Thursday June 30, 2005
Â· And so to Africa, where there are “complementary and alternative medicine” practitioners pursuing the fashionable attack on mainstream medicine, just like in the UK. Take Matthias Rath and the Rath Foundation vitamin empire: they’ve been running advertising campaigns in newspapers and poster campaigns near HIV/Aids treatment centres, telling people that anti-retroviral drugs undermine the body’s immune system, and that “micro-nutrients alone can Read the rest of this entry »
Thursday June 23, 2005
Â· Of course, the past two years of Bad Science was nothing more than a cover for the “popular statistics” lecture series I really wanted to give, but knew I could never sell to a newspaper. So, on to Professor Roy Meadows and Meadows’ Law, that: “One sudden infant death is Read the rest of this entry »
Wednesday June 22, 2005
I would add one vital element to Ben Goldacre’s sensible list of requirements for understanding health risks (Risky business, June 20). It is essential to convey the reliability of the evidence that Read the rest of this entry »
Health-scare stories often arise because their authors simply don’t understand numbers
Monday June 20, 2005
Competence always looks better from a distance, but I have a confession to make: I’m a doctor, and I just don’t understand most of the stories on health risks in the news. I don’t mean I can’t understand the fuss. I mean I literally can’t understand what Read the rest of this entry »
Thursday June 16, 2005
Â· Do you ever get the feeling that a story is just disappearing before your very eyes? There I was, cheerfully reading about the Opur Oxygen Canister that reader Diana McAllister sent me. Why would anyone want to inhale expensive oxygen from a tin that costs Â£10, you rightly ask. After all, if you’re the proud owner of two lungs then you already inhale more than the average, and oxygen, like love, is free and all around us. Feel the love. Breathe the oxygen. But no. There is a reason. “Just 300 years ago, the density [sic] of oxygen in the environment on Earth was 30%. Today it is 19-20%.” Breathe into that thought. Feel the bad science washing over you.
Â· Now I am an innocent soul at heart, with an inquiring mind. Perhaps I’m wrong on this one. I mean, maybe things have moved on since I did A-level chemistry a whole 12 years ago, but I vaguely remember at least 200 years before that some French bloke called Lavoisier burned candles in closed containers and found that only a fifth of the air was consumed, called that bit “oxygen” instead of Phlogiston and then sat wondering what the other 80% of air was all about. The answer is “being nitrogen”, for those of you a few hundred years behind the game.
Â· But the Opur people have a far higher opinion of your scientific knowledge than I do. Evolution, they think you will be thinking: surely we could evolve to deal with this change in atmospheric oxygen, in a mere 300 years. They have an answer for that too. “Simple living cell creatures [sic] will adapt to such changes in the environment. However, man has not become more efficient at extracting oxygen from the air.” No. Here we are living in a hostile alien environment with a third less oxygen than we evolved for, a whole 300 years after this gigantic change in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere. Now, I’ve got as much respect for an argument deploying comparative physiology as the next man. But this guff appears almost 200 times on Google (www.tinyurl.com/bcuql). So I bravely write to half a dozen sites at random, and they all, all, write back, within 12 hours, to say they’re taking these quotes off their webpages. Check it out. I’m more effective than the ASA. We’re waiting to talk to the distributor, but the man from retailer www.opuruk.co.uk rang me back. “By the time your story comes out we will no longer even sell this product,” he said, which is a shame, since I have no idea if it is any good and rather wanted to try it. Where did my story go? Only another 185 retailers to go.
Promo article for McKeith in today’s Observer describes me as a “journalist” and then goes off to find some scientists
to quote. Entertainingly unattributed Bad Science stories throughout. By “Rachel Cooke”.
So where did she train? McKeith’s CV has been the subject of some debate in the press. Her PhD, for instance, was gained via a distance learning programme at a non-accredited college, the American College of Holistic Nutrition, now known as the Clayton College of Natural Health. The fact that this college is non-accredited means that the US secretary for education does not recognise its degrees for the purpose of educational grants. In some states, the holder of a degree from such an establishment would not be allowed to practise as a clinical nutritionist. McKeith has never published any properly evaluated scientific research, not even her PhD thesis. As the journalist Ben Goldacre pointed out in his Bad Science column in the Guardian, McKeith’s much-vaunted certified membership of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants is also a peculiar boast. Ben Goldacre managed to buy the same membership for his dead cat via the internet for the bargain price of $60.
