After feeding the scare he’ll sell you the solution

October 29th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, MRSA, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, scare stories | 32 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday October 29, 2005
The Guardian

Some might suggest that I don’t know when to stop. And so we begin our third consecutive column on Dr Chris Malyszewicz and his Northants-based Chemsol Consulting: the tabloids’ favourite microbiology laboratory, the lab that gives positive MRSA swab results for undercover journalists who want dirty hospital scoops, where others labs do not. Last week we saw how he had finally released some of his “MRSA” samples: yet microbiologists who tested them found that and six out of eight didn’t actually have any MRSA. Even the other two were dubious.

But could those journalists have known at the time that this lab was providing inaccurate results? Well firstly, what would they have seen when they visited this laboratory? A report from the government’s Inspector of Microbiology describes the Chemsol laboratory as “a freestanding, single story wooden building, approximately 6m x 2m in the back garden”. So that’s a shed. It had “benching of a good household quality (not to microbiology laboratory standards)” which sounds like kitchen fittings to me. The lab had no accreditation, unheard of for any lab doing work on NHS hospitals. Dr Malyszewicz had a “non-accredited correspondence course PhD” from America, which some tabloids noticed, calling him Mr Malyszewicz. But they still ignored the fact he had no microbiology training.

And he had a commercial interest. I have a long history of chiding humanities graduate “science reporters” who know nothing about their subject, whose only strategy for critically appraising scientific research is to talk about the motives of the people behind it. Remember the journalists who told us to ignore huge epidemiological studies showing that MMR was safe because one of the authors once ate a drug company sandwich? But guess who sells this: “Worried about MRSA? The perfect gift for a friend or relative in hospital. Show them how much you care for their health by giving a Combact Antimicrobial Hospital Pack. Making sure they come out fighting fit.” That’s right. The man the Mail on Sunday called “leading MRSA expert Dr Christopher Malyszewicz”. Most of Chemsol’s money comes from selling disinfectants for MRSA, with their excellent promotional material: “Antibiotics are in reality ‘chemicals’ designed to target and selectively destroy the surface membranes of bacteria, viruses and fungi,” it says. Seriously. An expert who thinks antibiotics kill viruses. And I think he might mean cell wall, not cell membrane.

An expert who writes, of his methods: “Checks are made in the lab for what the Department of Health require, which are coagulase positive and coagulase negative Staphylococcus aureus.” Now I’m getting geeky here, but the coagulase test is how you distinguish Staph aureus from the mostly harmless and completely different Staph epidermidis, which is quite probably all over your skin right now. This might help go some way towards explaining the problems he had with false positives.

Now, I could just about remember that much microbiology, from my frankly dismal performance in the subject at medical school. But is it all too complicated for a science journalist to understand? Maybe. In which case they should stop being so grandiose. They were told, time and again, by eminent microbiologists, by the inspector of microbiology, that there was cause for concern about Chemsol’s results, but they chose to ignore the warnings. And they still have not retracted their stories. Do they think they know better?

Nobody is defamed in these MRSA scare stories. There is nobody to sue the papers and make them retract. So if you, or a hospital you work for, were victimised by a tabloid MRSA sting, I want to know about it. Perhaps you work for a press office. Perhaps you’re a microbiologist. I want the letters you wrote to the newspapers, and the responses you got back, if any. Starting from next week, we will name and we will shame.

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


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32 Responses



  1. Rob Sang said,

    October 29, 2005 at 10:00 am

    MRSA is so last week. Where’s the lab I can go to for bird flu?

  2. John Davies said,

    October 29, 2005 at 11:58 am

    Maybe anyone posting here should be required to state their qualifications, if any. Then we might get sensible comments.

    Okay; MRCS, LRCP, FRCA (I’m a qualified doctor, a specialist in anaesthesia).

    Bird flu? It seems that the unfortunate parrot that died of avian flu at Heathrow caught it from other birds, in the quarantine area. As they are supposed to be in quarantine, the parrot was from South America (no avian flu) and the other birds were from South East Asia (lots of avian flu, including human deaths), isn’t that indicative of some bad science, some bad scientific practices or just stupidity in the quarantine area?

    John Davies

  3. Ray said,

    October 29, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    Where’s the lab I can go to for bird flu?

    Ah, the bandwagon is already rolling, with Bird Flu Protection, Bird Flu Pak, aromatherapy, and an About.com article by a holistic practitioner advising on ways alleged to enhance your immune system response (just the thing you need, when it’s your own immune systemthis protective suit would be appropriate.

