Friday, 6 December 2019

Fake alcohol news

The BBC has still not corrected its story from Tuesday which falsely claimed that alcohol-related deaths are 'dropping in Scotland'. This fake news has been spread around the world by advocates of minimum pricing and will doubtless continue to do so. The BBC is, after all, a supposedly trusted source.


This is not an isolated example of the public being misled about what has happened in Scotland since minimum pricing was introduced. I've written a whole article about it for Spiked. Do have a read of it.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Nattering about the Nanny State on Newsnight

Courtesy of Dick

Last night, Newsnight got four people together to discuss the issues that they think are being overlooked in the election campaign. I was one of them and the topic I picked was (you guessed it) the nanny state, using the Nanny State Index as the hook.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there is very little in the way of paternalistic 'public health' policies in most of the main parties' manifesto. They are almost entirely absent from the Tories' manifesto and Labour's pledges are pretty vague.

That could be a good thing if it means they don't plan to interfere, but recent history shows that politicians are happy to introduce nanny state policies regardless of whether they were in the manifesto or not. If I recall correctly, there was nothing about plain packaging or sugar taxes in the Conservative manifesto of 2010, and Labour's 2005 manifesto explicitly said it would exempt wet-led pubs from the smoking ban.

There's a clip from the show below and you can watch the whole thing here. It's the first item in the show.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

The BBC is lying about alcohol-related deaths

Perhaps it was too much to hope the media to report the news that alcohol-related deaths rose in Scotland last year while they fell in England and Wales, but I didn't expect the BBC to flat out lie about it.

Almost unbelievably, the BBC's story is headlined...

Alcohol death rates dropping in Scotland

What?! This is Pravda level stuff.

Death rates caused by alcohol have dropped in Scotland in the past 10 years, according to new figures. 

Yes, sort of. There was a big decline between 2006 and 2012. Since then, they have risen every year except 2017 and they rose again last year - the year in which minimum pricing began. 

It is fair to say that alcohol death rates dropped, albeit a while ago. It is not fair to say that they are 'dropping'. That is, by any reasonable standard, a lie.

Since the drop occurred between 2006 and 2012, nobody could possibly attribute it to a policy that was introduced in May 2018.

And yet, incredibly, that is what the BBC tries to do...

Charities said it gave cause for optimism that minimum unit pricing was working, but warned that further action was needed to curb alcohol harm. 

The charity in question is the state-funded pressure group Alcohol Focus Scotland which works hand in glove with the Scottish government. To be fair to them, their 'cause for optimism' is not the death count but the supposed decline in alcohol consumption (of just under 3 per cent) that occurred in 2018 (although sales figures from the off trade do not support this). Tying this quote to the mortality figures is an invention of the BBC's.

The charity has suggested the minimum price of alcohol could be increased and alcohol marketing restricted. 

Well, there's a surprise. Needless to say, no other viewpoint features in the article.

I don't often make a complaint to the BBC, but enough is enough. I encourage you to do the same.

I've screenshotted the offending passages on the off chance that somebody at the BBC has integrity and corrects it.

Meanwhile, here's the policy and advocacy director of the NCD Aliiance (and former head of the European Public Health Alliance) spreading fake news. This literally could not be less true.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Alcohol-related deaths down in England, up in Scotland

More bad news for minimum pricing advocates today. The Office for National Statistics has published its first data set for alcohol-related mortality since minimum pricing was introduced in Scotland.

Regular readers will know that the number of alcohol-related deaths rose (by 16) in Scotland in 2018. Almost nobody else knows this because no media outlet bothered to report it, despite the figures being officially published in June.

The ONS confirms this rise, but its data also allow us to compare Scotland with the rest of Britain for the first time. If the number of deaths had risen sharply in England, it could have spared the temperance's lobby blushes somewhat, as they could have claimed that Scotland was only saved from a similarly dramatic rise by minimum pricing.

Alas for them, the number of deaths in England fell by 145. Wales also saw a decline. No figures are available for Northern Ireland.

Put another way, the alcohol-related death rate rose from 20.5 to 20.8 per 100,000 in Scotland, but fell from 11.1 to 10.7 per 100,000 in England and from 13.5 to 13.1 per 100,000 in Wales.

The usual caveat applies about the data showing the calendar year of 2018, rather than the full twelve months after minimum pricing - not that this bothered campaigners when they were hyping flawed consumption figures and cherry-picked mortality figures.

Still, it doesn't look good for the 'public health' lobby's favourite 'evidence-based' anti-alcohol policy. The Sheffield model famously predicted 58 fewer deaths in the first year.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Shooting the medium - the Lancet versus #yes2meat

Remember the EAT-Lancet diet that was promoted at great expense by the billionaire couple Gunhild and Petter Stordalen in January? It called for people to restrict themselves to portions of meat, eggs and dairy that make a WWII ration look like a feast. And the 'public health' lobby wanted to use government coercion to make it happen.

