Beware alt.therapy

April 28th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, fish oil, nutritionists, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 28, 2005
The Guardian

· Sometimes I have elaborate and grotesque fantasies about alternative therapists, like the reliably foolish Susan Clark from the Sunday Times’ “What’s the alternative?” column. This week she was lecturing us on Omega-3 oils, in the pseudoscientific, jargon-laden, authoritarian rhetoric typical of the alternative therapies. They like to preserve the mystery, I suppose, though I’d count myself lucky to sneak half as much unexplained terminology onto one science page as the average alternative therapist gets away with – and I’d be using it correctly – but we’re getting carried away. Back to my fantasy.

· I imagine Susan Clark reading about herself once again in Bad Science, and try to picture her response. Does she need to check with a friend whether I’m right and she’s wrong? Do they have a secret giggle at her too? Do I spoil the surprise for her, if I point out what she gets wrong each time? Should I leave it to her to find out, like a kind of GCSE project? Does she ever believe she’s wrong? Or does she believe that we are two intellectual titans, who disagree on a complex issue of advanced science, where it is hard to be absolutely certain who is right and who is wrong?

· Look, it was nothing so big. She just said: “Fatty acids are composed of carbon molecules linked with hydrogen and oxygen atoms.” I mean, maybe it’s a slip that just happened to get past the scientifically literate Clark and all the Sunday Times’s scientifically literate subeditors, maybe she does know the difference between a molecule and an atom (Key Stage 4 science on the national curriculum, incidentally, I just checked, and you do it aged about 14). Maybe I should be ashamed of my pedantry. But as far as I’m concerned, if her sentence doesn’t leap out of the page at you, then you need a new engagement ring and some lead in your pencil; but maybe she’s never heard of graphite, or diamond, or fullerene (the cool, ball-shaped carbon molecule).

· No, hang on, she says the carbon molecules in fatty acids are “linked with hydrogen and oxygen atoms”. Perhaps this isn’t a slip of the tongue, or a misplaced word. Perhaps this is a systematic misunderstanding of the actual subject she’s banging on about like some expert. Maybe the sentence doesn’t even make sense if you swap “atom” for “molecule”; does she mean the carbon is joined together by oxygen and hydrogen? Why even try to write about it, if you don’t understand it? Oh, and we’re back to the first paragraph.

Bad Science

April 21st, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, gillian mckeith, nutritionists, water | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 21, 2005
The Guardian

· That poo lady gets everywhere. Now let’s get this straight: I like organic food, alternative therapies are OK by me, and scare stories are often great fun. What I don’t like is made up bollocks. And there’s only one thing I’m disappointed with the Soil Association for, which is giving its 2005 Consumer Education award to Dr Gillian McKeith PhD. Who can forget the time she educated us all about photosynthesis on national television, explaining that chlorophyll is “high in oxygen” and that the darker leaves on plants are good for us because they contain “chlorophyll – the ‘blood’ of the plant – which will really oxygenate your blood”.

· Of course, if you want real nonsense, you’re best generating it yourself. The three prankster geeks at MIT who had their phony paper, Rooter: a methodology for the typical unification of access points and redundancy, accepted for an academic conference this week, have released their random text-generating code to the world: just type in the author names of your choice, and you too can generate your own computer science research paper of grammatically consistent but meaningless gibberish. For example, at you can find a paper entitled On the Analysis of Robots that appears to be written by “Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, Ben Goldacre, and the staff of Penta water”. Although the next time you visit it might be On the Synthesis of Neural Networks or Permutable, Fuzzy Epistemologies for Semaphores. Don’t tell McKeith or she might use it to write her next series.

· But I digress. The trouble here is that the Soil Association is an independent body, whose little kitemarks only mean anything if we believe that it knows what it’s doing. I’ve even been kind enough in the past to not write about the “organic salt” packet someone posted me, featuring the Soil Association kitemark. Disappointed, I got in touch with its press office, and blow me if they weren’t lovely. “The Soil Association believes it is very important to give the public sound advice on issues of health and nutrition and for our licensees to do the same. I hope that we are an organisation people trust because we take this responsibility seriously.” And? “I was not aware of the specific concerns you have raised when judging the awards. The matters you highlight are clearly important, and I will be discussing them with Gillian McKeith and her representatives directly and in detail.” Contrite surprise or PR fudge? We’ll know by next week.

