Can sunshine be as addictive as heroin?

sunbather on beach with bookIf recent media reports are to be believed, then sunshine can be “as addictive as heroin.” Although the study on which the reports were based was carried out on mice, the claims were surprising as sunlight does not typically fall into the list of common addictions such as cigarettes or alcohol. We looked at the media claims and found that the comparison was inaccurate, but ‘tanning addiction’ appears to have a scientific basis and several studies have investigated it.

True or False?

There is no doubt that sustained exposure to ultraviolet light can bring about (mainly psychological) symptoms similar to those that drug addicts experience, although they are nowhere near as extensive. Dr David Fisher who led the study behind the reports, questioned claims that sunshine is “as addictive as heroin” without analysis into the potency of heroin versus UV light. Dr Clare Stanford also told us that a mere ‘prefence‘ towards sunlight does not indicate addiction, and so it is largely false that sunshine can be as addictive as heroin.

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Claim: “Women are legally free to abort a baby because of its sex”

Pregnant Woman in HospitalThe issue of “sex selective abortion” is traditionally framed as a problem common in the Asian continent or South-Eastern Europe. However, in early 2012, The Telegraph carried out an undercover investigation at various abortion clinics in England and found that doctors were willing to authorise abortions for women who objected to the birth of the baby because of its sex. One of the doctors likened the practice to “female infanticide” while the other told a woman it was not her job to “ask questions”. The Telegraph then inaccurately attributed the claim; “women are legally free to abort a baby because of its sex” to Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

True or False?

The practice has generally been deemed illegal, although there is recognition that the broad scope of the Abortion Act 1967 facilitates such procedures in practice. The current law does not preclude a doctor from considering gender as a factor, as long as this is justified on a medical basis, and outlaws abortion on gender grounds alone. This makes the claim false, along with its attribution to Ann Furedi (and BPAS, which distanced itself from The Telegraph’s paraphrasing of her comments).

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Claim: ‘Saturated fat is not bad for your health’

The Daily Telegraph reported on 6 March 2014 that a US heart expert, James DiNicolantonio, had claimed that “saturated fat is not bad for health”. In an article published in BMJ Open Heart, DiNicolantonio argues that diets low in saturated fat do not lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease or strokes, or indeed help people live longer. These claims effectively placed him in opposition to decades of established medical and public health advice which has encouraged people in nations such as the USA and the UK to carefully monitor their intake of foods high in saturated fat.

Upon further investigation, it became clear that DiNicolantonio was not alone in the scientific community in holding such views. Many of these commentators and scientists attribute higher incidences of obesity, diabetes, coronary and cardiovascular disease, to the increased consumption of carbohydrates and sugars.

True or False?

With no reference to proportion or moderation, the claim that saturated fat is “not bad for your health” is considered to be largely false.

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Claim: Tapping therapy’s effectiveness “was proved”

On 15 – 16 January 2014 the Daily Mail reported: “Experts are calling on the NHS to start using a new self-help technique, called tapping, after its effectiveness in treating a number of conditions was proved (emphasis added). The BBC ran a more cautious headline: “Tapping therapy helps patients with depression”, calling the treatment very effective (emphasis added). Many people criticised the claims including Dr Ben Goldacre. Alex Langford, a junior Psychiatrist, called Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) “dangerous nonsense”.

True or False?

The claim is largely false as the findings of one small-scale study have been overstated.

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Claim: “Male and female brains wired differently”

Male and Female Brains DTI ScanBetween 2-3 December 2013, reports emerged through the Guardian newspaper, followed swiftly by the Independent, that a new scientific study had demonstrated for the first time that “the brains of men and women [are] wired differently.” The media stories were based on a study by the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) which appeared to find that many of the connections in a typical male brain run between the front and back regions, and are mostly confined to individual hemispheres. In contrast (on average), the connections in women’s brains were more likely to run from side to side between the left and right hemispheres. The only region where men had more ‘between-hemispheric’ neural connectivity was the cerebellum, which plays a vital role in motor control.

True or False?

Given the complexity of the issue, and the fact that new research is constantly being conducted, one can conclude that the statement that “male and female brains are wired differently” is at best largely true. Evidence has been presented which casts doubt on the theory of ‘hardwiring’, but the fact remains that the DTI scans showed clear differences in neural connectivity between males and females.

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Claim: “As much as 70% of a child’s performance is genetically derived”

Between 11-12 October 2013, it was widely reported by the British press that Dominic Cummings (advisor to the UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove) in a private 237-page thesis, claimed that “as much as 70 per cent of a child’s performance is genetically derived”. These remarks caused huge controversy due to widespread recognition that genetic theories have in the past been used for much ill, as well as good (which is Cummings’ point). Fundamentally, Cummings did not use the phrase “70% of a child’s performance”, instead referring to “70% heritability” which is a population statistic that refers to the differences between (and not within) individuals.

True or False?

The press widely portrayed Dominic Cummings’ observations as a scientific and statistical estimate of an individual child’s intelligence, not that up to 70% of the differences between individuals’ educational achievement is attributable to genetic factors. Therefore, strictly speaking, it is inaccurate and consequently largely false, that as much as 70% of a child’s performance is genetically derived.

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