The Stordalens have since split up and the World Health Organisation has distanced itself from their movement, but Richard Horton's Lancet remains committed.

Last week, the once-great journal published a 'study' in which academics from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (which is a 'scientific partner to the EAT Foundation') complained that people had been writing mean tweets. They are annoyed that the EAT-Lancet diet was rounded mocked and criticised just before and after the launch.

They say...

Although the report was positively received by established international media outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times, it also led to highly polarised debates online including misinformation, conspiracy theories, and personal attacks along with the hashtag #yes2meat.

Who could have guessed that something that was received by the Guardian and the NYT would not be popular with the general public?!

To understand the effect of this controversy, we have collected and analysed a dataset of Twitter activity linked to EAT–Lancet and yes2meat with 4278 Twitter users and 8·5 million tweets. Our analysis confirms that a digital countermovement managed to organise rapidly, essentially dominating online discussions about the EAT–Lancet report in intriguing and worrying ways.

'Worrying', eh? So what happened?

Although #yes2meat, from the outset, was used to promote meat-based diets independently of the report, it rapidly became the term against the Commission that opponents organised around online. By actively promoting #yes2meat right before, during, and after the EAT–Lancet report launch, this counter movement was approximately ten times more likely to be negative about the report than positive or neutral. This scenario has resulted in the wide distribution of critical (and at times defamatory) articles on alternative media platforms. Hence, the EAT–Lancet report not only sparked the spread of a science-based message under the official hashtag #EATLancet, but also resulted in the formation of a new sceptical online community organising around a new hashtag #yes2meat. 

They provide a handy graphic to show how the pesky public came out in force to slam the new dietary regime.

There has been a lot of Twitter-based 'research' in 'public health' in recent years, particularly in the vaping space. Usually, the aim is to present normal members of the public as industry stooges or bots.

The authors of the present study don't attempt to do this. They have to admit that...

...this diffusion was not driven by automatically produced content through so-called social bots, but by a growing community of sceptical social media users.

The EAT-Lancet report was published at 11.30pm on January 16th (UK time). A press release was sent out two or three days earlier under embargo. I knew about it by January 14th so I'm sure plenty of other people did too.

Looking at the #yestomeat hashtag, the earliest relevant tweets are from January 14th.

The low carb, high fat (LCHF) community was particularly rattled by the study. I have written before about their zealous social media presence. Some of them are indeed inclined towards conspiracy theories, but since these theories mainly centre around the supposed influence of industry - particularly 'Big Food' - the Lancet is not well placed to complain. It was playing the same game at the time.

But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not after you. Those who pointed out that the EAT-Lancet project was a heavily funded attempt to push a near-vegan diet on the world had a point...

Having preempted the report, the #yes2meat hashtag went mildly viral, mainly among people who treat being a carnivore of a key part of their identity. Some of the tweets got hundreds of retweets, as you can see above. And whilst some of the tweets were of the tinfoil hat variety (this is Twitter after all), some of them linked to reasonable critiques...

Ultimately, what is the issue here? The EAT-Lancet report was designed to get maximum publicity. Sure enough, it was noticed by lots of people - many of whom found the whole thing preposterous and sinister. Some of them took to Twitter to criticise it. So what? Free speech, right?

The authors of the new Lancet study don't quite see it that way. What you and I might call robust criticism of a highly controversial proposal, they call 'content pollution'.

Scientists and journals face serious challenges in a rapidly changing media landscape that is susceptible to the intentional dissemination of misleading content. Health communication campaigns are clearly susceptible to polarisation, so-called content pollution, and disinformatin.

What evidence is there that there was intentional dissemination of misleading content? None is provided in the article.
The controversies online associated with the EAT–Lancet Commission, we believe, show how a rapidly changing media landscape and polarisationpose serious challenges to science communication on health and climate issues.

Or, to put it another way, the ability of journals such as the Lancet to exploit their fading reputations by publishing political tracts masquerading as scientific studies is being undermined by the great unwashed having a voice.

Scientists and scientific outlets such as The Lancet need to be continuously aware of, and act proactively, to avoid manipulation and misinformation about issues of fundamental importance for human health and the planet.

That rather begs the question, does it not? Some criticisms of the EAT-Lancet report were silly, but others were well founded and made in good faith. The Lancet can't be expected to engage with every critic, but it could try engaging with some of them. Instead, it arrogantly assumes that the problem is not with its own report but with social media for allowing people to express an alterntive view.