  4. amoebic vodka said,

    October 29, 2005 at 3:10 pm

    Dead parrot?

    Did they check it wasn’t just pining for the fjords?

    Is it because the lab just grows bacteria from the samples that a garden shed counts as acceptable containment for a human pathogen? We think there might be a tabloid scare story in there somewhere. We assume there’s something more secure than the usual garden shed padlock to prevent terrorists from breaking in…

    Oh, and do we get cookies or maybe even a few microlitres of vodka for getting our comment from two weeks ago included in the article?

  5. Ray said,

    October 29, 2005 at 3:43 pm

    Try again. this suit
    is the protective suit I think would be highyl appropriate to revive.

  6. Tessa K said,

    October 29, 2005 at 6:57 pm

    A shed???!!!

  7. Adam said,

    October 29, 2005 at 8:59 pm

    Chemsol Consultancy’s shed isn’t big enough to show up on Google’s satellite photos, alas. Can a local take a few pictures for us?

  8. steve said,

    October 29, 2005 at 11:42 pm

    I am confused.
    Is Ben ranting about the poor practice of science or the poor reporting of science?

  9. Chris said,

    October 30, 2005 at 10:25 am

    I look forward to the name and shame. I’m fed up with journalists who distort the evidence to “sex up” a story regardless of its effect. If journalists have been deliberately using Chemsol, turning a blind eye to its dubious credentials, just because that company virtually guarantees a positive MRSA result then that’s little better than simply fabricating the story. They deserve all they get.

  10. BSM said,

    October 30, 2005 at 4:29 pm

    ” It seems that the unfortunate parrot that died of avian flu at Heathrow caught it from other birds, in the quarantine area.”

    Ahem, John. Talking of accuracy, that would be Essex, not Heathrow.

  11. BorisTheChemist said,

    October 31, 2005 at 11:45 am

    Hello all,

    Bad Science and Bad reporting! No wonder Ben is having a field-day. Go get ‘em tiger!

    I’m off to dress-up as a plague doctor for hallowe’en.

  12. Rob Sang BSc(Hons) MSc MBCS said,

    October 31, 2005 at 12:44 pm

    My point about bird flu was just supposed to be that the Newspapers have moved on and only care about the current scare. They may come back to MRSA later, who knows? What they report and what is actually happening are generally very different things.

    The dead parrot, for example. It died in quarantine, right? So hooray, that’s what quarantine’s for. Congrats go to the folks who are protecting us from deadly parrots that might otherwise have actually infected some pet shop owner or whoever it was destined for.

    For Dr Davies’ benefit, I’ve attached plenty of letters to the end of my name. None of them have anything to do with microbiology, but I thought we were talking about tabloid journalism ;)

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 31, 2005 at 12:53 pm

    We’ve really got to sort out those PhDs in Bad Science so that everyone can feel appropriately qualified. Is there anybody from a country that’s slacker on regulating these things, like the USA, who can help out here? Shouldn’t be too much hassle. Would be fun to do it for Christmas, too. We could hold an event like the Bad Science Awards last year, people could have their vivas there, and then we can confer the degrees. In full academic fancy dress of course.

    Bagsy Provost.

  14. Tessa K said,

    October 31, 2005 at 2:34 pm

    Sadly, it’s not just the tabloids that print misleading scare or breakthrough stories There was an article in The Guardian recently trumpeting cicrumcision as reducing HIV infection by 60%:

    www.guardian.co.uk/aids/story/0,,1599980,00.html

    However, this weekend there was an article in The Guardian supplement about circumcision:

    www.guardian.co.uk/medicine/story/0,,1602139,00.html

    It quoted this figure and also said that a paper by the British Journal of Urology had found exactly the opposite. How come the first article didn’t mention this? I suppose it wouldn’t make much of a headline – ‘One study finds this really impressive figure but another one doesn’t’.

    On the subject of PhDs – it’s not just people who have bogus ones, it’s people who have real ones commenting on subjects they are not qualified in. Mine is in French (soooo useful) so I feel that qualifies me to call myself Doctor when talking about any subject, from science to knitting. What do you mean, no it doesn’t?

    By the way, I’m also an internet ordained minister of the Church of Universal Life, so if anyone wants me to conduct their wedding, absolve their sins, circumcise their children….

