Newspaper articles

Example 1: Indian scientists find a 'wonder herb' in the high Himalayas  The Times of India (August 2014)

Leaving aside that it is Himalaya not Himalayas and to be more exact, the location involved would be better described as the borderlands of Western Tibet rather than the main Himalayan range, as a scientist, I am always troubled by tabloid-style CLAIMS of 'wonder' herbs, no matter where they come from!  I cannot but wonder what relevant training the journalist who wrote this article has? If you do not have such expertise, it is impossible to meaningfully assess the evidence - no matter what your command of written English is.  Sadly, this is what the 'average' reader of newspaper likes or is thought to like to consume....  I recollect decades ago submitting a draft article for possible publication in a national British newspaper.  I was honoured with a dismissive response that it was, "not up to journalistic standards".  I realise my informal prose leaves a lot to be desired in many respects but perhaps I should "dumb-down" and become more "sensationalist" and "inaccurate" to increase my likelihood of 'publication' by attaining such wonderful 'journalistic' standards......

Apparently, Indian scientists say they have 'found' a 'wonder herb' which can, "regulate the immune system, help adjust to the mountain environment and, above all, protect from radioactivity"!  WOW... Given such astonishing claims, why have I and indeed the whole world, not heard of this drug and why, 2 years after the publication of this newspaper article, is the drug not in use world-wide? Could it be that even the necessary initial trials to support such "claims" have not actually been completed?  Which journals of international repute have they published their results/evidence in?  Are their conclusions valid? This article does not tell us.

To begin with, the journalist does not seem to understand the difference between a genus of plants and individual species.  Because one species in a genus is shown to have 'active principles' with potential for medicinal usage, does not mean all species in that genus do. In the second paragraph, simplistically they call the herb 'Rhodiola' yet this is a genus of some 20 species in the Himalayan region (the number world-wide is thought to be anywhere from 36 to 90), many of which are difficult to distinguish identification-wise. Which species (in both the singular and plural sense) does the article actually refer to?

The journalist then proclaims that this discovery has led India's leading scientists (they are not named), to wonder if it is the end of the quest for "sanjeevani", a plant from Hindu mythology which can even reverse death!  The problem is that the most cursory look on the internet shows there are currently two main candidates for this plant and these grow in the hills of South India (and are totally unrelated to Rhodiola). Species restricted to high mountains in Tibet cannot be serious candidates.  Do India's 'leading' scientists not realise this?  Or perhaps it is the journalist who has misunderstood?

Next, we are told that actually, the properties of 'Rhodiola' (again the genus only is referred to) are "largely unknown".... Apparently, the leafy parts of the plant (we are not told which species - the foliage varies considerably, as would its palatability) were used as a vegetable by locals. The 'local' name given in the article seems to be its Tibetan name - which according to Koelz (1979) actually refers to a different plant altogether, belonging to the same family Crassulaceae as Rhodiola, namely Sedum ewersii (now Hylotelephium ewersii) - which is readily distinguished from the two Rhodiola species illustrated in the newspaper article.  Then, we hear that in fact research, undertaken by DIHAR - 'Defence Institute of High Altitude Research' is only exploring the therapeutic values of the herb, yet the journalist goes on to CLAIM that it can do wonders for the troops posted in difficult high altitude areas, like the 5400m (nearly 18,000') Siachen glacier (where there are exchanges between Indian and Pakistani troops).  Contradictory statements abound in this article.

The journalist (who clearly loves inserting 'big' words in a false attempt to impress) repeats that 'Rhodiola' is a wonder plant, which has "immunomodulatory" (enhancing immune) - the internet Farlex Dictionary defines this as: capable of modifying or regulating one or more immune functions., "adaptogenic" (adapting to difficult climate conditions) and 'radio-protecting' clearly, a word or two is missing, abilities due to presence of secondary metabolites and phytoactive (this is a general term meaning active in plant biochemistry - does the journalist not understand the terminology or did they misunderstand what it meant or are they being misleading, implying some special property of the plant) compounds unique to the plant, according to DIHAR's Director, RB Shrivastava - who also states the herb can mitigate the effects of gamma radiation used in bombs in biochemical warfare!  But where is the evidence to support such extraordinary claims?  I do not blindly accept everything I am told. I am a trained scientist with an inquiring mind.  Do not journalists have a responsibility to "check their facts"?   Or has the whole world deteriorated to accept 'tabloid-level' journalism?   We suffer from this problem in the UK as well.

