“Ignorance is like cholera”

The Guardian, quite rightly, along with some other papers, pick up on the story of how Dr Gillian McKeith Phd Gillian McKeith, aka the poo lady, has agreed to drop the title Dr from her company’s advertising after a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority – although the quotes from the good lady herself might suggest otherwise. The ASA had come to the provisional conclusion that the use of the title in adverts was likely to mislead the public, given that “the college was not accredited by any recognised educational authority at the time she took the course, and she does not hold a general medical qualification.” The Guardian’s resident Bad Science debunker, and recent guest on The Panel, Ben Goldacre takes McKeith, and Channel 4, to task.. and not for the first time – here’s an additional snippet from The Times in 2004. [I wonder if Peter Hain is a fan? – Ed]From Ben Goldacre’s detailed article in the Guardian

How can I be sure that this phenomenal difference in life expectancy between rich and poor isn’t due to the difference in diet? Because I’ve read the dietary intervention studies: when you intervene and make a huge effort to change people’s diets, and get them eating more fruit and veg, you find the benefits, where they are positive at all, are actually very modest. Nothing like 10 years.

But genuine public health interventions to address the real social and lifestyle causes of disease are far less lucrative, and far less of a spectacle, than anything a food crank or a TV producer would ever dream of dipping into. What prime-time TV series looks at food deserts created by giant supermarket chains, the very companies with which stellar media nutritionists so often have lucrative commercial contracts? What show deals with social inequality driving health inequality? Where’s the human interest in prohibiting the promotion of bad foods; facilitating access to nutrient-rich foods with taxation; or maintaining a clear labelling system? Where is the spectacle in “enabling environments” that naturally promote exercise, or urban planning that prioritises cyclists, pedestrians and public transport over the car? Or reducing the ever-increasing inequality between senior executive and shop-floor pay?

This is serious stuff. We don’t need any more stupid ideas about health in the world. We have a president of South Africa who has denied that HIV exists, we have mumps and measles on the rise, we have quackery in the ascendant like never before, and whatever Tony Blair might have to say about homoeopathy being a fight not worth fighting for scientists, we cannot indulge portions of pseudoscientific ludicrousness as if they don’t have wider ramifications for society, and for the public misunderstanding of science.

I am writing this article, sneakily, late, at the back of the room, in the Royal College of Physicians, at a conference discussing how to free up access to medical academic knowledge for the public. At the front, as I type, Sir Muir Gray, director of the NHS National Electronic Library For Health, is speaking: “Ignorance is like cholera,” he says. “It cannot be controlled by the individual alone: it requires the organised efforts of society.” He’s right: in the 19th and 20th centuries, we made huge advances through the provision of clean, clear water; and in the 21st century, clean, clear information will produce those same advances.

Gillian McKeith has nothing to contribute: and Channel 4, which bent over backwards to dress her up in the cloak of scientific authority, should be ashamed of itself.

This has been a public information post.