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.


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