Christmas presents to avoid

December 18th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, death, express, ions, magnets | 3 Comments »

Christmas presents to avoid

Ben Goldacre
Thursday December 18, 2003
The Guardian

· Our spies are everywhere and it seems last week’s ludicrous “salt crystal lamp” is also being sold, of all places, in the Science Museum gift catalogue. Call me a pedant if you will, but I’m not sure it’s entirely to the good of the scientific education of the nation for the the museum to be peddling made-up nonsense that advertises itself thus: “Crystals … cleanse the air by absorbing humidity. The process releases negative ions which neutralise positively charged particles of air pollution, creating the fresh air found by the sea or in the mountains.”

· And so, inevitably, to the Daily Express, this week raving about the Norstar Magnetic Coaster (price £23) on its health pages. “Try putting a glass of water on it,” says the Express, “to expose the water to a magnetic field that helps your body to flush away toxins, or stick the coaster on the side of your bath to improve circulation.” Now, someone mentioned to me at a party the other day that sometimes they didn’t quite understand why the pseudoscience in the products I write about is so wrong, but had always been too embarrassed to say so. Well, OK then, here goes. Blood’s not magnetic: prove it by bleeding yourself onto a plate and waving a magnet around. Magnets don’t affect circulation: prove it by holding one on your skin and looking. And as for this unending nonsense about fields and toxins, I’m afraid that’s so made-up and magical that I wouldn’t even know how to go about designing a kitchen experiment to disprove it.

· I’m sure you all read last week about the case of Reginald Gill, the alternative therapist who fleeced several thousand pounds out of a man who was dying of pancreatic cancer, telling him that cancer was a metabolic disease, and that he could “reverse” it by using his “high frequency therapy” machine. A familiar sounding story. “If you have chemotherapy, you’ll go home in a box,” Gill warned the 43-year-old man. Ten weeks later, the man was indeed dead. And rather more painfully than necessary, having been convinced to stop taking his nasty mainstream morphine painkillers. Was Gill, as has been reported, “one bad apple”? Did this fraudster “give the world of alternative therapy a bad name”? No. Alternative medicine is defined by being a set of practices that cannot be tested, refuse to be tested, or have consistently failed tests. Gill wasn’t one bad apple: he was at the pinnacle of his profession.

Published MMR Letters

December 15th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, channel five, letters, MMR | 4 Comments »

Fears and frustrations over MMR

Monday December 15, 2003
The Guardian

I applaud Ben Goldacre’s efforts to highlight how much scientific evidence is available to prove the safety of the MMR vaccine and how much damage has been done to the public’s confidence in the vaccine by poor understanding of the science behind autism (Never mind the facts, Life, December 11). The threat of a measles epidemic grows ever larger and programmes such as Channel 5′s Hear The Silence only hasten the day when that tragedy occurs. I have an autistic son and yet did not hesitate to have my daughter vaccinated with the MMR vaccine. Even if there was a slight risk with MMR, then the risk is far outweighed by the very real risk of contracting measles.
Ian Derrick
Ulverston, Cumbria

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As a parent agonising over the MMR booster decision, I’m prepared to consider Andrew Wakefield wrong. But Ben Goldacre seems to blame it all on the press. What influences parents to reject MMR is their personal experiences of autism and those of friends and acquaintances. This leads them to believe autism is increasing and is a serious form of brain damage. Medical establishment claims such as Goldacre’s that “autism is a disorder of communication” are seen as trivialisation, so doctors are trusted less and these personal experiences more. Claims that rising rates of autism are due to people “using the diagnosis more” are seen as a denial of the data. Goldacre symbolises the disconnect between medics and parents. His concern throughout is MMR. Parents’ concern is autism. Put aside who is right; the best way to deal with the hypothetical measles outbreak and to satisfy parents would be to find a non-MMR cause – and better still a cure – for autism.
Bill Cooke

