Suffering depression? Anxiety? Anger? Weight loss or brittle bones? Scientists say it could be due to too much exercise, whatever the benefits to heart, lungs or soul

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Experts fear public is losing faith in science

Business Today – South Africa 17 August 1999

London – British medical experts worry that the public could lose trust in science due to a rash of sometimes contradictory messages about what is good for one's health. "All this scare-mongering is not good for us," said Dr Peter Marsh of Oxford's independent Social Issues Research Centre. "Not only do people not trust the message, they no longer trust the messenger. Our faith in science is on a steady decline."

After all, it was not long ago when scientists decreed that coffee was a villain, high-protection sun cream a saviour and exercise the key to health and happiness. Depending on which medics you trust, aspirin might cure headaches, prevent heart attacks or cause fatal ulcers. Breast milk could give babies a boost against infection – or pump them full of toxic pollutants. Childhood vaccines might be a life-saver or a menace to brain and bowels alike. Alcohol: is it good or bad for the health? In excess, bad. Yet red wine in moderation is said to be good for the heart. And white wine might be too. As for beer, no one seems to know.

Suffering depression? Anxiety? Anger? Weight loss or brittle bones? Scientists say it could be due to too much exercise, whatever the benefits to heart, lungs or soul. "There are some serious messages getting lost in the noise," said Marsh. "All this conflicting advice has a very confusing effect and some potentially dangerous side effects." The flood of information about matters medical stems from a growing desire among consumers to eat better, sleep safer and generally live a longer, healthier life. Yet as demand for knowledge grows and science gets more sophisticated, research inevitably throws out new facts that might clash with the old, sowing doubt and undermining public trust in the medical establishment. Marsh said the psychological fallout was easy to detect, with people reacting in three distinct ways.

"One set become gibbering wrecks. They read every single warning, take it all seriously and can't act," he said. "The next group, especially the young, seize on this opportunity for defiance by consuming whatever is considered bad for them. The third group suffers warning fatigue and just switches off."

Doctors, once icons, are now trusted little more than politicians or journalists and experts fear emotional insecurities about health are over-riding rational thought. Take the debate on genetically modified food. Supermarkets have pulled products from their shelves and activists have torn up experimental crops, fearing possible environmental contamination and health risks.

Yet many experts say the fear is based on a gut reaction to such products being dubbed "Frankenstein Food" rather than on genuine scientific concerns. Dr Lynn Frewer – advising the agriculture ministry on how best to communicate health risks to a dazed and confused public – says medical experts should start treating people like grown-ups. "Conflict is inherent in the scientific process and people realise that science is not infallible," she said. "However, many experts deliver the message as if everything is understood and when new research shows something different, confusion follows."

She said different scientific approaches produced different advice, just as funding, samples and sources could change results.

So why do scientists insist on peddling false certainties? "Because they think the public is thick," Frewer said.

"People are happy with uncertainty provided they are given the information and can make an informed choice.

"Be straight – people know the doctor and the scientist are no longer gods."

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