Archive for category Skepticism

Sally Morgan evicted from Celebrity Big Brother

This week, the latest series of Celebrity Big Brother came to an end, with Coronation Street actor and person-I-just-Googled-to-find-out-what-he’s-famous-for Ryan Thomas emerging victorious at the end of the month-long run. While the comings and goings of a Channel 5 reality show might not normally be the kind of event that inspire a skeptic to take to WordPress and tap out a blog, this series did have one particular point of interest for the keen critical thinker.

Billed this year as having an “Eye of the storm” theme, the celebrities (or approximations thereof) entering the house had all been chosen for their controversial past and presence at the centre of a “media storm”. Those celebrities included Sally Morgan – the well-known stage performer who claims to be able to pass messages to audience members from their deceased loved ones – who made it to this year’s final. Show producers explained why they believed she fit the ‘eye of the storm’ criteria:

Sally experienced a media storm after a report suggested she had used a hidden earpiece at one of her performances.

two CCTV cameras

While not even morbid curiosity nor dedication to his craft could convince this skeptical investigator to become a regular viewer of the show, Sally’s involvement has not gone without interest, with tabloid articles regularly setting off various Google Alerts to keep me up to date with day-to-day happenings in the house.

Celebrity Big Brother 2018: Sally Morgan CAUGHT OUT after Rodrigo Alves truth task
– Express, 23rd August 2018

Celebrity Big Brother viewers in hysterics as psychic Sally Morgan fails another prediction
– Metro, 5th September 2018

It could be argued that Sally’s involvement in this year’s Celebrity Big Brother was curiously timed, coming as it does at the start of her regular Autumn tour schedule. Having seen Sally’s performances on a number of occasions, and having been in the vicinity of several others, I’ve seen first-hand the audiences she has been able to draw: on at least one occasion at Liverpool’s Empire theatre, Sally’s audience filled almost all of the seats in the lower stalls, and as many as half of the balcony seats. For a room which boasts a 2,348 capacity, that may have been as many as 2,000 tickets sold. This, I understand, was not atypical for Sally at the time – and given that her tours at one point included in as many as 200 dates per year, her audience reach would have been substantial.

It might therefore seem unusual for Sally to spend the opening of the Autumn period locked in a house with the barmaid from Cheers (no, not that one, the other one). Sally’s tour will still be going ahead, however, starting next week at The Met in Abertillery – which, as best as I could tell, is a venue Sally hasn’t appeared at before (although I could of course be wrong). Being unfamiliar with the venue, and indeed with Abertillery, I thought it worth find out what capacity was, to see how it compares with Sally’s regular venues. According to The Met’s website, the capacity of the biggest room in the facility, The Victorian Theatre, is just 216 seats.

empty theatre seats

As this seemed to be a surprisingly small venue for Sally to be playing, I wondered if this was a one-off, or whether this was typical of her current tour. Interestingly, her Liverpool show this year is not at the Empire Theatre as in previous years, but at the considerably-more-modest Epstein Theatre – boasting a capacity of, according to Wikipedia, just 380 seats.

Curious as to what the rest of her tour looked like, I spent 20 minutes or so on Google, looking up venues Sally will be playing at, and checking websites for their capacity. What I found is therefore based solely on what the venues declare their capacity to be, and where there were numerous rooms on offer or various configurations available I opted for the biggest capacity stated – reasoning that it would be very strange, though not impossible, that a venue understated its maximum capacity.

Taking into account Sally’s Autumn 2018 tour dates as they appeared this morning, her capacities are as follows:

