Thursday, 15 April 2010

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I’ve rather enjoyed reading this book on the train of late, probably because I find myself broadly agreeing with it, which always helps. It’s an amusingly written jaunt through quack remedies, alternative therapies and bogus nutritionists, along with a good long look at the sins of the pharmaceutical industry and the media’s role in the MMR fiasco.

At the risk of ‘cherry picking’ I’ve homed in on a little gem concerning those reports that appear in the press on a fairly regular basis, telling everyone that a little red wine each day is good for you. (This, of course, is code for: ‘sink a bottle of it’.)

Sadly, we are fooling ourselves by wishful thinking. Goldacre explains that, just in the way that nutritionists seek to prove that certain food supplements improve our health but fail to take into account all the other factors in people’s lifestyles, the same is true of booze and the differing lives of drinkers and non drinkers.

Now, to be fair to nutritionists, they are not alone in failing to understand the importance of confounding variables, in their eagerness for a clear story. Every time that you read in a newspaper that ‘moderate alcohol intake’ is associated with some improved health outcome – less heart disease, less obesity, anything – to gales of delight from the alcohol industry, and of course from your friends, who say, ‘Ooh well, you see, it’s better for me to drink a little...’ as they drink a lot – you are almost certainly witnessing a journalist of limited intellect, overinterpreting a study with huge confounding variables.

It’s very possible, that someone of moderate intake is healthy for different reasons. Or that someone of no intake at all, has underlying health problems, or damages themselves in other ways:

This is because, let’s be honest here: teetotallers are abnormal. They’re not like everyone else. They will almost certainly have a reason for not drinking, and it might be moral, or cultural, or perhaps even medical, but there’s a serious risk that whatever is causing them to be teetotal might also have other effects on their health, confusing the relationship between their drinking habits and their health outcomes.

And anyway:

Perhaps some of the people who say they are teetotal are just lying.

As much as I enjoyed this book, this was one piece of nutritional bunkum that I was sad to see debunked. From now on, if ever I go on about the ‘medicinal properties of red wine’, I’m afraid that it’s just talk.

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