Spinning around

March 31st, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, space, very basic science | 7 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday March 31, 2005
The Guardian

· You know that kid who spoils everyone else’s enjoyment of sci-fi movies by sitting there in his glasses saying things like: “Well I don’t see how that force field can stop those laser beams from getting through because you can still see the spaceship on the other side of it, and they’re both just electromagnetic radiation with very similar wavelengths ie the visual range known to earthlings as light …”? That’s you, that is. And we love you for it.

· So a special geeky thanks goes to Steven Wallbridge for his heads up about some Bad Science that even appeared in the trailers for the new Dr Who. And lo, on Saturday, in the first episode of the new series, after a big long speech banging on about that sudden moment of enlightenment when you’re a kid and you realise that the natural world isn’t quite how it seems on the surface, and how he can feel things moving that we can’t, Dr Who announces with an air of wonder and awe: “The ground beneath our feet … is moving at a thousand miles an hour!”

· Now, putting our spectacles on and preparing for a well-deserved kicking from the other people on the sofa, I can vaguely remember that the Earth is about 8,000 miles across. Multiply that by pi, which is about 3.14, and you get about 25,000 miles for the circumference of the Earth, which just about makes sense when you think about how far away Australia is and stuff like that. Anyway, the Earth rotates through 25,000 miles once in every 24 hours, and that’s what gives us day and night. Isn’t the Bible fascinating? Oh sorry, that wasn’t in the Bible. Anyway, divide 25,000 by 24 and you get 1,041 miles an hour.

· You don’t need to be a Timelord to work that out. Except that Dr Who was in Britain when he said it, and the Earth rotates at different speeds at different latitudes: 1,000mph at the equator, but a whole lot slower than that in Shepherd’s Bush, as the average 14-year-old could have told you. In fact, with a quick bit of trig, I make it around 650mph. If I cocked up, I hope I at least get marks for showing my working out. Reader Steven Wallbridge goes on: “I note that Sylvester McCoy has much enjoyed the new Dr Who, and has reacted happily to a return to its ‘Reithian’ ideals of educating as well as entertaining.” Oh yes. I’d like to be educated about science by a bunch of humanities graduates in the BBC Drama Department, please.

Boiling points

March 24th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, references, very basic science, water | 4 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday March 24, 2005
The Guardian

· Welcome to Bad Science, where we use GCSE physics to solve science problems set by sinister international companies. Thinking back to when you were 15, you will remember that heat is transferred from a warmer object to a cooler one along a temperature gradient. In fact, forget that, think back to any common sense situation you have encountered: ice cubes do not heat up cups of tea; when you hold a cool piece of metal in a fire, it gets warmer; and you cannot boil a bowl of milk by sitting it in a pan of boiling water, because milk boils at a temperature higher than the boiling point of water. Hold that thought. Water boils at about 100C, milk boils at something a bit higher than that, so heat will not transfer against the gradient from the water, that is 100C, to the milk, to make that milk even hotter than 100C.

· Where am I going with this? Straight to the “research and studies” section of the Penta “restructured drinking water” website where it has a jolly scientific paper showing that the boiling point of Penta is higher than the boiling point of de-ionised water, written by Dr Boris V Nemzer and Professor Andrew Dickson (tinyurl.com/527h8). Wow. Penta really must be different. So I couldn’t quite believe it when Mark Atkins wrote in to point out an interesting quirk in their apparatus. According to the study, the de-ionised water boils at 100.082C (+/- 0.008), and the Penta water boils at 100.125C (+/- 0.008), so the boiling point of Penta is 0.043C higher. The setup was this: they had a glass beaker of boiling de-ionised water, and in this they floated a smaller glass container filled with either Penta or de-ionised water, boiling, with its temperature measured with a probe. You can see where we’re going with this. If Penta has a higher boiling point, how did it boil at all, in a bath of de-ionised water that has a lower boiling point? I tracked down Prof Dickson at University of California, San Diego, where he suggested that this surprising phenomena might be explained by the water in the larger beaker being “slightly superheated”.

· I contacted Ed Tarleton, Bad Science emailer and research physicist, to run it by him. Not only did Ed agree with us, he also checked their thermometer and found that the Hart 1504 has an accuracy of only 0.02C at 100C. “The error is a lot larger than they make out,” said Ed, “which might explain how they observed the impossible and had heat transferring from a cooler to a warmer body.” Are we really right? We can’t quite believe it. Read the paper and let us know.

Party lines

March 17th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, very basic science | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday March 17, 2005
The Guardian

· You know that scene in the movies where the dorky science teenager tries really hard to be cool at a party? That’s my life. Bad Science reader Frank Swain also proved his mettle on the dancefloor when he was given a can of Shark. “This was a Red Bull clone handed to me by underdressed women at a club. It claims to be derived from ‘traditional Thai Recipes’ and the literature with the samples states: ‘The dextrose in Shark comes entirely from grape sugar, which in turn improves the quality of the other carbohydrates, and rapidly increases your energy levels.’

· “Exactly how it improves the quality of other carbohydrates isn’t explained, and the girls handing out the drink didn’t know either.” Yes! Another victory for the cool scientists. Then the hot chicks gave him another classic opener: “The high quality composition of Shark is supplemented by B complex vitamins and the essential protein Lysine.” Hmm, says Frank. “If they don’t know the difference between proteins and amino acids…” Yes! Take that, hot chicks! Who says scientists don’t rock the ladies?

