Never as bad as it looks

September 1st, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, hate mail, letters, scare stories, statistics, times, water | 15 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 1, 2005
The Guardian

· “One of Britain’s most widely prescribed antidepressants has been linked to a seven-fold increase in suicide attempts.” Hold the front page! Oh hang on, it’s on the front page of the Times already. “An analysis of trials for Seroxat involving more than 1,500 patients found seven suicide attempts among those taking the drug and only one among those taking a placebo.” Step up once more Nigel Hawkes, health editor of the Times: step up here and read the academic paper. Methods section. First paragraph. “Paroxetine [Seroxat] treatment made up 190.7 patient years altogether and placebo 73.3 patient years.” The Seroxat group was almost three times as big as the placebo one. Does that make a sevenfold increase? Fingers only now, no calculators. But perhaps this was an innocent journalist, taking a press statement at its word. As a student of irrationality, Bad Science likes to study the origins of peculiar beliefs. The idea of a sevenfold increase wasn’t in the paper, because I read it. And it wasn’t in the press release (you know how we disapprove of science by press release) because I read that too. No. We can only assume Hawkes conjured it up by himself.

· And now with great regret I must announce that Penta Water, clustered molecule kings, worthy Bad Science adversaries and originators of my second best-ever hate mail have ceased trading. From “Regarding future stocks of Penta Water, we have been told by the US manufacturer that no further supplies from the US will be dispatched, pending an enquiry raised by Trading Standards (Labelling and Bottled Water Regulations, 1999).” They will be missed.

· I say second best-ever hate mail because I received another gem today. Enjoy: “Who is this smug arrogant little shit, Ben Goldarse? He has only to read the following two pages of the supplement his crap appears in to find some extremely bad science -of the stupid competing boys kind. Then there was, for example, the shameless witchhunting of Benveniste just a few years back by the science establishment mafia in France. And a closer inspection of Newton’s so-called Laws of Motion reveals they are no more than a circular self-referential description posing as an explanation. So who’s kidding who here? How about getting a grown up science writer? Nothing personal, but there’s truth and there’s lies. There’s knowing and there’s ignorance. There’s real science and there’s prejudiced dogma. From a truth-seeking scientist.” Bravo!

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

15 Responses

  1. MostlySunny said,

    September 1, 2005 at 8:28 am

    My friend’s boyfriend* calls you Dr Ballbreaker – but Dr Goldarse is just as funny…


    *your typical beret wearing, gitane smoking, armchair environmental activist who doesn’t quite get the difference between advertising and science.

  2. amoebic vodka said,

    September 1, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    This call for a new section in your blog – a weekly example of your best hate mail. Inspired by The Register’s ‘Flame of the Week’.

  3. exemplar said,

    September 1, 2005 at 10:36 pm

    Ah the joys of academia……..its the only place in the world where you can be over thirty and still not be a proper grown up!

  4. Ray said,

    September 4, 2005 at 4:52 am

    “Penta Water … have ceased trading”

    Unfortunately only Penta UK. Still, Surrey trading Standards deserve a Bad Science medal. Debbie Flint must be so upset (FX: gurgles in malevolent glee).

  5. chris said,

    September 7, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    “And a closer inspection of Newton’s so-called Laws of Motion reveals they are no more than a circular self-referential description posing as an explanation.”

    ???? !!!!

  6. Peewee said,

    September 8, 2005 at 6:01 pm

    Well, it does seem that in many treatments there’s a certain amount of circularity in the definitions of the terms force, mass and acceleration. I don’t think it’s any big deal though.

    Quoting from

    “.. of classical particle mechanics. For simplicity we will assume that kinematical concepts, such as the positions of particles, their velocities and accelerations are given independently of the theory as functions of time. A central statement of T is Newton’s second law, F=ma, which asserts that the sum F of the forces exerted upon a particle equals its mass m multiplied by its acceleration a.

    While we customarily think of F=ma as an empirical assertion, there is a real risk that it turns out merely to be a definition or largely conventional in character. If we think of a force merely as “that which generates acceleration” then the force F is actually defined by the equation F=ma. We have a particle undergoing some given acceleration a, then F=ma just defines what F is. The law is not an empirically testable assertation at all, since a force so defined cannot fail to satisfy F=ma. The problem gets worse if we define the (inertial) mass m in the usual manner as the ratio |F|/|a|. For now we are using the one equation F=ma to define two quantities F and m. A given acceleration a at best specifies the ratio F/m but does not specify unique values for F and m individually.”