Date Venue Town Capacity
19-Sep The Met Abertillery 216
20-Sep Huntingdon Hall Worcester 330
21-Sep Octagon Theatre Yeovil 622
24-Sep Regis Centre Bognor 357
25-Sep Epstein Theatre Liverpool 380
26-Sep City Hall Newcastle 2135
27-Sep Burnley Mechanics Burnley 493
28-Sep William Aston Hall Wrexham 1200
03-Oct The Radlett Centre Hertfordshire 300
05-Oct Margate Winter Gardens Margate 1400
08-Oct Guildhall Winchester Winchester 620
11-Oct Royal Hippodrome Theatre Eastbourne 500
12-Oct Assembly Hall Theatre Tunbridge Wells 1020
17-Oct Palace Theatre Mansfield 534
18-Oct Phoenix Theatre Castleford 300
18-Oct Pavilion Theatre Rhyl 1031
22-Oct Cork Opera House Cork 1000
23-Oct Town Hall Theatre Galway 393
24-Oct Theatre Royal Waterford 432
25-Oct The Helix Theatre Dublin 1860
26-Oct Ulster Hall Belfast 1000
27-Oct Millennium Forum Londonderry 1000
30-Oct The Grand Pavilion Matlock Bath 550
31-Oct The Orchard Theatre Dartford 956
01-Nov Hazlitt Theatre Maidstone 382
02-Nov Palace Theatre Redditch 420
05-Nov Stockport Plaza Stockport 1314
06-Nov Grand Theatre Lancaster 457
07-Nov New Theatre Royal Lincoln 475
08-Nov Melton Theatre Melton Mowbray 340
14-Nov New Victoria Theatre Woking 1300
19-Nov The Brindley Theatre Runcorn 358
20-Nov The Festival Drayton Centre Drayton 200
21-Nov Queen’s Theatre Barnstaple 680
22-Nov Wycombe Swan High Wycombe 1076

While there are clearly some sizeable venues in there – Newcastle City Hall and The Helix in Dublin in particular – I was quite surprised by how many smaller venues are included in the list. Of the 35 Autumn Tour dates, the average capacity was 732, and the median was just 550 (suggesting the average had been skewed upwards by those Newcastle and Dublin venues).

Equally, I was a little surprised to see the only sold-out shows on the list as of this morning are the 330-seater Huntingdon Hall in Worcester, the 357-seater Regis Hall in Bognor, and the 300-seater Radlett Centre in Hertfordshire. In fact, as of this morning, a the box office informed me that there were still 29 tickets available for the first show of the tour, the 216-seater in Abertillery.

full theatre crowd

All of this may, of course, mean nothing at all – it may be that larger venues weren’t available on the dates Sally needed them, or that Sally wanted to go to smaller towns to reach fans who didn’t want to travel to bigger cities like Birmingham, Edinburgh or Glasgow (all notably absent from her schedule), or that Sally had decided to aim for more intimate venues. However, another plausible explanation is that fewer people are interested in seeing stage mediumship shows these days. It’ll certainly be interesting to see whether Sally’s fifth-place Celebrity Big Brother finish changes that.

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Guest Authors

The Merseyside Skeptics Society is a non-profit group who aims to promote scientific skepticism and rational thinking. While we do have an organising board, to make decisions in the interest of the group and to plan specific group activities, we welcome the input of our members and attendees. That’s why we have an open monthly board meeting before each social event which anyone is welcome to attend and contribute to discussion.

It’s also why we have recently relaunched our blog showcasing the talent of some of the wonderful members and attendees of the Merseyside Skeptics Society.

We’ve had some really interesting topics with plant cell biologist and science communicator, Dr Geraint Parry explaining the differences between genetically modified and gene edited plants, Dr Sarah Clement has written about whether green spaces are really good for you, Christina Berry-Moorcroft wrote about the value of voluntourism and Karin McClure told us all about the GAPS diet.

If you’ve missed any of our previous posts you can find them in our archives.

We have some exciting topics coming up in the next few weeks but in the meantime, if you have any ideas for blog post topics or you think you’d like to write something for our blog, get in touch with our blog editor and let us know.

 

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Arsenic cures cancer!

Last week The Daily Mail boldly asked “Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug”. It’s worth pointing out here, that even in the subheading bullet points the Mail Online downplayed their excitement a little, de-escalating from arsenic being a potential “miracle cure” to “makes chemotherapy more effective”.

Headline from the Mail Online reading "Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug"

The Mail Online wasn’t the only one to cover this story. Medical News Today headlined “Poison or cure? Arsenic can help treat cancer, study finds” while Science Daily said “Arsenic in combination with an existing drug could combat cancer – An ancient medicine shows new promise” and Harvard Magazine asked “Is Arsenic a Key Ingredient in the Battle Against Cancer?”. So, the Mail Online seem to be in good company in reporting this apparently exciting news.

New use for a traditional medicine?

One thing all of these stories had in common was the detailing of arsenic in traditional Chinese medicine. Harvard Magazine quoted study author Kun Ping Lu: “In Chinese traditional medicine, “Arsenic has been used for thousands of years,” said Lu. “Its oxidized form is the active ingredient” for a concoction the Chinese called “magic bullet,” which was used to treat a specific kind of leukemia, APL”.

