British science campaigners are demanding that retailers stop stocking the alternative-health magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You (WDDTY) because it publishes pseudoscientific and misleading articles – but any attempt to censor or restrict the distribution of this fundamentally silly magazine is misguided and unjustified.
Simon Singh, who like me is a trustee of Sense About Science, the British charity that promotes public understanding of science, has indicated support for this campaign. I regret to say that on this issue I part company with him. Simon has claimed that ‘it’s not a free-speech issue – it’s about public health and responsibility’. But this is very much a free-speech issue. No matter how stupid or irresponsible WDDTY’s articles are, it is an important matter of principle that we uphold its right to publish and distribute them. We in turn insist on our right to challenge and to expose what we consider are its stupid and irresponsible articles. Let the public decide.
I am very familiar with the nonsense published by WDDTY. Ten years ago I challenged its editor over her support for claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Science blogger Matthew Lam accuses WDDTY of misusing scientific evidence and language and of providing ill-informed advice about breast cancer in a feature about the film star Angelina Jolie, who recently underwent a double mastectomy. But WDDTY is not a scientific journal – it is a popular magazine that promotes cynicism about conventional medicine and credulity towards alternatives. The misuse of scientific evidence and language is routine throughout the media: the quoting of pseudoscientific ‘factoids’ has become a feature of popular entertainment. Accusing WDDTY of being unscientific is like accusing the Beano of lacking literary merit.
Indeed, the misuse of scientific evidence is a much bigger problem in the mainstream of public health and the serious press (not to mention in scientific publications) than it is in supermarket magazines and tabloid newspapers. Following the example of breast cancer, the official UK leaflet promoting mammography has recently been withdrawn and redrafted following a long campaign by scientists and doctors and patient representatives who claimed, rightly, that it misrepresented the risks of screening to the detriment of women’s health. A recent pamphlet by Jamie Whyte exposed the flaws in the use of scientific evidence in a number of areas of policymaking: minimum alcohol pricing, passive smoking, global warming and happiness. Activist scientists concerned about the abuse of evidence and ill-informed advice would be well advised to turn their attention to serious issues of so-called ‘evidence-based policy’ rather than trying to crush the marginal eccentricities of WDDTY.