Cranky to fashionable in five iffy claims

October 8th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, bbc, media, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, references, statistics | 19 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday October 8, 2005
The Guardian

I think I’m being stalked by a famous media naturopath. First he taunts me through Newsnight: “When Michael van Straten started writing about the magical medicinal powers of fruit juices, he was considered a crank, but now he finds he’s at the forefront of fashion.” Notice how that’s “crank” at one end of the authority axis, and “fashion” at the other. Then Van Straten hands the news reporter a glass of juice. “Two years added to your life expectancy in that!” he chuckles. Pretty accurate. “Well, six months, being honest about it.” Such attention to detail (watch the story online here)

He continues: “A recent study just published last week in America showed that eating pomegranates, pomegranate juice, can actually protect you against ageing, against wrinkles.” So over to Medline, the standard search tool for finding medical academic papers: and no such paper exists on the anti-ageing benefits of pomegranate that I can find. Any more research references Michael? “There’s a whole group of plastic surgeons in the States who’ve done a study giving some women pomegranates to eat, and juice to drink, after plastic surgery and before plastic surgery.” And? “And they heal in half the time, with half the complications, and no visible wrinkles!” Brilliant! Only I can’t find that study on Medline either. He’s spouting this on BBC Newsnight as an unchallenged expert, remember.

And remember I always do. A while back Van Straten was in the Express, saying that “research studies” had shown that turmeric was “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate” (Badscience.net/?p=65). There are, for turmeric and prostate cancer, a few speculative lab studies on cells, in dishes, cut out of rats, growing or not growing, under microscopes, on lab benches. That is not evidence to say that turmeric is “highly protective against cancer” for undissected living people in the real world.

So here I am, dawdling on Medline (“pomegranate and surgery … no papers found … what else can I try …”) waiting to go on BBC London and chat about alternative therapies when suddenly Van Straten’s voice comes down the line. First he tips bile on ill-informed journalists who write too credulously about complementary therapies – feel the irony – then he bangs on about how most doctors aren’t really very good at interpreting and understanding scientific research. Can this possibly be the same bloke? I think to myself.

It must be, because then he starts going on about the “brilliant” research of Professor Caterson on cod liver oil and joint pain. Caterson’s experimental research on the subject has only been published in the form of a press release. Oh, and a few newspaper headlines calling it a miracle cure. It has never been published in an academic journal, as Van Straten would know if he ever read Bad Science (Badscience.net/?p=159). How did he read, understand, interpret, and come to an informed expert opinion on research that has not actually been published? Exactly what criticisms did he have, I wonder, of the methodology used? Did he feel the inclusion and exclusion criteria were too harsh? What about the method of randomisation? Nobody can critique an unpublished study; and with some people, we might doubt their abilities with any study.

So that’s five iffy claims in 500 words. And in what world is this farce an authority and an “expert”? A world that understands science so poorly that it puts “cranks” at one end, and “fashion” at the other: the world of the media.

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


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19 Responses



  1. John Davies said,

    October 8, 2005 at 4:03 pm

    All,
    I’ve only just twigged that this website exists, and I had emailed Dr.Goldacre at the Guardian. So fair’s fair, here’s what I said:
    __________________________________
    Ben,
    Your article today (7/10/5, 5 iffy claims) goes a little too far, or have you been subedited out of coherance??

    Prof.Caterson’s “Brilliant” (your ironic quotes) research “has only been published in the form of a press release”

    Now even I, a humble anaesthetist and physician, can Google for the Prof. and find him on the website of the Arthritis Research Council (an honourable institution?), find a referral to his article on fish oils and locate the abstract via Medline in the J Biol Chem. (2000 Jan 14;275(2):721-4) and the full article at www.jbc.org/cgi/content/full/275/2/721 . Okay, that article may be an ‘in vitro’ lab study, and I’m not competent to criticise it, but it looks cosher to me, in that it IS published and 5 years ago at that. So why the ‘press release’ jibe?

    I also did a medline search for “caterson b”, to see if the Prof had stopped doing any fish oil studies. He hasn’t any recent publications on that, but did in 2002, as shown by this lift from one of the 130 odd hits :

    : Proc Nutr Soc. 2002 Aug;61(3):381-9. Related Articles, Links

    Effects of n-3 fatty acids on cartilage metabolism.

    Curtis CL, Rees SG, Cramp J, Flannery CR, Hughes CE, Little CB, Williams R, Wilson C, Dent CM, Harwood JL, Caterson B.

