Archive for February 2nd, 2011

Patrick Holford’s appearance on the Late Late on Friday was televised to the nation as a gospel proclamation: come see my magic works and repent, oh ye of little scientific understanding. I presumed that this would be the part of the show where RTE trot out someone to allow the audience to snigger at their conspiracy theories or visions. Not so with Mr Holford, who was introduced as a world leading nutritionist.
Lets start with the title and work our way downward, Patrick Holford, or, to give him his proper title, ‘pill salesman’, has no qualifications. He has built a business on selling supplements to anyone that will buy them. He is not a medical practitioner, scientist, researcher or expert for a number of reasons.

1: Qualifications from a recognized third level institution :0
Most people agree that qualifications from recognized institutions are a prerequisite to taking medical advice from somebody. The letters after your G.P.’s name denote years of study and examination, something Mr Holford has conveniently sidestepped.

2: His peer reviewed publications : 0
Part of being a scientist is putting your findings out there within the scientific community for peer review. This involves having every minute aspect of your findings interrogated, criticised and if necessary; rejected. It’s a soul destroying process, and why would anyone willingly submit to it? The reason scientists do this is to protect the public, to produce work based on the best evidence available and to advance understanding.

3: Nutritionist is not a protected title; in other words, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. I can call myself one and recommend daily snickers and bottles of Lucozade to beat the winter blues. My next bestseller will be ‘The Barbarians Nutrition Bible’, brought to you by Creme Eggs.

4: His ‘honorary diploma’ was awarded to him by The Board of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, which is an educational trust that HE founded in 1984. The same as if I opened ‘The Barbarian Center for Barbarian studies’  and awarded myself a PhD from it. That’s Doctor Barbarian to you.

Moving swiftly on, his first contention that women have less serotonin than men and thus are far more susceptible to depression. That’s quite a statement there Patrick, so let’s see what you left out?
What he fails to mention is that serotonin –which he refers to as the ‘happy’ chemical’  – is also serotonin the ‘aggression’ chemical. So yes, we have less of that particular chemical than our larger male counterparts, evolution has yet to catch up on the need for greater amounts of serotonin in males. But to claim that this is why women present with greater rates of depression ignores the under-diagnosis of male sufferers, it ignores the greater pressures and burdens on women in society and it ignores the social aspects of women’s as opposed to men’s lives. Outside of the fact that the serotonin hypothesis of depression is but a part of the neurochemical reasons for depression and correlation should not be read as causation. There are other chemicals at play in the depression etiology, but Patrick did not feel like talking about those.

Why would he say this? As stated earlier, Patrick Holford is a pill salesman, carefully targeting the audience at home, in particular the ladies. They might be sitting there on a Friday night patiently awaiting the next ‘cure’, ready to go out shopping for it on Saturday. By appealing to women with half truths he reached his market, EPIC WIN for Patrick, 100 points off the bat, uncontested by the host. At this stage I was having a full John McEnroe freak out, hollering ‘you cannot be serious maaaaaannnnn’ at the TV. Holford was allowed ride roughshod all over Ryan, his facts, cherry picked from obscure sources, citing trials but failing to mention participants, full findings or financial backing involved. For, as Mr. Holford loves to points out, there are forces at play in big pharma, forces that want to manipulate the facts to suit themselves, but that’s not the way science works. The slow but steady erosion of confidence in science continues unabated, with the portrayal of massive organisations working to keep you hooked, unhappy and dependent. As opposed to ‘Alternative Pharma’ with such constraints. No one mentions how the humble supplement is now a multimillion pound industry in its own right.

The problem with manufacturing medicine is all the damn procedures! Peer reviewed publications in general science are open to criticism and stringent testing and retesting before they can be marketed to the general public. If you want to manufacture a supplement it’s much simpler:  all you need is one small link between two things, causal or correlation-we don’t care. Bang them in a bottle, stick the ould ‘may help’ claim before any claims, and bob’s your uncle.

Minute effects based on the interaction of cells in petrie dishes are lauded as proof of the efficacy of drugs. None more disturbing than Mr. Holford’s marketing of Vitamin C as a cure for AIDS in Africa. Ah yes, Tubs, you forgot to ask him about that, forgot to mention that inconvenient fact.