Of course, none of this would matter if all the advice that McKeith was handing out was based on scientific fact. But this is not always the case. Much of what she says is patent nonsense. In the past, she has informed us that a seed contains ‘all of the energy necessary to make a fully grown plant’, that ‘chlorophyll is high in oxygen’ which means eating green leaves will ‘really oxygenate the blood’, and that ‘the colours of foods represent vibrational energies… foods which are orange in colour have similar vibrational energies and even similar nutrient make-up’. “
Thursday June 9, 2005
Â· Talk about fans in high places. Two weeks ago, I said I was going to start giving references, and suddenly Dr Gillian McKeith PhD is writing this in her newsletter: “You will note that I deliberately include scientific sourced references [sic] which correspond to the numbers in the text.” Read the rest of this entry »
Thursday June 2, 2005
Talk about bad science
Â· OK, hands up. I hate nutritionists and phoney diet marketers. I hate them because they confuse evidence and theory. I hate them because they make sweeping assertions that something will work in the real world on the basis of tenuous laboratory data. And they either do not understand that, or they do and they are being dishonest. In either case, I hate them. I hate them because they are richer than me. And lastly, and this is a tricky one, I hate them because they give dangerous advice.
Â· At first glance, they give quite sensible advice. Dr Gillian McKeith PhD – for all the awful poo business and her bizarre misunderstanding of basic science about things like photosynthesis – promotes a pretty normal, sensible, healthy diet. The GI diet, for all the guff that goes with it, does too. And the grandiose nutritionism-peddling columnists from Sunday magazines, even if they do recommend you eat some particular nut because it contains lots of vitamin G and selenium, are still basically recommending fruit and veg. Everyone knows basic dietary advice, and they don’t need a nutritionist, doctor, alternative therapist or journalist, to tell them. They need their mum.
Â· But the trouble is this: nutritionists and their kin sell the idea that diet is somehow more complicated than that; something that requires access to arcane and detailed knowledge to which only they have access; knowledge of the breakdown of exactly what is in each food. And so the shopper is paralysed. But do I need vitamins L and Y this week? Or calcium? Or protein? Or no protein? What kind of fat did you say again? Because when you sell the idea that eating well is complicated, that foods are made of immemorable combinations of chemicals, then you prime the market for Fruittella Plus “with added calcium and vitamins B, C and E”, and 7-Up Plus from Cadbury’s “with calcium and vitamin C” and the rest. I could go on. In fact, market research company Mintel’s new Global Products Database has identified a trend among confectionery manufacturers to fortify their products with vitamins and minerals. Mintel watch you eat. Their reports have chapter headings such as “continued focus on indulgence in desserts” and “focus on children in processed poultry sector”. And they are watching your every little irrationality so that somebody, somewhere, can take advantage of it. The moral? Eat your greens. Or the bogeymen will come and get you with their weird processed chicken army.
Thursday June 2, 2005
Generation before MMR is falling ill
I agree with Ben Goldacre about MMR (Bad science, May 26) but I am not sure that the mumps outbreak is due to low uptake of the vaccine.
The young people who are catching mumps at the moment are in their late teens and early twenties, too old to have been offered MMR. My 18-year-old daughter had separate injections. We were not offered MMR but could have an injection for mumps if wanted. I don’t think many parents had it done; there has been an outbreak of mumps at her college.
Â· Surely, since the immunity offered by vaccination does not exceed a decade, we are seeing a new generation of adults who have been denied the chance to catch and defeat mumps safely as children, and so achieve full, lifelong immunity. Should any of them suffer orchitis, they might question whether their mumps shots were really such a good idea.
Stoke Newington, London
Â· The citation from Ben Goldacre’s column would have been much easier to find if it had included the name of the first author (Savage, E) and the title (Mumps outbreaks across England and Wales in 2004: observational study), though I appreciate that space constraints may make it impossible to give the title. Adding a link to the abstract on PubMed would give him extra brownie points.
Blaxter Nematode Genomics Group, University of Edinburgh