If you, like me, grew up keen on science, you’ve watched the ABC’s popsci show Catalyst. If you, like me, have anything to do with good science, you’ll hate Catalyst.
Billed as an accessible educational program explaining both new and established interest pieces on science and medicine, it’s the only show of its kind on prime time Australian television. With an award-studded cast comprised of two physicists, a veterinarian, and a medical researcher, you’d be forgiven for expecting a higher calibre of not only journalism, but scientific accuracy.
Putting aside its other failings, three episodes stand out to me as reason enough for the show to be severely reprimanded. The first two episodes, Heart of the Matter (parts 1 and 2), aired in 2013, on the topic of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. Statins are the most-prescribed drug class in Australia, and effectively reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and vascular disease. While there are risks involved with any medication, statins have been proven safe and effective.
The episodes quoted fraudulent statistics, disgraced or unqualified “experts”, and, as an independent USyd research group calculated, was responsible for about 60,000 of the 200,000 patients studied that ceased using statins in the eight months after the twin episodes. As many as 2,900 otherwise preventable heart attacks and strokes were predicted to have occurred in the study group as a direct result of the false information peddled by Catalyst. The “experts” (including a naturopath) the show consulted postulated cholesterol was not responsible for heart diseases. The National Heart Foundation said in response that it was “shocked by the disregard for the extensive evidence”.
Years later, in my practice as a pharmacist, I still feel the aftershock. I must still fight the misconceptions and lies put forward by what the public perceived as a reliable and accurate source. I have had patients directly cite Catalyst as the reason they do not use their meds.
The third dubious episode, Wi-Fried, aired in the last month. In this, Catalyst fabricated another, arguably more insidious, error – that mobile phones cause cancer. They again used unsubstantiated claims from false experts (who had shiny titles like “Doctor”) to assert a thoroughly debunked idea.
The evidence, actual experts, and all governing bodies, strongly suggest there is no causal link between non-ionising radiation, such as that put out by mobile phones or Wi-Fi, and cancer.
We have not observed what would be a catastrophic spike in brain tumours over the last three decades, despite the ubiquity of mobile phones. Cancer is a “reportable illness” – it is law that all cases must be recorded and investigated – so we’re not missing any info. A good comparison is smoking. We saw a huge increase in lung (and other) cancers with the increase in smoking in the last century, and a downward trend with smoking reduction. This is not the case for mobile phones and cancer. The incidences of brain tumours have not increased anywhere near the amount that they would need to for there to be any sensible link.
Professor Rodney Croft, of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection said in response to Wi-Fried: “radiofrequency emissions are one of the most heavily researched agents that science has ever assessed, and given that, contrary to Catalyst’s claims, no substantiated health effects have emerged”.
The fact is, patients don’t have the health literacy to know things without medical guidance, but who is giving that guidance is very important. The show and ABC management hasn’t done enough to stop it – simply removing episodes from the website is not enough. The damage has been done.
The public should be able to rely on scientists to provide a united truth, as is their job, and Catalyst has consistently failed to provide accurate and reliable information. It has demonstrated that it does not deserve its place as one of the Australian public’s most popular ways of consuming science.