    Again this is lab work, and I fear that the very next article in the list: Arthritis Rheum. 2002 Jun;46(6):1544-53. just might be salami publishing, but that’s another story.

    Ben, “unpublished” is not the same as “unsubstantiated, unrepeated, unreasonably exaggerated by unqualified quacks”. Prof.Caterson may be an honest, hardworking, compoetent but cash strapped academic, and is as far as I know. Do you know different?

    Best wishes,
    Thanks for your refreshing articles,
    Keep up the pressure!

    John Davies
    (Anaesthetist, Lancaster)

  2. amoebic vodka said,

    October 8, 2005 at 6:25 pm

    If you read the Bad Science article Ben Goldacre links to ( www.badscience.net/?p=159 ), then the unpublished work he was referring to was presumably done in 2003/4. Therefore, as your own search would suggest, it is still unpublished. Of course, it is possible that Michael van Straten was referring to the papers you cited instead of that press release.

  3. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 9, 2005 at 12:59 am

    hi john,

    i think you’d be very hard pushed to argue that those in vitro lab studies by caterson – which i obviously found too when i checked up van straten’s claims – represent evidence for efficacy of fish oil in joint pain. they are not clinical trials.

    i’m sure caterson is a nice hardworking man: it’s worth reading the two articles i’ve written on the saga of that study though. somehow – i accept it may have happened against his wishes – a clinical trial of fish oil that he has been involved in, and that is apparently not finished, has been presented as a miracle cure and fait accompli by cardiff university’s press office and various newspaper articles, and has entered popular mythology to the point where people like van straten can quote it authoritatively as if they are quoting published trial data, in the same breath as they criticise others for incompetence in interpreting academic research.

    “unpublished” is not the same as “unsubstantiated, unrepeated, unreasonably exaggerated by unqualified quacks”

    that’s not a quote of me as far as i’m aware, but i’ll take you on over this anyway: nobody can assess a trial that hasn’t been published, for all the reasons i’ve given here and elsewhere. how are you going to assess the potential flaws in the methodology, the statistical significance, the clinical significance, or anything useful, of a paper you’ve never seen? with your psychic powers? why does anybody ever publish anything in an academic journal? why don’t they just send out press releases instead?

  4. Gareth Owen said,

    October 10, 2005 at 2:22 pm

    I’m starting to feel decidely dim, but after about 30minutes of frantic searching, I gave up looking for Ben’s column in Saturday’s paper, and went back to the Pyrgic Puzzles… Where can it be found?

  5. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 10, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    main paper, news pages, p.11 or something…

  6. Sam said,

    October 11, 2005 at 3:46 am

    Upset about losing my Thursday-morning reading, but found the website so am happy. Although might lose my job if I carry on spending all my time on this site, but would be worth it if I can convince my colleagues about the follly of Hopi ear candles…

    Oh, and out of scientific interest, has anyone done a study on the feasibility of matrimony in relation to Dr Bendacre? I’ve looked for peer reviews on Medline but haven’t found anything yet…

  7. Phil Maslow said,

    October 11, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    Yours is a good cause Ben, and you are right to take on the BBC. On a whole range of fields you would think, given the money they have and spend on junk, that they would employ people with expertise in the area on which they report.

    But you did say the guy’s research “has only been published in the form of a press release”.

    And then you said in your previous post that you were (underlined) aware of his other articles.

    Me, I am a mere social scientist, so maybe I am missing something, but are you not guilty of deception and misrepresentation? If not, how not?

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 11, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    I pointed out that “the “brilliant” research of Professor Caterson on cod liver oil and joint pain” has only been published as a press release. I did not suggest, Phil, that the entire cannon of one academics work was only published as a series of press releases. Of course he has done lots of work on lots of subjects and published it.

  9. Phil Maslow said,

    October 11, 2005 at 9:37 pm

    You are being disingenuous, Ben

    You said: “[Van Straten] starts going on about the “brilliant” research of Professor Caterson on cod liver oil and joint pain. Caterson’s experimental research on the subject has only been published in the form of a press release.”

    The abstract of the Caterson et al refereed article says:

    “This study describes specific molecular mechanisms by which supplementation with n-3 fatty acids (i.e. those present in fish oils) can modulate the expression and activity of degradative and inflammatory factors that cause cartilage destruction during arthritis.”

    Or are you going to say degradative and inflammatory factors isn’t about joint pain?

