More Than Molecules

May 5th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, times, very basic science | 2 Comments »

Bad style

Talk about bad science

Ben Goldacre
Thursday May 5, 2005
The Guardian

· In light of the ever present danger that I am tragically killed in a revenge attack, or indeed a sexual experiment that goes horribly wrong, I thought I ought to explain how to write a Bad Science column. First, decide who you’re going to bang on about. This week it had to be Susan Clark, of course. This means buying the Sunday Times. Turn to the Style section, that’s where the science is. Ignore the article about “oxygen plasma potion”. Just leave it. Also ignore the slightly hysterical article about organic food because, weirdly, it seems like it might be a parody of such articles. Are they mocking themselves, or you? Impossible to tell. Move on and ignore the article about a stick-on perfumed patch to increase female libido, which argues that a mere sniff will increase the amount of dopamine in your brain and make you love more. They call it a “nontransdermal patch”, redundantly, to explain that the ingredients are not absorbed through the skin, and use the word dopamine on 10 separate occasions – because in the Sunday Times, Style is the science section. And you thought science wasn’t cool.

· Ah, Susan Clark. Three rather detailed questions from three surprisingly well-informed readers. Her first “question” is about Serrapeptase, produced in the intestines of silkworms. “In clinical trials on post-operative patients,” says Susan, “it reduced swelling by 50% following surgery to the knee, compared with controls, and eliminated pain altogether within 10 days.” Excellent. Go to Google, type in “Medline”, go to Medline, look it up on this comprehensive database of all peer-reviewed academic journal publications, use every possible combination of keywords, establish that no such trials are there, and bingo, your work is done. Extraordinary, really.

· Except, ideally, you might want to weave in something about the bigger picture. So go to www.nutricentre.com, which is the vendor Clark recommends, for an insight into how parts of the huge alternative therapy industry works. Susan Clark says this stuff has proven clinical efficacy, but Nutricentre, like all vendors, makes no grand claims for its products. In fact, Nutricentre says: “Products sold or supplied by the Nutricentre are not intended for the treatment, prevention and cure of any medical conditions.” Although they also say “as featured in the Sunday Times”, with the full text of Susan’s articles about their products, and even the Sunday Times’s logo with the lion, the unicorn and the shield in large print.

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

· What did you think of this article? Mail your responses to life@guardian.co.uk and include your name and address.


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