Snake oil, bone-shakers and witch-doctors 2.0

This is the first of two pieces on the subject of using the internet to find reliable information regarding things connected with health.

Over the weekend I was searching online for information about which foods are a good source of different kinds of vitamins and minerals. Not for myself, but for one of my kids.

It was, I thought initially, a pretty straightforward thing to look for online.

But what happened next enabled me to see the internet in all its naked glory.

My first encounter with the internet was 20 years ago and these days I am rarely offline, except when I am asleep – much to the occasional chagrin of those around me.

Consequently I consider myself to be pretty savvy when it comes to using the internet. A digital native, if you will. I am well versed in finding what I want online and quickly navigating my way through the many pools of information therein, some deep and some not so.

But the food search episode was quite the revelation. Pretty much all the results returned by Google (which has been my weapon of choice for searching since 1998 and is likely to remain as such for the foreseeable) were from websites that looked at best questionable as sources of information and at worst downright misleading.

How, I asked myself, am I supposed to be able to tell in whom I should place my trust?

I trawled through page after page, site after site, and came to the conclusion that I couldn’t figure that one out. So I ignored them all, preferring to remain in blissful ignorance.

This, I realised, is what it must be like to be unfamiliar with the internet and to trust in the validity of all the search results Google delivers you.

One of the most enduring changes the internet has brought about is the democratisation of publishing. Anyone with an opinion, a computer and an internet connection can publish those opinions and, potentially, gather around them an audience of believing readers.

This is a good thing.  And also a not-so-good thing.

The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be televised. That’s what Gil Scott-Heron told us in 1970. And if that’s news to you, if that’s a piece of music you are not familiar with, then take a few minutes to click on this link and listen.

Then come back.

No, the revolution will not – in all likelihood – be televised.

Not that I am someone who blindly supports insurrection or feels that “the people” (whoever they may be) are somehow owed something by someone. I don’t condone violence, nor do I believe that simply rejecting the status quo will deliver a better future.

But I can’t be the only person in the UK who feels that something somewhere has gone wrong with the country I live in and call home.

This startling/not-so-startling insight came to me recently (last week to be more precise) in the most unlikely of settings…. while watching MasterChef – the UK flavour.

In the episode I watched four contestants were making tea for Henrietta the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, her son and his wife – the current Duke and Duchess.

According to the Sunday Times, the Duke was worth almost £500 million in 2005, making him the 102nd richest man in the country.

So, there I sat watching a show on a TV channel which is – by and large – funded by the TV-watching licence-paying public along with government subsidies, where one of the most privileged families in the country in their fabulous, inherited, stately home sampled a succession of High Tea offerings.

The same episode of MasterChef featured ex-service men and women from the Royal Air Force who served in World War Two. And as I wrote this, on ANZAC Day – when the sacrifices of the failed Gallipoli campaign of April/May 1915 are remembered – my thoughts turned to those generations that gave so much. In too many cases, they gave everything they possibly could; around 22,000 British servicemen died during that campaign.

Lloyd George promised the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the First World War a country fit for heroes. The post World War Two government set about building a network of social structures designed to bring about a greater degree of equality.

Those hopes, those dreams, the sacrifices of the fallen feel to me to be horribly at odds with the increasing inequalities of UK society that I see in 2011. According to a presentation given just a few weeks ago at the University of Cambridge, the rate of social mobility in Britain is slower now than it was in the Middle Ages.

If this is true, and far be it from me to pick a fight with the University of Cambridge, where is the incentive to work hard, do well and try to progress in a country where you are less likely to improve your lot than your ancestors 600 years ago?

Whether it’s law, medicine or politics, the most influential and prestigious professions in the UK remain dominated by the tiny proportion of the population that received an expensive private education.  Access to the top professions is probably as good an indicator of social mobility as anything else. 


I don’t want to live in a country where ne’er-do-wells get by comfortably thanks to state handouts. But nor do I want to live in a country where the descendents of a feudal elite continue to enjoy a super-rich lifestyle not because of their efforts, endeavours or enterprise, but because of a quirk of fate.  Where the sons & daughters of top professionals automatically follow in their parents’ footsteps, first to fee-paying prep school, then to top-flight public school (if you’re reading this from outside the UK ‘public’ in this context actually means private and fee-paying), then to a good university and so the cycle repeats.

The current generation of young Britons, graduates entering the workplace, could be – according to some estimates – the first that will not, en masse, enjoy a higher standard of living than the generation before it.

These are the same graduates that are leaving university with debts of as much as £30,000, at a time when unemployment is as high as it’s been for 15 years and when stringent government cutbacks have seen some towns and cities slash their spending on public services by 50 per cent or more. Public libraries are closing, museum opening hours are being restricted, and the provision of social care to “at risk” families and children is more precarious now than it has been since 1945.

Meanwhile, the cost of policing and security for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April is estimated to be in the region of £20 million.

No, the revolution will not be televised.

But that’s ok, the Royal Wedding will be.