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Last Friday, RTE’s Late Late Show invited Patrick Holford, a “pioneer in the area of health and nutrition” to talk to people about how to beat depression. It’s an interesting choice of expert because Patrick Holford has no academically recognised qualifications in the treatment of depression and has spent much of his career building up his health food and vitamin pill business. He has been the source of much controversy. Holford has claimed that AZT (a drugs cocktail used to combat AIDS) is less effective than Vitamin C and has been pulled up by the advertising standards authority in the UK for making unsubstantiated claims. In a nutshell, he isn’t the type of “expert” you want to be to rolling out when discussing something as serious and damaging as depression.

Using RTE Player I went through some of the claims Holford makes during the interview, and as it happens, many of the claims check out. There are studies around that have shown a beneficial link between fish oils and depression. There are studies that show a positive correlation between Vitamin D and seasonal depression. There are studies that link mood to obesity. Holford conveniently ties these studies into a single thesis: that what we eat is the most significant link in causing and treating depression, when many decades of clinical research would present a very different view. In other words, it’s just a confident sales pitch: read my book, eat the foods I suggest and you will feel better. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t; such is the power of the placebo effect; but in reality it falls far short of a comprehensive solution to the problems of depression.

Depression really is a grind. It differs from bad mood because it is not easy to get rid of and the depths of despair reached people inflicted by it. It can last for days, weeks, months, even years. No magic bullet has yet been found and it appears to differ greatly from person to person. There are lots of probable reasons and many treatments. It is one of the most widespread illnesses in society and is tipped to be the second leading cause of disability by 2020. Many of the most effective weapons against it (antidepressants, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy) remain unpopular and stigmatised, often by the very same groups that promote healthy eating and mineral supplements. In the battle against depression what is most important are treatments that work, not ones we would like to work.

We need a serious discussion about depression in this country, not just a sales pitch by a vitamin pill vendor.

The Greatest Show on Earth

I’m currently reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth“. The premise of the book is simple. Dawkins presents the case for evolution in the face of those who fervently believe that is it isn’t so. His thesis uses the metaphor of a crime scene to tie together all the clues, and Dawkins comprehensively shows that there is only one suspect in town – evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, with numerous sources such as comparative anatomy, molecular biology, fossil evidence and continental drift, all pointing to evolution through natural selection as the only reasonable explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. Evolution has even been witnessed in numerous laboratory experiments. Dawkins leaves no stone unturned in presenting the case for evolution. It’s delivered with the enthusiasm of a child, the simplicity of a teacher and the forcefulness of a barrister who knows he has an open-and-shut case on his hands.

I can’t praise Dawkins’ book highly enough. It’s full of fascinating digressions and factoids and it takes the reader on a rollercoaster trip through space and time as it presents the evidence, often in considerable detail. I don’t personally believe it will matter a jot to the beliefs of ardent creationists, but to the interested layman it will help to explain how intellectually bankrupt their beliefs are.

It was with this frame of mind that I read the transcripts of the Richard Dawkins interview on the Late Late Show (a top chat show on Irish television). I was astounded. As most people know, Dawkins authored a best-selling book on religion in 2006 called The God Delusion. It was a full frontal attack on religion, calling out the nonsense within and attempting to put religion under the microscope and into the sphere of public debate. Ryan Tubridy, the Late Late Show host, interviewed Dawkins a few times about it on radio and it always lead to some lively back-and-forth battles between Dawkins and his detractors. That was in 2006 and 2007. Now in 2009, Dawkins has published a new book on an altogether different subject, yet Tubridy could not resist the temptation to bring the discourse back to his atheism, and to inject sensationalism wherever possible – (“So what is the Vatican then? Toy Town?”, “Do you see God as believable as the Easter Bunny?”, etc.). None of these issues are discussed in Dawkins’ latest book, leading me to the conclusion that Ryan Tubridy didn’t even bother to read it.

Personally, I loved Dawkins’ clear, no nonsense answers but I couldn’t help feeling that, on Tubridy’s part, it was an opportunity missed. Is Richard Dawkins so one-dimensional that the only issue worth talking to him about is his atheism? Dawkins has much to say on the subject of evolution and why it is so important that we understand it. He is deeply passionate about science education, about the philosophy of science, about the promotion of science, about legal challenges to science, about critical thinking. In brief, we could have learned something but instead we were treated to a charade, deliberately intended to scandalise the Irish churchgoing public. This is a huge pity. By conflating Dawkins’ views on evolution with his atheism in this way, Ryan Tubridy may have muddied the waters concerning evolution, a topic that is critical to understand as we rehabilitate science and technology within the Irish education system.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” is only controversial if you are a creationist who has been vaccinated from reality. For the rest of us, it’s a rollicking good read on a vitally relevant subject.

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