A new BBC series promises to debunk popular medical myths. Its approach reminds me of an earlier popular science approach, Tomorrow’s World
Another of the series, Trust Me I’m a Doctor [TMID] had its showing this week [October 24th 2014].
TMID is presented as helping the lay person to gain insights into medical advances. Tomorrow’s world [1965 -2003] attempted to do a similar educational service for scientific and technological discoveries.
There is much to admire in the intentions of the original scientific programme, and in this new ‘medicine for the masses’ effort. I had some serious concerns about the original, with its remorseless enthusiasm for the new and quirky. I have rather similar concerns over TMID.
The worship of the wow
Tomorrow’s World sought to popularize by bringing out the wow factor in scientific discoveries. TMIF has that familiar worship of the wow on medical matters. The slight hint of irony in the title may be significant.
The approach of TMID
The approach of TMID is to challenge conventional wisdom to reveal another hidden possibility. The BBC blurb put is like this
Going behind the headlines to give you the definitive answers to your health questions. Can you be fat and fit? Could you improve your health by staying in bed longer? Should we all be taking an Aspirin pill to help us live longer? Michael Mosley is joined by a team of doctors who use their expertise to get to the bottom all those health claims.
My concern with the approach
My concern with the approach is that it is too easy to start with a loosely framed generalization and arrive at a conclusion which itself is as dodgy as the conventional wisdom it challenges, backed up with ‘clinical evidence’. The definitive answers are not as definitive as might be hoped for. In the episode, the framing went as follows:
One is made of fruit. The other is caffeinated. So a smoothie is a healthier option than a coffee, right? Don’t be so sure, says Michael Mosley, as he weighs the evidence.
Which is healthier – coffee or smoothies? It seems obvious that the answer must be a smoothie. After all, drinking coffee is a necessary evil, while having a smoothie, made from fruit, is part of your five-a-day. But when you look into the scientific studies they reveal something much more surprising.
The dangers of the either-or
I suggest that something conceptually dodgy is going on when a complex issue is reduced to an either-or. Despite the ‘evidence’ from clinical trials, I was left unconvinced. If the original question is “what is healthier for me, as an individual, drinking coffee or smoothies?” I find no satisfactory answer. The clinical trials provided statistical evidence of factors associated with medical benefits and disbenefits [if that’s the right word] of smoothies and of coffees. I won’t be watching the unfolding series.
Is TMID good for your understanding of up-to-date medical knowledge?
Now there’s an interesting question… we are asking two doctors whom we trust to comment for a future post.