  15. BorisTheChemist said,

    October 31, 2005 at 3:36 pm

    I totally agree, Tessa K. I thought it was incredibly bad form for the possessor of a PhD to use the title outside their academic arena. Of course I am only a humble PhD Student so my letters are just:

    MChem (Hons) MRSC AMInstP

    And I know nothing about microbiology, or bird ‘flu – but I can spot a quack at fifty paces (no pun intended).

  16. Bob O'H said,

    October 31, 2005 at 4:57 pm

    I guess all Boris T. Chemist MChem (Hons) MRSC AMInstP just needs a typo to be able to claim expertise in microbiology.

    Bob (with a PhD in epidemiology. Plant epidemiology alas)

  17. Brian G said,

    October 31, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    I have to admit, Ben, I dearly love your column, especially given that I’m a) currently employed as a microbiology lab manager (go Helicobacter!), b) volunteer-teaching a high school course about biology as it makes the headlines, and c) a generally snarky bastard anyway.

    Your latest trifecta of columns is grossly entertaining for another personal reason: as a member of the ~10% of the population who normally carries non-MR Staph aureus, I find this whole hullabaloo about the MRSA ‘Superbugs’ supremely idiotic. Having done the testing myself (classwork for my B.S. Microbiology, Univ. of Washington, ’94), I personally know that it is very easy to differentiate between S. aureus and S. epidermis. Mannitol-salt agar is incredibly easy to make, and darned cheap, to boot.

    That tabloid reporters don’t even take the time to learn an absolutely infinitesimal amount of science before they raise the hue and cry… dumbfounds me. That’s one of the reasons I’m teaching the course as I am. The vast majority of people see science as something too arcane for them to ever understand, when really, if you take just a little time, it’s mostly a trifle to understand the state of current affairs in the field(s).

    Keep up the good work. I’m quite enjoying it from over here.

  18. Natalie said,

    November 1, 2005 at 3:56 am

    Oh qualifications before I make a comment…third year studying for a BSc in Biology.

    Is it a requirement of these journalists to have at least a basic knowledge of science before they can write articles that “inform” (mislead, scare…take your pick) the general public? It really frightens me the amount of, for want of a better word, stupid science stories that get published each week. A substantial section of the general public will get their science knowledge from these newspapers, how are they to know to search on PubMed for up-to-date papers on topics and critically evaluate the papers they read? Which is why badscience is such an amazing column (not being a complete suckup really), in at least it will inform some as to the rubbish that gets reported, and more importantly why it is wrong.

    And as for the garden shed….isn’t it a little frightening that you can buy a shed, some basic kitchen worktops and a few other things like media and suddenly you have your own lab (well by Chemsol standards)? Damn, if only my garden was big enough…

  19. BorisTheChemist said,

    November 1, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    Apparently Edward Elgar used to tinker with chemistry in his garden shed – although I don’t think he was in the habit of profiteering out of media scare-stories.

  20. TiredReader said,

    November 1, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    Please, Ben… just STOP with the unnecessary “humanities graduate” slurs.

    These ignorant “science” reporters are ignorant because they have not bothered to learn about science, not because they _have_ bothered to learn about other subjects. “Humanities graduate” is not a synonym for “ignorant”, and it does not even necessarily imply “clueless about science”. Surely as a scientist you should pride yourself on saying what you actually mean… which is that these reporters are ignorant?

    Not to mention that for as long as you foster this attitude of “scientists good, humanities graduates bad”, you will drive them away from your column in droves, and the ignorant ones even more than the educated ones. Do you _want_ to condemn yourself to preaching to the choir, or do you think perhaps leaving some of the jibes out might actually help you spread the word about the difference between good science and bad?

  21. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 1, 2005 at 1:19 pm

    Sorry if this is confusing you: I have never once attacked “humanities graduates”.

    However, there is a special place in hell reserved for the endless parade of self-appointed “humanities graduate science reporters” (I quote) who consistently get things wrong. It’s the grandiosity of it all that I find especially baffling. Do I write an economics column? No. Do I write a racing tips column? No. I know about science, and I write a science column.

  22. David Harris said,

    November 1, 2005 at 2:06 pm

    Speaking as a humanities graduate (theology) I will call other humanities graduates ignorant if they choose to write about subjects about which they refuse to educate themselves. I wouldn’t pretend to know enough to write even on religious affairs (I was an idifferent student at best) but I’ll talk till the cows come home about email and messaging, that being something of which I have many years’ professional experience.