· Meanwhile, reader Chris Williams sends in an advert from Limited Edition, the “Hertfordshire County Magazine”, for Dr Eggers’s Hypoxi weight loss pod, an egg-shaped capsule with a neoprene vacuum seal around the waist: apparently, pedalling with your legs and bottom in a low-pressure environment is a good thing. “Dr Eggers’ clinical trials show up to a 300% reduction in size on problem areas through Hypoxi Therapy.” I’m seeing large women riding children’s bicycles with stabilisers.

· Little did I realise when I wrote about scary Penta’s ASA battering that there was a whole scene for people hanging out on the ASA website complaining about each other. Ecos Paints had an objection against it by the Green Building Store upheld, for its “100% natural paints” that contained, er, synthetic ingredients. Since then, it has launched into a bitter cycle of accusations resulting in rulings against the Green Building Store, the Good Earth Catalogue Company, and others. Comrades, please, what about the wider struggle? But check out Ecos Paints’s unchallenged EMR/ELF Radiation Shielding Wallpaint: “Brick and concrete walls are no barrier to EMR-ELF radiation and next door’s TV set or microwave oven could be just feet away from your head! Ecos EMR/ELF shielding wallpaint gives up to 99% shielding against ELF/VLF/EMR radiations.” You’d better paint over your windows, too…

Penta tonics

March 10th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, references, very basic science, water | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday March 10, 2005
The Guardian

· The great thing about Bad Science is the column just writes itself. Like when Penta Water wrote in to say “Sleep well tonight and think about how and why you tried to fuck us over and practice [sic] keeping one eye open.” It may have apologised, but the curse of Bad Science has struck again: this time, through the mighty hand of the Advertising Standards Authority.

· Someone – I like to fantasise it was one of you – wrote to the ASA to complain that Penta’s adverts “misleadingly implied the product had health benefits over and above those of ordinary water” and that “the claims ‘restructured’ and ‘it might be just H2O, but it’s no ordinary water’” were misleading. Here are some of the quotes from Penta that worried them: “Easy to drink – Proven faster, better hydration – No sloshing or fullness Penta is ultra-purified, restructured ‘micro-water’. Groundbreaking science – proven by patent. Just H2O in smaller stable clusters.” Nice. “You too can use Penta (1-4 bottles a day) to enjoy what we call “Bio-hydration” optimal cellular hydration that makes your body come alive … Penta is proven to hydrate more efficiently due to its unique structure.” And the proof? “It’s been shown by researchers at the University of Calif. at San Diego that Penta water hydrates cells faster and more effectively than other waters. Researchers at Moscow University demonstrated that Penta improves the environment within your cells …Unique patented structure … proven at the prestigious General Physic Institute.”

· Now check this. The ASA can be even more patronising than me: “They [Penta] submitted research papers that they believed showed scientific evidence of restructuring… The authority took expert advice and understood that the scientific evidence submitted did not prove that Penta had health benefits over and above those of ordinary water, or had been restructured to form stable smaller clusters. It also understood that hydrogen bonds in ordinary water were a weak type of chemical bonding that allowed the formation and reformation of temporary clusters of water molecules in liquid phase water many times per second.”

· So the ASA has told Penta not to repeat claims that imply its product is chemically unique, has been restructured or molecularly redesigned, or improves physical performance better than tap water. I can’t help wanting to ask, only I’m too scared to phone them again: how is Penta going to flog this water now?


March 3rd, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, dangers, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications | 3 Comments »

Nutritional information

Ben Goldacre
Thursday March 3, 2005
The Guardian

I hereby take the credit for coining the term Nutritionism: “The practice of promoting flimsily unevidenced assertions about the benefits of expensive supplements, or shortlived and unhelpfully overcomplicated eating fads, in healthy or ill individuals.” I accused Angela Dowden of just this. “Where have you seen me promote these?” she replied, indignantly.

Here is the first Google result for ‘Angela Dowden nutritionist’: www.healthspan.co.uk/articles/article.aspx?Id=112, a pill-pusher with a dubious “select your condition” way of selling tablets. Here’s Angela: “Eye strain: Which fruit? Bilberries. How they help: These European cousins of American blueberries contain anthocyanin antioxidants which strengthen the blood vessels supplying the retina in the eye. Bilberry extracts have been shown to treat visual fatigue caused by prolonged reading and working in dim light.” There is nothing, in 84 bilberry references on medline or pubmed, to support this. Having had to read 84 extremely boring abstracts to prove my point, I’m in the mood to cause trouble.

Then I remember. She’s “one of Britain’s most high-profile nutritional experts,” says the Mail. She’s a “registered nutritionist”, says the Mirror. Registered? With whom? The Nutrition Society: Angela tells me she thinks the register and the term “registered nutritionist” (or RNutr) have official status as a protected term. In fact they have none. But there might still be a register, which enforces some professional accountability. I go to the society’s website. I’d like to see the regulations, and make a complaint about Angela Dowden (RNutr) peddling invented nonsense, please. Nothing. I contact the “registrar”. Eleven emails later, we establish that no information is available to the public on how to complain, and no single document describes the regulatory process, standards expected of registrants, or how complaints are dealt with. My dead cat could do better.

So, I’ve submitted my complaint. I just put a stamp on it and hoped for the best. The society has decided not to make its “inquiries” public, except, of course, that I’ll be telling you everything I can wring out of it on this one; because my real accusation of incompetence is not about the fool Dowden, but about the Nutrition Society, which gives these fools their authority. This is not a one-off. This is “nutritionism”. Who watches the watchdog? Bizarrely, I think it might be you and I.

Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk