The blatant blanket blag
Thursday August 28, 2003
Talk bad science
Â· My informants send news of the new Magneto-Tex blankets, available for only Â£399. They have set themselves apart from other magnet therapies (many of which have been successfully prosecuted for fraud in the US) by offering “patented alternating magnets” that, remarkably, don’t seem to require an alternating electrical current. But how do we know it works? Fortunately bad science spotter GJ Pitt sent me the company’s leaflet, featuring diagrams of “the healthy cell” in which the positive and negative ions defy brownian motion and all congregate at opposite ends of the cell. Not so in unhealthy cells, where the ions are all over the shop. You can also prove it to yourself: “You will feel the effects right away because the body becomes pleasantly warm.” Please remember, this is a blanket we’re talking about.
Â· But it’s a lot more technical than that. Apparently, “The magnets in the underblanket influence the iron atoms in your blood each time they are passing the magnetic foils.” It takes a 1.5 Tesla magnet in an enormous MRI scanner to make water molecules line up, and they’re at least slightly bipolar, but if you want to have a go at home, why not bleed yourself on to a plate and wave a magnet around over the top of it. You’ll notice that when the four iron atoms in a haemoglobin molecule are spread out, rather than lined up nicely in your magnet, they’re not terribly magnetic.
Â· Even better than the dodgy science are the “experts” recommending the therapy. Chasing these guys around the internet is the best fun I have, in my sad little world. Professor Johan Schulze apparently performed a double blind placebo trial on Magneto-Tex, which is reported in the leaflet but not on the Medline archive, and he completely ignores the placebo group in the results. Good work. There is, unusually for any professor, no trace of his work anywhere on Google.
Â· But here is “Dr Jean Monro MB BS MRCS LRCP” of Breakspear Hospital in Hemel Hempstead, apparently in a nice white coat, recommending the therapy. Breakspear is a private day centre offering alternative therapies; the publications section of their website is empty. They offer Chelation Therapy, which “corrects the major underlying cause of the blood vessel blockage by dissolving the plaques.” A Cochrane Library systematic review found that there was insufficient evidence for this claim last year.
Let’s hear it for Jewel
Thursday August 21, 2003
Talk bad science
Â· It was a pleasure to find Jewel, the “raunchy dance diva with an interest in atomic physics”, pontificating on science in the Daily Telegraph. Its correspondent could barely contain his excitement as she teasingly began to reveal her “research into super-string theory”. Watch her run with renaissance studies: “Empirical knowledge began to reign supreme – knowing something through truth and fact and experiment, instead of spiritual and religious implication.” It’s looking good. Her eyes are “shining with enthusiasm”. Hit me with the facts, Jewel. “In super-string theory and unified theory they have to answer mystical questions again… they’re saying that alchemical experiment is affected by the observer. It’s coming back to… What is the creative force in the universe? Because they’re seeing that there is one.” Quite.
Â· I’d be a bigger fan of Jewel and her admirers at the Telegraph if only they’d followed the lead of the Australian Daily Telegraph, a Murdoch tabloid, which this week printed the first photograph of a whale farting. It’s a veritable depth charge – and the best reason I can think of for saving the Minke whale, if only for its military potential.
Â· The US government’s national centre for complementary and alternative medicine funds respectable work into stress and heart conditions. But I fear it’s in danger of overstretching itself in taking part in the “rapid response grant programme on bioterrorism-related research”. Inviting grant proposals, the centre says: “We encourage applications for innovative research targeted at testing complementary and alternative medicine therapeutic or preventive agents for pathogens that might conceivably be vehicles for biological warfare activities.”
Â· Anyone going for the cash and glamour of military research just because science isn’t rock and roll enough should pay more attention to the Atkins diet saga. For the first time a theory is being treated like a celebrity: the Daily Mail has portrayed low-carbohydrate Atkins as the saviour of modern womankind, especially after a study showed people lost, err, 4% more weight on it, with no health complications after, umm, a whole six months. Now, after an equally trivial trial, no, in fact, a passing comment from one “expert”, who, it transpired this week, has links to the Flour Advisory Board (of all the sinister carbohydrate peddlers in the world) it is suddenly a potential killer. Not even George Best was booted off his pedestal so quickly.
