Brain sensitising

October 28th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, letters, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, placebo, references | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 28, 2004
The Guardian

· Generally, I don’t go for the little guys. But when the seventh copy of the Brain Respiration leaflet arrived in the Bad Science mailbag, I knew it was a serious moneyspinner: a multimillion dollar operation, in fact, with four centres in the UK, and headed by spiritual leader Dr Ilchi Lee, who runs international conferences, attended, he claims, by Al Gore. I don’t know if his doctorate is in neurosciences but he’s certainly made some breakthroughs with his “brain sensitising, brain versatilising, brain cleansing, brain re-wiring, and brain mastering”. Especially since it can “refresh the brain’s energy and help it create new brain cells for stronger brain function”, which is amazing given the conventional wisdom that you don’t make any new brain cells after you’re born. So you might want to protect the few you have left from brain respiration, especially since “this process goes beyond the anatomical layer of the neo-cortex … into the realm of the brain stem (where innate universal awareness is present)… the creativity of the neo-cortex is fully realised through an infinite current of energy”. No way is Dr Ilchi Lee putting an infinite current of energy through my neurons, but he can send me some of those cool brain-shaped gold vibrators off his website for only $90. They’re top of my Christmas list.

· So is there any peer-reviewed journal evidence to back up Brain Respiration? Yes! It’s from the Korea Institute of Brain Sciences (proprietor Dr Ilchi Lee), and it’s published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine. It measured the EEG of children meditating (in the special brain respiration way), and found that meditating kids had EEG findings characteristic of meditation, when compared with a bunch of kids just sitting “relaxing” with some electrodes on their heads, presumably baffled, certainly not meditating, and therefore producing EEG recordings characteristic of kids sitting around in a room. Which goes to show the importance of choosing your control group carefully. There is another paper, which claims to show the effect of brain respiration on stress hormones, but it’s only published in the Korea Institute of Brain Sciences journal, which, little surprise, isn’t carried by my usual academic libraries.

· Just to clarify: meditation is good, Herbert Benson’s excellent papers on the Relaxation Response, the opposite of fight-or-flight, absolutely rule, and you miss out at your peril. But trademarked pseudoscientific nonsense meditation schools are bad, just like all the other backdoors to enlightenment.

Note:

People love to write in and point out that I don’t go after Bad Science in The Guardian, as if I can somehow go over there and force them to publish whatever I want, perhaps following a brief hostage siege. And to the colossal delight of at least 50 people who emailed, Sally Weale, the editor of the Guardian health pages, published the following article a few weeks later:

www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1367824,00.html

Under the headline “It Works!” they gush extensively about how fabulous and scientifically well proven Brain Respiration is, and these ringing endorsements from The Guardian now prominently adorn the advertising material for Brain Respiration. The article includes the memorably untrue line: ” a number of independent studies have also been conducted on BR and the results published in peer-reviewed science journals.”

This, as many of you pointed out, is a demonstrably false fact in a newspaper (rather than, say, a matter of opinion) and deserves a simple correction. I think it’s as weird as you do, I wrote a letter to the letters page, it was ignored. What can I say?

The not so posh Kettle Chips

October 21st, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dangers, scare stories, weight loss | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 21, 2004
The Guardian

· Let me take you back two weeks, to the story of Kettle Chips. They are running a slightly improbable ad campaign, slogan “No Science, No Fiction, Just Real”, in which food science technology is the bad guy and high salt, high fat, low nutrient, mass produced junk food – mysteriously – is the natural wholesome maverick alternative. Why attack science? I had to understand, so I rang their head office. Apparently we all misunderstand the brand. “This started when we found that people just think we make high salt, high fat, posh crisps.” Apparently they don’t use flavour enhancers (except salt and fat) and some bloke stirs the big vat with a rake instead of a machine. They must have pretty good PR training, because by the time he got on to not targeting children in their adverts, even I felt sorry for them.

· But I have in my hand, courtesy of vigilant reader Dr James Lloyd, a piece of paper. It’s from the Food and Drugs Administration in the US, and it’s an exploratory study of the amount of acrylamide in various foodstuffs. Acrylamide is used to make polyacrylamide, which is used in cosmetics, packaging materials, plastics, and grouting agents. Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke. Stop me if you’ve had enough of this nasty old “science” stuff. Acrylamide also causes cancer in animals (at high doses) and has been shown to cause nerve damage in people exposed to high levels at work. It can be formed by certain ways of cooking food. Like really hot fat and carbohydrates mixed together. Acrylamide, you understand, has only so far been proven to be dangerous at much higher levels than you find in most food. I’m not in the business of starting health scares.

