One of my favourite pre- summer holiday activities is choosing a good book to read on the beach (and/or by the pool). This year my holiday read was bought for me by Karen, who had come into some Amazon vouchers at work.
In Bad Science the author Ben Goldacre — writer, broadcaster and doctor, with a column in The Guardian (and a blog) of the same name — debunks alternative therapy myths about Homeopathy, vitamin pills, fish oil capsules and many other “essential” food supplements, and exposes the pseudoscience used by “Nutritional Therapists” to convince us that all our problems can be solved by a little miracle pill. Well, their little miracle pill, to be precise.
This subject appealed to the Grumpy Old Man in me (some would ask what might be left if he were somehow removed). I can regularly be heard dismissing TV ads for the latest “active revitalising shampoo with natural plant extracts” as a load of sh***, and finally here is a book that agrees with me! Most of the proper evidence shows that, for example, homeopathic pills are no more effective than placebo, and Omega-3 fish oil capsules remain a best seller among parents, despite nobody having ever proved that they do actually help improve academic performance.
Every time I buy a “new & improved” midecine of toiletry product I feel a pang of doubt, a pang of being another sucker to fall for the bullshit. More and more we blindly accept what the ads, and “conventional wisdom” tell us about these products, and while the effects and benefits to me go largely unmeasured and unchallenged, the pharmaceutical companies continue to rake in the profits.
I am writing this sat on the beach in Grenada on day eight of our fifteen-day holiday. Every morning I spend ages smearing myself all over with Factor 30 sun screen and spraying myself with foul-smelling insect repellent, yet later at the beach I have to put my notebook down every couple of minutes to tend to my burnt shoulders or scratch one of my 33 (yes, I’ve counted) mosquito bites.So, I’ve seen the ads, believed the hype, handed over my cash, followed the instructions to the letter, and they haven’t worked. Neither of them. But of course I won’t learn from this. There’ll be no shirty letter to the manufacturers, no email to BBC Watchdog. No, instead I’ll do exactly the same next year and wonder why I get the same result. It must be my fault. Perhaps I have inferior skin or something. Reading Bad Science I wonder if I’d be any worse off had I saved myself the expense and gone “au naturelle”.
Goodacre stresses the differences between proper scientific trial methods and the subjective, almost rigged studies that the vendors us to show their product in the best light. What you need to conduct a proper trial are three test groups: one receives the treatment, the second gets a placebo i.e. a fake treatment like a sugar pill that does nothing physiological (although it does a great deal psychological), and the third — the “control” — which receives nothing. Right then, so next year when I hit the beach I think I’ll have the products applied up to my knees, a dual placebo of atomised water spray and single cream from head to belly button, and leave the middle bit untreated. Not sure if I’ll prove anything useful, in fact knowing my luck I’ll be stepping off the plane back in London looking like a giant melting Neapolitan ice cream.