Eat more, exercise less and lose weight – honest!

Why TV scientists can't be trusted

Helen Pickersgill 25 September 2005

Most television science would not last a minute if subject to peer review…

To a scientist such as myself, who is trained to critically assess everything presented to them, I squirm with embarrassment at the scientific data presented by supposed professionals selling self-improvement products on television.

In fact, the whole business is a mockery to science. Want to change your weight, age or any internal bodily function? Well, some people claim there is a cure for all. Take age, for example. I know what science is capable of, and there is currently nothing available that can make you look twenty years younger except lots of money coupled to a very skilful surgeon. Another one of my favourites claims urges us to eat more and exercise less to lose weight. To me, the blindingly obvious result of eating more and exercising less is adding on the pounds. But for the non-scientist it’s apparently not quite as obvious what is and isn’t possible. As soon as some guy dons a white coat (the clipboard I find a bit overdone) to tell us the marvels of a product, though, people believe it. The retail industry is using science to good effect, particularly in its clever presentation. First of all, television scientists are always shiny and energetic people with perfect linguistic skills for endorsing products with such conviction that it’s hard to doubt them. Secondly, they use imaginative ways to present their data, including graphs drawn on edible medium, interactive aids with bright colours to represent every result, and words like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘proves’. Even more exciting are the cartoons they employ to show how the product works, usually involving a little guy inside our bodies soothing our various indiscretions with magic hands.

Are scientists and their persuits really that shiny? Hardly. My academic colleagues and I are usually mentally exhausted, struggling with even the most simple of experiments with not a white coat in sight. We stutter through public presentations of arcane, black-and-white experiments know as ‘Western blots’ or ‘agarose gels’, using carefully ambiguous words like ‘strongly suggests’ and ‘provides evidence to support’ that leave a non-scientist in serious doubt as to whether we even believe ourselves. If I ever get to the level of understanding needed for the cartoon stage, it consists merely of circles and squares representing different proteins, sometimes in colour with clever shading if I have the time and inclination.

Another difference is that academic doctors are not addressed by their first name. I am not Doctor Helen – at least not during daylight hours.

But the most relevant distinction here is not the presentation, which is obvious. It’s the quality of the results. Most television science would not last a minute if subject to peer review, the way academic science is judged. Above all, it is not considered good scientific practice to pick and choose the results you show. I can’t imagine that every person using those abdominal machines ends up with a six-pack you can spot from twenty metres. Scientific experiments should be repeated independently multiple times because there is always variation. Independently means testing different ‘samples’, which in this case means different people, because some like eating cream cakes between workouts. Scientifically you should gather all results from every experiment, present it in a graph (with error bars and fully labelled axes) and display the average or only the most representative sample – which isn’t the ex-body builder who spends every waking moment in the gym anyway!

However, television science has found a way to get around this universal measurement for scientific worth. If you have no eyelids and perfect vision, in the right light you can spot the disclaimer, flashed up for half a millisecond, declaring "results not typical". I could never get away with that!

Products shown in advertisements don’t normally convince scientists, but they readily captivate at least some of the population, possibly because they provide a simple solution to popular problems. Medical science is working towards solutions to health problems, but we aren’t there yet, and that’s where the advertising agencies come in. They’re filling a gap in the market, using science to endorse products that on the whole don’t work. How nice to think that taking a pill could sort out not only our internal ailments, but could also reduce our workload, improve our personal skills and help us afford that adorable pair of diamond earrings we’ve had our visually enhanced eyes on.

Science can’t offer all the solutions – currently we’re pretty stumped by more pressing dilemmas, such as cancer and potential viral outbreaks These afflictions are hardly rare in daily life, but solving them won’t match the glamour factor of giving us the body of a teenager when we’re forty.

We are trying though. Scientists also get old and out of shape. But for now, we’re trying to eat less and exercise more.

Other articles by Helen Pickersgill