Ottawa Citizen: Will You Not Be My Valentine?

I’m a bad Skeptic North reader. I noticed some major nonsense in my local newspaper and I didn’t tip off Melany for her weekly Sunday article about media fails. I selfishly kept it all too myself. To make matters worse, it was Valentine’s Day related which was yesterday when her article went up. So I apologize to Melany and I apologize to our readership for having to suffer more Valentine’s Day coverage, even a day later.

Wise up candy heart

Last Tuesday my local paper, the Ottawa Citizen, published a special section in honour of V-Day called “Love It”. It consisted of 13 articles that ran the gamut from covering astrology to sex toys. Of the thirteen I’d classify four of them as pure unscientific bunkum (not to mention the other questionable articles such as the one suggesting The English Patient as one of the best romantic films of all time).

The head article is about the author duo behind a hit astrology book called, wait for it, Sextrology: The Astrology of Sex and the Sexes. The article is typical fluff not meant to be taken too seriously (although I’m sure that a few people will take it very seriously). The article was written by Lynn Saxberg and reads like an advertisement. Not a whiff of skepticism interferes with the frivolous success story the author is trying to tell her readers. If it was just another pro-astrology article it wouldn’t be too interesting (keep in mind that this paper, like every other paper, donates precious dead tree space every day to astrological horoscopes).

The article finishes by saying:

To test the Sextrology system, we picked five high-profile Ottawa couples then consulted the new book, Cosmic Coupling, to get a sense of their dynamic as a couple. While some parts of each romantic outlook seemed pretty close to the reality of the relationship, other bits missed the mark. Some of it was hilarious, and some was just too sexually explicit for a family newspaper.

Of course, profiling five Ottawa “celebrities” is a great way to test astrology, a field of claims has a huge bar of evidence to surmount. (The only “celebrity” someone outside of Ottawa would recognize from the list is Stephen Harper, we need better celebrities).

Yes, perhaps I’m being too harsh. The article treats all of this like fluff, so why don’t I? For most people astrology is a fun diversion, it’s a quick daily two minute break to look up a generic and useless blurb about you, and only you (and billions of other people with the same star sign). But for a very small group of people, they take it way too far.

I once knew a guy that planned his entire life based on the position of the stars (name withheld to protect the identity of the innocent). He had done the following due to his belief in astrology: turned down a job, changed his name, and canceled vacations at the last minute (which I’m sure cost money). I’m sure that if I got to know him better I’d have heard of even more examples of astrology interfering with his life. For better documented examples go to the great website “what’s the harm?“.

Think of astrology like alcohol: most people safely enjoy them in small doses but a minority cannot control themselves. This analogy breaks down in a couple ways though: alcoholism is probably much worse than astrology fanaticism and there is no redeeming value to astrology. Just because newspapers publish a daily astrology horoscope column it does not mean we should let star fluff like this pass without speaking up.

The next offender that I feel like griping about is another common form of love pseudoscience: aphrodisiacs. In an article titled “Libido Lifters“, Jennifer Campbell interviews the author Joey Shulman:

[Shulman] set us straight on what foods really offer natural ways to get you in the wooing mood.

(Emphasis mine)

The article spends a good deal of time extolling the sexual virtues of vitamin E, the amino acid L-theanine, zinc, resveratrol, and antioxidants. Wow, I’m getting excited already! Unfortunately, it’s just a bunch all-natural sciencey buzzwords. The justification for including these various buzz words is that most of them lead to better blood flow.

And as we now know, better blood flow is good for you-know-what

What? SEX? Just say it, jeez. Kids don’t read the newspaper. Only cranky retired folk who are scared by computers and intellectual masochists like myself read it.

Some people call vitamin E natural Viagra

Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. Supposedly vitamin E helps sexual performance because it increases blood flow. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Viagra does more than just improve blood flow. It specifically targets the enzyme responsible for erectile dysfunction (ED). Most people with ED (those who would see benefits from Viagra) don’t have a problem with general blood flow, they just have too much of a romance ruining enzyme (I’m pretty sure that’s what scientists call it). Only by targeting this enzyme can blood flow be restored to the critical organ. For the sake of argument, even if vitamin E really was “nature’s Viagra” it would only be preferable due to price, not because it is natural. Just because something is natural, it does not mean it’s safe. And yes, vitamin E supplements can have side effects (which wasn’t mentioned in the article).

The final article I’ll rail against today promotes something I’ve never heard of: colour therapy. The author for the article, Carol Patton, interviews colour therapy “expert” Jami Lin, author of the book Colour Alchemy. Note: When the expert for an article wrote a book with the word “alchemy” in it, a skeptical red flag should be raised. But hey, I’m open minded. Since I’ve never heard of colour therapy, maybe there’s something to it? What is colour therapy? Is it an evidence based practice that can help improve and enrich our lives? Should I regret not following the teaching of colour therapy all these years?

The idea behind colour therapy, which dates back to ancient Indian and Egyptian times, is that each colour corresponds to a different energy point within the human body. Collectively, they help control the body’s energy flow or energy points called chakras.

Darn, it’s BS. I tried, I really did. Unfortunately, this new-to-me therapy blew any chance it had to impress by relying on cliché mystical and undetectable energy points. Cliché’s rarely work with pick up lines, they shouldn’t work for alternative therapies either.

She suggests starting the day off with a red, romantic surprise. This Sunday prepare a meal featuring red food and tableware — anything from chocolate-coloured strawberries to red napkins.

Just don’t forget the fortune cookies. People can buy or bake their partner’s favourite cookies. After topping them with red sprinkles, they can write a series of romantic fortunes in red ink, then wrap each one around a cookie.

I agree, fortune cookies are HOT! Now I know why the Chinese government had to institute a one child policy. (I know, no one in China eats fortune cookies, I sacrificed my previous scientific integrity for a joke that was in poor taste)

I’ll say it again, these articles are meant to just be fluff. It’s a way for a content starved publication to provide easy to digest piffle with little effort. So what’s the big deal? The Ottawa Citizen claims to be “a trusted source for news and entertainment that helps make sense and meaning of a complex world.” The editors of the Citizen need to ask themselves: Is it worth a few sex toy advertising dollars to erode the public’s trust in the city’s most read newspaper?

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  • Jonathan Abrams

    Jonathan Abrams is the latest founder and president of the Ottawa Skeptics. He organizes local events, makes media appearances as the token skeptic, and is one of the website maintainers. He is the host of the skepticism podcast The Reality Check. When he’s not thinking about science and skepticism, he’s working as a computer engineer, playing pinball, or doing the dishes.