Editor-At-Large: Save us from scientists (and plucky totty)

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The Independent Online

Scientists recently had to apologise after publishing the results of a survey which purported to prove that taking the recreational drug Ecstasy caused brain damage. It turned out they'd used the wrong drug - a version of speed - for their tests. Retractions and red faces all round. Now New Scientist magazine has received a great

Scientists recently had to apologise after publishing the results of a survey which purported to prove that taking the recreational drug Ecstasy caused brain damage. It turned out they'd used the wrong drug - a version of speed - for their tests. Retractions and red faces all round. Now New Scientist magazine has received a great

deal of publicity for a story in its latest edition which purports to prove that genetic make-up is one of the main reasons why people feel happy or not. "It's exciting," waffled Professor Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the ludicrously named Journal of Happiness Studies. "We should eventually be able to show what lifestyle suits what kind of person." A worldwide scientific study of the factors which can affect how we feel concludes that genes, marriage, supportive friends and realistic personal expectations are all more important than money or intelligence. As I was reading this nonsense, my partner burst into the room and said, "That Winston man with the moustache has just told us on television that if we eat more fish oil our memories will function better. I'm just off to the health food shop in the high street. Can you remember exactly where it is?"

Just as night follows day, whenever anyone in a white coat or with impressive initials after their name announces that massive consumption of Omega-3 or smoked salmon paste will improve our brain power, sales of supplements soar. We don't seem to care that another set of men in white coats is simultaneously proving that too many vitamins can cause cancer and all sorts of unwanted side-effects. Pseudo science, like celebrity gossip magazines and the Atkins diet, is a huge growth area. Tony Blair's strategy unit even published a report last year on the factors that make people happy. But after the Ecstasy debacle, should we not be tempted to treat all of these findings with a large dose of caution? To refresh your memory, in case you haven't been fully dosed up with fish oil, the distinguished American magazine Science claimed last year that the results of the first ever study of the effect of Ecstasy on primates proved that it could lead, among other things, to Parkinson's disease. With an estimated 500,000 to two million young people taking the drug every weekend, not surprisingly every newspaper followed the story up. Last month the study was withdrawn after it was revealed that the monkeys tested had been fed the wrong drug as well as the wrong dose, far in excess of what any human might take for a bit of a buzz on a Friday night.

Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said that the episode would have damaged young people's trust in scientific research, although he went on to say the "jury was still out" on the effects of Ecstasy.

As far as I can see, the jury should still be out, if that is the right phrase, on anything scientific. One set of scientists proves butter is bad for you while another is paid to prove the opposite. These people can be bought, like nearly everyone else. When New Scientist publishes the findings of leading academics concerning our ability to be happy, it makes for easily digestible, totally disposable trite reading. If you haven't been born with the right genetic make-up to be happy, then "studies" show that other things can help. Did you know that 79 out of 100 tests show that people who are involved with religion are happier, especially in times of stress? Devout people apparently live longer. And that a study of married people in 42 countries finds that they are happier than singletons?

At this point you are entitled to throw your hands in the air, assume a Victor Meldrew style grimace and groan, "I don't bloody well believe it." More worrying, perhaps, is that our caring sharing government believes in the value of this bilge. What makes people happy is not having to wait for months for minor operations. Then there's the chance to sit in their living rooms without the sound of cars with deafening stereos zooming up and down their streets every evening. The possibility of getting to the station and finding a clean train with a seat available to take you to work. The remote possibility that your child will be accepted at the school of your choice. Don't tell me about higher beings, caring friends or achievable goals. If the Government met some of its goals, we'd all be a lot happier.

Split personality

With the resignation of Charles Moore as the editor of The Daily Telegraph, could we have come to the end of an era? Mr Moore never failed to champion the cause of the Countryside Alliance, from blanket news coverage of its marches to endless columns promoting the right to hunt, shoot and fish. His love of all things rural meant sympathetic features focusing on the full range of British farmers' grievances with the Government, from losses suffered during the foot and mouth epidemic to opposition to the Right to Roam. At the same time the Telegraph has tried to attract younger readers and broaden its appeal, by signing such unlikely contributors as Anne Robinson and Irvine Welsh, the author of Porno and Trainspotting. The result is a thoroughly confusing mix - what do traditional readers make of columns about New Age therapies and the merits of Jimmy Choo, not to mention the detailed accounts of Billy Connolly's mud wrestling in Pamela Stephenson's latest literary offering?

The Telegraph can't decide whether to appeal to folks who have lived in the countryside for several generations, or go for middle-class urbanites who get their fix of all things rural via Boden catalogues and a weekend visit to a pub serving hearty grub. And as for attracting more women to buy the paper - during the latest series of Telegraph lectures at the Royal Geographical Society, there is, I notice, only one female speaker billed out of nine in the coming weeks. Some changes, it seems, are merely cosmetic. Perhaps the new editor will continue the current trend and sign up Ulrika Jonsson as a columnist. She is on the cover of the latest Aga Magazine, having given this august publication an exclusive interview. Surely the leader page of the Telegraph beckons?

Piling on the £££s

Of course, Charles Moore's female-friendly Telegraph was suitably impressed with the fat "diet" that plucky Renée Zellweger is being forced to eat in order to fatten up for her next cinematic appearance as Bridget Jones. Ms Zellweger conforms to the newspaper's "plucky totty" ideal, being both attractive and somewhat eccentric. The poor girl is having to gain four stone in order to earn millions of dollars portraying a rather airheadish British ex-PR girl. Do I feel sorry for her? No. Could I eat four slices of toast every morning covered in cream cheese and follow it up with eggs Benedict? Yes. Would I then have the will power to diet the lot off? Yes, if you paid me what she's going to bank when the cameras stop rolling.

That's the trouble with losing weight. If only it were index-linked to income, my current midriff crisis would be a lot easier to deal with.

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