Michael Phelps's Back Spots Deserve a Gold Medal in Pseudoscience

Has the entire U.S. Olympic team fallen for the superstition of cupping?


Say it ain't so, Mike!

Tell me those dark purple bruises dotting your much gawked-upon anatomy are the result of some misguided experiment in Greco-Roman wrestling with Barney the Dinosaur. If Jessica Rabbitt gave you a few dozen monster hickeys, I'm okay with that. Or did your nonchalance about contracting the Zika virus prove too optimistic?

Just don't tell me those mysterious dark ovals come from cupping. You know, that time-worn Chinese (or possibly Middle Eastern) superstition that claims vacuum suction applied to the body can alter your "qi" energy and thereby cure asthma, herpes, infertility, cancer, and early onset acute gullibility disorder due to excessive gold medal-itis.

You've won a zillion medals. You're representing America. Please don't make us look any more naive than we already are. It was only last week that we learned the truth about flossing and we can't handle additional disillusionment.

A part of me doesn't want to blame you or your Olympic teammates for buying into alternative medicine. Journalists, tough-minded creatures that we are, have already fallen for the ruse. Glance at any newspaper headline on the topic nowadays and the odds are high you'll find an uncritical report praising unscientific "complementary" and "integrative" therapies.

When the entire Portland Trail Blazers team began cupping, The Oregonian quoted star athletes who called it "scientific stuff" that "works pretty good"—without sourcing a single dissenting voice. The Atlantic penned this 4,000-word paean to evidence-free medicine. And don't get me started on Dr. Oz, the homeopathy-hawking surgeon who remains popular despite a recent ratings plunge.

That's why it's no surprise when USA Today's headline declared, "Cupping Helps Heal the USA Men's Olympic Gymnastics Team," a ringing endorsement for your brand of magical thinking.

How did we ever get so soft on pseudoscience? The media takes its cues from the medical establishment, which increasingly takes its cues from the federal government. Over the last 25 years, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a branch of the National Institutes of Health, has been doling out medical grants by the billions of dollars to promote alternative medicine. As I reported in The Alternative Medicine Racket, the NCCIH has successfully installed all sorts of bogus therapies and quack clinics into dozens of major hospitals and medical schools around the country.

In our fact-free world, you can find an expert to validate almost any crackpot belief. Our politicians insist that immigrants are flooding across our borders. The rate of violent crime is allegedly higher than ever. And yes, there's even this scientific-looking meta-analysis proving that cupping really works. Like many studies of alternative medicine, it buries the lede and hopes you don't get around to reading the fine print. (Here it is, at the bottom of the study: "the main limitation of our analysis was that nearly all included trials were evaluated as high risk of bias." Translation: the study isn't worth much.)

Nick Gillespie recently wrote about the truthiness of our postmodern world:

Sure, the internet and other technologies allow us to live in an ideological bubble that is virtually impervious to non-confirming information and data. But it's equally and even more true that we live in the Age of Transparency where the whole world can fact-check your ass (including mine!). The best way forward, especially in a time when confidence and trust in major institutions are flopping quicker than Cristiano Ronaldo in UEFA play, is for the people in charge of our politics to actually argue in good faith.

Facts still matter, even as our confidence in authorities continue to erode. Which is why it behooves us to look critically at the world and seek out different points of view. Because guess what? More Mexicans are leaving the United States than entering it. Rates of violent crime are near historic lows. Cupping is quackery.

And that holds whether you're an Ivy League heart surgeon, a candidate for president of the United States, or the most decorated Olympic medalist of all time.