The Director of DIHAR informed the journalist that a concerted effort involving conservation, propagation and sustainable utilization of this 'unique' herb will surely result in the rediscovery of 'sanjeevani' for the troops deployed in extreme climatic conditions along Himalayan frontiers.  Is he really suggesting that any soldiers killed or gravely injured during action against Pakistani forces can be brought back to life by this plant!?

Since neither the Director nor the journalist divulged WHICH species of Rhodiola are involved, how can meaningful conservation, propagation or sustainable utilisation be taking place?  I, who am more knowledgeable about the flora of Laadkh than anyone, struggle to distinguish between some species of Rhodiola, so how can the species involved be conserved unless it is known to which species it belongs and OTHERS can distinguish between them?

According to the journalist DIHAR has been researching this wonder plant for more than a decade.

The article, FINALLY mentions an actual species - Rhodiola heterodonta, which the Institute's Director proclaims has adaptogenic (they love these mickey-mouse scientific words) qualities which can help the soldiers in adjusting to the low-pressure oxygen environment, it has also been found to have anti-depressant and appetizer properties. Being depressed and having little appetite are typical reactions to being at higher altitudes, so 'treating' such symptoms easily would be wonderful. I understand that once a small airport was established at Leh, Indian troops were INITIALLY transported by flights straight up from the plains - many of the soldiers, unaccustomed to the higher elevations - Leh is @ 3250m (almost 11,000'), struggled to adjust.  So despite the ready availability of flights nowadays, soldiers face several days journey from other parts of India by bus/coach to reach Leh via Manali in Himachal Pradesh or Srinagar in Kashmir - aiding acclimatisation/adjustment more steadily.  One could, take of the scheduled morning flights from Delhi to Leh and then, straight away head by 'taxi' up to a high-altitude pass at over 5000m but that would be potentially fatal....

It is unfortunate that the two photos on page 1 of this article (supplied by Getty images) are of a different species, Rhodiola rosea; the third image, on page 2 does seem to be of R.heterodonata.  Are both species of Rhodiola, which can readily be told apart, the wonder drug?  Are ALL the species of Rhodiola in Ladakh (I know of at least 7) used?  I doubt it, as surely they do not all have identical properties...  We are not told.  I am certain Indian botanists do not know the answers to all these questions.

Apparently, DIHAR has already developed 'herbal adaptogenic appetizer' and 'herbal adaptogenic performance enhancer' that improves performance in extreme high altitude conditions that have been highly appreciated by the Army. But these are not scientifically-controlled tests!  IF they work, why are they not on sale for tourists, to help them during treks or even rides by vehicle in Ladakh?

The journalist reveals his lack of understanding of basic botany by then saying that 'Rhodiola' is also found in other parts of the world (yes the genus is but which species...), yet earlier in the article there was talk of 'unique' properties of the plant.  Shame it grows elsewhere?  It seems other countries like US and China are engaged in research on the 'wonder' herb.  But does R.heterodonta grow wild in the US or China?  It definitely is NOT found in North America. Does the journalist mean a different species of Rhodiola? This particular species is recorded from Tibet (which is now controlled by China) but I am far from certain it is this species of Rhodiola which Chinese scientists have been researching?

The journalist then CLAIMS that the plant has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to combat high-altitude sickness (I doubt if it is the same species of Rhodiola) while in Mongolia physicians prescribe it for tuberculosis and cancer.  How can they do that if Rhodiola heterodonta does not grow in Mongolia?  Must be another species of Rhodiola!

