So I’ve read a couple of articles about myalgic encephalomyelitis recently. (Not a bad opening line, I think.)
Mind Hacks had a fantastic post a few days ago about chronic fatigue syndrome, and the enemies of reason blog posted today about what the Daily Mail has had to say about it lately. (I’m not going to pick apart the exact differences between CFS and ME here; I believe they tend to refer to essentially the same condition or set of conditions.)
They both discuss recent research into CFS/ME, in which a UK team failed to find a virus that it was thought might cause the disorder in any of the 186 patients they studied. Last year, an American team reported that they had found the virus in 68 out of 101 patients studied. The UK team used a different method to look for the virus, and tighter controls to root out false positives (the Mind Hacks article has more detail on that), and although I don’t have the expertise to look at the raw data and try to determine if one study was “better” than the other, it seems like the evidence doesn’t quite tally with the idea that all cases of CFS are caused by a viral infection.
But both articles stress the important point that the lack of one simple root cause does not undermine CFS’s status as a genuine chronic illness. Which is important, because some people really don’t get that. Some people have trouble acknowledging the validity of a “psychological component” to an illness, or recognising the gray area between “psychological component” and “It’s all in your head”.
Anyone trying to dismiss anything as being “all in your head” needs to cultivate a much deeper appreciation of what your head is capable of.
To be fair, I do think the enemies of reason blog is a little harsh on the Mail here. The story he references from last week seems mostly pretty reasonable, treating ME as a genuine condition and describing the lack of evidence linking it to a particular virus in recent research. They do say that the “lack of a clear cause has led to scepticism that it is a genuine illness”, but, well, they’re right. There is skepticism about that, but they don’t seem to be expressing it themselves here, just mentioning that it exists. They don’t push it any further than that.
What’s really offended people though, and rightly, is the poll the Mail also put up on their site, asking readers to vote Yes or No on the question: “Do you think ME is a genuine illness?”
It’s become a cliché in the last few years to mock TV news programmes and newspapers for constantly asking people to “get in touch to let us know what you think”, and reading out texts from viewers and listeners on the air, treating them as if they were just as interesting and relevant as the news itself. But here it’s not just inane and trivial. Hosting that poll the way they are seems to give credit to the idea that what Daily Mail readers reckon, on a scientific medical matter, actually matters a shit. And it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.
Still, you can look at this questionnaire not as a test of the reality of CFS as an illness, but as a measure of Daily Mail readers’ ignorance. In any poll which asks people to vote on, say, the age of the Earth, if 60% of respondents pick “around 4.6 billion years” and 40% pick “around 6,000 years”, we don’t need to conclude there’s any genuine controversy or uncertainty on the subject. We just conclude that 40% of the demographic being polled are scientifically illiterate.
And we can do the same here. At the moment, it looks like 18% of poll respondents don’t know what they’re talking about on this subject. Which could be a lot worse. You can vote here, though bear in mind that, if the vote skews even further in the direction of reason, it may start to reflect well on Daily Mail readers. And I’m not sure anyone wants that.
Update 15/01/10: The Mail have actually issued an apology of sorts in response to people’s complaints about this poll, and it’s not totally lame. The idea that it “prides itself on its coverage of medical matters” is somewhat gigglesome, but credit where it’s due, they seem to have got this one right the second time.