Snot a problem

July 29th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, mail, nutritionists, oxygen, very basic science | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 29, 2004
The Guardian

· Mainstream science is, of course, not above reproach. We all know about the dangers of publication bias, where only positive findings get reported, and the negative ones get left in desk drawers; and, of course, sometimes cheeky souls quote papers selectively, to bolster their own agenda. Like the Daily Mail. This week it reports a trial, by the “Institute for Optimum Nutrition”, showing that bone mineral density is preserved in postmenopausal women taking soy milk, because “soy protein and its isoflavones – natural compounds that have a weak, oestrogen-like effect – are good for bones, but until now there has not been an investigation of long-term effects in humans”. It must be news because these gentle, natural isoflavones have, so they say, until now, been callously ignored by patriarchal medical science. Although only if you disregard a very similar but far larger trial, which found that soy supplements do not protect against postmenopausal changes. It was published several weeks previously in Jama, the most important and well read medical journal in America. I didn’t see the findings of that study reported in the newspapers.

· After our cream last week that kills “every known bacteria”, the Daily Express reports that Kleenex is launching an antiviral wipe that can “check the spread of colds and flu”, with chemicals on the middle layer of a three-ply tissue destroying “99.9% of the germs that lay millions low across the nation”. Only 99.9% this time? “This is an incredible breakthrough,” says Kleenex’s spokesman, Dr Winkler Weinberg. “But,” the Express warns, “some scientists fear it could weaken the immune system and trigger the growth of superbugs.” Yikes! That certainly makes it sound jolly potent. Which scientists were they, the ones who keep giving each other colds by sharing disposable tissues covered in snot? Since most of us prefer to catch our colds from the air droplets out of coughs and sneezes, I don’t think we need to be too worried about the Kleenex superbugs just yet.

· Finally, something fishy from the August edition of She magazine, via reader Joanna Franks: “Marketed as an energy booster, HealthAid’s Concentrated Air-Oxy (£9.99) is also effective against jet lag. The drops contain negatively charged oxygen particles that, when added to a glass of water and drunk, supply extra oxygen to the tissues and thus combat tiredness.” Only if you’ve got gills.

Prion and on and on

July 22nd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, herbal remedies, scare stories, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 22, 2004
The Guardian

· Bad Science business as usual in the British “news” media. Several of you were delighted to spot the Times worrying us about BSE all over again, with a picture of what caused it: not a prion, mysteriously, but a picture of a nice big bacterium. And It was labelled as the “BSE virus”, which will come as news to the people who spend their time worrying about what to do with the teeny prion molecules on surgical implements. For future reference, the bacteria are the big roundish things with lots of other stuff going on inside them, and the prions are the bendy wee molecules.

· Perry Groves has been reading the Independent on Sunday. “It appears to have taken the viewpoint that all nanoscience is dangerous,” she writes. “It then blows any credibility it may have had for this position with the sentence ‘Nanotechnology, which is set to revolutionise industry and everyday life, deals with particles so small the laws of physics no longer apply.’” So that’s very small, then.

· The naive quest to find some intellectual consistency in the world of alternative therapies continues unabated. Reader Guy Herbert always thought the point of traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine (mysteriously conflated by western magpies) was that old was good, and ideas changing in the light of new evidence was a sinister modern invention. Until he read the London Evening Standard: “Cupping is a healing technique in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine that involves the placing of glass jars over acupuncture points. This creates a vacuum that increases blood circulation and detoxification.” “So,” he writes, with glorious pedantry, “at least now they accept Harvey’s blood circulation theory. But surely something as modern as the 17th century can’t be any good?”

· And the ever vigilant Andy Mabbett sends us news that the Birmingham Evening Mail has exclusive rights on a major breakthrough in microbiology, with a story about a former lorry driver who has “invented a wonder cream which could spell the end of hospital superbugs”. Over to our truck driving genius: “We found it killed everything. It was the first potion that killed every known bacteria.” That’s every known bacteria. “Managing infection outbreaks costs the NHS over £1bn annually,” said Mr Watts, his main investor and the chairman of a recruitment agency. No wonder the Evening Mail think he’s “set to make a fortune”.


July 15th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, dangers, religion | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 15, 2004
The Guardian

· Pointing out that the current American government is manipulative, deceitful and interventionist is hardly news: although it hadn’t occurred to naive little me that it’d started meddling in science. The Bush administration has decreed that the World Health Organisation must clear US government-funded researchers with the health and human sciences department, before they can speak at conferences. Nice. The editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the largest US academic journal, has already criticised the ban on authors of papers on Aids going to conferences, talking about their work and sharing knowledge, just because they have ideas counter to the Bush administration.

· The man who decides who can speak is William Steiger. His qualifications are a PhD in Latin American history and having George Bush Snr as godfather. He was behind the attack on WHO’s reasonable suggestion that no more than 10% of people’s energy intake should come from sugar: he said there was no supporting scientific evidence. The US has a 25% guideline. That’s a quarter of your dietary intake of energy “safely” coming from pure sugar.

