Joe Jackson and the Dodgy Science
Sometimes discussions about health sound like a bad pantomime. It's bad for you. Oh no, it isn't. It'll give you cancer. Oh no, it won't. Science and statistics are squeezed and shunted to fit one argument or the other. Jim Pollard suggests a radical solution - trust your common sense.
When Joe Jackson takes to the stage to sing, I want to be in the front-row. When he takes to his soapbox to talk about health, I'd rather he kept his mouth shut.
The singer-songwriter, probably best known in this country for the 80's hits Is She Really Going Out With Him, It's Different for Girls and Stepping Out has just moved back to the UK from the US. One of the reasons, says Joe, is that you can't smoke in New York bars. He's written a song about it and has been on the radio talking about it.
He says that as there's no hard scientific evidence that secondary smoking is dangerous to non-smokers he can't see why he shouldn't be able to puff away as he likes. Obviously, I don't agree that there is no hard evidence but let's just put that aside for a moment. Even if there were no specific data would allowing smoking everywhere be a good idea? If we were to apply the same common sense to the problem as we would to any other for which no hard evidence one way or the other was available, the answer would surely be no. True, the smoke may be dispersed by the air but how can it be any less lethal?
This sort of abuse of the principles of science in defiance of common sense is becoming increasingly popular. Of course, once you get into the realms of particular diseases and treatments, health can become a complicated and controversial business but the fact is that for most people in good health, the basic of keeping things that way are not particulary difficult to get your head round. However, this is something of a state secret as far as much of the health media is concerned. For mags and papers, it undermines the 'wow' factor and even some health journalists like to make it all sound much more complicated than it is to give themselves something to write about. The result, for whatever reason, is a climate in which the sort of pseudo-scientific logic that is simply designed to turn common sense on its head can flourish.
Take the debate over road safety. How often have you heard some octane junkie insist that there is no direct link between speed and accidents? Again this claim is highly dubious but let's put it aside for one minute and look at it logically. All other things being equal, surely an accident will be more serious at 40mph than at 20? You can try it for yourself at home.
Drive your car into a brick wall first at 20mph and then at 40. (Don't do it the other way round as you and/or the vehicle may not be able to complete the experiment.) If you feel that this doesn't replicate accurately enough what happens in a real accident - and is therefore not hard evidence, try mowing down your five year-old first at 10mph and then at 30. Observe the differences in severity of the injuries and then try not to break you speed limit on your way to Casualty.
We've seen it over advertising. Nearly 17 billion pounds was spent on advertising in the UK in 2002. But whenever, there is concern about what all this money was spent on plugging, we're told 'oh, don't worry. It doesn't encourage people to buy, anyway. It's just to change brand loyalty'. We heard it over cigarettes. We heard it over booze and now we're hearing it over pushing junk food to kids.
Seventeen billion on something that doesn't change behaviour? Pull the other one. Turn it round the other way. If it doesn't make any difference why object to the ban? You could save your business a fortune. Think how much cheaper a burger would be if they didn't have to keep telling us how great they were. Hey, they could even pay their staff a living wage.
All this nonsense means that although a recent BBC poll of more than 9,000 people found that 81 per cent wanted fast food and confectionary advertising banned during children's TV viewing hours, the government was able to opt for that old favourite 'a voluntary code'.
Culture secretary Tessa Jowell even backed the controversial Cadbury's Get Active scheme, whereby schools were given sports equipment in return for chocolate bar wrappers. 'Rather than bringing up children in a world where they are denied a chocolate bar or a biscuit,' she told the BBC. 'I would rather see children growing up seeing that they should balance the bar of chocolate that they eat with a banana or a salad. They are more in control of their lives.'
Jowell conjures up a Dickensian hell in which are kids are force-fed gruel and lettuce but it's all deliberately missing the point. Nobody was suggesting they couldn't eat chocolate at all only that they shouldn't have it thrust down their throats during every commercial break.
If you're trying to work out what's the best thing to do for your health or your child's, this weasal manipulation of science makes it much more difficult. What should you do? Simply this: trust your own common sense and when you hear something that flies in the face of it ask yourself who benefits from these contradictory things being said. In these cases, the benficiaries of all the confusion are the food industry, the tobacco industry and the roads lobby. These three are among the most powerful corporate policy lobby groups of the lot. Methinks I spot a pattern emerging.
The same applies on a smaller scale to men's health. If someone is trying to sell you some expensive equipment or an annual magazine subscription, it's just not in their interests to tell you that for most men, the prevention of ill health is easy and cheap.
Trust your judgement and ask yourself who's funding the pseudo-science. In the words of that renowned Peckham-based health guru Derek 'Del Boy' Trotter, 'you know it makes sense.'
Jim Pollard is editor of malehealth.
Page created on April 2nd, 2004
Page updated on December 1st, 2009