Gwyneth Pal­trow’s crys­tals will never be a match for big pharma

The National - News - - OPINION - DAMIEN McELROY Lon­don Bu­reau Chief

The Hol­ly­wood ac­tress Gwyneth Pal­trow of­fered a glimpse into the trou­bling shift away from ev­i­dence and rea­son­ing in the pub­lic sphere as she ad-libbed through an in­ter­view last week.

Asked about the prod­ucts sold through her highly prof­itable com­mer­cial ven­ture Goop, Ms Pal­trow was un­abashed about the apol­ogy she was or­dered to make for mis­rep­re­sent­ing the mirac­u­lous heal­ing prop­er­ties of items made from quartz and jade.

“It was just a ver­biage is­sue,” said the fa­mously grandil­o­quent ac­tress, who once de­scribed her di­vorce as “con­sciously un­cou­pling”.

The Goop phe­nom­e­non is one of a long line of ven­tures, from Paul Newman’s salad dress­ings to Linda McCart­ney’s pi­o­neer­ing veg­e­tar­ian ready meals, that have taken a celebrity name and built around it a suc­cess­ful busi­ness.

Goop ped­dles al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies and other sup­pos­edly whole­some of­fer­ings. Ms Pal­trow de­fended “an­cient heal­ing modal­i­ties” that have worked for cen­turies. When chal­lenged about this by a BBC in­ter­viewer, she spoke of the power of the hu­man body to heal it­self.

There is more and more of this think­ing around. Mod­ern medicine has length­ened life ex­pectancy and re­duced disease, but its virtues are now of­ten lost in a rush for folksy, “nat­u­ral” reme­dies. The Bri­tish tele­vi­sion medic Michael Mose­ley, for ex­am­ple, made his name pro­mot­ing the 5:2 Diet, a five-days-off, two-days-on fast­ing reg­i­men. Now, he is push­ing the idea of us­ing place­bos − a word that, he pointed out in a re­cent edi­tion of the BBC TV show Hori­zon, orig­i­nates from the Latin for “I shall please”.

On the pro­gramme, Mr Mose­ley fol­lowed a group of peo­ple who took dummy pills for back pain. One man used a wheel­chair and was tak­ing mor­phine to com­bat his dis­com­fort, yet he ended up walk­ing af­ter tak­ing a new kind of “med­i­ca­tion”. These blue-and-whitestriped pills were, in fact, made from ground rice. The sub­ject pro­claimed a cure, say­ing: “I got rid of the mor­phine and kept tak­ing your pills.”

This trial of 117 peo­ple took place in the north­ern English town of Black­pool, a place where one in five of the work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion has a med­i­cal di­ag­no­sis of back pain. At the trial’s end, 45 per cent of those tak­ing the placebo pills claimed to have been cured.

It is widely doc­u­mented that place­bos have pos­i­tive ef­fects on those to whom they are pre­scribed. How­ever, these out­comes are also de­scribed as tem­po­rary and in­con­sis­tent. It is also said that place­bos do not help to re­verse or ar­rest the pro­gres­sion of med­i­cal con­di­tions.

The one-off claims of tele­vised tri­als can be eas­ily dis­missed, as can slick mar­ket­ing that puts a mod­ern gloss on the sup­pos­edly time-worn prop­er­ties of crys­tals and other amulets. But gim­mickry is not con­fined to prof­itable busi­nesses fronted by en­ter­tain­ers. It ex­tends deep into pol­icy is­sues.

Last week also saw a great raft of pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing warn­ings that cli­mate change can only be stopped if hu­mans dras­ti­cally slash meat con­sump­tion. One ex­pert set a limit of one serv­ing of meat a week to save the planet.

For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, the meat in­dus­try is a key con­trib­u­tor to the car­bon emis­sions driv­ing up tem­per­a­tures across the globe. But head­lines sug­gest­ing that we should ba­si­cally give up meat are deeply mis­guided and counter-pro­duc­tive. Re­turn­ing farm­ing to its cot­tage in­dus­try roots could, af­ter all, shrink that car­bon foot­print.

There are many other con­trib­u­tors to the warm­ing of the planet, such as the avi­a­tion and ocean ship­ping in­dus­tries, non-es­sen­tial use of cars and all man­ner of other petrol-fu­elled ma­chin­ery. Then there’s the mas­sive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of the in­dus­trial farm­ing of crops such as soya beans and al­monds, which are used in meat and dairy sub­sti­tutes and have re­spec­tively con­trib­uted to de­for­esta­tion and droughts. Many sci­en­tists them­selves now say that tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions will prob­a­bly be the only means of pro­tect­ing the earth.

Mean­while, in re­cent years, the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can states have le­galised the med­i­cal use of cannabis. Europe is also jump­ing on the band­wagon, with Bri­tain set to ease re­stric­tions on the sale of cannabis-based medicine and Italy ready to make changes to its laws too.

Driv­ing these le­gal changes are in­di­vid­ual sto­ries of suf­fer­ing. Peo­ple seek­ing to al­le­vi­ate con­di­tions such as epilepsy via the use of cannabis oil have protested against the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of their needs. Pol­icy mak­ers have re­sponded by re­mov­ing le­gal bar­ri­ers, but lack the po­lit­i­cal will to em­brace a frame­work that har­nesses the prod­uct for med­i­cal ad­vances.

Many plants have health ben­e­fits and a large num­ber of highly ef­fec­tive phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals are de­rived from nat­u­ral sources, but in this in­stance it is not clear how the best ef­fects are de­liv­ered. At present, this plant can­not be prop­erly en­gi­neered to treat the spe­cific con­di­tions pre­sented by suf­fer­ers, be­cause the sci­ence be­hind it is so frag­ile.

This is an en­tirely typ­i­cal dilemma thrown up by a rush away from best prac­tice in the pur­suit of short­cuts. The model of med­i­cal progress across the 20th cen­tury and into this one has been built on con­tin­ual sci­en­tific break­throughs by the now widely vil­i­fied big pharma in­dus­try.

It is un­der­stand­able that peo­ple are keen to search for quick so­lu­tions that are sym­pa­thetic to their ex­pe­ri­ences. How­ever, in so do­ing we of­ten for­get the ba­sic prin­ci­ples that have un­der­pinned progress. The sys­tem­atic, sci­en­tific ap­proaches that have so ef­fec­tively tack­led disease and suf­fer­ing, and in­creased the length and qual­ity of our lives, re­main our best hopes for the fu­ture.

In our rush to em­brace folksy reme­dies to health and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, we risk aban­don­ing sci­ence

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