Health: it’s not a popularity game

Yesterday morning I attended a great panel discussion at Cape Town’s Open Book Festival. The topic was “Science: Separating Fact From Fiction,” and it was billed as a conversation between James Gleick (who kindly signed a copy of his book for me and thinks I have a cool name), Kathryn Schulz, Leonie Joubert and Guy Midgley about ‘whether science is failing us or we are failing science’. It was indeed a conversation between those four people, but they spoke more about belief: how and why we believe the things we do (do you “believe” in the Higgs boson particle?), and what scientists and journalists play – or should play – in “democratizing” science (there was some discomfort with the word democratizing: I think “popularize”, or “make understandable to non-scientists” was the gist).

There was some good banter and a general acknowledgement of the importance of promoting scientific literacy in the public at large, which each of these speaker-writers do in their own way (and of course Ben Goldacre got many a shout-out for being one of the main shouters – LITERALLY – in this game. If you are one of the remaining 5 people who have not read and tweeted about the extract from his new book, Bad Pharma, out TODAY, go do so immediately. And the foreword is here).

Leonie Joubert brought up Tim Noakes and his recent conversion (yes, I think the religious allusion is appropriate) as an example of a problem when it comes to the public understanding of science, because it is largely based on a sample of one, and most people do not understand that the plural of anecdote is not data (yes, even science has tired cliches). Of course Noakes would beg to differ, as he did on Twitter in response to someone live tweeting Joubert’s remarks:

But lest I digress, I was sorry when time was up because I really wanted to get in a question about the logistical challenge of policing bad science. Everyone there (AND GOLDACRE!) does great expository work, but what do we do about the daily grind of irresponsible claims out there which enjoy the attention of thousands of people who can just tune out of anything contrary? (Social media are wonderful, but they are unfortunately also wonderful at entrenching confirmation bias with their reversible sociability. Don’t like? Unfriend, unfollow, block and report spam).

To wit, this morning there was this:

Now, I’ve said a thing or two about the low-carb issue, but I will readily profess that I know very little about the statin issue (apart from the fact that THINC, or The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, sends off all sorts of conspiracy alarm bells, and I’m not the only one), and basically nothing about the GAPS diet. And I like to be on the “science” side of things, so I followed the link and read about how Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride apparently cured her son of autism by manipulating his diet (GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome, for those who are as ignorant as I). That was all interesting enough, until I got to this part:

Skin cancer, blamed on sunshine, is not caused by the sun. It is caused by trans fats from vegetable oils and margarine and other toxins stored in the skin. In addition, some of the sunscreens that people use contain chemicals that have been proven to cause skin cancer3.

I’ve read a fair bit about skin cancer, being fair-skinned and therefore considered “at risk” myself (not to mention having a number of moles removed), but I have never come across a claim that it is caused by margarine. But you’ll notice that there is a little number 3 next to that claim, so I followed it down to no less than 9 pieces of “evidence” examining the link between cancer and sunshine. It turns out that there are indeed many benefits to moderate amounts of sunshine (Vit D), some of them even related to lower risks of cancer. But none related to skin cancer. In case that wasn’t clear, only one of the linked study even mentioned skin cancer, only to say it had been excluded from the study.

Just to make sure I wasn’t being stupid and had missed out on some big breakthrough in recent years (because yes, science knows it doesn’t know everything), I asked Google, which/who sent me to the Cancer Institute at Stanford University, which/who confirmed that ‘Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. There are two types – UVA and UVB. Sunlamps and tanning booths which are artificial forms of UV radiation, can also cause skin cancer‘. There are a few ‘Other Causes’ listed. None of these are margarine.

Now this just makes me angry.

It’s one thing when pretend-doctors like Gillian McKeith promote pretend-science, but it’s quite another when a *real* doctor, a well respected professor, a ‘researcher, educator and author‘, a goddamn recipient of South Africa’s National Research Foundation’s Lifetime Achiever Award endorses this kind of rubbish.

Why do I care if some people think that margarine causes skin cancer? I don’t really – I hate the stuff (margarine, that is) – but I do care once that blind spot of falsity starts growing and blinding people in other ways. I care that people in positions of authority abuse that position and mislead people who pay them their precious attention. To go back to the topic of yesterday’s panel, if we want science to work for us, then we have to give it some respect. We cannot just make shit up as we go along, however tantalizing that cherry pie in our mind’s eye might be.

Anything less is just sickening.

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