Saturday April 8, 2006
I often get hassled for writing about bad science in the media, and in products, and in alternative therapies, but leaving the mainstream big pharmaceutical companies alone. Clearly the main reason for this is that I am on a large honorary retainer from a shady organisation representing the major global biotech firms, and have been told in no uncertain terms by senior figures in medicine and science that I’ll never work in this town again if I attack any of the major financial players.
In fact that’s not true, and as if by magic my first ever boss in medicine, a professor of medicine, has sent in an excellent bad science candidate from a major study on a significant new drug, because science is all about reading the full paper, and being critical of the evidence, and that’s what medics and scientists do all the time.
The problem is, I’m still feeling slightly guilty about last week’s column. There’s rarely an excuse for forcing anyone to cope with concepts like statistical significance, clustered samples, and Bonferroni’s correction for multiple comparisons on a Saturday morning over breakfast.
And as I browse through the week’s bad science emails, there are so many easy ways out. I could attack something obvious and easy like the Bio-G Chip Card (R), designed by scientists to neutralise the tobacco wave energy patterns in your fags, now available in the UK for only 35 quid. “Look and Feel Better, Improve your Health and Lifestyle, Raise Your Self-Esteem, Start Saving Money in only 10 minutes!” they say. “Nicotine, the main reason for this addiction, will be eliminated from your body and you will become free from this nasty habit! Forever!” I’m honestly trying to ignore it, but it’s a chip that you put in your fag packet, and chips are science, as everyone knows. They have something to do with energy and waves.
“With its wave energy the disc is acting on tobacco thus changing its burning pattern, which results in a reduced CO and increased CO2 production. The Bio-G Chip Card (R) is to be inserted either between the cellophane and the cardboard box or into the pack itself.” It can treat “up to 100,000 cigarettes” and “the full neutralisation effect is achieved in approx 10 min”. And that’s full neutralisation, like on Star Trek. “With the Bio-G Chip Card (R), the smoke itself becomes harmless, both for the smokers themselves, and for the individuals in their surroundings inhaling it.” It’s even good for the kids: “Non-smokers are no longer disturbed by the smell of smoke or butts, and remember, they are mostly children.” But the greatest breakthrough is for addicts. “The existing nicotine will be eliminated from the body, and the new one will not enter the blood. In that very period the addiction disappears completely.”
The problem is, I’d feel then like I was participating in the creation of the myth that science is only interesting if it’s wacky, when really I’d rather say something about Channel 4’s Hypnosurgery Live event next week. So you see my problem.
In fact, you’d better hope the hypnosurgery is worth writing about, or that Dr Gillian McKeith PhD says something unusually foolish; because otherwise I have a very worthy, nerdy story about a mainstream academic article, which generalises into a largely untold story about how proper medical research can be distorted by financial interests in a subtle and ingenious way that can only be caught with careful statistical observation.
It will involve funnel plots, meta-analyses, corrections for multiple comparisons and the concept of trial registration, and if it makes you angry you will probably also have to explain these concepts in a stern letter to your MP. It’s in the hands of the hypnotist.
Â· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
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