Thursday, August 19, 2004

Ben Goldacre gives chapter and verse on Gillian McKeith

I believe in science, in establishing facts through scientific method as far is possible. Gillian McKeith believes whatever comes into her head, it seems.

Mr Goldacre is of like mind:

'Now will somebody please explain to me how this woman can be on television, every week, wearing a white coat, talking authoritatively about "treating patients", sticking irrigation equipment into people's rectums, and coming out with sentences like "each sprouting seed is packed with the nutritional energy needed to create a full grown healthy plant" which are just simply wrong (the plant gets the energy from sunlight, using chlorophyll, like we said earlier). She is a menace to the public understanding of science, and anyone who gives her a platform should be ashamed of themselves.'

Bad Science, 19 August 2004

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Population growing pains?

A new report suggests that world population will rise by 45 per cent by 2050. What’s the problem with that?

The 2004 World Population Data Sheet produced by the Population Reference Bureau in Washington says there will be very rapid population growth in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, but the population of Europe and Japan will fall (1). ‘Some experts question whether Earth can even carry today’s population at a “moderately comfortable” standard for the long term, let alone three billion more’, says environmental economist Herman Daly (2).

The implication is that all these extra people will be an unmanageable burden, as the number of mouths to feed outstrips available food, shelter and other resources. Yet there is no simple relation between population and prosperity. For example, industrialising societies usually experience rapid population growth alongside economic growth; then a demographic transition occurs where birth rates fall to match the fall in death rates, and population stabilises. In fact, this demographic transition has started already, and world population is expected to more or less stabilise around mid-century (3).

Recent history suggests that pessimism about population growth is misplaced. The rise in population is largely due to falls in infant mortality (which has halved in Africa in the past 50 years) and longer life expectancies (up from 41 years to 65 years across the developing world since 1950). This has been mirrored by the decline of most infectious diseases (the major exception being AIDS) and increases in the amount of food available. The application of existing best practice in agriculture could feed many more people than are ever likely to live on Earth. That doesn’t mean that there are no problems - infant mortality in Africa is still 90 per thousand live births, compared with seven in North America and Europe. But the solution to these problems is not fewer people but more productive and better organised socities. People are far more likely to be the solution to problems than the cause of them.

(1) 2004 World Population Data Sheet, Population Reference Bureau

(2) World faces population explosion in poor countries, Guardian, 18 August 2004

(3) Human Population: Fundamentals of Growth, Population Research Bureau

Too many people?, by Rob Lyons

Worth reading: Population and Development, by Frank Furedi (for more details, see his website at

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Pollutants and brain disease

'Pollutants cause huge rise in brain diseases' declared the UK Observer, headlining a report from researchers at the University of Southampton Medical School published in the journal Public Health. The study compared rates for two categories of deaths (including dementia and Parkinson's disease) across 10 countries, contrasting figures from the period 1979 to 1981 with 1995 to 1997.

They found a big increase in most countries across both categories. For example, there were around 3,000 deaths from these diseases per year in the 1979-81 period in England and Wales - which rose to 10,000 deaths per year in the 1995-97 period. Given that genetic changes could not have occurred this quickly, the researchers conclude that there must be an environmental explanation.

'This has really scared me', said Professor Colin Pritchard, the lead author of the study. 'These are nasty diseases: people are getting more of them and they are starting earlier. We have to look at the environment and ask ourselves what we are doing.'

This study does not examine any pollutant or even any single disease. It merely examines recorded deaths for these groups of diseases over two periods to look for trends, and then speculates about what might be causing these trends. The 'tentative explanation' the authors put forward is just that - tentative. It certainly does not warrant banner headlines.

The first thing to be pointed out is just how rare these diseases are. Consider the figures for England and Wales: in 1979-81, there were 85 deaths per million of the population from these diseases - or 0.018 per cent of the population. In 1995-97, this had increased to 0.034 per cent. As a percentage of deaths from all causes in women, the rise was from 1.67 per cent of all deaths, to 3.54 per cent - more than double what it was before, but still a small number given that this includes dozens of different diseases. (The equivalent figures for men are lower: 1.23 per cent and 2.61 per cent.)

Secondly, these diseases are overwhelmingly diseases of old age. In the 1979-81 period, in England and Wales, someone over the age of 75 was 13 times more likely to die from one of these conditions than someone in the 55-64 age group. In 1995-97, the over-75s were 24 times more likely to die than the 55-64 year-olds. The incidence of these diseases below the age of 55 is even smaller.

