A Catalyst for skepticism


I don’t know about you but it seems like whenever I see a forum discussing health issues, I come away feeling a little despondent.  There are a number of forums on television or on-line where people are arguing about whether certain foods are good or bad for you and what the science says or doesn’t say about certain diets or medications.  You’d be excused for being very confused a lot of the time.  A classic case in point was the recent airing on the ABC of Catalyst and its program on cholesterol and heart disease.  The main premise of the program was that the impact of cholesterol on heart disease has been over stated and that one of the medications used to reduce the risk of heart disease – statins – were being prescribed to many people who would not gain any net benefit in terms of health from taking them.

The program didn’t pull any punches.  As a result of the program there has been significant backlash against the journalist Dr Maryanne Demasi and claims that the science put forward on the show was incorrect and misleading.   The chair of the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Medicines, Professor Emily Banks, wrote to the ABC warning the program might cause people to refrain from taking their drugs.

Whilst it is always possible that people may stop taking drugs as a result of such a program, in my view it is a low blow to blame Catalyst in this instance.  Australian Medical Association president Dr Steve Hambleton said he thought the program should go to air in the interests of debate. Catalyst took care to advise viewers that the program should not be taken as medical advice.  It also never said that statins have no positive effects.  In the program’s eyes, statins have limited effect on many but not all.

Unfortunately, this recent event – the program airing and the response to it – is further evidence that many people arguing for or against certain foods, diets or medications have a particular agenda and that agenda is not always in the best interests of the public and is not always done in the spirit of objectivity and full disclosure.

What is potentially fair criticism of the Catalyst program was that little airtime was given to those who believe there is a positive causal link between high cholesterol and heart disease.  The program instead assembled a number of highly passionate medical professionals singing from the same hymn book, that the dangers of high cholesterol and saturated fats have been exaggerated.  The presence of those who believe there is a link between high cholesterol and heart disease and that saturated fats are a grave danger would have enabled viewers to take a more informed position.

The critics of the Catalyst program have not fared any better.  They have also demonstrated a lack of balance in their reply to the program.  Instead of admitting there is at least some merit in the program’s claims, they have decided to adopt the alarmist black and white approach so commonly seen in mainstream debate these days – everything about this is very wrong and we should all be extremely concerned.  Professor Banks has not only concluded that the Catalyst program only contained anecdotes rather than research, she also labelled the scientists on the program as fringe dwellers.  This is unhelpful commentary and only leads people to wonder what is motivating her to be so defensive.

On the back of this episode, let me once again stress a few points.  Firstly, when considering the diet that is right for you it is important to seek the advice of the medical professionals who know your individual circumstances.  A show such as Catalyst provides general information only.  What we hear and see in the media cannot be taken as directly applicable to your individual circumstances.  Each person’s makeup is unique and as such requires a tailored solution from someone who knows all of your medical history and current conditions.

Secondly, when you see information presented in the media claiming that a new wonder diet or medication has been released to help weight loss or improve your health, it is important to be sceptical.  This doesn’t mean disregard such information but it does mean you should put it under the microscope, search for the scientific evidence of the claims and seek the advice of your doctor.  In the case of diet, also compare what is being recommended against the Australian dietary guidelines.

Finally, it is important to consider the objectivity of the people making the claims about what is good for our health and wellbeing.  The parochial commentary that puts winning the argument ahead of the full disclosure of facts, doesn’t do us any good.  Blindly following any one point of view in the domain of health and wellbeing will lead many down the wrong path.  As sophisticated consumers, we must keep asking questions and seeking a balance of viewpoints.

It would be helpful if those engaging in public debate kept the principle of balance at the forefront of their commentary.  Egos and point scoring seem to win out all too often.  The public is better served when agendas are put aside and all the facts are on the table so that the best decisions can be made.

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