Arsenic, in fact, has been claimed to treat a whole range of diseases throughout history – in Ancient Greek times it was used to treat ulcers and in Chinese Traditional Medicine it’s been used for over 2000 years. Arsenic was once added to Indian Ayurvedic herbal remedies and when Paracelsus, an Italian Professor of Medicine from the 1500s was skeptical of the old methods of balancing humours to treat disease, he introduced arsenic as an alternative. Paracelsus, in fact, stumbled across a genuine therapeutic action of arsenic in its ability to treat syphilis – an indication for which arsenic was used well into the 20th Century until antibiotics came along.

an open brown medicine bottle laying on its side containing a white powder and labelled "acid arsenic"

But arsenic has not only been a persistent element in traditional medicine, it has also been used to treat cancer – first, to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia in the 1930s and later to treat acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL). Arsenic trioxide (ATO) has been used to treat APL since its approval in 1995.

The study

The study the Mail Online et al. referenced was summarised in Nature Communications earlier this year in an article titled “Arsenic targets Pin1 and cooperates with retinoic acid to inhibit cancer-driving pathways and tumor-initiating cells”. The study is apparently based on three things:

  • A protein called Pin1 is important in cancer
  • Arsenic trioxide (ATO) is a treatment for cancer
  • All-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) inhibits Pin1

A good introduction to any peer-reviewed article will use scientific literature to convince you that the question the researchers have asked is a valid one and set their work within the context of what is known in the field. At first glance, this article is particularly industrious in the effort to convince the reader on the three areas above. They strongly stress that “Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer. Pin1 is hyperactivated in most human cancers and correlates with poor clinical outcome”.

ATO and leukaemia

ATO has been approved for use in a certain kind of leukaemia called acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL) for many years and is successfully used in combination with ATRA in patients with APL. There are very few alternative treatments for this form of leukaemia and ATO combined with ATRA has low toxicity.

The underlying mechanism of this treatment is down to the existence of a protein called PML-RARα which causes APL. PML-RARα doesn’t exist in normal conditions however patients with APL have a genetic mutation which produces this fusion of the genes for two individual proteins PML and RARα – this generates the fusion protein, PML-RARα. It doesn’t really matter what PML-RARα does, only that it drives APL and it doesn’t exist outside of disease. Studies have shown that ATO binds to the PML part of this fusion protein and degrades it.

an image taken from one of the study figures showing the chemical structure of Pin1 and the chemical structure of ATO - the two are shown overlapping to indicate where ATO binds in Pin1

The chemical structure of Pin1 is shown with ATO (I) sitting within in apparent binding pocket on the protein. This image is adapted from the paper.

ATO and Pin1

But the authors of this study were interested in the effect of arsenic on a completely different protein – Pin1.

They don’t really explain why they thought arsenic might remove Pin1 in cancer cells. They used a technique to identify ATRA as a drug of interest, but it seems like they only looked at ATO because it’s already used in combination with ATRA.

In their study the authors find that treating cancer cells with arsenic in the lab reduces the levels of Pin1. They also show that ATO and ATRA combined, reduce cancer cell growth and reduce tumour size in mice. And they go some way towards explaining the mechanism behind these interactions and discounting alternative explanations for their findings.

In many ways, it’s a solid paper.

So why am I skeptical?

There are a few reasons, though, to be wary of the findings in this paper and the way it has been presented. Firstly, it’s the particularly hyped up nature of the story – arsenic has been used to treat leukaemia since the mid-1990s, this isn’t really news. But it does make me wonder if there’s a particular reason this article might be so strongly endorsed.

The authors also don’t really explain why they picked arsenic in the first place other than they’re interested in ATRA and Pin1… In fact they’re very, very interested in Pin1.

They argue “that Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer” – which is particularly interesting because as a cancer researcher with a PhD in cancer cell biology, I’ve never even heard of this protein. They reference three papers to support their claim but two of them are from the group’s own lab – the final paper they reference, an article titled “Pin1 in cancer” is from a separate source. This unrelated (and therefore, unbiased to some degree) article argues that Pin1 is hyperactivated in around 10% of all cancers. That number is pretty high, but it is certainly not enough to say that Pin1 is a “critical driver” in “most human cancers”.

