interest in the claim, warning flags go up. Dr. Newport wrote a best-selling book, Alzheimer's Disease: What If There Were a Cure? John Pepper also has a book, Reversing Parkinson's Disease. So it's a draw here, although my personal take is that Dr. Newport is in it for the money and Pepper isn't.
Who's promoting the claim? TV hucksters like Pat Robertson know their ratings go up when they air a show devoted to a possible cure for Alzheimer's. Robertson invited Dr. Newport back several times after her first appearance scored his highest rating of the year. Of course, Dr. Newport would have some impressive backing if Robertson's TV interviewer were correct when she exclaimed that God must be playing a part in the coconut oil miracle.
Pepper's "conscious walking" has the solid backing of Dr. Doidge. While not a God, Doidge has pretty good credentials.
Has the claim been independently checked by others? Dr. Newport was our sole source of information on Steve and his progress. Dr, Doidge spent a couple weeks in South Africa with Pepper and also talked with his doctors.
Have others tried the same thing and had similar success? Dr. Newport reported hearing from several hundred people who said her coconut oil cure was working for them too. However, no one else ever saw these messages. Pepper has been teaching conscious walking to others in South Africa for some time with good results. He now is taking his show on the road and has met with hundreds of people in the UK, Amsterdam and Sweden. I've read online reports from several who attended these meetings and were enthusiastic about the results.
I'm reassured when the protagonist in one of these "medical miracle" stories is as open as John Pepper is. Red flags go up when the protagonist is as closeted as Dr. Newport was.
Other ways to check medical claims. For over ten years, neuropsychologist Dr. Dominic Carone's blog MedFriendly has helped make medical information easier to understand. He has also written the guide Five Ways To Evaluate Suspicious Medical Claims.
The best place to look for peer-reviewed articles about health and medicine is NIH's PubMed Health.