  7. Ray said,

    September 11, 2005 at 3:13 am

    “Penta Water … have ceased trading”

    Well now, this is a bit peculiar. The US Penta site now gives its British distributor (see as Bio-Hydration UK Limited, MacIntyre Hudson, Northampton – according to its website ( “Chartered Accountants and Business Advisers”. Just the sort of company you’d expect to be deeply qualified in the science of water….

  8. Adam said,

    September 13, 2005 at 8:20 am


    The problem you are talking about isn’t a problem at all. What is m? m=F/a. What is F then? F=ma. a? a=F/m. That’s not circular. Those equations all mean exactly the same thing. Each of those quantities is defined in terms of the equation, which happens to involve the other two quantities. It always involves the other two quantites. You can’t talk about force without talking about mass and acceleration. What is inertial mass? It’s the m in the equation F=ma. There isn’t any other way to define it. If there is any other way to define it, that way must be equivalent to F=ma.

    F=ma is emprically testable. Take some mass. Apply a force and note the acceleration. Then assume you double the force. Calculate what you expect the acceleration to be. It should be double. Then apply that force. You’ll see that the acceleration is indeed doubled. If the equation were F=maa, then doubling the force would quadruple the acceleration, but that’s not the case, and you can test it. Similarly, there are ways to demonstrate that it’s not F=2ma.

  9. steve yakes said,

    September 14, 2005 at 2:25 am

    As far as I understand it, F=ma is not an attempt to say what force, mass or acceleration actually are, but rather to express the observation that there is a relationship between the three. Repeated observations of that relationship give us the confidence to assert that the relationship is reliable and can be used to predict results sufficiently well to be used where human lives depend on the results. It doesn’t seem that science very often says what things *really* are. It just describes composition and behavior more precisely and in finer detail which allows for very useful results. Perhaps the circular reasoning occurs when anyone tries to assert that they know what *real* is.

  10. Ray said,

    September 14, 2005 at 5:17 pm

    Another argument against the circularity are that at least two of the variables in F=m*a are definable outside the context of that equation. Acceleration is an independently observable function of time and distance. Force can be observed in static contexts that don’t involve accelerating masses: for example, by bending or stretching elastic objects.

  11. Peewee said,

    September 15, 2005 at 8:46 am

    Adam, you miss the point.; how do you know that you are applying a doubling of force?

    Ray, you are on the right track. If you read the full article from which the quote was made you will note that there are several proposed solutions to this apparent paradox;

    “In more formal terms, the problem arises because we introduced force F and mass m as T-theoretical terms that are not given by other theories. That fact also supplies an escape from the problem. We can add extra laws to the simple dynamics. For example, we might require that all forces are gravitational and that the net force on the mass m be given by the sum F=ΣiF i of all gravitational forces Fi acting on the mass due to the other masses of the universe, in accord with Newton’s inverse square law of gravity. (The law asserts that the force Fi due to attracting mass i with gravitational mass mgi is Gmgmgi ri / ri3, where mg is the gravitational mass of the original body, ri the position vector of mass i originating from the original body, and G the universal constant of gravitation.) That gives us an independent definition for F. Similarly we can require that the inertial mass m be equal to the gravitational mass mg. Since we now have independent access to each of the terms F, m and a appearing in F=ma, whether the law obtains is contingent and no longer a matter of definition.”

    As I said, I don’t think this circularity is any big deal. My original posting was a response to Chris’ outright bafflement rather than an attempt to champion this position.

    I do think, though, that many scientists are ignorant about the logical and philosophical underpinnings of science. The few who are aware that there are philosophical issues in science haven’t read much beyond Popper, and the rest are naive direct realists. Maybe there’s a use for humanities graduates after all….

  12. Mark C said,

    September 16, 2005 at 3:44 am

    Isn’t Mathematics inherently “circular”? I mean if anything go back to the days when you did your first proofs in high school and you came to the realization that “Oh, its only true if the equation works with respect to any variable and for every circumstance.” So when talking about Newton of course it is circular, his defining work was on Calculus! What would be the use if we could take the derivative, but couldn’t find integrals?

  13. Fontwell said,

    January 13, 2006 at 2:24 am

    Carrying on my tradition of stupendously late comments…

    Circular reasoning: It is definitely not allowed in a proof, however, it may still be that all the statements of fact are true (but not the reasoning bits). The Bible might be completely true and the word of God (although I have a suspicion it isn’t), you just can’t use “It must be, it says so in the Bible.” as proof.

    However, I do admit that if circular defining is used for two terms with no other reference points then we would struggle to extract any meaning from that definition, but Peewee seems to have sorted that out.

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