    It’s not just science that gets it from these fools. Any area you wish to name comes under assault from such self-appointed experts (this is opinion, for the hard of understanding), whether it be economics, religion, fine art, or topiary (go on, I’m sure there’s an article out there professing the benefits of the topiarist’s art for the control of bovine TB or some such nonsense).

    Ben, and your band of Farringdon Road Irregulars, keep up the good work, it makes for fascinating and hilarious reading.

  23. Michael Harman said,

    November 1, 2005 at 3:53 pm

    Ray refers to the about.com site on this. It contains the following:

    “Your immune system is compromised daily by chemical exposure due to air, water, ground pollution, and by stress.”

    Is there an “and” missing before “ground”? And if earth, air, and water are dangerous, what about the fourth element, fire?

    You’ve also got a discussion going over humanities graduates. There’s an interesting point here for anyone with expertise in some particular area X – it doesn’t matter what X is. Look at the way the press in general treat your particular area X; do you really feel that they really know what they’re talking about? Would you feel confident about relying on them? Would you feel happy about people you know relying on what they say? What fraction of the press would you say is broadly sound on your area X? Would you accept 10% as a reasonable estimate? But now consider every other specialist area. If you, Ben, happen to read something about racing or economics, do you automatically apply a 90% discount to it, on the basis that the press is pretty much of a muchness in all areas? Or do you assume that most of what’s in the papers is more or less right, and that it’s only in science that they get things so absurdly wrong?

    I suppose that we are all broadly prepared to accept what other people say – we assume that they’re fools or liars. We discover by experience that in our own specialities, they (or at any rate those in the media) are fools, in that they don’t know what they are talking about and have little or no idea of the extent of their own ignorance. But we don’t transfer that insight beyond our own area of expertise.

  24. Tom J said,

    November 1, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    For an example of another specialist area being reported questionably, look at stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2005/10/bad_market_repo_1.html

  25. Ray said,

    November 1, 2005 at 6:38 pm

    As an example, Language Log, a weblog written by US linguistics professors, regularly complains about poor media accuracy on linguistic matters (stories of the “Eskimos have X zillion words for snow” variety). The complaints are fairly equivalent to those in Bad Science: there’s both inaccuracy through ignorance and failing to check the facts, and inaccuracy put about by pundits with bogus credentials.

  26. Alex B said,

    November 1, 2005 at 7:42 pm

    If anybody wants to confirm they carry no std’s I have a laboratory set up on my balcony and will give you a pretty little certificate in exchange for £5000.

  27. Eric said,

    November 1, 2005 at 8:55 pm

    The same goes for political reporting.

  28. Tessa K said,

    November 1, 2005 at 9:28 pm

    It’s not just science where the media is bad, but perhaps science matters more.

    For example: it drives me mad when people on TV mispronounce ‘coup de grâce’ as ‘coup de gras’ (say: grab without the B). They are saying ‘blow of fat’. It happens more than you’d think. But it’s hardly as important as misinforming people into fear and over-reaction that can put lives in danger.

  29. Dean Morrison said,

    November 9, 2005 at 11:05 pm

    Whilst I was browsing the entry for aromatherapy/bird flu quacks that Ray referred to I found that their bird flu cure is also efficacious for those of us are getting paranoid about bad media reporting of science:
    “While it would be clearly preposterous to claim specific efficacy of essential oils against a specific influenza virus such as the one associated with the current avian flu, it is our opinion that stocking essential oils which are antiviral and at the same time very mild, so they can be used liberally if needed without creating irritation, is certainly a wise measure (Our preference and intuition favor Thyme thuyanol and Hyssop decumbens). Magically, having truly natural oils on hand, also sharply reduces the paranoia which often arises between legitimate concern and media hype!”

  30. Ray said,

    November 11, 2005 at 2:09 am

    Talk of magic oil reminds me: I think I found out what the mysterious “immuno-stimulator” is, in the Pearson & Black kit endorsed on the home page of Tony Field’s MRSASUPPORT group. The latter seem very coy about it (no reply to my e-mail). But this page has a picture with a little brown dropper bottle with a Pearson & Black logo and a caption referring to a “natural botanical extract immuno-stimulator prior to surgery (Arnica 6 and Hypericum 6)”.

  31. Richard said,

    December 3, 2005 at 12:02 am

    …………………….South America (no avian flu) and the other birds were from South East Asia (lots of avian flu, including human deaths)….. yes but did any humans die in the Heathrow quarantine?….or do they only die after eating the food there?

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