Thirdly, the authors are quite wrong to assume that environmental factors are key to the increase. The most important factor in the rising numbers of people dying from these conditions is that the population is getting older. To that extent, there is a real, but manageable problem of coping with an increasing number of people living with these conditions in the future.

But the next most important factor is surely one of labelling. The figures for Italy are quite dramatic in this regard. In 1979, in the 75+ age group, the rate of death from dementia-like illness was 45 per million. In 1995-97, the rate was 1,211 per million for the same age group. We can either conclude that there has been a marked change in diagnosis and death certificate practice in Italy - or that someone has been going round attacking Italian pensioners with a special dementia gun. The idea that any factor in the Italian environment could engineer a real 27-fold increase in a particular cause of death is laughable.

The cross-national comparisons are almost as bizarre. In the 1990s in Italy, 1.2 per cent of deaths were due to these dementia-like illnesses. In Canada, the figure was 2.6 per cent. Are people really more than twice as likely to die from these causes in Canada? Again, it is much more likely that differences in labelling and healthcare practice are to blame.

There may be changes going on in the death rates from these diseases, but the methods used in this report are simply incapable of detecting them - and a panicky search for some external cause is unnecessary.

Changing patterns of adult (45-74 years) neurological deaths in the major Western world countries 1979-1997, Public Health, June 2004

Don't panic

Pandering to anti-phonemast prejudice

Phone masts can look pretty awful. But so can electricity pylons. Sometimes, things that are really useful are an eyesore. But even when phone companies go to great lengths to hide the masts and base stations, they get accused of trying to deceive the public. Damned if they do, damned if they don't.

The Tories are now suggesting that all new phone masts should require full planning permission in future. This seems like a good way to slow down the roll out of new technologies even more. The length of time it has taken to get 3G up and running in the UK is bad enough as it is. Putting more red tape in the way, as a way of pandering to ill-informed health fears and NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) will only make things worse.

Tories urge new phone mast rules, BBC News

Monday, August 16, 2004

Littler Chef

First McDonald's started serving salads. Now, the Little Chef is going on a diet.

Little Chef, the company that apparently serves up 15million rashers of bacon and 13million sausages from 375 roadside restaurants throughout Britain every year, are afraid their familiar symbol looks like he's eaten all the pies. 'We get accusations that he's overweight, so he's going to lose his paunch', chief executive Tim Scoble told The Times of London. But wasn't the paunch the point? The current logo is a smiling, chubby fellow, suggesting a fine and filling repast for the weary traveller. But the pleasure of a big meal is now out in favour of the discipline of self-control. It would never do to have a fat person looking happy in the midst of an 'obesity epidemic', would it? The new logo looks slimmer and slightly trendier.

Still, we can take comfort from the fact that the traditional Little Chef, heart-attack-on-a-plate, all-day breakfast will remain. Despite their desire for a change of image, the people at Little Chef clearly know their customers.

Little Chef reborn after a tummy tuck, The Times (London), 16 August 2004

spiked-central | Bites | spiked bite

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Dr Gillian and the obsession with weight

The fact that three major newspapers can trash her qualifications doesn't stop her from continuing to be a major celebrity. The public keep buying the book (it's still number one in the paperback non-fiction bestsellers), and while they do, the media will fall over themselves to court her. Hence the newspaper that ran a whole page on her 10 days or so ago, is now organising a 'chat' with her for readers. This straight off the back of the Mirror serialising her book.

Why? Because people are obsessed with losing weight. They have been desperate for years on the basis of vanity, which is why no self-respecting woman's magazine could be without a new diet or other. And in recent years, lifestyle magazines for men have gone the same way. But the obesity panic has ratcheted this up to another level.

Moreover, having successfully persuaded the population that 'obesity is your own fault', and that the food we eat is lethal (with the campaigns against saturated fat), we are left with a substantial chunk of the populace who are prepared to put up with any kind of humiliation, and believe any kind of mumbo-jumbo, if it shifts the pounds. If it's not Gillian McKeith, it's Dr Atkins. What a sad state of affairs that people are prepared to stop enjoying food, one of the great sensuous pleasures, in their desire to be a bit thinner.

Not that I can talk, having just weighed myself and fretted...

Chat to TV doc Gillian McKeith
(thanks to Ray Girvan for the link)