Saturday October 8, 2005
I think I’m being stalked by a famous media naturopath. First he taunts me through Newsnight: “When Michael van Straten started writing about the magical medicinal powers of fruit juices, he was considered a crank, but now he finds he’s at the forefront of fashion.” Notice how that’s “crank” at one end of the authority axis, and “fashion” at the other. Then Van Straten hands the news reporter a glass of juice. “Two years added to your life expectancy in that!” he chuckles. Pretty accurate. “Well, six months, being honest about it.” Such attention to detail (watch the story online here)
He continues: “A recent study just published last week in America showed that eating pomegranates, pomegranate juice, can actually protect you against ageing, against wrinkles.” So over to Medline, the standard search tool for finding medical academic papers: and no such paper exists on the anti-ageing benefits of pomegranate that I can find. Any more research references Michael? “There’s a whole group of plastic surgeons in the States who’ve done a study giving some women pomegranates to eat, and juice to drink, after plastic surgery and before plastic surgery.” And? “And they heal in half the time, with half the complications, and no visible wrinkles!” Brilliant! Only I can’t find that study on Medline either. He’s spouting this on BBC Newsnight as an unchallenged expert, remember.
And remember I always do. A while back Van Straten was in the Express, saying that “research studies” had shown that turmeric was “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate” (Badscience.net/?p=65). There are, for turmeric and prostate cancer, a few speculative lab studies on cells, in dishes, cut out of rats, growing or not growing, under microscopes, on lab benches. That is not evidence to say that turmeric is “highly protective against cancer” for undissected living people in the real world.
So here I am, dawdling on Medline (“pomegranate and surgery … no papers found … what else can I try …”) waiting to go on BBC London and chat about alternative therapies when suddenly Van Straten’s voice comes down the line. First he tips bile on ill-informed journalists who write too credulously about complementary therapies – feel the irony – then he bangs on about how most doctors aren’t really very good at interpreting and understanding scientific research. Can this possibly be the same bloke? I think to myself.
It must be, because then he starts going on about the “brilliant” research of Professor Caterson on cod liver oil and joint pain. Caterson’s experimental research on the subject has only been published in the form of a press release. Oh, and a few newspaper headlines calling it a miracle cure. It has never been published in an academic journal, as Van Straten would know if he ever read Bad Science (Badscience.net/?p=159). How did he read, understand, interpret, and come to an informed expert opinion on research that has not actually been published? Exactly what criticisms did he have, I wonder, of the methodology used? Did he feel the inclusion and exclusion criteria were too harsh? What about the method of randomisation? Nobody can critique an unpublished study; and with some people, we might doubt their abilities with any study.
So that’s five iffy claims in 500 words. And in what world is this farce an authority and an “expert”? A world that understands science so poorly that it puts “cranks” at one end, and “fashion” at the other: the world of the media.
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