The journalist goes on. According to him, researchers in Russia studied its impact on athletes and later on cosmonauts.  But how can they have done this if Rhodiola heterodonta does not grow in Russia?  Must be another species of Rhodiola!

We are then treated to further amazing properties of this plant after the journalist 'reviewed' scientific literature across the world, which include fast recovery after heavy workout, memory enhancement and cardiac stress reduction.  What CANNOT this plant do!!  Except how can a journalist who appears not to understand basic science/botany, actually 'review' scientific literature......

There is even more, as a researcher at DIHAR suggests their research reveals the plant's potential for anti-ageing, tissue regeneration, protecting neurons during lack of oxygen and cognitive improvement.  Whilst an ethnobotanist at the institute says they have successfully established a "field gene bank and plantation of nearly two acres" close to their laboratories; in vitro propagation is being tried to increase its population.  I wonder if this is actually true?  Conveniently, it is impossible for a curious person like me to gain access to DIHAR and be shown the acres of this Rhodiola plantation to check ,as prior written permission is required from the Indian Government for foreigners to visit such sites deemed as belonging to the military. Should not think there are too many military secrets to observe amongst the botany research labs and fields.  I bet it is remarkably difficult to obtain such permission.  After all, they would not want people people like me 'snooping' and asking difficult questions. 

I have not undertaken a serious search of the literature myself but I KNOW that some of the Rhodiolas the journalist has "lumped together" belong to different species. This is highly misleading, indeed scientifically false. But do not let the FACTS get in the way of yet another SENSATIONALIST article - which are common-place and no doubt "up to journalistic standards".

As for the EXTRAVAGANT claims as to the properties of this 'wonder plant', I would like to study the supporting evidence.  IF this plant (whichever species of Rhodiola it actually is) does have such amazing potential, which would be so beneficial for mankind, then why is it not available NOW or at least large-scale trials being undertaken?  It would have the benefit of generating sizeable income for India.  Why are local villagers not involved in its cultivation, collection and drying? Sources of income from such remote places as Ladakh are surely much sought-after.

I did e-mail a botanist at DIHAR more than a decade ago (the 'corresponding author' of a published article, inquiring about species they had recorded from the surrounding district to the Institute as part of my research towards an up-to-date Flora for Ladakh.  Never got a reply, which was disappointing, though rather the norm with botanists in this part of the world.  And I would have liked to have undertaken an inspection visit during my time in Leh a few years back. Unless research is scrutinised by experts/specialists and international collaboration encouraged, inevitably one questions some of the findings/claims.  IF what is claimed is true, the whole world should know about it.

Instead, I am left dissatisfied by this tabloid-style account.  I expect better and so should others reading it, without scientific training, who put their trust in what is written.  Journalists, whether working for traditional newspapers or national news media have a RESPONSIBILITY that the content is sound and accurate - otherwise these sources of information can not be trusted.

The only surprise is that the authorities have not claimed the plant to be CRITICALLY ENDANGERED and listed it under CITES....

*It is only fair to add that not all articles in Indian newspapers are so un-scientific.  'In search of Sanjeevani plant of Ramyana' ('The Hindu', 10th September 2009) adopts a much more intelligent approach and does not make false claims which cannot be substantiated. A FUNDAMENTAL principle of Science is that one MUST be able to assess what conclusions are VALID from the available evidence/results presented in an article - deciding what conclusions are valid to make.  D.Balasubramanian covers the evidence well, drawing attention to actual scientific papers. It seems there are two main candidates for 'Sanjeevani': Selaginella bryopteris (a fern relative) and Desmotrichum fimbriatum (though the up-to-date name for this epiphytic orchid is Dendrobium plicatile) see:  Wisely, the conclusion is that more work is needed to chose between the two plants.  My compliments - I am encouraged, though of course not as eye-catching an article as the one covering the supposed 'Wonder Drug'!