The return of Captain Cyborg

April 29th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent | 5 Comments »

The return of Captain Cyborg

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 29, 2004
The Guardian

Captain Cyborg is back. Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University is a legend: this week the Independent ran a piece on his discovery that watching Richard and Judy on television for half an hour was the best thing to improve IQ test performance, and that reading a book was bad for you. Warwick was telling exactly the same story four years ago. I phoned his secretary and his research assistant to find out if he’d published this data in any journals. “Oh yes … the Daily Mail?” Not quite what I was looking for. “The Independent?”

So are the papers right to trust him? In 1999, several broadsheets covered his warning on cyber drugs. “Law enforcement officials are bracing themselves for the introduction of virtual reality drugs which, because they are transmitted across the internet or using radio waves, can be taken without anyone ever needing to actually possess them.” Warwick was quoted as saying: “The question is not whether virtual reality narcotics can be created, but how soon they can be put on the market.” Buffoon, says Inman Harvey of the University of Sussex. Irresponsible, says Professor Alan Bundy of Edinburgh.

· Warwick also surgically implanted a trivial chip in his arm, which allowed sensors to detect his presence and do things like turn on lights and open doors, then romped about in the media explaining gravely that he was now a cyborg: “Being a human was OK,” he said. “But being a cyborg has a lot more to offer.” Bravo. It was never clear why he couldn’t just carry the chip in his pocket. Before the century is out, he says, machines will take over the planet. “It’s difficult to describe how frustrating it is in the field seeing this man being our spokesman,” says Richard Reeve, of the AI department at Edinburgh.

· After the Soham murders he waded into the media again, saying he was going to implant a locating transmitter in an 11-year-old girl, in case she was abducted. The “chip” would cost “£20″. Academic experts in mobile phone networks and animal tracking with experience in similar devices thought it was bunk (tinyurl.com/2mep6). Children’s charities and medical ethicists said the unnecessary surgery was irresponsible. And any fool could see that a kidnapper would chop it out messily. As before, after a flurry of media coverage: nothing. Idiot, says Joanna Bryson of MIT. Unrealistic, says Professor Blay Whitby from Sussex. His experiments fail hilariously (tinyurl.com/3xkc2). He’s obsessed with media coverage. And we can’t get enough of him.

(This story was followed up on here.)

Note:

Bryson and Whitby have since cast doubt on these quotes attributed to them from The Register. I now believe these quotes to be inaccurate.

www.theregister.co.uk/2000/07/04/home_truths_bionic_man_takes/

Reading between the lines

April 22nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, celebs, homeopathy, ions | 2 Comments »

Reading between the lines

Talk about Bad science here

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 22, 2004
The Guardian

· There are times when a boy can feel terribly alone. Like when you’re standing in the medical section of the academic Waterstone’s in London, and you suddenly realise that you’re surrounded by people earnestly browsing 100ft of shelf space devoted to made-up alternative therapies, sandwiched between the orthopaedics and physiology sections. Reader Mark Lorch was there in spirit. “I was horrified by what the Heathrow Terminal One WH Smith considered popular science. While browsing the pop science section I found The Stargate Conspiracy by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince alongside Matt Ridley’s fantastic Genome. And it got worse. Nostrodamus: The Final Prophecies by Luciano Sampietro was perched next to the gripping Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh. And the final irony, Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker sharing a shelf with The Bible Code by Michael Dronsin.” Particularly appropriate, given Dawkins’s attitude to religion. “I ask you, how the hell are people going to tell the difference between real and bad science when that claptrap is peddled next to excellent science books?”

· It’s enough to get you thinking about the nature of science. Critical self-appraisal and careful examination of new ideas might be high on your list of ways in which to develop meaningful theories; alternative therapists, meanwhile, are cheerfully enshrining their inflexible opposition to both in their codes of practice. I give you the code of ethics of the International Society of Professional Homeopaths: “Members must present a united front to the public and should not imply criticism of colleagues, either in writing or before clients or the general public.” Cosy. And the World Chiropractic Alliance’s “guidelines for straight chiropractic” leave little room for discussion: a practitioner’s clinical assessment is “inviolable” and their judgment is “the final authority”.

· Some things are beyond criticism, such as the new Jinlida JLD-2000 Negative Ioniser from China. Breathe in, and feel the words waft over you: “Our all know rub can give birth to electricity … airy molecule rub as well as can electrify … At air minus ion few, is able to gas-bored, feel ill, in a bad skin, easy issue sickness. Air minus ion reply cast iron advantage …” Breathe in again: “Boost up resistance, along with minus ion deepness add, blood serum globin is able to distinctness add; antibody add.” Breathe out deeply; feel the healing poetry of pseudoscience, and repeat: “I believe.”

What’s wrong with the placebo effect?

April 15th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, placebo | 5 Comments »

What’s wrong with the placebo effect?

Talk about bad science here

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 15, 2004
The Guardian

· For some strange reason I’ve never understood, pseudoscientists tend to get huffy when you suggest that their cash cow only works through the placebo effect; perhaps they were so distracted by their sea of flawed research into alternative therapies that they missed the excellent crop of good scientific studies on the placebo.

So we know that placebos can affect lots of things, especially stuff with a subjective component, like pain, or mood; and we know that two placebo sugar pills have a bigger effect than one, and that an intramuscular placebo injection is more effective than a placebo sugar tablet. But what grumpy alternative therapists miss is that placebo goes well beyond dishing out sugar pills: it’s the ceremony, and the cultural meaning of the treatment.