So why are the authors so keen on Pin1? The suggestion that it’s a “unique drug target” might give us a clue.

five stacks of silver coins increasing in height from left to right

At the end of the article is the heading “Competing interests” under which is stated “K.P.L. and X.Z.Z. are inventors of Pin1 technology, which was licensed by BIDMC to Pinteon Therapeutics. Both Dr. Lu and Dr. Zhou own equity in, and consult for, Pinteon. Their interests were reviewed and are managed by BIDMC in accordance with its conflict of interest policy. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.”

Pinteon Therapeutics is a “private venture backed biotechnology company focused on the discovery and development of breakthrough therapeutics targeting Pin1” and we can therefore assume that this company will make money from the generation of Pin1 inhibitors that can be used to treat cancer.

Of course, Pin1 inhibition might well make for an interesting cancer target – there’s no disputing that – but its promise might well be overstated both in this article and in the media coverage of the article.

Me? I’m suspending judgement until we see more compelling evidence.

 

Dr Alice Howarth, PhD

Alice is a cell biologist and cancer researcher who works in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is the Treasurer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-hosts the popular sceptical podcast Skeptics with a K. In her free time she Instagrams photos of her ridiculous dog, Lupin and watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad infinitum. Find her at DrAlice.blog or @AliceEmmaLouise on social media.

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Green is Good?

You may have heard that exposure to nature can improve your health*. There are also many trends floating around the Internet that claim to leverage the benefits of nature to improve your physical and mental health. While proponents claim to be driven by evidence, is there really evidence that nature can improve your health? And if so, is it really necessary to reorganise your daily life, drive out to the wilderness, and/or buy expensive accoutrements in order to leverage the benefits?

Popular Claims

Among the most prominent trends is earthing or grounding, a practice popularised by a variety of holistic health devotees, from nature-loving vegans and Ayurvedic enthusiasts to paleo and primal dieters and Silicon valley biohackers. The trend is based on the idea that the earth has a negative charge; but that modern life bombards us with positive charges, creating an imbalance and reducing our ability to combat free radicals. The benefits of grounding touted by advocates are vast, from reducing jetlag to balancing hormones and normalising blood pressure.

A large field under a blue almost cloudless sky

At its most basic, grounding advocates suggest we simply spend more time walking outside on soil and grass in bare feet; but many advocates also promote grounding mats, blankets, shoes, sheets, bags, and a variety of other devices to counteract modern life and provide ready (and overnight!) access to the benefits of the earth through an electrical charge. Most of these sites enthusiastically link to studies, but any effects seen in these small studies are miniscule and potentially the results of design flaws, as described in a recent segment of Skeptics with a K.

Forest bathing is an older cousin of grounding, referring to the Japanese practice of using your senses to soak in the forest atmosphere. Increasingly popular outside of Japan, it has a small number of researchers who suggest it is not only a way to combat the psychological stresses of increasingly urban life but also a way to combat cancer, lower blood pressure, and boost immune function. Although one would think this is a fairly solitary endeavour, as with many holistic practices, its Western reinterpretation includes guided group visits and sometimes even hugging and speaking to trees.People walking along a footpath surrounded by trees

Understanding the connections between exposure to nature and human health

For most people, the idea of sleeping on a specially designed electrical mat and wandering around barefoot in forests are beyond what they are willing to do for health. Access to nature can also be challenging for city dwellers, and in most developed countries, more than 75% of the population lives in urban areas. In the UK that number is over 90%. While cities offer many benefits, urbanisation increases the incidence of a host of health problems and associated socio-economic costs. For these reasons, it’s perhaps more helpful to investigate what we actually know about urban green space and human health, to see if there are measurable benefits.

A tarmac road lined with trees

The evidence

A considerable body of research is developing, suggesting positive impacts of being in, and leaving near, green space. The amount of green space seems more important for perceived health than the amount of urbanisation, although certain groups may benefit more.

The benefits

Exposure to green spaces has been shown to relieve stress and promote relaxation, and has positive impacts on affect and reducing sadness, which improve cardiovascular disease outcomes and all-cause mortality. The effect may be amplified by the fact that people prefer green spaces for physical activity, making exercise and active forms of transport more attractive. Some studies have shown decreases in salivary cortisol and reduced blood pressure, with women potentially more negatively affected by lack of green space. Although some reviews have noted this effect is not consistent across studies.

Increasingly studies are looking at the dose of nature that we actually need to experience these benefits.  Most studies suggest that the required dose is likely relatively small (perhaps only 5-10 minutes on a given day). Benefits are evident whether you are merely looking at nature or exercising in it, although the latter, perhaps understandably, offers benefits more quickly. Lower rates of blood pressure and depression have been documented from just 30 minutes in green space per week. The shape of the dose-response curve is still in question.