I was heartened to read Ben Goldacre’s account of the controversy and that attention was drawn to the poor quality of media coverage. Following the publication of Wakefield’s first Lancet paper, a snowball of conjecture and innuendo has lead us to a wholly unacceptable scenario today where MMR immunisation rates have now fallen to 84% nationally. For this, the tabloid (and some of the broadsheet) press must be held responsible. Their offence is clear: anecdotal and unscientific data has been given credibility by the sheer volume of coverage, while evidence-based factual results refuting the claims have been swept under the carpet. Should this be a surprise to those of us attempting to uphold the integrity of science as a respected and trusted institution, when “80% [of articles in newspapers regarding MMR] were written by non-specialist reporters” between January and September 2002. Reporting the conclusions of such non-reproducible, subjective studies is as irresponsible and dangerous to public health as any potentially rogue element in vaccines.
Prateek Buch
Institute of Ophthalmology

Surely Ben Goldacre’s concerns should lie with the increasingly common practice of peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, in line with the current culture of evidence-based medicine, of publishing small-scale trials which may or may not later be shown to have any scientific validity. If we are to begin to encourage more accurate media reporting of scientific findings, we this is a fundamental issue.
Graeme McAlister
Dalgety Bay, Fife

My friend and colleague, Paul Shattock, criticised by Dr Goldacre, is a pharmacist who has devoted a lifetime to the study of autism disorders and who has his own severely autistic child, now 28. Paul is pro- not anti-immunisation – but in a manner that is safe for the child.

At a Defeat Autism Now conference in May, Andrew Wakefield presented a comprehensive review of all his work, which has been replicated by Dr Krigman. The science was compelling and made all the links between the MMR vaccine and the severe enterocolitis, coupled with autism, identified in some children. The dilemma for parents is: will this severe consequence of vaccination happen to my child and is there any way of avoiding it? The work at Sunderland has, much to my surprise, profound implications for a number of chronic illnesses with which I am involved, including organophosphate poisoning, Gulf war syndrome, and ME-CFS.

Dr Goldacre should attend to the concern and experience of many parents. Epidemiology is no alternative to the careful study of sick children, which has been studiously avoided in this country for reasons that have never been made clear.
(Prof) Malcom Hooper
University of Sunderland

The MMR debate will only cease when there is sufficient statistical data one way or the other. It seems that now, when some 20% of children in this country are not receiving the MMR, but have had all the other vaccinations, is a good time to make such an analysis. Autism is usually evident from 12 to 18 months, so a proportion of those who have not been immunised in the last few years will by now be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Thus a comparison between those who have had the MMR and those who have not can be made. As a grandparent with six grandchildren, only one of whom had the MMR and developed a severe form of autism, maybe as a result of it, but maybe not, I would like to know the answer.
ME Bramwell
Lydney, Glos

The following appeared in Corrections and Clarifications on the 16th December 2003:

The lead letters in yesterday’s paper addressed a recent feature on the MMR vaccine written by Ben Goldacre (Fears and frustrations over MMR, page 17). Unfortunately his first name appeared as Rob (once) and his second name as Oldacre (twice).

The strange case of the magnetic wine

December 14th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, very basic science | 4 Comments »

Dr Ben Goldacre
Thursday December 4, 2003
The Guardian

· What is it about magnets that amazes the pseudoscientists so much? The good magnetic energy of my Magneto-Tex blanket will cure my back pain; but I need a Qlink pendant to protect me from the bad magnetism created by household devices. Reader Bill Bingham (weirdly, the guy who used to read the shipping forecast) sends in news of the exciting new Wine Magnet: “Let your wine ‘age’ several years in only 45 minutes! Place the bottle in the Wine Magnet! The Wine Magnet then creates a strong magnetic field that goes to the heart of your wine and naturally softens the bitter taste of tannins in ‘young’ wines.”

· I was previously unaware of the magnetic properties of wine, but this presumably explains why I tend to become aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field after drinking a few bottles. The general theory on wine maturation – and doesn’t it warm the cockles of your heart to know that there are people out there studying it – is that it’s all about the polymerisation of tannins, which could conceivably be accelerated if they were all concentrated in local pockets: although surely not in 45 minutes.

