Illustrations by Cei Willis
The Daily Mail have been trailing a new book this week by "leading science writer" Tony Edwards. Titled The Good News About Booze, which sounds like an off-license run by a Jehovah’s Witness, it tackles three of Middle England’s greatest obsessions; dying of cancer, mediocre sex and drinks that middle-class people like. The first extract from the book, published over the weekend, gave the paper a valuable opportunity to address the important question of whether red wine causes or cures cancer.
The book (or at least the extracts – the email I sent requesting a review copy remains unanswered) is exactly what you’d expect. Edwards claims to have conducted an “in-depth study of around half-a-million scientific papers about alcohol”, which is basically impossible unless he has an army of minions in his basement. In the best traditions of Malcolm Gladwell, he takes a banal and well-known truth – that drinking a moderate amount of red wine is healthy – and pretends it’s some kind of shocking revelation that some indefinable cabal of wine-hoarding misers don’t want you to know about. Throw in a few silly exaggerations for added measure – “red wine may well be one of the most effective ‘medications’ in history” or “I’m just an averagely intelligent science journalist” – and you have a perfect piece of click-bait for the lazy editor to shove in the paper.
I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of this "leading science writer" before, so I looked him up. There’s a Twitter account, which follows the classic template of author-told-they-need-to-be-on-Twitter-by-their-agent, and a website hastily assembled to support the book, but not a lot else. As far as the internet is concerned, Tony Edwards is a landing page wrapped in a 404, covered in a thick layer of “I don’t care.”
In fact, back in the 1980s and early 90s, Edwards used to work for the BBC as a producer and director. Specialising in science documentaries, he worked on programs like QED, Horizon and Tomorrow’s World. According to his biography, “his eighty (approx) television programmes include: exposés of factory farming, the USA’s military spy satellite systems, the processed food industry and how science treats non-conformists within its ranks”.
Those "non-conformists" turn out to include homeopaths – a cult industry which courageously refuses to conform to science, or indeed reality or logic generally. In the early 90s, Edwards was responsible for two of the direst documentaries to dribble out of a BBC transmitter. Homeopathy: Medicine or Magic was practically a promotional video for quacks selling sugar pills. “Is homeopathy magic or medicine? For a small but growing number of doctors it seems to be a bit of both,” concluded the narrator.
Jacques Benveniste, Heretic on the other hand, covered the story of the eponymous, infamous scientist who claimed to have found a mechanism by which water could retain a "memory" of things it had previously touched. The idea that water can store memories of past experiences is a key tenet of homeopathy, and Benveniste swiftly became a cult figure among true believers, a status not diminished when it turned out that his results were incorrect and couldn’t be replicated by other scientists. Rather than, say, investigating whether the scientist’s results were accurate, Edwards chose to portray him as the subject of a mean witch-hunt by a frenzied scientific establishment closing ranks. Interestingly, both of these journalistic failures were uploaded to DailyMotion by a certain "TonyE1000".
Given his history, it’s no surprise that Edwards turned to Dr Karol Sikora to endorse his new book. Sikora, another supporter of quack medicine, is a one-man PR catastrophe. He was publicly humiliated by Imperial College over his repeated false claim that he was an honorary professor there. He "accidentally" appeared in a Republican Party ad attacking the NHS. Just to top all that off, he was one of the doctors involved in the notorious case of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi – the Lockerbie bomber who was released on compassionate grounds after being given three months to live, but lasted considerably longer.
You may think Edwards and Sikora seem like odd choices of expert to promote, but they’re nothing against the legend that is David Jeffries – the Charles Atlas of his generation in many ways. As the Mail on Sunday put it, “No fruit for ten years, a junk food diet and a 50-a-day cigarette habit... but David, 66, still insists he's as 'fit as a fiddle'.”
Jeffries is basically what happens when student lifestyle becomes terminal. "Blasting health experts' advice 'rubbish'”, we are told he lives on “takeaways, chocolate and cigarettes” and keeps fit by dancing: “I sit in my armchair, put on some loud obnoxious music and I just punch and kick the air for around 20 minutes... It works all my joints and muscles and I think it's the secret to my great physical form.”
"I never listen to experts," Jeffries continues, and why should he? After all: "The world is full of them – and that’s why we’re in such a mess.” The MoS chose to wait until the 16th paragraph to mention that this health messiah has had not one, but two heart attacks in his life thus far. “I actually died for a few seconds in the back of the ambulance and had to be resuscitated," he said. "I had a blockage in my artery that was hereditary. It was nothing to do with my diet or the cigarettes. Since the heart attacks I feel younger than ever. I feel like I have been reborn.”
David Jeffries is easy to dismiss as a bit of a joke because, well, he is, but there’s really very little difference between Britain’s unhealthiest healthiest pensioner and his peers; Edwards, Sikora and the hundreds of other dubious "experts" who appear in the pages of the Mail every week, accompanied by the usual knowing comments from readers about how, "Expert advice changes all the time and you shouldn’t bloody trust it because Auntie Margaret drank three bottles of vodka a day and she was fit as a fiddle until that massive car accident she had on the M4."
The reality is, advice on good health and nutrition has been basically the same for decades now: eat a variety of good food in moderation and get regular exercise – it’s really not rocket science. Unfortunately, that kind of sensible and banal advice doesn’t sell books or diet plans or newspapers, and so an entire industry has grown up with the aim of telling us that being healthy is far more complicated than it really is, and only they can help us through the minefield.
These cranks and salespeople are able to get away with creating this confusion because the media insist on presenting them as if they were real experts, too. Partly that’s because it sells more copy, but I can’t help wonder if there isn’t a deeper, more ideological force at work – that the Mail and its readership despise the very notion of an expert in the first place.
Nothing raises their hackles more than an intellectual "elite" giving them advice that conflicts with their precious "common sense" that dictates their middle-class lifestyle. Sure, poor people’s alcohol is bad for you, but Cabernet Sauvignon at a dinner party? Of course it’s fine. Climate change? They’ll be talking about a bloody ice age next and anyway, wouldn't we all quite like it if this country was a few degrees warmer as it went to the dogs? This sustained assault on the credibility of science by Dacre and his peers has achieved what armies of well-funded lobbyists have been trying to do for decades – to create so much confusion and misinformation that people no longer pay attention to the stuff that actually matters.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins