The Observer – Confused by Health Advice

Denis Campbell, the sports journalist, who raked up MMR fears in the Observer and got it all horribly wrong, is now back on the health theme debunking various health fears that crop up in the papers.

I spat out my coffee when I saw this in the Observer. My contempt for the paper is growing.

Denis says,

It kills you; no, it does you good. Hang on, here’s another report that says …

Denis Campbell looks at the muddled world of medical research. Office printers are as likely to give you cancer as smoking. Men who eat cauliflower or broccoli once a week have less chance of prostate problems. The biggest female binge drinkers are women in their forties, not teenagers and twentysomethings – at least in Cardiff.
And it was reported that sunshine is actually good for preventing breast cancer, then the common perception was that too much sun gave you skin cancer.

These were among many media reports last week detailing new medical or scientific research on key health issues. Some involve real breakthroughs, others are more questionable.

Poacher turned gamekeeper.

Campbell goes on to list a whole host of modern worries including mobiles, wifi, coffee, vitamin C and so on. He gets some stuff wrong, but let’s not worry about the minor details, when Campbell is quite capable of generating real howlers.

Of course, what is most conspicuous by its absence is the press role in generating false fears about MMR and autism, and particularly this sports writer’s role in those fears. This article is just barefaced cheek, hypocrisy and cowardice.

Campbell quotes,

‘The public ends up very confused,’ says Professor Jack Winkler, a sociologist of science at London Metropolitan University. ‘Every week we are told about some new wonder ingredient in our diet that’s different to the one we read about a year ago.’

Why not discuss your own role in this and the role of the press who consistently print ‘leaked reports’, do not care if a result has been peer reviewed, or is just a marketing press release? Why not discuss the way you distorted unpublished autism figures?

Campbell, isn’t it about time you and your paper apologised for your own contribution to health scares? Its been a month now and your blatant mistakes have not yet seen an appropriate correction and apology.

4 comments for “The Observer – Confused by Health Advice

  1. Shinga
    August 5, 2007 at 11:34 am

    I wonder if The Observer is running an experiment to track whether these stories make a difference to its circulation figures. Dumbing down for summer Sundays?

  2. UKdietitian
    August 5, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    Denis Campbell should look in the mirror rather than ‘blame the scientists’ when apportioning criticism of the ‘muddled world of medical research’.

    Medical and clinical nutrition research is not muddled, but represents consistent and logical progression of knowledge acquired by systematic and careful controlled experimentation (for prospective clinical trials),or observation(for epidemiological studies, retrospective reviews or meta-analyses).

    This is in direct contrast to the random musings or trial-by-media-soundbite ‘research’ epitomised by the ‘tonite-with-Trevor-McD’ approach of shoddy journalism, giving print and broadcast media coverage ‘legitimising’ the alternative view (ie unproven self-styled musings by mavericks whose musings lack the veracity of the proper clinical approach demanded of conventional medicine) – with the need to generate contentious argument to debase conventional medical and nutritional research.

    The skill of journalism is, of course, placing such knowledge into context to generate interest in the reader – even if the ‘real’ clinical story does not appear as sexy as first thought….

    ‘Proper’ journo’s recognise this – even if it means the story has less impact. It’s at least a truthful representation.

    Campbell’s attempts to disguise his central role in the ‘muddled world of medical research’ – with regards autism last week and nutrition this week – by pointing the finger elsewhere fails miserably.

    It’s ironic that this article – just like his MMR article that preceded it – demonstrates beautifully the central role of the journalist (and this one in particular) of perpetuating ‘muddle’.

    Sorry Mr Campbell. You haven’t atoned for your part in public confusion. You’ve just added more.
    All for a few column inches.

  3. quacknet
    August 6, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Dear Dietitian,

    Your description of the way in which medical and clinical nutrition research progresses represents an ideal, but not the reality. Even a cursory knowledge of the history of science – and medical science in particular – would tell you that. There are so many confounders in the stream (personalities, cultural prejudices, financial constraints and chicanery, political interference u.s.w) that the record of progress is seldom consistent or logical at all. It is more of a drunkard’s walk, albeit generally orientated towards the light.

    I share your conviction that the standard scientific methods are our only hope of real progress, but only the historically illiterate would agree that the tools you cite are enough to ensure the smooth progression of knowledge!

  4. pj
    August 8, 2007 at 10:19 am

    I can only presume that Campbell is deliberately taking the piss to wind up us fuddy duddy scientific establishment types – and its working too.

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