Simon Cowell, detox and the SAS

The central purpose of journalism is to provide the general population with the accurate and reliable information that they need to function in a free society. However, it seems that the central purpose of medical science in journalism is to provide an entertaining 'snippet' or sound bite.

In the UK, national newspapers regularly tout stories about miracle cures long before relevant studies required for proof of concept have been completed. Even the BBC's Radio 4 regularly broadcasts health-related articles that might best be called '...sometime in the next 5 to 10 years'. Every month we see reports about promising research, medical breakthroughs and potential wonder drugs. The internet is home to dubious adverts and chat-room conversations testifying to 'incredible' benefits. To scientists and healthcare providers this can cause frustration but for those with long-term medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease they offer the hope of finding a cure or a treatment that promises more than their current medicines. Evidence is often sparse and celebrity endorsement can be perceived as a substitute for years of scientific research. Even when the science is good, the route to progress is not straightforward. A lot of research that looks promising in the early stages comes to a dead end. Promising 'breakthroughs' in the lab take significant investment and many years of research to be translated into therapies that are both effective and safe. Clinical trials may reveal that a promising drug has an unacceptable side-effect profile, but this process is not communicated effectively to the public.

It is rare for a celebrity to shy away from declaring the benefit of dubious ideas about health and science. A review of the news for 2012 suggests that last year was no exception. In February we were told how 'X Factor' judge Simon Cowell holds back the years by taking blasts from a can of oxygen he carries with him at all times (Daily Telegraph). We were also told how other celebrities used dried placenta pills and topical coffee granules to counter various conditions. Abuse is not reserved for medical science. In August we learned from Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, that Olympic swimmers occasionally relieve themselves in the pool and that it is fine to do so because "chlorine kills it".

Seriously though, if you are seeking relief from any sense of frustration you could do no better than visit the website for Sense About Science, a charity dedicated to helping people make sense of science and understand the importance of evidence. Having charted the rise and fall of celebrity fads, endorsements and claims about science they asked scientists to review a selection of the dubious claims in 2012. In their report, specialists put people right on sports psychology, energy flow and dietary supplements. Sense About Science's managing director Tracey Brown is quoted as saying "Celebrity comments travel far and fast, so it's important that they talk sense". She goes on to say "The implausible and frankly dangerous claims about how to avoid cancer, improve skin or lose weight are becoming ever more ridiculous. And unfortunately they have a much higher profile than the research and evidence." This is only one of many freely downloadable highly topical articles provided on the SAS website.

To encourage more vigilance among celebrity pseudo-scientists in the future, SAS provides a checklist of claims it suggests should be avoided:
"Immune boosting" – you can't and you don't need to
"Detox" – your liver does this
"Superfood" – there is no such thing, just foods that are high in some nutrients
"Oxygenating" – your lungs do this
"Cleansing" – you shouldn't be trying to cleanse anything other than your skin or hair.

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