Good science writing for a popular audience needs to be (at least) two things: entertaining and informative. Starting your article with a catchy headline and a snappy opening is always good, as long as they're not misleading. Yesterday I encountered a prime example of snap over substance.
It's an article in Wired News about an emerging treatment for depression.
The hed: "Shock Therapy, Version 2.0"
The lede: "Shock treatment for depression is making a comeback, and it no longer resembles a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Here's the thing: The article is NOT ABOUT SHOCK TREATMENT.
It's about repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS. In rTMS, a device that causes a focused magnetic field is held against the head.
Shock treatment is electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. In ECT, an electric current is briefly applied to the head to induce a seizure. (The therapeutic aspect actually results from the seizure, which lasts 30 seconds, not the jolt of current that triggers it, which lasts half a second. Originally, from 1933-1938, the seizures were induced by injecting chemicals.)
The article says rTMS and shock treatment are "based on the same therapeutic principle." But they are very different. rTMS: magnets. Shock treatment: seizures. rTMS is not the "comeback" of shock treatment. It is a replacement for shock treatment.
I might also note that shock treatment has already had a comeback--the comeback began in the 1970's, and ECT is still in wide use. To boot, it has not resembled the scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest since the early 1950's. Patients are now given an IV carrying an anesthetic and a muscle relaxant, so they're not awake, and their bodies don't shake.
Now, why would rTMS replace ECT? Both are safe and effective. In the short term they're even better than Prozac. But ECT has this nasty side effect of memory loss and confusion.
My mom had several sessions of rTMS in 1999 (with Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the leading American researcher in the field), and I could sit in the room and talk with her during her appointments. Shock treatment, on the other hand, fucks you up. Between 1997 and 1999 my mom had 28 ECT sessions. In 1997, she had six sessions after doing her Christmas shopping for the year. Christmas morning, we would open gifts from her and she would say, with genuine surprise, "What a great gift! Who gave you that?" We could only grin and say, "You did, Mom. Thanks."
Actually, it was quite funny.