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:

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Some more thoughts on Jamie’s Food Revolution

(This post is modified from an earlier one posted here).

I have been reading (and writing) about Mr. Oliver’s latest LA venture for some time now, but I didn’t get to *enjoy* the full spectacle of it for myself until recently. Unsurprisingly, it depressed me.

I am not depressed about the obesity “epidemic” in Los Angeles, America, or the rest of the world for that matter. Which is not to say I don’t find it sad that so many people get it wrong when it comes to feeding themselves and their families. Nor that I don’t find it sad that some children are made to eat something resembling airplane food on a mostly-daily basis. But getting depressed about these things would be a waste of my time and energy, a) because the reasons for this state of affairs are much more complex than even I dare to imagine that I fully comprehend, and b) because there is little I can do to change it.

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Twitter saga with The Awful Poo Lady (#TAPL)

In case you missed it, here follow accounts of the fascinating saga that unfolded over the last few days involving nutrition-nazi Gillian McKeith (“PhD”), and Ben Goldacre (actual PhD, and author of Bad Science). (Short of long, @gm accused @bg of telling “lies” about her in his book. Read the chapter in question for yourself here). This is a story of the great value of social media over bad science.

From Jack of Kent, (a blog “mainly about the misuse and misrepresentation of Law”), “The Integrity and Honesty of @gillianmckeith”

From Cubik’s Rube, “The Awful Poo Lady Loses her Shit

From David Naylor, “Gillian McKeith vs. Ben Goldacre

From BoingBoing, “Pseudoscience’s “Awful Poo Lady” can’t flush twitterings