Saturday 13 February 2016

A Spectator At The Spectator

On Tuesday, I must admit to being privileged to have attended The Spectator's annual health debate entitled Can We Trust Health Advice? I am a bit of a veteran of such things but this was as polished and entertaining as they come.

I suppose that shouldn't come as much as a surprise considering it was chaired by the polished and entertaining Andrew Neil, who I understand owns the Speccie, but the venue and panel members were top notch too which only served to complement Neil's suave overseeing of proceedings.

I have to mention that I'd arrived early and so enjoyed a perfect waste of time in the locality at a pretty perfect pub for my particular interests. If you're ever in the Temple area of London, do check out the Edgar Wallace, as well as being an unapologetically traditional pub it's also an awesome treasure trove of hedonistic memorabilia.

Anyway, I digress. Arriving at the venue we were directed to a rather impressive library for pre-debate drinks, a stepping stone between the traditional and the modern.

And, half an hour later, were politely herded into the state-of-the-art, bells and whistles conference arena known as the Turing Lecture Theatre for the main event.

The speakers - as much as I could work out - were divided into three who believed health advice to be mostly trustworthy and three who mostly didn't (having said that, there were unconfirmed rumours that one of those in favour had changed their mind a few days before the event, I'll leave you to guess which).

First up was Dr Ellie Cannon of the Mail on Sunday who highlighted the slip slop slap campaign in Australia as a great piece of public health advice which raised awareness of the dangers of sun exposure and encouraged people to think about protection.

Dr Ellie Cannon
She is, of course, right about that but this was in the 1980s when hectoring and coercion were frowned upon; it was also of a time when 'public health' hadn't yet been carried away with its own self-importance and actually cared about outcomes rather than self-indulgence and posturing. Therefore the campaign was entertaining and persuasive rather than being based on doom and scaremongery like the ones we see today.

If that statement above sounds like opinion, yes it's supposed to be. This is a blog, it's kinda what such things are all about.

When she had finished, Andrew Neil, as is his style, peered over his glasses at the notes he had been making and asked Dr Ellie what she thought of Sally Davies's modern guidance that only "six and eight teaspoons (35ml) of sun cream per application" should be applied when in the sun. As I recall, she was fairly non-committal, but next speaker Dr Christian Jessen of Embarrassing Bodies fame was far more forthright.
Andrew Neil: Dr Christian, what do you think of the CMO's advice to only use six teaspooons of sun cream?
Dr Christian: Batshit crazy!
Now, Dr Christian was a bit of a conundrum on the night.

Dr Christian Jessen
Ostensibly he was on the pro-health advice side yet pretty early in his spiel railed against the appalling nonsense being spouted about e-cigs.

Indeed he is correct about that and his words carried the added advantage of legitimising any vaper on the panel or the audience who was using one on the night too. Which was nice of him.

His contribution was to say that sometimes health advice is good, sometimes it is awful. He also pointed out that when celebrities get involved it is quite wrong and they should really shut their traps (a certain gobby rotund TV chef comes to mind).

This theme was echoed by Spectator Health editor Max Pemberton who also leaped to the defence of science on health.

Max Pemberton
According to Pemberton, newspapers and broadcast media "sensationalises science and distorts research", but he was adamant that the science itself was always sound. As you can imagine, after some of the appalling junk we have seen from 'public health' researchers recently I had my reservations about that so made a mental note to bring it up in the Q&A.

The baton was then passed to Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, a man so condemnatory about shonky health advice that he wrote a book about it.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick in full flow
Drawing laughter throughout the audience, Fitzpatrick not only ridiculed the current Chief Medical Officer's absurd alcohol guidelines, but also entertainingly ripped into the insane scaremongery of her predecessor, Liam Donaldson, who all but predicted the end of the world and cost the country a small fortune over swine flu.

I've seen him before and he was as box office as usual, so much so that Neil was forced to stop him as he more than strayed over his seven minute time slot. Neil also saw an opportunity to poke at Fitzpatrick's mistrust of just about all health advice, but it didn't really work.
Neil: Whose medical advice do you follow Dr?
Fitzpatrick: I avoid all of it!
This prompted Dr Ellie to bring up the slip slop slap thing again and ask if Fitz uses sun cream when on holiday. A fair point which broke his momentum for a few seconds, but he countered by pointing out that the simplicity and unconfrontational nature of that campaign was why it had been taken on board by most people since.

Next up - and my personal favourite on the night - was Dr Richard Harding, a member of the 1995 committee which came up with the previous alcohol consumption guidelines. He was so calm and laid back that you could almost have missed the subtle contempt he has for Sally Davies and her ridiculous "no safe level of alcohol consumption" nonsense.

As someone who has studied the subject for many years, he joins a long list of people who think Backbone Sally is a raving lunatic, he was just very nice about it.

Last on the stand was Chris Snowdon (who has released the basis of his contribution here). Central to his point was that 'public health' stubbornly refuses to accept that settled science on moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial to health.

Highlighting the difference between useful health advice and 'public health' lobbying posing as health advice, he finished with a revealing admission acquired by FOI request.

I'm sure we'll hear more of that in time, and very much look forward to it.

A lively Q&A followed - impeccably marshalled by Andrew Neil - and I did get to ask my question of Max Pemberton. It went something like this.
Max, you place great faith in public health science and state that the media misrepresent it, but - and I think Dr Christian will have knowledge of this example - how about a recent study into e-cigarettes where the paper said one thing and the press release by the researchers declared something completely different and led to damaging headlines in the press? 
Dr Christian did, indeed, back me up but said he couldn't remember what the abuse of science was (it was this)

Sadly, Pemberton seemed to misunderstand the question so just re-emphasised that science is good and media bad, oh yeah and celebrities shouldn't get involved. Andrew Neil, however, did understand and pressed him more, asking how we can trust scientists if they release biased opinions to the media. Max conceded that was wrong if it was happening but that it was rare.


So, with a customarily professional summing up of proceedings by Neil, the audience exited into the February night and went their separate ways. Myself, I ended up in quite salubrious surroundings with like-minded people for a few more beverages and enthusiastic chat.

And that's how I came across a fitting postscript to the night's event. While discarding my warm clothing and settling into my seat, I put my iStick on the table only for a staff member to see it and advise me that "smoking is not allowed here". I naturally replied "that's fine because I won't be smoking" and he walked off utterly confused.

If you want proof that health advice is not to be trusted, there it is. Over a decade of e-cigarettes being in use in the UK yet misinformation and ideological junk science has not only led to ignorance-led bans on their use, but also the people entrusted to enforce the bans are woefully ill-educated about what they are and how to refer to them.

Kinda suggests that health advice is not really doing what it is supposed to and - as it is currently communicated - isn't enlightening the public as it should be, don't you think?

See also: The Speccie's account of the evening here.

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