A footpath beneath lots of trees with sunlight shining through

Countering harm

It is also worth noting that green space can contribute to reducing air pollution, which is a major contributor to poor human health outcomes. This effect is direct, in that vegetation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce pollutants such as particulates (PM10), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), and nitrogen and sulphur oxides (NOx and SOx). Green space makes walking and cycling more attractive. This contributes not only to improving air quality via reduced vehicle use, but the increased physical activity has associated health benefits.

Green space can also reduce the urban heat island (UHI) effect, wherein cities are hotter than surrounding areas because of the prevalence of dark surfaces such as asphalt and concrete. UHI also contributes to poor air and water quality. By lessening this effect, green spaces can improve the urban environment, decrease health impacts of heat and even reduce mortality from heat waves.

Caveats within the literature

There is a lot of academic literature focusing on the connections between human health and urban green space**. This literature is both theoretical and empirical, and methods are a mixed bag. For example:

  • Self-reported data from individuals on perceived improvements in health (usually gathered via questionnaires)
  • Correlations between access to green space and population-level data
  • Direct measurements of key indicators (e.g. blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol) either linked to exposure or accessibility of green space.

What constitutes health varies across studies, with the first two categories often adopting a fairly broad definition that includes physical health as well as mental health (especially anxiety and depression) and broader indicators such as happiness, life satisfaction, and social cohesion.

A body of water with a bridge in the background and trees on either side

As with all social and health research in the “real world”, teasing out causal relationships is difficult. Confounding factors are controlled for, to an extent, but there are so many causal factors that complicate the issue. For example, people prefer to exercise in green space, but green space tends to be more scarce and of lower quality in areas with multiple social, economic, and health deprivations. However increasing green space (and improving its quality, addressing personal safety issues, etc.) can also improve these indicators.

Conclusion

Spending more time in green areas, whether forests urban parks, is likely to offer you some health benefits and encourage you to be more active. The great news is that it needn’t take much of your time, and no special mats, shoes, blankets, or spiritual guides are required. Green spaces also address some of the environmental problems in urban areas, providing benefits for both people and nature.

Dr Sarah Clement standing in front of a wall and smilingDr Sarah Clement

Sarah is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning within the School of Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental governance, science-based policy, and nature-based solutions. She is particularly interested in how reforming policy and practice can enable better ecological, socio-economic, and democratic outcomes, particularly during periods of rapid environmental and social change.  Sarah has worked in the field of environmental science and policy for 16 years as an environmental consultant, researcher, and environmental policy advisor in Australia, the UK, and the USA. She is also on the board of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. She spends most of her spare time hiking in nature, travelling, lifting heavy things, adoring her cat, and documenting all of these in pictures. She tweets as @DrSarahClement, and posts said pictures on IG @umsfromumbridge.

 

Footnotes:

* The most widely used definition of ‘health’ is from the World Health Organisation: ‘physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Operationalising and measuring this concept is a major challenge that leads to the variety of measures discussed here.

** Also called “green infrastructure” and “nature based solutions” in the literature and public policy. To complicate matters, “blue infrastructure” (i.e. water) is often, but not always, embedded in these terms.

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The Potato Famine Diet

I’m not a fan of ‘the past’. There’s too much of it quite frankly, most of it is messy and violent, full of bad people with bad ideas and there’s no internet. (Yep, sorry folks, I’m one of those dreaded ‘millennials’ that are apparently ruining everything, sorry……..#notsorry)

I feel in the minority however, most people these days love the past! They’re obsessed with it. So much so they will stop at nothing to take us back to it!

It may surprise you that I am not actually talking about politics (for once). I’m talking about food. More specifically I’m talking about diets. There’s a trend in faddy diets and ‘clean’ eating at the moment that focusses on going ‘back to basics’, going back to a simpler time and eating like our ancestors did. They obviously make a convincing argument, the whole ‘wellness’, ‘clean eating’ movement are extremely popular and don’t seem to be going anywhere. (Dammit). So with that in mind…….

tomatoes, garlic and a red pepper on a wooden chopping board

Looking for a diet that’s based on a famine that killed over 1 million people!? Well look no more my friend because I present to you the ‘Irish peasant diet’!………seriously. That’s a thing.