For facts have very little to do with Mr. Holford’s business. For a man who claims to be interested in improving the lives of people, of making people happy, could you really ignore that this man was recommending that people avoid using tried and tested drugs for the treatment of AIDS?.

I leafed through one of the few remaining copies of Holford’s book in the local bookshop Saturday evening, with chapters about how medicine is out to get you and how his pills will cure you. While a small minority of people will achieve placebo effects from Holford’s claims, the majority will not. Yet more will be negatively biased towards medicinal treatments for depression. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as favorable as the next person to proper help and supports as well as environmental and social interventions to aid depression recovery. I am not, however, about to throw the baby out with the bath water; your G.P. is not there to dispense items which they know don’t work.

I only wish that our esteemed Late Late show host could find time in his busy schedule to read the background check on his guests and ask hard questions. One can only hope that a scientist turns up with Tubs next week to redress the balance. Learning a little about science can save you a fortune, it can save you from false promises and it always strives to save lives. I heartily recommend Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science; it’s a tenner you won’t waste, as it will pay for itself 100 times over when you find yourself reaching for the next ‘magic diet pill’ or ‘collagen rich cream’.

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I talk about science at parties. Now, I know what you’re thinking – scientists don’t go to parties. Well, sometimes people invite us, and we try to behave ourselves as well as anyone else. The thing is, I often end up discussing evolution or genetics or any other aspect of science when I’m out in company. I don’t go out with an agenda to Spread the Word, but sometimes it just happens.

It can start in the most innocuous ways. Like the time I was in the garden of a friend’s house, and a guy, for some reason that must be related to a lull in conversation, said “Could my jacket be more red?”, to which two of us instantly replied, “Your jacket is orange”.  I suppose in most circumstances the conversation would end there and we’d move on to something more entertaining. But that would be a different party.  Now, I still maintain that the jacket is orange, and given my friend’s confident initial declaration, I doubt that he has changed his mind either.  The interesting, and even exciting thing here is thinking about why we had distinctly different experiences of the same jacket.  There’s only one jacket, so who is right? Is it red or is it orange? It turns out that that is a much more subjective question than you might initially think. Sure, the jacket reflects a particular wavelength of light which is unambiguously measurable, but the name we give to that colour depends on our genes.

An extreme and familiar example of this is colour-blindness, where an individual is missing one colour receptor gene, so that everything that falls broadly in the red-green part of the spectrum looks the same and gets just one name instead of two (or perhaps both names are used, but differently from the majority of people). But there are much less extreme examples of differences in colour perception that probably go unnoticed by most people most of the time.

Genes frequently vary but by quite small degrees – small changes that result in differences much less obvious than colour-blindness.  We detect colour because proteins made by our colour vision genes react to particular wavelengths of light. We have three types of these proteins each sensitive to red, green or blue wavelengths. If your “red” gene is sensitive to a slightly different wavelength from mine (which is actually a quite common occurrence), then the colour that you perceive as pure red will be different from the one I perceive as pure red. It is differences like these that lead to two people disagreeing on the colour of the same jacket, not to mention the differences between the sexes in their genetic capacity to distinguish colours (women have more, but you knew that already), and all the neurogenetic differences that can lead to different processing of that same visual information by the brain.

It’s fascinating. And I hope the others at the party agreed, because they ended up listening to all that.

So, should I feel ashamed of myself for nerding-up my friends’ parties? Well, I think not. Not only is it actually interesting to talk about these things on occasion, but I believe that it is also important that there is a stronger culture of scientific reasoning and critical thinking.

If you disagree with me, then think of the MMR scandal. Some shoddy science led to a safety scare regarding MMR vaccines. The initial scare was widely reported, and fear is a very powerful emotion – many people stopped vaccinating their children. The vaccine uptake rates continued to drop even after subsequent research revealed the flaws in the initial study. The general public was ill-equipped to digest the scientific information, especially because it was, and still is, usually phrased in terms of probabilities and risk factors – these can sound frighteningly insecure.  However, the real fright came from the outbreak of measles in populations that now had lower than necessary numbers of vaccinated individuals, and ultimately the first deaths of children from measles in Ireland and in the UK for over a decade.

The power of scientific knowledge often rests upon the understanding and acceptance of that knowledge by the wider public.

It’s good to talk.

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