Fancy some cocaine with your tea?

So we’ve just attended an event called “EthicsXchange“, billed as ‘a platform for some of South Africa’s leading opinion makers to challenge our thinking and behaviour when it comes to ethical decision making.’ It was an interesting morning, and some very good speakers (and of course some not so good). Some I’ve also heard before, notably Leonie Joubert, and Tim Noakes.

But I was disappointed by Joubert’s talk for two reasons: first, it was basically the same as her TedX talk, which while a nicely packaged talk (as TED’y type talks are meant to be), seriously oversimplifies the issues around the interactions between our bodies and the environments we live in. It’s simply not true, as she argues, that cities make us fat and sick. It is true that urban environments conduce to making us make poor choices when it comes to what to eat and how much to move (or not). But that’s of course a key problem with TED-y type talks, because delivering big ideas in under 20 minutes leaves no space for nuance or complexity.

She also told the audience that sugar is toxic and addictive, just like cocaine. Well, we’ve been down this road before. And that is also simply not true. The same bits in the brain light up when you eat as when you take cocaine? Yes, that’s because the same bits in the brain light up when we do something pleasurable, and guess what – eating is nice. Most people enjoy it. Nobody seeks out horrible food.

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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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