The Irish ‘peasant’ diet

I spotted an article on twitter from The Irish Independent titled ‘Is this Ireland’s answer to the Med diet?’ In which it went on to describe how research had found that a diet from mid-Victorian Ireland in poor, rural communities made them healthier than their city dwelling counterparts, they were living longer and contracting fewer diseases, and therefore we should adopt a similar diet now.

The ‘diet’ consisted of vegetables, milk and fish. Sounds pretty healthy right? What’s my issue here?

The average life expectancy of a man in Ireland during the 1800’s was 40 years old. Sanitation was basic, people were starving and healthcare was minimal if there at all. The reality is that ‘peasants’ were eating what was available to them. Sure, it was a ‘low-calorie’ diet but when you look at all other lifestyle factors that might not count for much. The article mentions that Tuberculosis cases in rural areas were lower compared to cities and attributes that to die. But let’s remember that in Victorian city slums, people were living in unsanitary conditions, closely packed together with limited access to clean water and that tends to help diseases, like tuberculosis, spread like wildfire. The article also talks about the benefits ‘peasants’ had due to their ‘low caloric intake’……….aka. STARVING TO DEATH.

lots of potatoes

Following the logic of that article I have a few of my own ideas on ‘limiting caloric intake’: How about the 1930’s ‘Stalin Diet’?, or maybe the 1940’s ‘Warsaw Ghetto Diet’? or if you fancy something a little more up to date why not the 1980’s ‘Ethiopia Diet’? Sound flippant? So does basing a diet on a tragedy that killed over a million people…

Maybe I’m wrong though, maybe these Victorian peasants weren’t starving because they had no food, maybe they were the early pioneers of the ‘Keto’ diet! – the diet based on the idea of putting your body in a state of ketosis to lose weight. It’s unlikely though….unless they were so determined to make their diet work that the death of millions didn’t prompt them to rethink their methods…..anyway, I digress.

We are living in a world that has never been more medically and scientifically advanced. Life expectancy and our ability to treat and cure disease has never been better and yet people are desperate to go backwards. Back to a simpler time, when we didn’t have the big scary GMO’s and nasty (un-defined) chemicals in our food. A simpler time, when disease amongst the poor was rife and living beyond 50 was a significant achievement.

The article does what a lot of the ‘it was better in the old days’ types tend to do which is cherry pick ‘evidence’. They select the positives and ignore everything else, presenting a false, rose tinted view which ignores the inequality and suffering of many in favour of pushing an agenda……….still talking about diets. Definitely diets…….

The article gives the opinions from a few nutritionists, one of which says…

“Peasants may also have experienced periods of food scarcity. Whilst this is clearly not always beneficial and malnutrition would have been a concern, we now understand that limiting caloric intake can trigger biological processes that support health and help prevent disease.”

two hands held outwards together cupped in a form of request

I had to read this quote several times to fully understand the point she was trying to make. Food scarcity is ‘not always beneficial’? When is a lack of availability of a basic human resource ever ‘beneficial’ exactly? It’s fine though because we now know that those malnourished peasants were clearly just paving the way for the ‘faddy’ diets of the future right? This take is flippant and condescending. This ‘peasant diet’ is nothing more than fetishizing and trivialising poverty.

A symptom of a wider problem?

If we move away from the past and take a look at the present this patronising attitude towards poverty is everywhere. Although instead of praising the poor on their dietary ‘choices’ we now condemn them.

There is a great deal of ignorance when it comes to poverty and the realities of living with austerity. This can be seen clearly in the approach to advising or criticising poor people on their diet. You might see ‘clean eaters’, chefs and other middle class ‘foodies’ telling people to stop buying ready meals, cheap takeaways and processed food, or as Mr Jamie Oliver calls it, ‘crap’, and instead get down to our local farmer’s markets at the weekend, buy fresh produce, prepare fresh meals for their families everyday and just live a ‘better, healthier life’. They see these changes as easy and simple, insinuating that a failure to do so is just down to laziness and a lack of self-care.

three bacon cheeseburgers on a wooden board

What they fail to understand or even consider is the restrictions that exist on many, when it comes to what food is available to them. Much like the ‘peasant diet’, it isn’t about choice. The truth is that, now, in 2018, ‘junk’ food is widely available, it’s convenient and it’s affordable. Many families and individuals in this country are living hand to mouth or having to rely on foodbanks (a polite reminder that it is 2018). They can’t afford (whether it is time of money) to get out to a market every weekend. As Anthony Warner (aka The Angry Chef) said, “We need to stop mistaking the markers of inequality for the causes of inequality”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of people giving advice are well meaning, but they’re not helping. They’re just being patronising.

