On being wrong

Last weekend, I was in Reston, Virginia for the Fourth International Fascia Research Congress. Fascia is connective tissue that forms a sort of shrink-wrap that attaches, stabilizes, encloses and separates our muscles and other organs. Many alternative medicine practitioners refer to fascia to explain the efficacy of their therapies. They say their techniques loosen or liquefy the fascia or make it function better, often with little evidence. This conference was created with a plan to build bridges between the alternative medicine and science communities by encouraging collaborations on research to better understand the molecular, cellular and biomechanical properties of fascia.

The first night’s main speaker was Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau, a plastic surgeon from France. Guimberteau, a shaggy haired, mustachioed man, was sitting up on stage in front of a lit-up green wall that made him look like the Wizard of Oz. He presented several close-up videos taken during surgeries to show the audience what connective tissue looks like. He explained that fascia was a vast network that was constantly reshaping itself to adapt to pressure exerted on the body. It provided continuity through the body. Guimberteau explained that it was important to look at fascia not just as a structural coating, but as an important network that could play a central role in connectivity and communication between body parts.

One of Guimberteau's images of fascia

One of Guimberteau's images of fascia

As I set there trying to absorb Guimberteau’s talk, I heard a crowd of body workers behind me saying yes in agreement with his points. “This is what we’ve been saying,” one of them behind me said. “Absolutely.” I wanted to remind them that Guimberteau’s message was still theoretical. He was essentially advocating for more research that would look at fascia as a more important player in the body, which is an important paradigm shift in science. But he wasn't providing conclusive evidence. 

There are many things the fascia does, like encourage the synthesis of collagen when manipulated, which body workers have claimed for a long time. But body workers continue to make unfounded claims, like that therapeutic touch can convert fascia from being highly viscous to thin and blood-like. I understand their excitement about how science is starting to confirm some long-held beliefs about fascia. But the reactions I kept hearing made me think about the ways that we all tend to selectively pay attention to evidence that affirms what we already believe, while we ignore anything that contradicts us. The conference brought me back to that time many months ago when I was telling you guys about my skepticism about my massage lessons. The scientific community, which was definitely informing my own thinking, makes the same mistake as the bodyworkers did in that lecture when it looks at the lack of evidence for certain therapies and plainly dismisses them. But people keep turning to these techniques because they do work, and it's important to investigate how. 

People often say that journalists are biased, to the right or to the left. I believe that, instead, we’re biased in favor of story. Often, when we’re building a particular narrative, we have a tendency to ignore facts that may negate our premise. As Brent Cunningham wrote in his 2003 essay “Rethinking Objectivity,” which I assign to my journalism students each semester, “We are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy." Last weekend was an important reminder for me to make more effort each day to challenge my pre-existing narratives, in my writing and in my life, whether I’m scribbling away at a paragraph about scientific evidence for touch-based therapy or making assumptions about my new home in the South. It’s important to look at our tightly held beliefs and then consider how they may be wrong.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Sushma Subramanian