Don’t throw away those drugs
Thursday August 14, 2003
Â· After the slightly overplayed HRT and breast cancer editorial in the Lancet, I was itching with delight at the prospect of another pill scare, especially in the week that MMR vaccination rates – the scientific illiterati’s last major public health victory – were shown to have dropped into the red zone of 70% in parts of the country. The Lancet report was the latest of many pieces of research over many years showing that HRT, as with all drugs, is a tricky matter of weighing up risks and benefits. Or as Joan Smith of the Independent on Sunday put it: “Trust me, I’m not a doctor…chuck away the tablets.” Yup, stop ‘em suddenly, the readers’ll thank you for that one in the days to come. Christa Ackroyd of the Sunday Express has been contemplating a move into scientific research as an ideas powerhouse. “The survey begs many answers to many important questions, but how about this one for starters? If 1.5 million women in the UK are already on it, why is this the world’s first study into its long-term effects?” Good point, Christa. After all, there have only been 1,594 articles published referring to HRT and breast cancer in the past two decades. And as for the columnists who don’t like having “chemicals” in their bodies, can I suggest dialysis as the most effective way to remove your own hormones.
Â· A reader has stumbled upon timely advice for anyone travelling with homeopathic remedies from the website www.travellingwithchildren.co.uk “Try not to put homeopathic remedies through airport security x-rays as it will render their healing properties less effective.” I wonder who made that one up. You should also “pack them well away from strong-smelling substances, ie essential oils, perfume, after-shave, toothpaste etc”. And bullshit, presumably. Perhaps they got their ideas from the Society of Homeopaths’ leaflet series: “You can protect them by using a lightweight lead-lined bag of the type sold for photographic films, or carrying them in your pocket.” Evidence on a postcard please. Speaking of which, may I draw your attention to point 72 of the society’s code of ethics: “To avoid making claims implying cure of any named disease.” Transgressions of that on a postcard please. Although an email would do.
Â· And lastly, it was a treat to see the BBC cottoning on to the snake oil industry explosion, with their one-off TV show the UK’s Worst Quacks last week. Although many of you were surprised to see a homeopath on the programme’s panel, merrily passing judgment…
Size does matter
Thursday August 7, 2003
Talk bad science
Â· I wouldn’t want you to think that I am in any way worried about the size of my penis. But since the bad science email address now seems to be overflowing with “scientifically proven” ways to improve my “visual impact” and “give her more than ever”, I thought it was about time we put these chaps to the test.
VigRX, a herbal preparation whose name might possibly remind you of another drug, have a “laboratory team of Albion Medical Doctors” to tell you “how VigRX works”. I presume they’re the guys with no name in the white coats with the stethoscopes at the top of every page. They have a nice little graph of their own study of four men (four, count them) with an increase in girth, length, and mass, and then list the eight herbs they use. Although they don’t even bother – weirdly – to claim that any of them will increase the size of your penis, only one (ginseng) has any evidence even showing an increase in arousal. One convincing study, they claim, for ginkgo biloba (“78%…”) doesn’t seem to exist on MedLine: there are two studies for muira puama and ginkgo biloba showing an increase in libido – but that is in women – and neither study could apparently be bothered to fuss with a placebo control.
Â· Many companies offer expensive books detailing exercise regimes, on the grounds that repeated vigorous stretching of the connective tissue in the walls of the two big [coughs] chambers that run up either side of the penis will give them a greater volume, which intuitively makes sense. Although there’s never any data of course, only gushing testimonials. Several companies claim to sell pills that increase erectile strength, which will then also stretch the chambers over time. No data to support this, again, although I did find one paper where a monkey died after its 56th injection of the impotence drug papaverine, so be careful.
In fact, the only method I could find that was validated by peer-reviewed literature was surgery, which seems a bit extreme, although plenty of centres are offering it for “penile dysmorphophobia”, where you just think you have a small willy. The penis is opened up, and bits of vein from elsewhere are sewn in as an annexe to the two chambers that run up either side. Although I’ve not seen that offered in return for your credit card details in spam emails. And do please be careful where you go for your operation: one published case report from last year described a man who came back from Saudi Arabia having paid to have four large stones embedded subcutaneously. The pictures are exactly what you’d expect.