· But this exciting new technology seems to be so potent – or perhaps unpatentable – that it is being flogged by at least half a dozen different companies. Cellarnot, marketing the almost identical “Perfect Sommelier” even has personal testimonies from “Susan” who works for the Pentagon, “Maggie, Editor, Vogue,” and a science professor, who did not want to be named but who, after giving a few glasses to some friends exclaimed: “The experiment definitely showed that the TPS is everything that it claims to be.” So he’s no philosopher of science, then. Perhaps all of these magnetic products will turn out to be interchangeable. Maybe I can even save myself a bit of cash, and wear my MagneForce magnetic insoles (“increases circulation; reduces foot, leg and back fatigue”), the next time I’m out drinking, to improve the wine after I’ve drunk it.

· Strangely, none of these companies seems to be boasting about having done the simple study necessary to test the wine magnets. As always, if any do want advice on how to do the stats on a simple double-blind randomised trial, which could, after all, be done pretty robustly in one evening with 50 people – and if they can’t find a 17-year-old science student to hold their hand – I am at their disposal.

Please send your bad science to

It feels like crystal

December 11th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, ions, nutritionists, references, statistics | 5 Comments »

It feels like crystal

Ben Goldacre
Thursday December 11, 2003
The Guardian

· As a Guardian-reading science bunny, there’s something slightly galling about the way that right-on beliefs so often seem to cluster together. For example, what’s the connection between torturing political dissidents and crystal magic? Over to the Amnesty Christmas catalogue, and its magnificent Salt Crystal Lamp. “Crystals are one of nature’s most effective purifying minerals. They cleanse the air by absorbing humidity. The process releases negative ions which neutralise positively charged particles of air pollution, creating the fresh air found by the sea or in the mountains.”

· Is Amnesty doing this to give us some small window of experience into what it’s like to be persecuted for your beliefs? Crystals do not absorb water, or at least, if salt crystals did, they would dissolve away pretty quickly, and you’d be left wondering which puddle to stick in the post to demand your money back with. Nor do they work as air fresheners. And you don’t need to spend £34.95 to find that out for yourself.

· And now to Michael van Straten, the Daily Express’s “nutritionist”. “Recent research,” he says, has shown that turmeric is “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate”. Every single day of every single week, you can be sure that a pseudoscientist somewhere is extra- polating merrily away from obscure lab findings to pretend that something is proven and effective. Ridiculous. There are, for turmeric and prostate cancer, speculative lab studies of cells growing or not growing under microscopes, and usually from rats. That’s not enough. Forty years ago this guy called Bradford-Hill knocked out a set of criteria for assessing causality. Read them once: it will only take 20 seconds of your life, and it is the cornerstone of evidence-based medicine, after all, which is what these guys are always pretending to call on. It needs to be a strong association, which is consistent and specific to the thing you are studying, with a temporal association between cause and effect; ideally there should be a biological gradient, such as a dose-response effect; it should be consistent, or at least not completely at odds with, what is already known (because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence); and it should be biologically plausible. The Daily Express’s nutritionist has got biological plausibility, and nothing else. Well, that and 20 seconds’ reading to change the habit of a lifetime.

MMR – Never Mind the Facts

December 11th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, channel five, express, independent, mail, MMR, statistics, telegraph, times | 30 Comments »

This article won the £2,000 ABSW Best Science Feature Award 2003

Channel Five’s new drama about the link between MMR and autism makes great TV. But it gets the story, and the science, disastrously wrong. How did we get to such a level of confusion and hysteria about this vaccine? Ben Goldacre unravels the real MMR story

Thursday December 11, 2003
The Guardian

There’s not a lot you need to know about the link between MMR and autism, except that there’s very little evidence to suggest any link at all. You don’t have to take my word for it, because I’ll describe the science later Read the rest of this entry »