Tag Archives: Ethics

Is red wine really good for you ???

7 Sep

As part of the assessment for my rational thinking course I get students to work up their own example of ‘bad’ science reporting as a presentation to the general public. I try to dot my teaching with examples so that the students have something to work from when constructing their own presentations. I’m thus always on the look out for new examples, to add to things like homeopathy and the MMR vaccine that I already talk about.


My interest was piqued by a series of adverts on London’s underground system for a product called ‘Fountain’ calling itself the ‘beauty molecule food supplement’. Fountain is being promoted by the UKs leading pharmacy, Boots, and judging by the display in my local store (see picture below) they expecting to sell an awful lot of it. The ‘beauty molecule’ in question is Resveratrol, something I’ve come across before in relation to claims about the health benefits of red wine.


The idea that red wine has health benefits has become very well established in the UK over the last five years. Get a group on middle class English people around a table with a bottle of red wine and you can guarantee that someone will say that it is ‘purely medicinal’. Running my usual test what the British public think ( a search of the Daily Mail website) produced a huge range of alleged health benefits of red wine :

The anti-ageing cream that’s made from red wine: Antioxidant found in grape skins can reduce wrinkles and lines

‘Miracle ingredient’ in red wine could help people live longer and more energetic lives

New drug being developed using compound found in red wine ‘could help humans live until they are 150’

(That is just a sample of the health ‘benefits’ of red wine)

What is really intriguing about this is that the vast majority of the research that all this is based on has not been with human participants. Interestingly, even the web site of Boots is clear that “Many of the headlines about the possible anti-ageing and disease fighting possibilities for resveratrol have come from laboratory or animal studies rather than evidence from trials involving humans”. Even more damning is the idea that to get the equivalent dose of resveratrol used in some mouse studies a human would need to drink 60 litres of red wine a day !


All this alone seemed link a really nice teaching example, but I came across a really interesting thing when I looked at resveratrol studies that did use human participants.  A recent study from the University of Copenhagen (admittedly with a small sample) suggests that resveratrol supplements might actually block the health benefits of exercise in older men.

Taken together this seems like a really good demonstration for students of how fairly thin pieces of research can get picked up by the press and rapidly established in the public consciousness. I also think there is an interesting ethical discussion to be had here about what pharmacies should be able to promote. Boots of course also sell homeopathic products, criticising them here might not get very far !

The ethics of being a skeptic

28 Aug

One of the questions that often comes up in my classes is ‘are they doing any harm ?’. More specifically, students ask if we have any right to get involved if adults want to spend their money on consulting Sally Morgan ( the UK’s ‘best-loved’ psychic) or on buying very expensive bottles of sugar pills to ‘cure’ any number of ailments. I’ve always combated this argument with examples of homeopaths prescribing ‘remedies’ for life threatening diseases (i.e. Malaria) and thus incurring potential expense for the NHS, which we all pay for.

I was drawn to think about this when I read a recent story about a church in the north of England peddling a highly questionable cancer ‘cure’. The same church had previously been fined £25,000 by OFCOM, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, for broadcasting cancer ‘cure’ claims on their TV channel Believe TV. Religion is always a topic I’ve avoided directly addressing when teaching, using the defence that faith is inherently unfalsifiable , and thus not amenable to scientific enquiry. Of course, this defence itself has raised questions from students since Richard Dawkins published his book ‘The God Delusion’. However, I’m left with the conundrum that I’d happily talk about someone peddling olive oil and Ribena as a ‘cancer’ cure in lectures but I avoid discussion of prayer curing cancer. This particular case interested me, as Ben Goldacre tweeted about it suggesting that those involved in purchasing the Ribena and Olive Oil cure need to take responsibility for their own actions. I’m not sure I agree with that view completely, in that I think skeptics ought to warn against such things.

All of this makes me think about where the limits of skepticism lay. Should we comment on everything, or are there points where we should step back and say ‘if you fell for that it’s your own fault ?’. Equally, is my decision not to discuss religious faith in class a rational one, or just me avoiding a controversial topic. I don’t really have and answer to either of these questions, so I’d love to hear what others think. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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