The other day, my Facebook News Feed was all abuzz about an NPR story titled, “Lost Posture: Why Some Indigenous Cultures May Not Have Back Pain.” Between the shares from my critical thinking friends and NPR, I figured this article must have merit and was worth my time to read.
The opening claims seemed reasonably true: Americans often suffer from back problems, while other cultures, specifically indigenous tribes, have virtually no back problems. Alright, let’s get on to the credible scientific explanation of why that’s happening.
Oh, wait. The expert in question here is a what?!
An acupuncturist in Palo Alto, Calif., thinks she has figured out why.
Well, she seemed confident about her ability to science, so let’s review her findings.
Esther Gokhale, acupuncturist/pseudoscience salesperson, recounts her chronic back pain in the time shortly after the birth of her first child. She couldn’t sleep at night and would go for walks around the neighborhood every couple of hours to alleviate the pain. (If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering why she didn’t just push a bunch of needles under her skin and fall into a deep slumber.) Of course, placebo therapies do nothing to repair a herniated disc; for that, you must visit an actual medical professional. Gokhale had back surgery, but then had another herniated disc.
This time around, Gokhale wanted to find a permanent fix for her back. And she wasn’t convinced Western medicine could do that. So Gokhale started to think outside the box. She had an idea: “Go to populations where they don’t have these huge problems and see what they’re doing.”
You know… Here I am, slumped over my MacBook, propped up on a cloud of pillows, with Hostess cakes on my breath, and even I think the answer is obvious. What physical advantages could people who have to literally chase their food have over the average American…?
Gokhale spent the next ten years traveling the world, creeping up on indigenous cultures with a camera, photographing their posture.
She tried to figure out what all these different people had in common. The first thing that popped out was the shape of their spines. “They have this regal posture, and it’s very compelling.”
Long story short, Gokhale realized that she needed to sit up straight in order for her back pain to vanish. But then she must have thought, “How can I repackage this age-old advice and sell it to wealthy CEOs in Silicon Valley?” So she wrote a book, set up a studio in Palo Alto, and started selling gimmicks galore (like a $560 office chair).
Now her list of clients is impressive. She’s helped YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report. She has given classes at Google, Facebook and companies across the country. In Silicon Valley, she’s known as the “posture guru.”
And it doesn’t bother her that the method hasn’t been tested in a clinical trial.
“If people are finding things that are helpful, and it’s not causing any harm, then why do we have to wait for a trial?” [internist Dr. Neeta] Jain asked.
And then, buried 22 paragraphs into the article, someone states the obvious:
“Scientists don’t know yet,” says Dr. Praveen Mummaneni, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco’s Spine Center.
“For starters, Americans tend to be much heavier.”
“If you have a lot of fat built up in the belly, that could pull your weight forward,” Mummaneni says. “That could curve the spine. And people who are thinner probably have less curvature” — and thus a spine shaped more like J than than an S.
“Everyone knows that weak abdominal muscles can cause back pain. In fact,” Mummaneni says, “stronger muscles might be the secret to Gokhale’s success.”
If NPR had chosen to make an honest article out of this non-story, it would have looked like this:
Pseudoscientist doesn’t heed grandma’s advice to “sit up straight” and goes on ten year journey to gawk at brown-skinned people for answers to her First World back problems.
After entirely missing the big picture, pseudoscientist manages to repackage and trademark the end result of a healthy, active lifestyle and sell it to West Coast yuppies.
When a credible medical professional was asked to comment without rolling his eyes, he responded, “Yeah, we’ve always known this. Americans are like sacks of Jell-O with bones floating around inside. Without muscles to hold those bones in place, your shit is going to ache a lot. Mrs. Pseudoscientist did an impressive job of tricking a room full of software engineers into doing abdominal exercises and getting them to think they were buying the Holy Grail.”
If you’re wondering how lucrative her “Primitive Posture” Gokhale Method business is, to sit in on a group course of six sessions, you’ll have to shell out $450.
As an alternative, you could go out in your yard and pretend to chase a wild boar.
(Image via YouTube)