Katy Guest: I'm no Brian Cox, but I know my skin keeps the water out

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The Independent Online

You may call this a First World problem and tell me that I watch too much TV, but I am fed up with being blinded by "science". It happens because perceptions of the term are disconcertingly polarised. There's the serious science that nobody really understands: Brian Cox and his Cern pals whizzing round a tunnel underneath Switzerland; and then there's the bogus kind: Jennifer Aniston looking wide-eyed at a Big Bang of hairspray molecules while a male voiceover explains "the science bit" behind the extraordinary shininess of her hair. In 50 years, the public perception of "science" has barely moved on, it seems. While wild-haired male geeks make profound but inexplicable progress experimenting with neutrons in a distant lab, women in commercials still stand astounded as men in white coats patiently explain the sudsiness of their washing powder.

I despair at this because it is important that we understand what science is in order not to be conned by those who pretend to speak its language. And analysing scientific claims very rarely involves the need for a full understanding of the inner life of atoms; more often it means asking some questions, testing the answers, and learning to recognise a fact from nonsense. This, essentially, is the scientific method. So why aren't more of us doing it?

Take, for example, a typical misuse of scientific-sounding language: an advert for an expensive moisturiser that claims to do something like "penetrate the skin" through "all of its layers". Think about it. Our experience of having a bath or getting covered in engine oil shows us that the skin is not really a very permeable membrane, otherwise we would turn into water balloons or have grease floating around our bloodstreams. So we look at the small print. By "the skin", it turns out, the "scientists" mean the "stratum corneum". This, says Wikipedia, is "the outermost layer of the epidermis, consisting of dead cells". So, using the moisturiser spreads an oil-in-water suspension over the dead skin cells on the outermost surface of the body. Is it still worth 30 quid?

Two bad examples of science abuse shocked me this week. The first was the supposedly astonishing news that "posh salt" is just as bad for the health as "normal salt". Several newspapers quoted a study which has found that: "So-called 'gourmet' condiments such as rock and sea salt are just as damaging to health as ordinary table salt, despite manufacturers' claims that the products are 'natural' and 'contain minerals'." As readers will surely know, salt is sodium chloride. If it doesn't contain sodium (too much of which can increase the risk of high blood pressure) then it is not salt, and if it does then it comes with certain small but significant health risks. That all salt contains sodium is not a new finding, and anyone believing that "posh salt" is good for you was being blinded by pseudo science.

The second example was much more insidious. It was reported that a 13-year-old girl is in a semi-coma as a result of being given the cervical cancer vaccine Cervarix. In a comprehension fail that would shame a GCSE English student, the word "after" in the sentence "A schoolgirl is trapped in a waking coma ... after a cervical cancer jab" was misinterpreted as implying cause and effect rather than just one thing happening later than another. It would be equally true, grammatically, to say that she is in a waking coma after drinking tap water, or eating chips, or reading the Daily Mail. It would not be true to infer – as any lawyer could confirm – that those things caused it.

Readers will naturally feel for this young woman and her family, and will wonder if a link exists between the vaccine and the illness. But none of the articles – including those which said that the vaccine "has left" the girl in the coma – offered any evidence that this was the case. Of course, we must continually ask questions about any medicine, and its maker must be forced to answer them, using real science. But this medicine cuts by 70 per cent the risk of cervical cancer, which kills 1,000 women in Britain every year. A million doses have been given in the UK to date. These two things are facts. "Vaccine causes coma" is not. And those of us who don't want to remain wide-eyed women in soap commercials need to know how to tell the difference.

All Rihanna needs now is a skirt and some yoghurt

I find it hard to talk about Rihanna without coming across like a bitter old lady with a newspaper column. I must remember that occasionally I do still have a pre-grumpy-old-woman life, and its soundtrack is mostly Rihanna's.

I was in her birthplace, Barbados, when her single "Umbrella" was released. I recently attended a stag do at which every other song we danced to seemed to be hers. All week, I have been plodding to work to the beat of "We Found Love...". I admire her talent and fiercely support her right to wear, sing or do whatever she likes. And yet, and yet....

If you had to guess who would be the next celebrity to appear in sheer tights printed with a stockings-and-suspenders motif, underneath tight denim hotpants, wouldn't you have just bet on Rihanna?

Here is a fashion that retains all the sluttishness of visible suspenders and, simultaneously, all the likelihood of developing a thrush colony so advanced that it has its own army and navy. An outfit that combines discomfort with looking rubbish. It is desperately man-pleasing and embarrassingly trashy. Poor Rihanna.

I'm not bitter, honest; I just wish that she liked herself as much as I like her.

Tobacco won't die, only its users

I have long harboured the hope that history lessons in the future will reveal to pupils that people used to smoke tobacco, in public, on purpose, and the children will look at their teachers as if they were insane. A 1970s Bob Newhart sketch poked fun at Sir Walter Raleigh in the late 16th century, trying to popularise smoking ("... between your lips? And then what... You set fire to it, Walt? Ha ha ha!").

And in 1614, a character in Ben Jonson's Bartholemew Fair observed: "The lungs of the tobacconist are rotted, the liver spotted, the brain smoked like the backside of the pig woman's booth..."

And still some smokers, in 2011, are shocked to be told that smoking in the car is bad for them and should stop. Those history lessons will be a long time coming.

Sing along now, don't be shy

The Otley Brass Band leader, Gordon Eddison, is misguided in his attempts to teach the Yorkshire anthem "On Ilkley Moor Baht 'at" to the ignorant children of God's own county. I applaud his efforts to revive the song, in which a hapless Yorkshireman catches his death while out courting without his hat on, and I'd have loved to see his band perform it at the Cow and Calf Rocks on Ilkley Moor, but if he wants children to get involved he's going to have to put the rude bits back in.

As all children of Yorkshire know, the lines "Where hastha bin since ah saw thee?" and "Tha's bin a courtin' Mary Jane" are followed by a murmured "Without your trousers on", and "On Ilkley Moor baht 'at" by "Where the ducks play football". Try it like that in playgrounds, and it will soon catch on.