How Empty Science becomes Wisdom
Let me introduce you to Nikolai Shevchuk. He’s worked at the Department of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. One day Nikolai gets an idea. What if cold showers could treat depression? After all, cold showers get the adrenaline pumping, doesn’t it? So Nikolai gets a few friends together and asks them to try taking a cold shower and seeing if it improves their moods. Nikolai probably likes to take cold showers himself and he feels just fine!
So Nikolai writes down his ideas. There’s not what you’d call a huge amount of evidence for them. Nikolai tries his hardest to think up a mechanism by which cold showers can make you feel good. The adrenaline thing was good, but what if he can invoke some kind of evolutionary mechanism. Hey! Yeah! That’s it! Back when man was a hunter-gatherer chasing after prey, he’d have to swim after it in cold water. So modern man, lacking these environmental stressors must be getting depressed as a result!
It’s not rocket science, but it’ll do.
Nikolai doesn’t want to keep this breakthrough to himself, so he sends it all off to a medical journal. Medical Hypotheses, to be specific. Medical Hypotheses. It sounds so truthy, doesn’t it?
This is how Medical Hypotheses describes itself:
Medical Hypotheses takes a deliberately different approach to review. Most contemporary practice tends to discriminate against radical ideas that conflict with current theory and practice. Medical Hypotheses will publish radical ideas, so long as they are coherent and clearly expressed. Furthermore, traditional peer review can oblige authors to distort their true views to satisfy referees, and so diminish authorial responsibility and accountability. In Medical Hypotheses, the authors’ responsibility for the integrity, precision and accuracy of their work is paramount. The editor sees his role as a ‘chooser’, not a ‘changer’: choosing to publish what are judged to be the best papers from those submitted.
Nikolai’s ideas are interesting to the editor and his paper gets published: Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Now Nikolai’s no fool. He knows that his paper isn’t what you’d call conclusive. He knows that his method was far from rigourous. He says it himself: “In conclusion, wider and more rigorous studies would be needed to test the validity of the hypothesis.” And there’s nothing wrong with this – the journal is supposed to be publishing stuff that’s on the fringes of science.
So far everything’s happened as it should. Scientist has an idea. Publishes. Suggests more study is needed. It’s not quite science, but it’s getting there.
Which is why it’s unfortunate that The Times picked up on it.
GOT the glums? Jumping into a cold shower could give your grey matter just the boost needed to spark it into a festive mood, claims an American brain-scanning expert.
Nikolai Shevchuk, a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University’s radiation oncology department, believes that short, cold showers may stimulate a part of the brain stem called, appropriately, the “blue spot”, or locus ceruleus.
This region is the brain’s primary source of noradrenaline, a chemical that may mediate depression, Shevchuk says in a research paper scheduled for publication in the journal, Medical Hypotheses.
He believes that regular cold showers may stimulate the blue spot by giving it a mild but intense sensory shock, thanks to the fact that we have a high density of cold sensors in the skin – around five times more than those registering warmth.
Shevchuk suggests that modern life lacks sufficient physiological stressors, such as sudden changes in body temperature, to keep our brains sparked up. He suggests that twice-daily cold showers of three-minute duration should do the trick. In another paper, published in Behavioral and Brain Functions in October, he says the practice may also alleviate chronic fatigue syndrome.
The theory may sound like a boost for the public-school philosophy of “snap out of it and buck yourself up”, but it has other antecedents. Research by the psychiatrist Thomas Wehr, of the National Institute of Mental Health, has shown that people who chronically suffer from depression in summer benefit from frequent cold showers.
Traditional Chinese medicine has also long prescribed cold water swims for lifting dismal moods. Shevchuk cautions, though, that you should check with your doctor first, in case the shock might be a little too much.
This is an idea that has not been subjected to any rigourous test, being recommended.
Discovery News is even worse:
“Treatments for depression range from medicines that can come with scary side effects to electric shock therapy, but a new paper suggests a simple cold shower might sometimes cure, and even prevent, the debilitating mood disorder.
Cleanliness may be a pleasant side effect, but the key lies in the water temperature.
Would you call this responsible journalism. Nikolai’s ideas are on the fringes of science, published in a journal that doesn’t even engage in peer review. And yet neither the Times nor Discovery News seems to feel that this is an important fact that their readers should know. And while I can’t imagine anyone stopping their medication and switching to cold showers, I wouldn’t call this responsible reporting.
So, on the back of this research, people start writing about how cold showers make them feel good. Nikolai’s idea has gone from an idea to accepted wisdom without ever being subjected to reality:
News from The Discovery Channel: “Treatments for depression range from medicines that can come with scary side effects to electric shock therapy, but a new paper suggests a simple cold shower might sometimes cure, and even prevent, the debilitating mood disorder.” Now I understand why I always feel so uplifted and, well, happy, after my morning cold shower gush. If you want to read more, <a href=”“>here is the link to the full article. Cold showers also have other health benefits, as noted here.
And then people pick up on this, and the idea that cold showers cause depression gets completely separated from Nikolai. Now it’s just from the Discovery Channel. And someone else writes about it, tags it with depression and it ends up in the WordPress tag feed for “depression” in my RSS reader, which sparks this whole rant.
Roanne Weisman has a wonderful blog on WordPress – Own Your Health.
She has interesting information on holistic health along with great links. There is a post from an article from the Discovery Channel – the benefits of a cold shower for depression. You can access it here –
After you’re done reading this piece – spend some time on her blog, and be sure to bookmark it for future reference.
If I wanted to get all postmodern, I’d talk about how the structures of science priveledge certain people with the ability to dispense Truth and how these same structures are open to subversion by things that look like science, but aren’t. Things that are sciency rather than scientific. Things that are ultimately empty, the informatics equivalent of a cookie. But then again, this post is long enough as it is.