· It gets worse. The American “Union of Concerned Scientists” has collected the signatures of dozens of Nobel prizewinners, in protest at government interference in “independent scientific review panels”. You can read the full report at, but it’s pretty depressing. It includes examples of the Bush administration blocking research and twisting evidence on issues as diverse as safe levels in lead poisoning, the environmental impact of mining, farming, drug abuse and patterns of infectious diseases. It’s practically impossible to research a lot of these things without being part of government infrastructure.

· Funny things happen when political ideologies start interfering with science. Trofim Lysenko was the top Soviet biologist for decades: he thought natural selection was too individualistic, and spent his career growing plants really close together, in the hope they would develop collectivist tendencies. Challenge him and you were out of a job. Governments that interfere with science, with the lies of alternative therapists, the fluff of cosmetics adverts, and childish dramatisations of science stories in the news, all contribute to the popular impression that it is nonsense concocted by boffins pursuing their own peculiar agendas. And that’s bad.

Dope on a rope

July 8th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, very basic science | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 8, 2004
The Guardian

· In the battle against pseudoscience, the Advertising Standards Authority is another cheerfully toothless body. But there is room, at least, for one man to worry a big corporation with a humiliatingly public rap on the knuckles. Teacher and Bad Science reader David Andrews complained to the ASA about the preposterous claim Cussons made about its Carex soap: that it can tell the difference between “good” and “bad” bacteria. Whatever they’re supposed to be. The ad features two kittens. One has big teeth and evil eyes, and is labelled “bad bacteria”. The other is “good bacteria”. Can you expand on that, Cussons? “Look at your hands. You can’t see the good and bad bacteria, let alone tell them apart. But, thankfully, Carex can. Its unique formulation cares for the good bacteria, whilst being strong enough to fight the bad.” But how? “Carex knows the difference.”

· Now this is an interesting idea. There are all kinds of bacteria out there, doing all kinds of things, in the soil, in your poo, up your nose, in volcanos, and anywhere you can think of. Whether they’re good or bad for you depends on things like what they eat, or what they make. Some of them eat up things that are bad for you. Some of them make things you need. Some of them, quite accidentally, make things that happen to bind to little receptors in your gut, switch on the goo production machine, and leave you clinging to the toilet bowl. These are “virulence factors”. The idea that chemicals in a soap can work out what all these bugs are up to, and then predict how they will interact with the human body, is fantastic. If, like me, you have ever taken an antibiotic called Augmentin to kill off a “bad bacteria” infection, for example, you will probably have experienced the green sludge that comes out of your bum as a result of the “good bacteria” being accidentally killed off at the same time. Molecules clearly have a bit of difficulty making this important distinction.

· But Cussons fought back. Of course soap kills bacteria in general. It asserted that “although the figure was not statistically significant, almost twice as many good bacteria remained on hands after washing with Carex, compared with washing with plain water … although many good bacteria were removed during washing with Carex, that removal was caused by mechanical action”. The advert was deemed misleading, and has been banned. But, of course, the bottles contain the same ridiculous claim. Trading Standards anyone?

A royal mess

July 1st, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, dangers, death, herbal remedies, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, references, statistics | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday July 1, 2004
The Guardian

· I always thought the monarchy was there to remind us that inherited wealth and privilege are alive and well, and to stop us falling into the American trap of imagining that we live in a meritocracy: but apparently it’s there to set the health research agenda. Prince Charles is keen that we should not ignore the experience of the one person he met who got better with the Gerson nutritional regime for treating cancer. Let’s ignore the fact that the American Cancer Society regard it as dangerous; that in two years San Diego county hospitals treated 13 patients with campylobacter sepsis from the Gerson clinic, probably due to the raw calves’ liver injections; that several patients have been admitted comatose with low sodium levels; and that caffeine enemas are jolly dangerous and have been associated with severe colitis, infections and death. No. Let’s focus on the research already done on Gerson. One long-term study of 21 patients (by a naturopath, no less) found that only one was alive five years after treatment. In 1986, researchers found that despite their claims, some patients from the Gerson clinic were not even followed up. There are papers claiming efficacy for nutritional therapy that find a positive effect, but without bothering to give us the figures. Since then, a handful of studies have been done, suggesting a minor positive effect, but the flaws in their methodologies render them worthless.

· Let’s get this straight: research is not difficult, and it doesn’t need a lot of money. Lots of medical research is done by junior doctors, in their “spare time”. Alternative therapists are welcome to research money, but it would be nice if some of the money they get could go towards keeping follow-up records, which doesn’t cost much, and even do some proper statistics. So if you’re a quack and you’re angry about the lack of evidence supporting your ideas, here are some fun ideas for the holidays. Buy How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-Based Medicine by Trisha Greenhalgh (BMJ Books), an excellent introduction to how research works. It’s even available free online. Make friends with someone in a university or hospital, and you can use their audit department or statistics advisory service to help you design the study, often for free. But please, at least put the figures in your paper. And register your studies on the national database, so we can have a good laugh when you turn up negative findings.