Friday, November 14, 2008

Fish oil? What, have they run out of snakes??

An open letter to John Campbell and the Campbell Live team

Dear John

This is a very difficult letter for me to write. I tried using the Dear John Letter Generator, but none of the options provided seemed to fit (for example, I don't really want to blow your best friend, your box [as far as I know] isn't really nasty skank). But tonight you lost a lot of innocence in my eyes, and I don't think we can ever go back to the way we were. You really need to be careful. For one thing, fish oil is so 2007.

I have a hard enough time remembering my opinions without remembering my reasons for them (apologies to The Streets) and I know that nobody in TV land has an attention span of more than a few paragraphs anyway (myself as a viewer included), so I will try to keep this as brief and to-the-point as possible. Tonight you gave better-than-equal time to a bunch of quacks and idiots who are pushing the fish oil agenda. I heard you asking something that vaguely resembled a critical question but, honestly, you gave these weasels every opportunity to claim that an intentionally generated lack of dis-proof-of amounts to the same thing as vigourous-support-for their otherwise tenuous position. I will provide you with some links to articles by some smarter people than myself who can explain why this is such a terrible idea (as a matter of fact I majored in the philosophy of science in my undergraduate degree, but these people actually stayed on and got doctorates and whatnot at it, so I will defer to them). But I need to at least say mention the obvious problems in every study you cited on your show tonight (from Durham County, through Natalie Sinn in Australia, through to the poor saps implementing this hogwash in New Zealand). There are no controls (no double-blinds, a frighteningly obvious self-selection bias for participants, no mention of the test-retest validity of the questionnaires and tests employed, a total lack of transparency in the statistical reporting, and so on and so on). It makes me go NGNGNNGNGGGG! and see little sparks behind my eyelids. And I've already said I would leave it to people who are more qualified and articulate than myself. (They get two links because they are just that good! They use words and examples where I might resort to hurting myself and gesticulating wildly).

But I can offer one piece of first hand personal insight into this pseudo-controversy (which should work wonders, since anecdote and personal opinion seem to count for so much in this debate). While I was working my way through higher education and supporting my young family, I worked for one of New Zealand's major seafood producers. The main thing I learned, from years at the coal face of seafood production, is what fish oil actually is. Fish oil is a by-product of seafood production. It is rendered down from the offal (guts, spines, tails, heads) that comes out of the mainstream protein harvesting operation. Now that is not an argument in itself. Lots of nice things come from shitty places. Apparently, mushrooms are grown on horse shit, for one thing. But, when I worked in the by-products division of this aforementioned seafood producer, the goal of the organisation was to come up with value-added ways to dispose of the containers and drums of protein and oil that they were able to render down out of the offal (and you don't even want to know what kind of nasties are released into our waterways by the rendering process). In the bad old days, the best they could make out of it were high potency fertilisers, cattle feeds, and industrial lubricants. Such commodities were priced by the tonne.

Did you catch that? By the tonne.

What a coup. What a paradigm shift in the quack-tacular fields of human nutrition and pseudo-medicine. This industrial by-product can now be priced by the milligram, and sold as a miracle cure to a public who have already been made desparate for cures for a host of psychological and behavioural disorders (the medicalisation of not being 'good' enough and not being 'smart' enough).

Now - I'm sure that smart people in the fields of medical and nutritional science still have a lot to discover and offer to us. I just think that in this case the smarts and the science has been completely left out.

No comments: