SciAm, You Disappoint Me

I recently subscribed to Scientific American with the intention of keeping up to date with a broad range of scientific topics, and reading their in-depth magazine articles to compliment the barrage of short news stories we get flooded with everyday. I’ve been pretty happy with that so far, and have also been getting their daily email updates on news stories, which I browse through if it looks interesting. Yesterday, there was a story called “Is Cellulite Forever?” with the tagline,

Some claim creams can bust the bulgy bane of many, whereas others swear by pricey procedures. But what is cellulite? And can it really be banished for good? A doctor gives the bottom line.

I have a really positive body image, in a large part thanks to bellydance. Nevertheless, when someone claims that they will shine a scientific spotlight on a topic that is related to beauty and is shrouded in so much pseudoscience, my interest is piqued. Imagine my surprise when the article interviewed an “osteopathic physician… [who] runs a clinic for mesotherapy (injections of homeopathic extracts, vitamins and/or medicine designed to reduce the appearance of cellulite).” Homeo-whatnow?

Homeopathy, briefly, is the belief that “like cures like” and that an extremely diluted solution of a substance that causes a symptom will cure that symptom.  Homeopathic remedies have virtually no trace of the so-called active ingredient in them, and thus fail every scientific study of their potency.  Not to mention, the very philosophy flies in the face of everything we know about physics and chemistry.  In a word, it’s pseudoscience.  So now, Scientific American is interviewing a doctor that espouses pseudoscience to talk about cellulite in a strictly scientific light?  My skeptical sense is in overdrive.

Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the science of cellulite and how it works.  In fact, that’s why I clicked on the link to the article!  Now, I’m motivated to learn more about it, in order to check on the claims presented in the interview.  Some portions seem reasonable, even testable, such as the origin of cellulite, why women may get more as they age, why it’s more prominent in women than men, etc.  If anyone can get back to me on the science behind those, I’d appreciate that! I’m very much a non-expert but curious.

But then he delves into some pretty heavy cultural biases, claiming that cellulite only became a problem in the 1970s because we became a sedentary culture and don’t work physically.  It appears to be based on anecdotal evidence of him finding old photographs or photographing women around the world.  (Excuse me, may I take a picture of your buttocks for research?)  Surely, calories in vs. calories burned has a lot to do with fat retention in the body as a whole (science!), but will eating organic foods, not working at a desk, and wearing a thong really reduce your cellulite? How does fat loss in general affect already thin women who have cellulite?

On the third page, my incredulity really spikes.  He talks about the use of various creams to target the fat itself that “transports fats into the [cells'] mitochondria to be used as energy” or “by blocking the making of fats by the alpha receptors.”  Last time I checked, creams do not target cells very far inside the body.  And although you may be able to firm up the skin itself, there appears to be no scientific proof that creams reduce cellulite.  Next he talks about sucking, rolling, even using radio waves to break up the fat.  You can find a bit on questionable cellulite reduction schemes at Quackwatch.  His claims are dubious, even if you look past the introduction.

Hey, I know how we can make cellulite problems go away!  Get over it. Proudly wear that bathing suit and show the world that we’re not all Barbie dolls.  Staying fit and healthy is a generally good thing. Worrying over the appearance of bumpy fat in the butt, not so important.  Until science-based medicine tells us that cellulite is a health threat, I won’t worry about mine.

And Scientific American?  Shame on you.  I expect your work to be held to a higher standard of scientific rigor.

UPDATES! Rebecca of Skepchick wrote a lovely post entitled “The Top 5 Things Wrong With SciAm’s Cellulite Article” and PZ Myers asks, “SciAm, how could you?

5 comments for “SciAm, You Disappoint Me

  1. May 6, 2009 at 14:28

    It’s dissapointing when things like this make their way into any scientific medium. I think it must have a lot to do with them being journalists as opposed to scientists and simply find a topic and put it out without really thinking it through..although I would have thought the editor would have picked it up…it’s a shame.
    No one should ever worry about their body imagine, other than for their own health, it’s just not whats important in life and people don’t notice like they think they do.

  2. Nicole
    May 8, 2009 at 16:00

    Thanks! :-)

  3. May 8, 2009 at 17:09

    I do love your blog HOWEVER that is spam..check out the url on the damn bot that stole my name haha.

  4. Nicole
    May 8, 2009 at 17:34

    *headdesk* I’ve been had! Thanks for that ;-)

  5. May 11, 2009 at 15:07

    If you think SciAm is culturally biased, try reading “New Scientist” without losing your lunch!

    Though I enjoy perusing both, I still get more utility reading journal articles directly. (I am glad to have the education and experience to be able to do so.)

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