Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Let us think for you; or how I learnt to stop worrying and just believe the hype

I was recently watching my cousin's sister-in-law (please keep up) on a BBC TV documentary, in which various Victorian super-cures were shown to be little more than purgatives thanks to ingredients such as rhubarb, liquorice, soap and syrup. Whilst we frequently scorn such olden days quackery, the popularity of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science and (Patrick) HolfordWatch show that times haven't really changed all that much. Bombarded as we are from the egg with immense amounts of consumerist 'information', it is maddening if unsurprising that we buy the dream with critical faculties switched firmly off.

As Goldacre points out, George Orwell noted that the true genius in advertising is to sell you both the solution and the problem. Since the above sites both detail some of the rather more bizarre pharmaceuticals on the market, I'll recommend you visit them for further information. The material dealing with a council allowing a trial of fish oil pills to boost school exam results is priceless.

Yet this area is just one of several related to the solution/problem model, namely that there is consumer product for every issue: "Want a smart child? Just buy a Mozart CD!" The Mozart Effect may finally be heading for the debunked heap, but it's small fry compared to the notion that pill-popping is often the most effective yet rapid remedy. The amount of health supplements now available (carefully niche-marketed, of course) is astonishing, as is the appeal for us to treat ourselves like professional athletes, thanks to the increasing obsession with hydration and hypertonic drinks and 'wellness' in general.

The past two decades have seen a sad litany of scandals involving food and pharmacology, from the salmonella in eggs to the MMR vaccine and autism. With the UK press only to willing to whip up a scandal without prior thorough investigation of the evidence (for the most part, presumably for the sake of sales rather than any anti-scientific leanings per se), the public has been cried wolf to so many times it's enough to make you turn your back on anything that looks vaguely scientific. I don't know enough about the avian flu and swine flu hyperbole to comment in detail, but there too the media reporting of Government planning has implied elements verging on the farcical.

So what have we learnt so far? Firstly, it's far easier to push a one-size-fits-all cure than to individually assess people's physical and mental health problems as if they were, well, individuals. Most of us rely on the media for our explanations of health and food science issues, and these reports tend to appeal to the emotions and intuition rather more than we might find in the primary reports, AKA the 'sterilised pages of scientific literature', as palaeontologist Richard Fortey refers to it.

Not that most of us would have the time to plough through and decode the latter anyway, which brings me to a second issue: there is now so much freedom of choice, and an emphasis on rapid pacing to match our speed of communications that 'noise' (not just aural) is increasingly blocking critical thinking. Twenty years ago, people could define their day as having a work part and a leisure part, but now the two are blurred if not superseded thanks to a wide variety of recent technological innovations. Obviously we can work longer hours (i.e. from home or in transit) via mobile computing and Wi-Fi, but there’s also online networking, blogging, email and webcam, online shopping, even printing our own photos and ploughing through endless television channels 'live' or on-demand. It's a nice thought that when electronic personal assistants can be tailored to our personality profiles (like an uber-Amazon personalised homepage), then we will no longer be slaves to the labour-saving devices we clutter our lives with. But even then, will consumerist culture trivia remain a primary component of our lives?

If all this sounds a bit Luddite, or just plain anti-Capitalist, then why not ask yourself do you feel technically savvy and cool, thanks to owning a range of up-to-the-minute high-tech consumer items? Do you even have a nutritionist or a lifestyle coach? Consider is it possible that you could be losing common sense, handing over large chunks of analytical thought to others so as to gain a little bit of quality time in a hectic world? It’s up to us to reclaim our critical thought processes before we evolve into H.G. Well's passive, leisure-obsessed Eloi. Otherwise the future's bright, the future's hyper-realistic 3D with added gubbins! Now where's my isotonic rehydration fluid?