    By all means slag of the people who pick and chose “science” from whatever source suits. But in your representation of Caterson you are as bad as those you claim to criticize. Journalists, eh?

  10. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 11, 2005 at 10:00 pm

    Hi Phil,

    The paper you are quoting is not evidence for the efficacy of cod liver oil in treating joint problems, it merely suggestive, at a theoretical level, of a biologically plausible mechanism for cod liver oil helping. It shows that a component of fish oils plays a modulating role in some of the pathological processes in joint damage, measured in an experiment done in a lab, on slices of tissue from 7-day old calves. You can read the whole paper here (it might not be your cup of tea): www.jbc.org/cgi/content/full/275/2/721

    This paper is not a clinical trial, where you give a bunch of people cod liver oil, and then follow them up a while later to see how their joints are. You would want that before you said that there was evidence that cod liver oil helped joint problems. That clinical trial has been done, we are told, and people are cheerfully referring to it all over the shop in the media since the press release went out a year ago, but it has not been properly published. This is an issue for the reasons around the necessity of having the full study to interpret it, discussed extensively here and elsewhere.

  11. Phil Maslow said,

    October 12, 2005 at 8:09 pm

    so if it is not a clinical trial it is therefore a press release?

  12. steve said,

    October 12, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    No Phil, if it is not a clinical trial then it cannot be extrapolated to what might actually happen in a living breathing person as opposed to a piece of cow in a petri dish. What has been done in the lab is all well and good at a theoretical level as a possible mechanism involved in joint damage, but what happens at a ‘macroscopic’ level in a complete biological system (a person) could be an entirely different matter. This is where the clinical trial comes in. And it’s no good shouting about a clinical trial that hasn’t been peer reviewed because for all anyone knows the researchers may have somehow introduced a series of systematic errors, making the whole thing essentially worthless.

  13. Rob Sang said,

    October 14, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    The press release makes claims that the paper does not. I believe that’s what the problem is here.

  14. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2005 at 2:51 pm

    What paper? The paper might well be brilliant, but as far as I can see it has still not been published. There is only the press release.

  15. Chris said,

    October 27, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    For what it’s worth, there was a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal linking pomegranate juice with a possible reduced instance of prostate cancer. I can’t give you an exact cite, because I don’t have access to said journal, but a more academically inclined friend of mine assures me that the paper exists. Nothing to do with aging, of course.

  16. Andrew T said,

    November 1, 2005 at 5:19 pm

    Chris, Said study does indeed exist. It was looking at pomegranate in human prostate cancer cells in a dish, and also the cells transplanted into mice. It showed that it inhibited the growth of said cells.
    “The reduction in tumour growth … may have clinical relevance”
    “The outcome of this study could have a direct practical implication”
    “It is tempting to suggets that the fruit pomegranate and its associated antioxidants may possess a strong potential for development”
    Which is exactly how you would specify these kind of findings. And indeed, nothing, as per usual, about aging. (though there is another lab study on atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries)
    Found by searching pomegranate on www.pnas.org, link too long to paste…

  17. Mark Bamford LLB (Hons) said,

    November 6, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    I was so astonished by the inaccuracies contained in article entitled “The Omega factor” by Michael van Straten in Woman magazine that I was immediately convinced that this man could have no formal medical or scientific qualifications. So, wondering how such an article could possibly get to be published I went searching for any qualifications he may have on the web and the “bad science” site came pretty much at the top of the list that the search engine threw up.

    Apart from the unbelievable inconsistency of stating that “Eye Q fish oil capsules, [provide] 500mg of EPA …” and on the same page stating that Eye Q capsules provide 93mg EPA per capsule he also states several times that “Oily fish … is the only source of Omega-3″ – a statement that is quite simple wrong.

    Dr Marilyn Glenville (who has a PhD from Cambridge and who’s credentials no one would question) is of the opinion that Omega-3 oils can be obtained from linseed or flax oil which also has the benefit of containing Omega-6 fatty acids.

    My main concern is that van Straten states that “If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can get tiny amounts from flax seed oil … but it’s very little”. Apart from contradicting his earlier statement that “Oily fish … is the only source of Omega-3″, this assertion may have the effect of deterring some vegetarians and vegans from supplementing their diet with flax seed oil as it would have no beneficial effect. This is simply not true and is irresponsible to make such statements.

    Maybe if van Straten had taken flax seed oil when he was a child he would have been able to have been in a position to advise others more accurately now.

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