Oh, and another thing! Seeing as I’m on the subject. What is the obsession with poor people owning TV’s? It is often always a criticism of people on benefits or below the poverty line that they have a tv. The TV always gets a mention. I have 3 issues with this…

  1. They’re often always described as being a ‘big’, or ‘massive’ or ‘huge’ flatscreen tv……ALL tv’s are flatscreen’s these days. It’s just a TV.
  2. Who cares if they own a TV?! We don’t know the circumstances of how they came to own that TV or how much it cost. That TV is a source of entertainment for that family or individual, why is that an issue?
  3. It’s 2018, people have TV’s. What kind of Dickensian vision of poverty do the upper and middle classes of this country have of poor people?! And more importantly, is that vision how they think the poor should be?

There are many reasons why someone might struggle to eat a healthy balanced diet. Disability, chronic illness, employment or lack of, isolation, a potato famine. We need to stop blaming and misrepresenting people in poverty for things they cannot control, all that does is gloss over the chronic failings in our ability as a society to care for our most vulnerable in times of vast inequality, it ignores all other lifestyle factors and it completely disregards people suffering in order to justify an agenda that leads to widening inequality and punishing the poor just for being poor………………………………..…………….DIETS! DEFINITELY STILL TALKING ABOUT DIETS!…..

 

Karin McClure

Karin has been actively involved in skepticism for 4 years and has been involved with the Merseyside Skeptics for 3 years. She has given talks on the pseudoscience around diets and health at QED
Skepti-camp, Ignite Liverpool and Merseyside Skeptics and has been interested in diet and health for 3 years. Karin is also an artist and has sold her work at events around the country and online, information can be found on her website lunalynes.wordpress.com where she also shares posts about her experiences with mental health, as well as art updates.

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The problem with volunteering in the Global South

Voluntourism – the act of both volunteering and travelling a new place at the same time – is a booming multi-billion dollar industry; with some sort of trip to the Global South to work in an orphanage or build a well becoming a rite of passage of sorts. This market for Western volunteers is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right or duty, to bestow our benevolence on people. Who cares if we don’t speak the language, don’t have the experience for the jobs we’re doing, or don’t know anything about what life is like in the country we will be visiting? We want to help, and that’s a good thing.

More harm than good?

Christina and two Ugandan youth activists sitting along with their backs to the wall of a shop chatting

Meeting with local youth activists at a village shop in Busede, Jinja District, Uganda

 

Despite this obvious ethical nuance, and the “Gap Yah” stereotypes of posh kids with saviour complexes, sporting elephant print trousers, I have no doubt that most people who undertake voluntourism do so with the best of intentions. I was one of those people once (sans the elephant print trousers) and I’m pretty certain I am not a horrible person. I was, however, hugely naive, ill-informed and probably as much use as a chocolate teapot. People don’t choose to travel halfway around the world to spend weeks or months of their life doing more harm than good, but often, being part of a voluntourism scheme can do just that. If you’ll forgive me the religious nod, as the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

A group of UK and Ugandan volunteers and activists stood together in front of a tree facing the camera

UK volunteers with Zambian volunteers and community activists at a community HIV testing event. Nkumbi, Mkushi District, Zambia

A group of Ugandan young people and Christina pulling faces and waving their arms towards the camera

Filming a music video with a local youth group. Busembatia, Iganga District, Uganda

After school games and songs with local children in Mukonchi, Kabwe District, Zambia

A group of Zambian students all holding a white certificate proudly and smiling at the camera outside in Zambia

Students of Nkumbi Basic School proudly displaying completion certificates for a Peer Leader training event. Nkumbi, Mkushi Distric, Zambia.

We’ve seen this pattern of failing at intervention in the past, with foreign aid propping up dictatorships and fostering corruption and with the dumping of cheap food and clothes collapsing industry and encouraging a dependency culture. This is down in large part to outside actors deciding what is good for people without research or consultation, and yet we appear to have not learnt from our mistakes. Voluntourism has been linked to commodifying children, endangering vulnerable people, encouraging harmful stereotypes and to damaging local economies, as it is often organised by profit driven companies. Being suckered in by a company, who will charge you thousands of pounds to gawp at some poverty porn for a fortnight, brings broad and complex socio-economic and ethical issues. By continuing to support voluntourism trips to countries that have historically been classified as the “third world” we reinforce ideas that countries in the Global South need to be saved by us, which further disseminates a colonial mindset between Western countries and the rest of the world.

