Saturday, December 06, 2008

The most important book you'll read this year?

I'm not a person given to fads. I don't wear a piece of Kabbalah string, I don't munch on superfoods and I don't shop for brands and labels. Saying that, I'm only human and I have fallen under the thrall of the occasional faddy diet. It's hard not to be seduced by promises of quick fixes. However, I'd like to think that I'm reasonably well-informed about things and my fad-following is more of a rarity than certainty. I read a huge amount to try to keep my knowledge current and, recently, I've read one particular book that has made me even more determined to keep my bullshit detectors honed. I'd like to think, after reading it, that I won't be caught again.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is a sane, balanced, logical dissection of current health and beauty trends. Goldacre is that rarest of things; an academic (he is a medical doctor) who can write with clarity, authority and wit. He examines a wide-ranging list of popular pills, potions, foods and procedures and subjects them all to fair, properly conducted, scientific analyses - even offering the champions of each method the opportunity to support their claims in the same manner. Not surprisingly perhaps, none of them do. Some even become litigious, threatening to sue for defamation of character (although, of course, they don't).

Consequently, we get to see, clearly and unambiguously, that the only effect that homeopathy demonstrates is the placebo effect. Every form of scientific analysis it has ever been subjected to has failed to find any proof that it works. There are no properly authenticated cases that prove its efficacy. And many of homeopathy's claims are easily disproved. For example, the active ingredients in homeopathy tablets are so diluted that they are virtually non-existent. Goldacre asks us to imagine a ball of water that fits snugly into, and fills, the gap between the Earth and the Sun (a distance of 93,000,000 miles). Now imagine a single molecule of active ingredient inside that ball. That's still more than six times more concentrated a solution than that found in homeopathic medicines. It's glaringly obvious, he says, that those substances at nanoscopic levels (some of which exist in higher levels all around us) can't possibly have any effect on you. But when he suggests this, the homeopaths come back with something called the 'memory of water' by which mechanism a 'memory' of the active ingredient is carried. Goldacre makes the very valid point that if this is true, none of us should ever get ill. After all, if the active ingredient is held in the 'memory of water', then that water will still 'remember' it when it passes out of the body as sweat or urine, saliva, tears or in faeces. Consequently that water will be recycled and you and I will be drinking it one day. It will be in the rain and the rivers and the seas. There should be so many cures for common ailments (homeopathy is more than two centuries old) passing in and out of us on a daily basis that disease should be a thing of the past. It isn't though, is it? As he suggests, it would be far more interesting to conduct more research into the placebo effect. In trials conducted during the 1980s, twice as many people (when compared to a control sample) felt better just by being told by a doctor that they'd soon be well.

Things get even scarier when you learn that there is no proof whatsoever that Omega 3 fish oils make kids smarter, that antioxidants could actually be bad for you and that the programmes of certain TV gurus like Gillian McKeith often have no basis in scientific fact. McKeith actually gets a whole chapter to herself in which we discover that many of her qualifications are dubious (Goldacre manages to buy one of her qualifications for his dead pet cat) and that many of her suggested dietary practices are based on such poor science that even a GCSE student could spot the gaps. One worth mentioning is the idea that plants rich in chlorophyll can 'oxygenate' your system. As any schoolchild knows, plants create oxygen by photosynthesis and that requires light. Unless there's something very wrong with you, your stomach is full of acid and fairly dark. Hardly an environment conducive to healthy oxygen production.

The main point that Goldacre makes is this: there are no quick fixes. Plenty of fruit and veg, reduced fat, sensible alcohol consumption, regular exercise and no smoking will keep you healthy and fit and will offer you your best chance of a long life. Anyone who wants to make money from you has therefore to 'sex up' this rather dull truth by picking obscure food items for you to buy (when they do no more good than common, everyday items), or by quoting scientifically unsubstantiated claims ('7 out of 10 women said that it made a difference to their wrinkles') and by theatricality. Showing someone a tombstone made of chocolate is great telly but, let's be honest, it's just another way of saying 'moderation in all things'.

So, before you buy those goji berries, or have that colonic irrigation or invest in an Aqua Detox, read this book. It may just change the way you think about these products. At the very least, you will know enough to be able to make informed decisions.

10 comments:

Brit' Gal Sarah said...

Very interesting for this lifelong dieter, who also owns Gillian's book! I may well invest in this little gem thanks to you.

judynz said...

