MD, PhD, MAE, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

The BBC has a popular program entitled JUST ONE THING presented by Dr, Michael Mosely. In each of these short broadcasts, Mosely presents JUST ONE THING that will make your life more healthy. Whenever I listen to them, I get slightly irritated. Mosely is clearly a very skilled presenter and makes complicated things easy to understand; but for my taste his approach is totally devoid of critical thinking. This is obviously the point of the series and probably one reason for its success. So, maybe it needs to be tolerated – perhaps, but surely not if it seriously misleads the public on important health issues.

The most recent broadcast was entitled EMBRACE THE RAIN and, in my view, it did cross this crucial line. Mosely explained that after it has rained, the air is full of negative ions and these ions are effective against depression. The center piece was his interview with Prof Michael Terman who explained some of his research on the subject, in particular a clinical trial which showed that intensely ionized air was effective against depression. Terman explained that this was more than a placebo effect, that it worked even for serious chronic depressed patients, and that the effect was better than standard treatments.

At no stage was there an even mildly critical question from Mosely. Consequently many depressed patients might now abandon their standard treatments and opt for air ionizers in their homes or walks in the rain which was deemed to be just as effective. In view of the fact that chronic depression, through its suicide risk, can be a life-threatening condition, I find this rather concerning.

My concerns were not exactly alleviated when I did a quick search for the evidence. The most recent review on the subject states that there has been considerable interest in the potential effects of negative air ions (NAIs) on human health and well-being, but the conclusions have been inconsistent and the mechanisms remain unclear. So, why does Terman promote NAIs as though they are the best thing since sliced bread? It took me less than a minute to find a possible answer: he holds a patent for a NEGATIVE ION GENERATOR!

It is laudable of the BBC and Michael Mosely to present aspects of healthcare in a simple, understandable way. Yet, it would be even more laudable, if they did their homework a bit better and, crucially, tried to also educate the public in critical thinking. After all ’embracing the rain’ will not change lives but critical thinking most certainly does!

11 Responses to The BBC, Michael Mosely, air ionization, depression, and an appalling lack of critical thinking.

  • I would suggest that you complain to the BBC, but in my experience they have the baseline assumption that the BBC is always right. However they might take a bit more notice of you. You might take advantage of their obsession with journalistic balance. Presumably they did not present an alternative view of these claims?

  • I enjoy the programme without taking it too seriously. I particularly appreciated his revelation that unhealthy carbohydrates can be made healthy by cooking them, letting them go completely cold then reheating them. Something about this making them less easily convertible to sugars and so causing blood sugar spikes.

    I always triple cook my chips – a brief boil then chill. A low fry then chill again. Then a hot fry and eat.

    So now I have it on good authority that chips are a superfood, best enjoyed looking out of the window on a rainy day.

    • I don’t suppose the slot I am referring to was taken seriously by many – except those poor guys who suffer from chronic depression.
      AND THAT’S WHY I FEAR THE BROADCAST WAS DANGEROUS.

      • I think it would be taken seriously by a lot of people not just those suffering from depression.

        Mosely has presents a good deal on the BBC about ‘serious’ subjects and the fact that a professor guests on the program makes it even more likely that many will believe what they hear.

        Remember the Panorama about spaghetti?

  • Depression is a horrible, horrible condition and often resistant to any form of therapy. I agree – touting (unproved) negative air ions as a solution is just callous and crass.

  • I have enjoyed many of Mosley’s programs in the past, but this series is awful. I stopped watching after two in a row were at least as bad and unsupported by evidence as the one you describe here. Mosley is a physician I believe, so it’s all the more disreputable of him to present this garbage and The BBC should be ashamed. I listen to many of their science podcasts and find them well done and factual, so was very surprised to come across Just One Thing.

    • Mosley is a doctor… ish. He went to medical school, and passed his medical school exit exams, but never finished his ‘house jobs’ – the (then) one year* working in a hospital (now it can be general practice too) that junior doctors have to do before they can be ‘fully registered’ as a medical practitioner. So Mosley would be ineligible to be on the General Medical Council’s Medical Register, and thus ineligible to practise medicine. So whether calling him ‘Doctor’ is accurate or misleading is something of a grey area. He has certainly never been the doctor in charge of treating a patient.

      No doctor in the UK would refer to Mosley a ‘physician’, I suspect, as that is a title for (minimally) someone who’s licensed to practise (see above), and in UK medicine is typically the word doctors use to distinguish medical specialists (‘physicians’) from specialist surgeons.

      Mosley’s wife is a GP, I believe, so perhaps he gets her to check his homework on things medical…

      *Nowadays it’s two years, called in UK medical training ‘Foundation Years’ (FY1 and FY2). Though it is common to refer to the people in these years as ‘Foundation Doctors’… so in that respect I guess you could still argue that Mosley merits the courtesy title ‘doctor’. But only just.

  • I love running in the rain. But I attest my even mental state to the effects of the exercise not the rain. It works in all weathers. Dry and sunny, dry and windy, dry and icy, snowy. The weather works to give you a sense of satisfaction in completing your exercise despite it.

    I suspect going for a walk after a rainstorm is the operative thing in these studies. Depressed people have trouble motivating themselves to exercise.

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