Tuesday 21 September 2010

Becoming a Bad Science disciple, and mummy blogger bullshit

Yesterday Ben Goldacre's Bad Science plopped on the mat, and over the next little while it will be competing with all the other unfinished books that I'm trying to juggle. Bad Science has the unfair advantage, however, of being something that once you've started, is rather hard to stop.

I'm only a few pages in so won't make much comment at this stage except that Goldacre articulates many things that you suspected already but weren't that sure about - covering all those nebulous things like cosmetics, dietary supplements and so on, which you had an idea were based on guff but never actually went out of your way to read up on. As discussed by Mark Earls in Herd when he cites Bad Science, as interesting as the bullshit is the natural way that it can spread in conversations, in such a way that it's almost like an epidemic.

One thing that strikes me is that for anyone who's not an expert on any given subject...and most of us aren't experts on anything...it's easy to believe anything from someone who is perceived as an authority. It's a perfectly natural reaction. The problem is that the "authority" may just be a journalist, celebrity, or general big shot in a completely unrelated field.

The internet is a wonderful tool for keeping an undercurrent of dissent going, and there is a disproportionate amount of anti-bullshit, anti-conspiracy, anti-spin material out there, with some voices who are capable of shouting pretty loud. Ben Goldacre is just one example. That "moral majority" can propagate their messages far and wide via social media these days - so in many cases, if there's a seriously dodgy bit of misinforamtion being spread by a company, political party of whatever, then often the "truth" will come out.
The problem is, as with the MMR case, that all that can backfire if the well-meaning moral majority all have it wrong, and the "establishment" figures were right to begin with. There's a fine line between mythbusting and unjustified panic.

There's a lot to be said about the "detox" myth, though. I'm a sucker for it myself: I firmly believe in the power of orange juice to cure pretty much all manner of ills from hangovers to flu. I've got a pretty nasty cold at the moment and made sure I got some orange juice at lunchtime. Beyond being vaguely aware that vitamin C is "a good thing" and helps the immune system, I'm not an expert on its powers. But I've always felt a nice tingly sensation after drinking orange juice on top of a cold, and manage to convince myself that it's doing me good, and it's a habit I'm unlikely to change.


From this point forward, I've decided to amend the post. I made a critical reference to one particular blog post by someone who I've never met and have nothing to do with. I exchanged some constructive email correspondence today with an anonymous person who criticised my approach and said that the blogger in question was personally upset. I make no apology for the post and won't remove it - my points still stand - but I'll tone things down a bit and make more general references, rather than a personal criticism. I think that's a reasonable compromise.


I haven't reached the relevant chapter yet, but vitamin supplements companies come in for stinging criticism in Bad Science. Now, I don't know much about vitamins or dietary science or nutrition or anything like that, but I do know that these companies exploit people's ignorance and fears. Look at the advertising. Everything is "this important period in your life" - whether it's childhood, teenage years, pregnancy, menopause, old age. They prey on vulnerable people not knowing what's right for them, people who worry that their diet might not be as varied as it could be and what effects this might have on their health. Scavenging like vultures are the supplements companies, making you paranoid that you're not getting enough selenium.

It's against this backdrop that we come to the phenomenon of the "mummy blogger". They need little introduction - there are countless articles on them already. Although not a parent myself, I have spent a fair bit of time on "mummy blogs" over the last few months, and my private opinion is that almost without exception, they are devoid of interesting content. Many of them are written by PR professionals, and they mainly consist of backslapping each other for getting on various "top bloggers" lists, the odd photostream of their little ones, and an incessant stream of saccharine "reviews" of products sent to them by PR companies. Thought-provoking content is a rarity; they are some way ahead of the SEO-boosting affiliates/link farms/pseudo-blogs, but not a million miles away. It's a field which has had vast amounts of media coverage to the extent that it might be called a "phenomenon", although they are all quite SEO savvy, with badges, charts and backlinks to each other's blogs all over the place - the vast majority of comments seem to come from "fellow mummy bloggers" rather than organically.

I appreciate that this is the way PR works, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest that bloggers are sent free products and samples in order to review them. On the contrary, if the bloggers are given inspiration for things to write about, as well as free products, and the brands get coverage, and the readers get things to read about on a regular basis, then everyone's a winner. Paid reviews are common in many fields - whether restaurant review blogs (lucky them!) or travel bloggers (even luckier them!) - and as long as the bloggers get a reputation for fair reporting, with constructive criticism where necessary, and make it clear if a post is sponsored or if the reviewed products were free, then they can be a valuable source of information.

There have been several parenting blogs writing pieces in the last few days about Seven Seas' range of supplements for children, "Haliborange". I'll freely admit to being deeply cynical of supplements companies targeting nervous and paranoid parents, who worry about the state of their children's health and diet; I'm even more cynical of them convincing parents to write positive things about their products. But I feel that the bloggers themselves have a responsibility too, towards their readers, and I think that some of them have let themselves down.

Several bloggers have remarked, uncritically, that omega 3 - and thus Haliborange - increase concentration/attentiveness in children. One, who makes no reference to her piece being a sponsored post - states confidently that "numerous studies" have shown this. Another mentions that she is looking to feed her daughter vitamins, while propagating the official Haliborange line that the product "may" improve children's concentration; in the comments, she suggests that she's rather sceptical of their claims, but makes no mention of this in the initial post. None of them have tried using the product on their kids; therefore none of them are actually reviewing the product, but rather just endorsing it, with a greater or lesser amount of personal response to the concept of vitamin pills for kids.

What benefits omega 3 actually has, I don't know - although I bet you anything mummy Newton and mummy Freud and mummy Shakespeare weren't obsessively shoving tinned fish down their respective sons' throats. (I also note that Ben Goldacre has devoted an entire chapter to the subject, so I'm sure there are some untold stories. That said, I'm sure it can't do any harm, there's mountains of anecdotal evidence out there so it probably does something good, and it's up to any parent to decide if their kids are eating a healthy diet and if there's a need to do somethnig about it if not. What gets my goat is that the brand - or rather, their PR/digital/social media people - have managed to persuade bloggers to reproduce their PR material pretty much verbatim.

When someone comes blind to a subject and looks for advice, they might read some newspaper articles, they might get on Google, they might read a book. But most of all they'll go to people they'll trust - friends and family first and foremost, and then, perhaps, bloggers. My feeling is that since blogs began, they've been looked at with more trust than newspaper/magazine journalists, because there's a sense that they're drawing from personal experience, telling their own stories. If they're parroting PR companies' spin on issues which could involve worried parents, paranoid about how best to care for their kids, then I think they're letting the side down pretty badly. Surely they have a responsibility to their readers?

Seven Seas/Haliborange have previous history here, inducing the wrath of the Mumsnet community after some grubby sockpuppeting on the forum a few months ago. The mums responded in kind, with a nice SEO-sabotaging campaign. A nice bit of work, and something perhaps the bloggers currently doing their bit for Seven Seas were unaware of. Although I note that Seven Seas have been working with a new PR agency - Virgo Health - since that debacle, who presumably weren't implicated in it.

I should also stress that these are my own private opinions.

PS I wonder if Ben Goldacre ever saw the Real Hustle scam where the conmen sold tiny pots of boutique moisturising cream for £25 a pop. They marketed the fact that Petroselinum crispum was the active ingredient. The "natural powers" held within would cleanse and rejuvenate the skin, or something.

Petroselinum is the Latin for parsley. They had blitzed some parsley with some cheap lotion from Asda (£3 for a large bottle), put it into minuscule jars, stuck on a fancy label, and sold them for a profit margin of around 3000%, if I recall. It was brilliant.

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