01/21/2012 12:08 EST | Updated 03/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Don Cherry Should Stick to Hockey, Not Health

When news broke that scientifically the effects of Cold FX are dubious, Don Cherry responded that clinical trials and independent biomedical researchers are "garbage." If we don't use science as our method of inquiry, what should we use? Tea leaves? Tarot cards?


Apparently, Don Cherry believes that when it comes to healthcare decisions we "shouldn't pay any attention to scientists or people like that." He is "not interested in scientists" and thinks that the evidence provided by clinical trials and independent biomedical researchers is "garbage."

This classic Cherry hyperbole was the product of an interview that aired on the CBC show Marketplace place a few days ago. The show reviewed what the existing evidence tells us about the effectiveness of the popular alternative cold therapy, Cold FX. Without getting into the details, it was reported on CBC and elsewhere that the scientific data does not coincide with many of the company's claims. If you believe the science, Cold FX, a product that Cherry long supported as a spokesperson, does little to "reduce colds and flu by strengthening the immune system."

Though Cherry is no longer associated with the company, he and "all his friends and family" still use it because, as he emphasized over and over during the CBC interview, it works for him.

This kind of anti-science rhetoric is depressing, even when it comes from a grumpy old hockey analyst.

Despite Cherry's assertions to the contrary, personal experience is, on its own, one of the poorest forms of evidence. It tells us that the world is flat, the sky is a great dome, the sun revolves around the earth, and a wide range of therapies work when, in fact, they don't. Personal perceptions simply can't be relied on as proof of true efficacy -- at least in the this-substance-is-having-a-measurable-biological-impact sense of efficacy.

This is particularly so in the context of health research, where the placebo effect can play a huge role. Indeed, the scientific method is specifically designed to cut through our personal biases and preconceived notions. This is why the double-blinded clinical trial (a research method which blinds both researcher and research participant from knowing what medication is being used) is often viewed as the gold standard.

The Cherry interview highlights another odd and common paradox that seems a permanent fixture in the anti-science universe. Critics embrace the products of scientific inquiry without question or hesitation when it aids their life in some seemingly pedestrian manner. But they quickly jettison their confidence in science as a method of knowledge acquisition when it contradicts their worldview or, as is often the case, experience with an alternative therapy.

I wonder what kind "garbage science" allows Cherry to jet from game to game, write stories on a wafer-thin computer (ok, I can't really picture Cherry working on an MacBook Air, but I assume he has, at least, seen a computer), and broadcast live and in high-definition to a nation hungry for his unique brand of gut-informed wisdom.

I am not aware of any flying machines, computational devices, or orbiting communication satellites that have been produced via anecdotes or personal stories.

I could, however, provide a long list of strange and dangerous health myths that are continually reinforced by anecdote and the stubborn adherence to conspiracy-tinged distrust of science, including the idea that "natural" is always healthier, a colon cleanse can "detoxify" your system, and the it-will-never-die belief that vaccines cause autism.

It is certainly true that a range of social forces -- as witnessed by the less than noble actions of some in the pharmaceutical industry -- can twist both the scientific process and the reporting of results. And blatant scientific fraud also exists.

This more nefarious side of research has almost certainly reduced public trust in science and biomedical researchers. It fuels the anti-science rhetoric. But the response should not be to reject science. On the contrary, it should be viewed as a signal to our governments, research institutions and funding agencies to protect good, independent, scientific inquiry.

It is also true that it can seem like science often gets things wrong because conclusions are always revised. But that is the beauty of science. It is self-corrective and constantly evolving.

Science is the answer, not an obstacle, to figuring out how to stay healthy. If we don't use science as our method of inquiry, what should we use? Tea leaves? Tarot cards? The movement of the stars? Just because we don't like what science tells us, doesn't make it wrong. It doesn't make it garbage. Sorry, Mr. Cherry.