Office Hours

April 18th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, letters | No Comments »

Helen Pidd
Monday April 18, 2005
The Guardian

· WPM arrives this week sheepish, tail guiltily between her legs. For, for the first time ever, we must begin with a correction. Not just any old correction, either, but one initiated by the Guardian’s biologychemistryandphysics ombudsman. Who? Why, Dr Ben Goldacre of the legendary Bad Science column, of course, who writes offering friendly advice relating to an item in last week’s column. Seven days ago, you’ll remember, we were singing the praises of an ingenious inflatable toilet soon to hit the open market. Science dunce here breezily stated it would be just fine to plug in the device to your office wall socket, instead of a car cigarette lighter as per the instructions. (So you didn’t have to ask your line-manager for a loo break, see?) A bad idea, apparently. Dr Goldacre explains: “As your doctor, I would seriously recommend not putting your naked arse on a 12V device plugged in to a 240V socket. bx”

Protect your boundaries with agate

April 14th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, express, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, very basic science | 1 Comment »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 14, 2005
The Guardian

· After years of hand-wringing about the decay of post-enlightenment rationalist values I’m beginning to wonder whether all is well, and the choice of alternative health guff in the Daily Express is deliberate parody. There is no other explanation for this week’s article entitled Embrace the power of crystals (“the special structure of a crystal lets it absorb, strengthen and transmit electromagnetic energy that can heal and energise”). It offers such useful nuggets as:”Protect your boundaries with agate” (read aloud for optimum effect) and what must be the prototypical Daily Express headline, combining as it does its obsession with Asbo tomfoolery and New Age nonsense: “Silence noisy neighbours, with white moonstone.”

· Meanwhile, if there was any doubt that Bad Science readers represent the definitive research tool, Dave Forbes wrote in, after I pointed out that Doctor Who had miscalculated the rotational speed in Britain of the Earth on its own axis in the first episode of the new series, to point out a precedent for this. “You might like to check out Paul Saint’s Doctor Who novel The Suns of Caresh,” he suggests. “In one scene the Tardis’s destination is unexpectedly diverted from Israel to Chichester. Since the settings had not been adjusted to take into account the different rotational speed of the Earth’s surface at this latitude, the Tardis leaves a wake of destruction across the English countryside.”

· Lastly, it was good to see one of the more bizarre untruths from the Terri Schiavo “right to die” case crossing the Atlantic and popping up in the Scotsman. In line with much of the US media, it refers to her parents’ doctor in the case, William Hammesfahr, as “a Nobel prize-nominated neurologist who has an international reputation for treating brain-injured patients”. Now, Hammesfahr was “nominated” for the prize by a Republican congressman, Michael Bilirakis, though he might just as well have been nominated by my dead cat Hettie, since the Nobel committee only takes nominations from 3,000 or so invited people, mostly previous winners and big-arse professors. My favourite detail from the grandiose letter ( is where he is nominated for the “Nobel peace prize in medicine”. Even if such a prize existed, it would be unusual for a science Nobel to be won by someone like Hammesfahr who, according to Pubmed, has published no papers in peer-reviewed journals. But don’t let that stop you nominating Hettie.

Letters on the Pope

April 13th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, religion | 2 Comments »

Unholy criticism

I’m not a strict Roman Catholic, but I still find Ben Goldacre’s article (Bad Science, April 7) somewhat in bad taste. Being a scientist myself, I agree that the stance of the Vatican on issues such as contraception, HIV and family planning is indefensible. Read the rest of this entry »

Pope Dope

April 7th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in africa, alternative medicine, bad science, religion | 1 Comment »

Bad science

Ben Goldacre
Thursday April 7, 2005
The Guardian

• Pope of Popes, the People’s Pope, Pope John Paul the Great. But to many he will perhaps be remembered as the African Aids Victims’ Pope. Who could forget Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, telling us all that HIV could pass through impermeable latex condoms? “The Aids virus is 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon,” he said. “The spermatozoon can easily pass through the ‘net’ formed by the condom.” The devil sent Read the rest of this entry »