Confidently waving an ultrasound machine around someone’s face is effective for post-operative dental pain, regardless of whether the machine is switched on. Likewise, in the 1950s, we used to ligate the internal mammary artery to treat angina: but when someone did a placebo-controlled trial, going to theatre, making an incision, but only pretending to ligate the internal mammary, the sham operation was as effective as the real one. Like morons, instead of applauding the power of the placebo, we just stopped doing the procedure, assuming that it was “useless”.

· It goes on: pinky red sugar pills are more effective stimulants than blue sugar pills, because colours have meanings. And a four-way comparison, with either sugar pills or aspirin, in either unbranded aspirin boxes or mock-up packaging of the Dispirin brand, showed that brand-name packaging, and the wealth of advertising and cultural background material that packaging plays on, had almost as big an impact on pain as whether the pills had any drug in them. So in some ways, it’s not irrational to believe that costly Nurofen is more effective than cheap unbranded ibuprofen, even if they’ve both got the same active ingredient.

· Pseudoscientists, and alternative therapists, being expensive and long-winded, have more time to weave ceremony and cultural meaning, and maximise their placebo effect, than a rushed NHS GP. It’s placebo, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless. If you wanted to maximise everyone’s health, then doctors would confidently lie to their patients about effectiveness of treatments, the way they did before we began championing choice and informed consent over efficacy; and people like me would stop debunking placebo alternative therapies. No chance.

Where to find the alchemists of Fleet Street

April 8th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, quantum physics, religion, times, very basic science | 3 Comments »

Where to find the alchemists of Fleet Street

Talk about Bad science here

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 8, 2004
The Guardian

· I can tell you’re all secretly proud of me for not bothering to write about Coca-Cola’s abandoned Dasani water. Meanwhile those medieval alchemists at the Times cheerfully informed us that “calcium is a legal requirement in UK bottled water, but the calcium chloride, a bromide derivative, used in the process produced too much bromate”.

· Turning one element into another has always been tricky; but the long and honourable tradition of turning made-up pseudoscientific nonsense into hard cash continues unabated. The West Sussex County Times reports that “a world famous lecturer will visit Horsham in June”. Harry Oldfield, “author, inventor and scientist” no less, will explain his electro-crystal therapy, which he compares to “a molecular massage, using sound from electrically stimulated quartz crystals to restore the energy field’s balance.” Sounds expensive. “He has also developed a computer system which produces images similar to those produced in Kirlian photography.” It’s not so much Mr Oldfield who bothers me, but that a paper can cheerfully report this alongside a story about a new Brown Owl for the Brownies, the menace of illegal motorcycle riding, a student fashion show, and a garden centre advert.

· Meanwhile, Ohio creationists have, by a huge majority, passed their new Academic Freedom Act 2004, providing teachers and instructors at public institutions with “the affirmative right and freedom to present scientific, historical, theoretical, or evidentiary information pertaining to alternative theories or points of view on the subject of biological or physical origins.” You don’t have to be a product of intelligent design to know what that means: and they’re the most powerful nation on earth. The Deans of Science faculties have collectively and cheerfully suggested in the past that they won’t interview candidates from states where schools can’t teach science properly.

· Why not give your kids the chance to hone their rhetorical skills at the UK’s creationist Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Bristol. “Many animals are clearly related. Domestic cats for example are like very small lions,” its website points out. Which leads on to useful exercises for schoolchildren, such as: “How many basic created kinds would there have been?” And: “To follow Darwinism is to recognise only the fleshly side of our natures, and, as we know, the flesh perishes; Darwinism, in other words, is a philosophy of death.” Harsh words. Bring on the darkness.

Nanniebots and Neverland

April 1st, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, nanniebots, new scientist | 2 Comments »

Nanniebots and Neverland

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 1, 2004
The Guardian

Talk about Bad Science here

· Right. Where were we? Ah yes, everyone was questioning the authenticity of Jim Wightman’s paedophile-entrapping artificial intelligence chat program Nanniebot, since it was more than 10 years ahead of all other artificial intelligence technology, and no one is allowed to see it in the flesh. But Jim – from the unfortunately named Neverland Systems – had personally guaranteed me a demonstration. Weirdly, Jim is now refusing to do so, although he is still claiming to have thousands of Nanniebots in action on the web. I’m certainly not going to waste your time with an in-depth philosophical analysis of his “chat transcripts” since no-one can be sure they were definitely generated by his program.

· Of course, the BBC, ITV and New Scientist couldn’t possibly have known that Jim was caught out making false claims about writing software a year ago (tinyurl.com/3gfxv), on the Holocaust denial newsgroups he likes to frequent. He now admits to making these false claims but said they were made in jest. He also got noticed in the Tivo hacking discussion boards, claiming to have modified the device to stream shows over a network; which the other experts felt was impossible (tinyurl.com/38wmx). Jim provided no evidence to make them think otherwise and disappeared. He still claims to have it working.

· People are perfectly entitled to spend time on Holocaust denial chatboards. Jim admits posting as Death’s Head, the same name as the SS murder and torture squad. Death’s Head has made postings containing violent and graphic threats to rape, assault, and kill, often with a firearm, in the context of chatboard discussions about the Holocaust.

In an online discussion after similar violent threats were mentioned a posting did state that “me = Jim Wightman = Death’s Head = Totenkopf… all you needed to do was ask.” (tinyurl.com/2jg3p). Jim denied to me that he made the postings and says they were faked. Maybe they were but Jim’s previous postings give reason to question his work. So far, he’s made a grand claim with no good evidence: business as usual for Bad Science.

This character is now collecting donations and volunteers for chatnannies.com, a service where adults will enter children’s chatrooms to monitor for paedophile activity. I’m quite sure he will be greatly assisted in this venture by the fact that he now cites, on his website, the uncritical reports of his claims about his work by New Scientist and the BBC.