While you have written wise words, on the other hand they could have done harm & knocked the socks off someone who is experiencing great results from IE. homeopathy. People do apparently same things with different results. The mind is a marvelous mechanism that influences the greatest power ever,
Electromagnetic energy.
We create chaos within our individual minds everyday taking in many opinions & much conflicting knowledge. We can hound ourself with insecurity & fear but what saves us from ourselves is that we can say a decisive (even unconcious) [NO] to negative thought patterns thus creating a calmer more balanced effect instantly. It is such a state that allows the body to cure itself. what inspires one doesnt necessarily inspire another. ALL is dependant on how serious we are about any subject.whether we are wishful thinking, expecting others (pills) to achieve for us or we are wholly involve in the belief IE a cure will be be found. NOT IN THE FUTURE BUT NOW. EVERTHING in our life serves to inspire or undermine us whether we notice or not. Each are (if you like our concentration piece inspiration (positive or negative) emotion connected to all....that determines outcome.
You need to ask why 1+1 doesnt always make 2. Your words would also eliminate the possibility that we can ALL create an electromagnetic field around ourself to protect us from harm..but it can be done. Some can live in what is considered completely wrong ways & live long lives others can take extreme care & suffer in many ways. Ask yourself WHY. Be open but not stupid is a key.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Sarah - Hi! Nice to hear from you. First of all, I will point out that this blog post is kind of a book review and that the content I've posted is Ben Goldacre's, not mine. That aside, I cannot find fault in his viewpoint. At every opportunity he offers these people the benefit of the doubt and submits their claims to unbiased, properly controlled and fair testing. Sadly, with their defensive posturing, threats of legal action and lack of proof for their own products, it is the new-fangled nutritionists and pill peddlars who make themselves appear insecure and false. I must also stress that, barring some inaccurate and misleading mumbo-jumbo, Gillian McKeith's advice is essentially correct: eat more fruit and veg than meat, cut down on fats, do some exercise, drink alcohol sensibly and don't smoke. No one can fault her for that. It's the bullying theatricality that Goldacre attacks, along with her pushing us all to eat bizarre and foul-tasting food items which, of course, she has a range of to sell us.

JudyNZ - I'm not sure how to respond to this as I'm not entirely sure what the message is. But I'll have a go. Firstly, hello! We're always open to healthy debate here. Secondly, if I have 'knocked the socks off' some committed homeopaths then how secure are they in their medication? I can only repeat what Goldacre says, that repeated experimentation, medical trials and clinical examination has never found ANY proof that homeopathy works. In fact, time and time again, properly conducted trials show very clearly that when homeopathic medicine is put up against placebo sugar pills, neither scores any better than the other. You do mention the power of the mind and, yes, that is an extraordinary thing. There is no doubt in my mind, or Goldacre's, that people who believe that homeopathy works will encourage their own wellness. That still doesn't make it right for companies to make money out of selling what is essentially a placebo to vulnerable people. As for your talk about 'electromagnetic fields', I'm afraid you lost me there. The electromagnetic field is everywhere and incorporates every form of electromagnetic radiation; things like UV and infrared light, the visible spectrum, X rays, microwaves, radio waves, gamma rays etc. Some waves are thousands of miles long and others as short as an atom's width. We affect and manipulate ranges of the field in many different walks of life (we're doing it now by having this chat via the internet). So I'm not quite sure what you're getting at here and would love to hear more. However, one thing I am pretty sure about is that 1 + 1 do make 2. Nice to hear from you.

chris hale said...

Excellent stuff! The subject of alternative medicine always seems to provoke healthy debate. As with religion, if a person has strong faith in a particular stance, then surely the views of a scientist (or of us laypersons, for that matter) is unlikely to shake their beliefs? In the middle ages people were hanged or burned for their religion. Would their modern day successors simply relinquish their faith and then moan to the media about the 'oppression' that they are suffering, in the face of a little impartial scientific evaluation?

Great minds think alike. And fools seldom differ. May I refer you to:

http://themiddenshirechronicles.blogspot.com/2008/09/wherefore-art-thou-homeo.html

which is a bit lightweight, I'm afraid!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - A most enjoyable read, sirrah. Don't you just love all of that stuff about banging glass vials against leather and horsehair pads to 'activate' the ingredients? Good grief ...

Lightweight? What's your secret?

chris hale said...

Ah, now that would be telling...

Persephone said...

Steve, in the spirit of healthy debate, may I put in a word of support for fish oils? I don't know about them making "kids smarter", but I do know, as a mum of a child on the autism spectrum, that they have improved our quality of life as a family. Our daughter has been on fish oil supplements since January 2001. It's not so much what's she like when we are giving her the capsules, it's what she's like if we run out for a few days. The difference is that noticeable. We've tried many things (you do, you know, when you're in a situation like this), usually introducing one thing for three weeks and seeing if there's a change. Many things don't do much, but fish oil, cod liver oil, Epsom salts, and dietary enzymes have made enough improvement to make life a little more bearable for all of us.

I think it's right to be skeptical of claimed break-throughs and equally of books and articles that completely dismiss such break-throughs. Many things we take for granted today were pooh-poohed by eminent scientists and medical doctors.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Persephone - That's great and I'm so pleased that it works in your situation. Anything that works can only be seen as a positive thing. I come back to the point that Goldacre is making, however, and that is that fish oils are being aggressively peddled with some extravagant and wholly unsubstantiated claims of making kids smarter. It won't do them any harm to take them but there's nothing to suggest it'll make them any better at school either. And yet schools (and parents indirectly) are in some cases spending more on these capsules than they are on school meals. Therefore, he argues, the only winners are the makers of the capsules.Scepticism is healthy and I am always open to new ideas and concepts (or even old ones) as long as they are supported by some degree of proof. Sadly, as Goldacre is at pains to point out, much of what is thrown at us by marketing and pharma companies falls somewhat short of evidence or, indeed, truth. x

Persephone said...

Well, here in Canada, kids are expected to bring their own lunches to school, so that controversy hasn't come up...

Jon M said...

I loved Goldacre's articles about Brain Gym which is a bit of a sacred cow in my particular field!