Commodifying the vulnerable

Perhaps these issues are best illustrated by means of example, so let’s look at working in an orphanage, which is one of the most popular voluntourism trips. Orphanage programmes, whilst being really good at pulling at the heart strings of travellers, are also hugely problematic. In areas of extreme poverty, people paying money for the chance to interact with orphaned children creates a market for orphans. It has become a good business model to fill orphanages with children with families to tempt tourists in to donating, indeed it is estimated that 80% of children living in orphanages have one living parent. That’s of course not to say that orphans don’t exist, but it does mean that you should be cynical about the opportunity to “help out some orphans.”

A group of Ugandan students all wearing a school uniform of white shirts and navy trousers sat at wooden desks watching their teacher at the front of the class. Many of the students are looking at the camera.

Sexual health class with students of Busede Basic School. Busede, Jinja District, Uganda

But, what if the orphanage was legitimate? I’m pretty confident in saying a short term volunteering stint still isn’t a good idea. For children growing up in orphanages, being able to create long-term, stable attachments to caregivers is paramount and parading twenty-odd, twenty-somethings through for a cuddle every other week does the exact opposite thing. Research shows that the experience can have a terrible impact on the physical, social and intellectual development of children, with a 2009 Romanian study showing that the institutionalisation of toddlers is one of the biggest threats to early brain development. And that’s before we’ve even discussed the ethical issues of pimping out affection from orphaned kids to strangers who have rarely gone through any comprehensive vetting procedure!

Still want to volunteer?

If you still really want to volunteer in the Global South, and there are lots of reasons why you should, there are a few questions you can ask yourself, and a few measures you can try to put in place to avoid doing more harm than good:

A Ugandan teacher and her young students gathered around a blackboard while a young girl writes on the board.

Pre-school class in orphanage near Bugagali, Jinja District, Uganda

 

  • Why are you doing this? Are you going overseas to help, or to look good or forward your career? Be introspective about your motives and avoid saviour complex.
  • What are the intentions of the organisation you’re working with? As we’ve learnt, even if your intentions are well meaning, that might not be the case for the organisation you’re working with/for. Don’t be afraid to look in to their financial breakdowns, impact reports, the types of marketing they use (and why!) and whether they offer community led initiatives, which are often much more sustainable. If in doubt, don’t give them your money.
  • Are you the right person for the job? Would you be trusted to do this work in your own country? If the answer is no, then you’re probably not the right person for the job in another country, either. A popular activity for many volunteers is building, but if you’re not skilled in building then you could be putting people at risk and stealing work from community members who do have the experience that you’re lacking. The kind of volunteering you do should depend on your skills and qualifications, not just what you’d like to do.
  • Do you have the time needed for this project? It should go without saying that longer term development projects tend to be more sustainable and effective than flash in the pan initiatives. If you’re going to be volunteering as a teacher then a week is probably not long enough to have any real impact, however, perhaps it could be enough time to do some skill sharing and peer training with a teacher in the community, so do look at other “less hands on” ways to support.
Walking down a populated street in Uganda, a group of Ugandan and UK volunteers with their backs to the camera

Group of volunteers in Jinja Town, Uganda

 

Better ways to help

Perhaps after asking yourself the above questions you’ve realised that voluntourism isn’t for you, but you probably still want to do something. Luckily, there’s lots of ways you can influence change without hopping on a plane and parting with huge amounts of cash. You can volunteer at home, in person and online, on campaigns that will directly impact the issues you care about. You can also vote with your money by buying ethically, donating wisely and supporting entrepreneurs with microfinance loans.  Finally, you can start to dismiss some of these stereotypes about the Global South and how much voluntourism really helps, maybe sharing this blog could be a good conversation starter with your networks?

 

Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Christina is a Communications and Fundraising Manager for a UK wide dementia charity, and Trustee for a women’s focused refugee and asylum seeker charity. With over a decade of experience in the third sector, and a specialism in campaigns, capacity building and social impact, Christina has worked on issues like global health, hunger, and wealth inequality in both the UK and across Sub-Saharan Africa. In her spare time she’s an avid bad dancing doer, board game player, city break haver and tea drinker. She tweets as @ChrissieBM, but can make no apologies for her endorsement of terrible puns online.

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