· But guess what? Kettle Chips Lightly Salted Natural Gourmet Potato Chips contain acrylamide at 1,265 parts per billion. They’re in the top 1% for acrylamide content in this FDA exploratory study of over 700 foodstuffs. Kettle Chips say acrylamide content fluctuates over a season. This compares with acrylamide figures given for, say, chips from McDonald’s at only 155ppbn, Burger King 197ppbn, and KFC only 117ppbn. Although don’t go getting all excited about the low figure for acrylamide in KFC: remember, unlike my dead cat, I’m not a “clinical nutritionist” with a phoney qualification, so we don’t go around extrapolating from isolated laboratory findings into self-indulgent nonsensical lifestyle advice. Oh no. Living on junk food is still bad for you. And eat your greens – just like your mother told you.

Channel 4′s ‘doctors’ continued

October 14th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, channel 4, gillian mckeith, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, weight loss | 3 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 14, 2004
The Guardian

· I’m in a difficult position. You may remember Dr Bannock PhD: he is a Channel 4 TV doctor and a certified professional member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, like Dr Gillian McKeith PhD (and my dead cat Hettie). In fact, pretty much the only thing my cat doesn’t have is a PhD and a Channel 4 show. Now, I had all kinds of awful things to say about Dr Bannock, but he’s written me such a nice collection of emails, and put such an earnest retraction of hisPhD from the Open International University of Complementary Medicine (OIUCM) on his website (www.doctorbannock.com/about_me.html) after I contacted him with my concerns, that I can’t bring myself to speak ill of him. I honestly think, regardless of the fact that he describes himself as having seven memberships, three fellowships, six diplomas, and eight certificates, the odd lectureship, and isn’t quite sure if he might have claimed for a while to have a PhD from Brunel (which has never heard of him) and continued to call himself a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine even after his membership had lapsed – despite all this (deep breath), despite the fact that he has qualifications in “Scenar” and live blood analysis, both of which I’m looking forward to writing about in the future and despite the fact that he’s been written about positively in the Daily Mail, the Express, the Sunday Times Style, and other repeat offenders … I seriously like the guy. And pseudoscientific new age nonsense aside, I’m sure he’s done a lot for Sting’s wife, Madonna, and all the other celebs he associates himself with. I mean it. It’s not my fault if I have a naturally unearnest prose style.

· But Dr Bannock is important to me for two reasons. First, he’s our second “doctor” on Channel 4 with highly questionable qualifications, and I want to know how many more there are. I thought about asking Channel 4, but the last time I rang its PR department I was treated like a naughty schoolboy. So here’s the deal: just send me the name of everyone on Channel 4 you see who describes themselves as a doctor, and I’ll do the rest.

· Second, and more important, the PhD that Dr Bannock got from OIUCM only costs $850. I’m told there are lots of people on Harley St with OIUCM PhDs. Now listen: the editor of Life is on holiday at the moment, and while he’s away we run the budget. So 850 emails, that’s all I need, and we might just be able to buy a PhD for my dead cat before the boss gets back.

Who’s the bad guy?

October 7th, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, dangers, scare stories, weight loss | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday October 7, 2004
The Guardian

· What is science? A set of techniques, perhaps, for approaching a problem, or examining and describing the world. It informs, but is different from, technology, which in turn lets us do things like fly disaster rescue missions, phone our parents or manufacture processed junk food, each according to personal taste and preference. Or, if you’re a gullible neo-luddite new age moron, science is the universal bad guy. Like in the new Kettle Chips four-page pullout advert. Strapline: “No Science. No Fiction. Real.”

· Nice. “Our potatoes … ” they say, “one season they’re planted, it rains a bit, then the next season we dig a few up to check they’re ready before harvesting them. Not much science to that.” From what I remember, I’d say the completely amazing story of how a little round potato grows, with water and carbon dioxide and sunlight, into a bushy four-foot green plant with loads more potatoes under the ground, is pretty much our core constituency. And the astonishing unlikeliness of how it all works still blows my mind 15 years after Mr Hollander taught me back in the lower fourth about photosynthesis, chemotaxis, and that amazing stuff where the roots know how to grow down instead of up even in the dark.

· Back to the advert: “Salt and vinegar? No thanks. Sea salt and balsamic vinegar for us_ No Science.” No, heaven forbid. Salt is a nasty chemical that gives you hypertension and heart attacks. Natural sea salt is a different kettle of chips altogether. Now, stop me if I’ve lost what little perspective I once had, but to recap: these are crisps, and this is a junk food company, advertising its junk food which it makes in a big factory somewhere. It’s promoting rubbish food that will make you fat and ugly, and now it’s telling me that “science” is the bad guy that I’m supposed to be afraid of.

· Well shake my pot belly and shower me with emboli, why would a junk food company want to turn me against science? After all, science gave it cheaper ways to make junk food, and imaging advances help us see the damage its food does to our arteries, and epidemiology helps us to notice that its food lowers our life expectancy, and materials research helps surgeons to replace our blocked, rotting arteries so that we can keep on stuffing our faces with its posh crisps. Who’s the bad guy there, fat boy?