Well, according to Doctor Chris Van Tulleken, and a rather large amount of good science, very few people indeed – certainly as far as vitamin supplements are concerned. In fact, unless you are pregnant (that counts out half the population permanently) or under four years of age (that’s most of the rest eliminated) or your doctor thinks it is genuinely necessary (and not just placating you), then the chances are that you never need to rattle that plastic bottle in the morning ever again.
Update: Please see the end of this article for an important update and an interesting reaction from the Health Food Manufacturers
In a wonderful article on the BBC News website, Dr. Van Tulleken details all the problems with taking extra vitamins. This includes:
- Waste of money
- Causing medical problems
- Wasting even more money
- Might kill you
So, nothing important then.
This is not pseudo science, it is not the selective science used by marketing companies, this is not the collective opinion from some strange collection of websites, but a medical doctor reflecting on careful research and bringing it to the lay person in a way that grabs attention but sticks to verifiable facts.
But, despite great intentions from a nice bloke, the chances are that it will cause just a ripple in the vast industry that peddles anything to anyone.
Getting the Truth out to the Public
There are some very frustrated scientists out there who read articles in the press, or the rubbish printed on the back of packets or advertisements and cannot understand why it is that fake knowledge has such a more prominent place in our society than the real thing.
Why is it that companies can claim that a supplement can do something it cannot or that a food is good for you when it plainly isn’t and when they do get challenged, it makes not a dent on the success of the product? You would think that the words of a well respected Doctor or Scientist would mean instant failure for a product.
Well, there are several reasons – most of them good ones, or at least, effective ones.
Firstly, in space no one can hear you scream. When an article like the one on vitamins gets written and appears on the BBC News site, I will probably read it – I like that sort of thing and in my case it is preaching to the converted. Most people, however, rarely question anything scientific and so are not attracted to that sort of article.
Secondly, a company will spend several million in not just advertising a product, but in developing it, analysing the market for it, designing it, branding it and so on. The chance of a major company getting the launch of a big brand wrong is pretty low, all things considered.
On the other hand, the above article had just a few quid spent on it, and the hope is that enough people like me will boost it on twitter to give it a bit of coverage.
Thirdly, when you sell a product, all you do is get the name out there and, if you are half decent marketing person, pick up the major brand value (like, it will make you more attractive to the opposite sex), encapsulate it in a short, memorable phrase (You Will Get Women) and then repeat all that as often as you can. You don’t worry about the scientific justification since you are not promoting that. As long as you have enough on a bit of headed letter paper to keep whatever advertising standards group happy, forget about it.
Again, on the other hand, if you are a scientist trying to point out the problems in a product, you DO have to sell your justification for your opinion – you are not selling a product with nice packaging, you are selling a detailed treatise. Trust me, I have been in the advertising game most of my life, and that is a problem.
So, before we even start, we are losing the battle, and the companies know it. Oh yes, the odd one will sue a scientist for daring to put their heads above the parapet, but generally speaking they just object a little and forget about it – they know most people are not listening.
We need more articles like this
So, what can be done?
Well, to start with, more articles like the one by Chris. The article is well written, fun, lucid and convincing (and that is rare for a scientist – goodness knows how great ideas ever get born when you see how most of them write!)
Articles in themselves will not be able to combat the heavyweight money that the producers spend on selling vitamins, shampoos, detox treatments and so on, but if enough are written on a regular basis, and they are properly edited to make sure they are readable by anyone, then it is a start.
There is probably a good case for a central repository of articles and links to articles that can make the information easier to find. Sense About Science is one such repository and does a wonderful job, but it is pretty dry and your average Sun Reader type (that accounts for most of us one way or another) will not probably be over enthused by the site. It is worth noting that one of the villains outside of the industry itself is the media who can be very good at selling sow’s ears. That is the bar that the scientific community need to reach and surpass.
In a utopian world where the good guys (the scientists I like) all have limitless resources, then an advertising campaign of sorts would help. Something along the lines of “Think before you buy” that popped up in a web browser any time you got anywhere near a supplement website would help.
Of course, there is no money for telling the truth – not from the public, not from government, not from the media … And even if there was, why would a beauty magazine run a big advert saying that anti-ageing creams don’t work when most of their income is from anti-ageing cream manufacturers?
So, the straight forward advertising route does not work.
