An overdose of headlines


I'm suffering from an overdose of headlines again.

This time, the scare is vitamin tablets. A Copenhagen University among 230,000 people, we're told, says that taking vitamin pills might not do you any good and might actually do you positive harm. Really?

Well, I'm no biochemist, and not even in the pay of any pill producers. But the headline sounded pretty daft to me. And I've never really trusted Danish science after the way they beat up Bjorn Lomborg so mercilessly instead of getting to grips with his arguments. Yet the story was so well-spun by its promoters that I had to read quite a long way down the coverage before I could get a balanced picture.

It took a lot of reading to discover that even the spinners of this story aren't saying that a daily multivitamin pill will do you any harm. They're talking about people taking really big doses of a single supplement - Vitamin A, E, C, Beta-Carotene and Selenium. I discovered that the researchers had started by reviewing 815 (some reports say just 467) clinical trials. But a lot of these were studies on very sick people, whose experience is probably not very relevant to the rest of us. Then, it seems, the reviewers eliminated all but 68 because they showed no deaths. Yes, well that would skew things a bit, wouldn't it? By the time they had eliminated the Selenium studies (which showed a reduction in deaths), they were down to less than half a dozen studies, on which the scary headlines are based.

Well, scary headlines sell newspapers and a balanced appraisal of complicated science doesn't. Ask Bjorn Lomborg.