Not Saussure

September 9, 2006

Something fishy?

Filed under: Education, fish oil, junk science, Omega-3 — notsaussure @ 8:37 pm

The BBC report

About 5,000 secondary school pupils are to be offered daily doses of fish oil supplements in the hope it will have a direct impact on exam results.All Year 11 pupils in County Durham will be encouraged to take the omega-3 “eye q” pills until their GCSE examinations in summer 2007.

The initiative is the brainchild of the county council’s chief schools inspector Dave Ford.

But charity Food and Behaviour Research said more research was needed.

Mr Ford is convinced the fatty oils can improve concentration and learning.

He said: “We are able to track pupils’ progress and we can measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores.”

Such claims are rather questionable, however, despite The Daily Mail’s not-unpredictable excitement and the (rather more important, to my mind) fact that we have it on the highest authority that Jeeves was so brainy a chap because he ‘practically lives on fish’. The BBC report goes on to raise some of the questions:

But Dr Alex Richardson of Food and Behaviour Research said some pupils should take dummy pills to determine whether supplements improved performance generally.She said: “Proper trials of omega-3 have shown benefits for some children. However, the real burning question is whether they will help children in general.

“The Durham project is taking for granted that fish oils will help. There is no control and there must be a placebo.

“You cannot give omega-3 to every child and then say that the supplements have made a difference.”

The Food Standards Agency looked at these claims a couple of months ago and found them rather fishy unproven; they may well, apparently, be useful for children with ADS — and doing something about that will obviously help the kids’ academic acheivement — but the notion that they enhance people’s learning abilities in general is certainly unproven.

This exercise, however, certainly isn’t going to prove anything one way or the other, other than the disingenousness of the study’s promoters, as Ben Goldacre explains at some length in The Guardian:

The Eye-Q study is a cheap promo for Equazen’s Eye-Q range: there is no placebo, in fact there is no control group whatsoever. They’re going to the trouble of giving 5,000 children the tablets, six a day, under the watchful eye of the nation, hyping the study, with all their hopes pinned on success, and then they’re going to measure their performance against … what the council predicts it should have been without the tablets.

This is – let me be quite clear – a rubbish study, which has been designed in such a way that it cannot provide useful results: it is therefore a waste of time, resources, money, and parents’ goodwill.

In the name of fairness, I decide to put this modest proposal to Dave Ford, chief schools inspector for Durham, the mastermind behind the project. Then it all gets a bit weird. “We’ve been quite clear,” he says, “this is not a trial.”

Well, hang on. I call up to tell you it’s a bad trial, and suddenly that’s OK because it’s not actually a trial? The Press Association called it a trial. The Daily Mail called it a trial. Channel 4 and ITV and everyone covering it all present it, very clearly, as research (damning quotes and clips at badscience.net). In four solid years of moron baiting, this is definitely the most surreal defence I’ve come across. I look at Durham council’s press release for it. They call it a “trial” twice, and a “study” once. You are giving something and measuring the result. Your own descriptive term for this activity is “trial”. How is this not a trial? To excuse you out of a hole?

On a wider question, though, what if a properly designed study does show that such supplements actually do some good? Should schools be encouraging children to take them?

This may seem a foolish question — who doesn’t want to help children do well at school? — but I’m not completely sure of the logic that (rightly, in my view and probably everyone else’s, if the pills work) applauds giving children pills to enhance their academic performance but frowns upon doing the same to enhance their acheivements on the athletics field.

You may argue that steriods (or whatever) are bad for you when taken to excess, but that’s an argument for banning — or at least controlling the adminstration of — certain substances for athletes on health grounds, not for banning performance-enhancing drugs per se, surely?

The argument that athletes thereby gain an ‘unfair advantage’ doesn’t really wash, at least as far as I’m concerned, since the same could be said of having the good fortune to be born in one country rather than another; a competitor representing (e.g.) the USA is doubtless likely to have had access to valuable sponsorship and training opportunities that wouldn’t be available to him were he representing Albania, but we don’t complain that this gives Americans an unfair advantage over Albanians in the Olympics.

Somehow, though, I doubt we’ll be seeing headlines about doping scandals in school league tables any time soon.

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