But that does not write it off completely
A fortuitous name, when you think about it. Using social media to spread a message has been successful for many things like singers and even some home film makers and the Hacked Off campaign. There is no reason why it cannot be used for something like this. It does need a few things:
- A catchy song with lots of famous people singing is always a good idea
- A video made by someone famous for YouTube
- lots of really natty promo lines and good copy
- A great destination for people to be directed to
- Well designed and fun banners that people can put on their blogs
- A reward system for people that promote it a lot (no money, just make them feel good)
- And, of course, a huge number of people to get the message out there and keep it out there.
Most of that list is dead easy – I could do the song bit to start with and there are lots of advertising people that would help as long as we kept their names out of it or just bought them lots of beer. Persuading some celebs to forgo the chance of a lucrative sponsorship deal may be harder, but enough are civic minded. But the last item is really, really hard. You need to get people who can get other people who can get other people …. it is viral, and that requires a huge amount of connections to work.
But it is possible and maybe it should be thought about.
It is often said that kids today are much more street wise and clued up than we were.
They are louder, I grant you, they communicate more naturally, possibly, and they are very in tune with lots of other people just like them. But ask any computer service person who’s computers get the most viruses and they will tell you it is teenagers. Who falls for conspiracy theories and fake news stories on Facebook? Lots of people, and mostly teens again.
But these are the people we need to get interested in the scientific truth about products and ideas that are out there in the wild.
MPs and many educationalists, love to bang on that if we taught more science in school and better, then this would solve all kinds of problems, including this one. But this, again, is utopian rubbish.
Most kids hate science. It is complicated, gives you a headache and white coats have never been fashionable. Face it, I have known loads of scientists over the years from working in voice studios and I have a couple in my own family and the whole lot of them are way more intelligent than the rest of us. Physicists are often brainy to the point of going ga-ga! Think of Brian Cox, the hunk of a prof (I am told.) He is a lovely fellow, but have you ever tried to stop him talking? The man has no verbal breaks! And he is one of the sane ones.
No, the vast majority of children will not be scientists and do not want to even consider it let alone learn it. That is perfectly fine – we need scientists, but not that many! But we do need to get these kids questioning things.
“This moisturiser will make your skin like silk!” Really? Prove it buster!
We need them to start asking why and what and how and to have a healthy dollop of scepticism for products in the mags and online. At the moment, they are far more likely to be sceptical about the scientist that they see as spoiling their fun.
The Truth is Out There
I think most people think scientists are selfish, self-serving individuals that only want to sound good – being right is nothing to do with it. Okay, probably a bit harsh, but some do think like that and a lot of the rest of the population veer in that direction.
But, science is not like that, and most scientists are not like that. Most would still do science in exchange for a fresh T-Shirt every month or so – the science and the very fact of knowledge is more important than anything. It is what makes them worth listening to, but unfortunately it is often what makes them crap communicators – even some of the TV ones….
People will believe what is easiest to believe. If someone comes along and says “look, this really works,” and shows you a photo, then that is easy to believe. If someone comes along to rebuff the claim with a ten thousand word essay mentored by someone in their chemistry faculty, then it wont even get read.
Somewhere in the last 100 years, scientists have stopped being heroes. I am not completely sure why, but that is happened. Corporate money and messaging has drowned out the science and pseudo science and even blatant lies win the day.
But the truth behind everything is out there – it has been written about and published. Now it just needs to make the leap into common, everyday experience.
The truth needs to get trendy.
Chris’s article was supporting an item in the BBC2 series, Trust me I am a doctor. In the programme, Chris took a multivitamin tablet and his urine was analysed to see if there was any difference. The vitamin C in the urine shot up, indicating all the vitamin C in the tablet had simply passed through his body.
The series has received this reaction from The Health Food Manufacturers Association who said:
“While these results would be expected in someone with good vitamin C intake this may not be the case for all UK citizens. For most, the best solution is to eat as healthy a diet as possible combined with other health related lifestyle changes. Daily vitamin supplements also provide important nutritional insurance for millions of users looking to safeguard their nutritional intake.”
This rather beautifully crafted bit of spin is basically saying that you need to take supplements as some kind of insurance in case your nutritional intake goes wrong. Since the body metabolises vitamins rather quickly (disposing of vitamin C equally as quickly), this is, of course, no insurance at all.
But it is another example of pseudo science babble. Bless them.